I’m a writer. That’s it in a nutshell. If you want the long version: I write fiction and creative nonfiction, screenplays, literary journalism, journalism journalism, and once upon a time I had poetry published. I’m an artist: a writer but also a dancer and filmmaker, a creator—whatever form that creation takes.
When did you fall in love with writing (your defining moment)?
Wow. Not one defining moment, but there were several transforming times for me. As a child my mother would tell me stories of her life growing up dirt poor in rural North Carolina, and I was fascinated by her stories of a life so far removed from mine. I would ask many questions, and she would tell me her truth. That was the beginning of my enchantment with storytelling.
She’s a writer herself, and she used to read me fairytales and children’s stories when I was so small, but she would also read to me stories written by some of her favorite authors, people like O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. I was young, in my single digits, bedtime-story aged. We wouldn’t talk about the stories. She would just read, and I would let the words wander around in my head and do their magic. That was another defining moment because—and this is honestly true—it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I found out that O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant weren’t children’s authors. I had carried those stories around with me –“The Last Leaf,” “The Necklace”…—and thought they were fairytales because I had heard them with the fairytales when I was a child. So I was a lover of stories long before I wrote my own.
I wrote my first piece of fiction, or part of one—I never finished it—that I felt incredibly proud about after my senior year in high school. I felt that I could write after that. I attended an open-space high school with a stellar reputation in Columbia, Maryland, but to my memory, I was never required to read a book by a person of color until I went to summer school in San Francisco the summer after my senior year. The vast majority of the students were black or Asian, and we were handed a list of books written by people of color and told, “Read one.” I read Langston Hughes’ “The Best of Simple” and was blown away. I had heard of Langston Hughes all my life— his poems “Mother to Son,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”—but I had never read his fiction. The characters were so real and funny and poignant. “This is the great Langston Hughes?” I thought. “These people seem like people my parents and relatives would maybe know.” It was an awakening. Great fiction could be about people in my universe, so I started writing what I knew in a more intimate way. There were other transforming moments, but that’s a few.
What movies or stories inspire your creativity?
Well, I would have to say O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” It was one of my favorite stories as a child, and when I found out it was written for adults and then went back and read it, I was, at first, confused, and then I understood that my memory of the story, the one I had carried with me all those years, had been colored by my own life. I had been a sad child in some ways, and the story gave me hope. I had always thought the story was about a little girl who was lying in bed dying and her mother is caring for her and the little girl thinks she’ll die when the last leaf falls from the tree she can see from her window. But I was stunned when I read it as an adult. It’s about a grown woman who lives with her friend who thinks she’ll die when the last leaf falls from a vine she can see through the window from her sick bed. I had placed myself in the story, and it gave me so much hope and strength as a child. My mother would read it to me by my bedroom window, where I could see our Japanese maple tree as I lay there listening. I had imagined myself as the protagonist, and my mother as the protagonist’s friend, and my maple tree as the vine. In the end, the dying woman gains strength and lives. In my child’s mind, I had let the story encompass me and give me strength.
In terms of movies, well, the list is too long to write here. Suffice to say that I survive thanks to the art of film. I watch a part of a film, or a whole film, or films most days of my life. It’s not just one that stands out but rather I could be reminded of a film I hadn’t thought about in a decade or two, and it could call up so much for me. Films have so much meaning in my life, and the art form influences all forms of my writing, perhaps more than books. The author Marita Golden described one of my essays as having “a definite cinematic quality.” I’d describe much of my fiction and creative nonfiction as cinematic.
What is the biggest misconception about being a screenwriter?
I don’t know that there are prevalent misconceptions because I don’t know that there’s a conception of what it is to be a screenwriter, and that’s problematic. Screenwriting is not often what young people aspire to do because it is an underappreciated art. Filmmaking is thought of as directing and producing, but the heart and soul of any film is the script.
It seems stage plays are much more often read than screenplays are, which is unfortunate. When I was in my early 20s, in the late ‘80s, Spike Lee started publishing his screenplays, and he said he was doing it to take the mystery out of screenwriting. I thank him for that. I read his work, and I also searched for other screenplays to read. I read Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and the screenplays compiled in Screenplays of the African American Experience edited by Phyllis Rauch Klotman. That reading empowered me. It wasn’t long afterwards that I wrote a screenplay for the first time, which won a state arts council grant. It was my first recognition as a writer.
What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?
Continue to grow as a person, live your life; it’ll show up in your work.
One of the biggest mistakes first-time writers make?
I don’t know because I don’t know what others have been through, but for me, when I look back on it, the only mistake was to think I could be something else, get a job with a regular salary—retail, PR and marketing, fundraising…—and not go buggy. I’m meant to write. I’m 49, and I know that now.
What questions should a writer ask herself prior to crafting her story?
I can’t say that I do that, ask myself questions before I begin. I usually start with a first line, or paragraph really, which compels me to write. That opening just comes to me, and the story happens from there. The words propel me forward. I ask myself questions as I write, but the answers are found in the writing itself, what I’ve written so far. The poet Lucille Clifton once said to me, there are no rules to writing, in general, but once you start a piece you are creating rules that you need to abide by. You need to listen to the essence of the story, I’d say. In some way, the story itself tells you what to write as you write it.
What’s your favorite quote?
There are quotes from people I’ve interviewed that stay with me and also quotes from characters I’ve written. In my most recent published piece, “Just After Supper” the protagonist, an elderly woman who lives in the rural south, says, “I live my life the way I want, I live as I want, and that’s important, too. It’s not just seeing the world, but doing what you want in the world, living your life like you see fit to live your life.” That’s been humming in my head lately.
What’s next for you?
I’m producing a multi-discipline memoir, Meditations on a Marriage, about my short-lived marriage with my former husband, a composer whom I loved like no other man. He was clearly mentally ill, but I had no inkling of it until six months into the marriage, and it really didn’t dawn on me that there was something seriously wrong with the way he thinks until a year in. Soon thereafter I was forced to leave in fear. He was verbally and emotionally abusive. I look back on the relationship now, and I’m shocked at what I had become so quickly. I was so victimized by him, and he was so victimized by his own mind. I want to create art about it because I think it’s not an uncommon story. I’m writing a book and producing an accompanying short film in which I dance and exorcise the pain and confusion of our union—the love, the bond, the bitter end. I refer to the film as a film about a dance about a book about emotional abuse. It’s that and very much more.
How can we keep up with you?