One of my Peauxdunque Writers Alliance friends, Poet Cassie Pruyn, told me about this Writing Process Blog Tour that all the kids are doing these days. I like the questions we’re asked to answer, so here are my responses.
1) What are you working on?
Quite a few things. I think I get more done when I have too much on my plate, so I tend to take on as many writing assignments as possible. I just wrote two essays, by request, one for a lit mag and the other for an anthology a colleague is putting together. I always have a short story in the oven because I love the smell of it when I come home.
But the real thing is the novel. I started the book about a year ago. It’s a majestic and terrifying beast. It’ll be a blast to ride when I manage to bring it to heel.
Writing a novel is like being a safe cracker trying to escape an underground prison that’s quickly filling up with water. Every ten feet there’s a new foot-thick, iron door that you have to find a way through. But there’s no better feeling than hearing those tumblers fall into place and breaking into the next room. Every time I push into an untapped section of the novel, I fairly float around town for the next week or so.
What’s it about? The novel is what would happen if Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov got into a fist fight in heaven and then made up and had a lovechild. I hope.
2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?
I guess we have to define the genre first, huh? I think of genre in terms of teams. There’s Team Thriller, Team Hogwarts, Team Quiet Family Novel. I like to think I’m on the same team as people like Mat Johnson, Victor Lavalle, Danielle Evans, Tayari Jones, Colson Whitehead, and T. Geronimo Johnson, although I’m probably the water boy, for now. Maybe Percival Everett is the coach. Who knows?
All of these contemporary writers make some seriously off-the-chain literature. It’s a golden age. The obvious similarity among us is that we’re all African-American, but everyone has a distinct style and world view. A Mat Johnson book and a Danielle Evans book have different key signatures, but they’re all great reads.
Of course, we’re all descendants of Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. I like to think that my work is different enough that if Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were still alive they would come upon each other in an airport lounge and have this exchange:
Ellison claps Baldwin’s shoulder.
“I read the craziest book on the flight up, Jimmy.” Ellison searches for a vacant table. Not seeing one, he heads to the bar. Baldwin sits, too. The bartender wonders aloud if the men are semi-famous jazz musicians. They ignore him.
“Don’t tell me, brother,” Baldwin says. “The one by that Ruffin cat, am I right?” The men share a look of recognition. On the concourse, a golf cart full of elderly passengers rolls by, whirring, beeping. Ellison and Baldwin laugh and then laugh some more. Baldwin downs a shot of whiskey. Ellison glances at the overhead television and decides he doesn’t give a damn about the latest iWidget.
“But it was good, right?” Baldwin says. Ellison sighs.
“Hell, I wish I would have written it.”
3) Why do you write what you do?
Because it’s fun! Plus, I’m a writer who is lucky enough to live in one of the strangest cities ever. Today, I saw a man, his skin painted white, ride a tricycle past my office downtown. No one batted an eye. Last week, a guy took over a major intersection and played the bagpipes while wearing a kilt. People loved that guy.
I hope that long after I’m gone folks will read my work because they want to know what it felt like to live in a time and place where all of our national hangups were magnified by the third world, farcical, frontier quality of New Orleans. Most of America is troubled by racial tension, housing discrimination, economic inequality, vicious criminals, law breaking police, and governmental indifference. But down here we do it all backwards and in heels.
There’s simply no better place be a writer. If this city’s bizarre beauty doesn’t get your literary juices going, maybe take up gardening.
4) How does your writing process work?
I gorge on stories. I’m a story gourmand. I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I read fancy pants graphic novels and watch seventh-rate sci-fi shows. I talk to strangers in the line at the supermarket. I talk to strangers on airplanes. I talk to myself. I do all this to ensure that something is in there when I sit down to write. That something is voice. It’s kind of creepy actually. I write a few truly awful paragraphs and stop, sure that I’m a fraud. I come back the next day, erase most of it and then suddenly this other person is telling me what really happened. I become a glorified stenographer just trying to keep up. Later, I’ll go out for a jog and ask myself if I’m sure that I heard what I thought I heard. It’s during those jogs that the voice comes back and says, “listen up, bruh. You doing aight, but you jacked up the best part. This how it really went down.” That’s where the danger comes in.
I think a story is basically voice times danger squared. The voice must be so compelling that you would listen to it in a snow storm while wearing only underwear. And the danger must be so real that you get queasy and want to stop reading, but can’t.
Revision is what separates the girls from the women. Any writer can poop out better than average lines, but going back and thinking very particularly what you want the story to be—and then chiseling away until you have actually created what you envisioned: that’s dedication; that’s writing. Simply stated, writing is, like, 103% revision. Sorry, 107%. I forgot to adjust for inflation.
I wrap a story when I think I’ve nailed down a true voice telling a dangerous story. But really I have no idea whether what I wrote works until months or years later when some editor somewhere accepts it. Writing is a strange calling.