Sophfronia Scott, Author Writing, laughing, and loving

Toni Morrison and Me

November 21, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

tonimorrisononcolbertI tend to talk about Toni Morrison with a cautious blitheness. I mention how we share the same hometown, Lorain, Ohio, but even that’s a scary thing to do. Why would I want to invite comparisons to a Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinning author? Such a thought would send most writers under their desks, possibly holding a thick reference book over their heads, like we used to do for tornado drills in my old elementary school, as protection from the debris surely to fly around them. However when I saw the video of Ms. Morrison’s interview with Stephen Colbert, I realized it’s time for me to talk seriously about what binds me to this important author and how she taught me something about myself that makes me confident, not fearful, in my work.

When Colbert asked how Ms. Morrison wanted to be “pigeon-holed” if not as an African-American writer, she said she wanted to be known “as an American writer.” She went on to say, “There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Racism is a construct, a social construct…” I agreed and knew what she meant from the fiber of my being. I too think of myself as simply “a writer” working from the imagination and experience of being a human who happens to be named Sophfronia Scott. I have always felt this way but up until about ten years ago I couldn’t “own” it because I didn’t understand it. I only knew from a very young age I didn’t see the world along racial lines and thought this was an awareness I somehow missed out on. When I was in high school I often heard whispers that I wasn’t “black enough” or that I didn’t “sound black.” This led me to wonder if I was lacking in a way I could never figure out how to fix.

daddyBut then I happened upon Hinton Als’s 2003 profile of Toni Morrison in The New Yorker. I discovered she and I, despite our age difference, have a lot more in common than I knew, and these similarities were most likely what had shaped my worldview. It began with the most basic of shared characteristics—our fathers both worked at U.S. Steel, and she and I both grew up hanging clothes to dry outside, doing it very badly at times, and coming to a realization early on that we would not have the same existence as our mothers and aunts.

“I developed a kind of individualism—apart from the family—that was very much involved in my own daydreaming, my own creativity, and my own reading. But primarily—and this has been true all my life—not really minding what other people said, just not minding.”

But the big thing she pointed out to me in this article was how our community in Lorain was so integrated. Morrison always lived, she said, “below or next to white people,” and the schools were integrated—stratification in Lorain was more economic than racial. The piece also noted the work at U.S. Steel attracted not only American blacks from the south (my father was from Mississippi) but also displaced Europeans: Poles, Greeks, and Italians. The city has a large Hispanic population as well. This made me think of my father’s Polish friends we used to visit and of Lorain’s annual International Day Festival. To me this was just the way I grew up—I didn’t know I was living an integrated existence, or even what it meant .

charlotte_bigThen, to match our outer experience, it seems Morrison and I fed our minds a creative diet that turned out to be just as integrated. As a child, Morrison read virtually everything, from drawing-room comedies to Theodore Dreiser, from Jane Austen to Richard Wright. I had done the same, thoroughly steeping myself in the work of Bronte (Charlotte and Emily), Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Wright, Ellison, and, yes, Morrison. My influences cover the globe.

I realized I come by honestly my inclination to write from views and voices not my own. The characters in my fiction are white and black, gay and straight, of various religions and nationalities. I used to worry about being taken to task for this and that I wouldn’t have the confidence to back up this tendency because I didn’t understand it myself. But Morrison helped me to see this inclination is truly my own. I have been nurtured by my inner and outer environments to write this way and once I knew this I could write with confidence and without apology. And in all this writing I know I am seeking to tell one humanistic story and it is and will always be, I think, a love story. Morrison’s stories also seek such basic humanistic elements: love, mercy, forgiveness.

MorrisonLoveCoverSo if you ask me whether I aspire to be like Toni Morrison, I would say this: I don’t aspire to her lyricism or style, which are very much her own, but I do have this simple ambition—to tell a good story and tell it well. This aspect, I think, is where she and I both come from, the true hometown we share.

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What’s Literary Citizenship?

November 14, 2014 | Loving Life, Publishing, Writing | Permalink

cathydayWhat does it mean to be a literary citizen? The word “citizen” implies living somewhere and in this case we’re talking about taking up residence in the literary world. I like Cathy Day’s answer. She’s the author of two books: Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love (Free Press, 2008) and The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004). Cathy also teaches creative writing at Ball State University. I’m sharing this post of hers because I believe deeply in literary citizenship. If you are an artist, you must study and live your craft. This goes for writers, actors, comedians, musicians, sculptors, painters–all artists. You’ll see me often post here and on my new Facebook author page (you can click here to read and “like” it–please do!) about attending book readings and writer events and reviewing books and literary journals I’ve read. Getting out to these events isn’t easy–I’m a mom and I have to juggle my schedule with the schedules of my husband and son. But I do it because the effort is so worth it. And, simply put, it makes me happy. 10678754_721735927900695_5621117814742176323_nHere’s a photo from a trip I took into New York City this week. I’m with the author Martha Southgate and we met to attend a talk at The New School called “The Art of Eroticism (The Eroticism of Art): How Passion Drives Creativity” by Esther Perel and Joshua Wolf Shenk. The topic was powerful and inspiring for my own creative process but just being in the room with Martha and meeting the speakers in person was also key–my knowledge of the literary world is a bit broader now. This is important, as important as knowing my own neighborhood. If I am to thrive in this world I must live in it and know it. It’s the only way to be at home here.

Even if you’re not a writer I hope you’ll get some ideas from Cathy’s post that will help you more strongly engage in a pursuit you care about.

Cathy Day’s Principles of Literary Citizenship

Cross Post Alert from Cathy: I published some initial thoughts and principles about literary citizenship, in March 2011 over at The Bird Sisters, writer Rebecca Rasmussen’s blog dedicated to artists and writers. I got a lot of my ideas from this post on the Brevity blog.

Literary Citizenship

litcitI’ve been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years now, and here’s something I’ve observed: what brings most people to the creative writing classroom or the writing conference isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community. Deep down, we know that not everyone who signs up for the class or the conference will become a traditionally published writer. Well, so what? What if they become agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, book club members, teachers, librarians, readers, or parents of all of the above?

My students attend MFA programs, yes, and they publish, yes, but they aren’t my only “success stories.” Some are literary agents; in fact, Rebecca’s agent, Michelle Brower, is a former student of mine. They subscribe to lots of literary magazines. They have founded and edit magazines, too. They’re editors. They write for newspapers and work in arts administration. They maintain blogs. They review books. They volunteer at literary festivals. They participate in community theatre. They become teachers who teach creative writing. Most importantly, they are lifelong readers. How do I know all this? Well, there’s this thing called Facebook…

Lately, I’ve started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn’t just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call “literary citizenship.” I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.

Here are a few of my working principles of Literary Citizenship:

1.)   Write “charming notes” to writers. (I got this phrase from Carolyn See.) Anytime you read something you like, tell the author. Send them an email. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Not all writers are reachable, so you might have to write an old-fashioned letter and send it to the publisher or, if they teach somewhere, to their university address. You don’t have to gush or say something super smart. Just tell them you read something, you liked it. They may not respond, but believe me, they will read it.

2.)   Interview writers. Take charming notes a step farther and ask the writer if you can do an interview. These days, they’re usually done via email. Approach this professionally, even if you are a fan. Write up questions (I prefer getting one question at a time, but some prefer getting them all at once). Let the writer talk. Writers love to talk. Submit the interview to an appropriate print or online magazine. Spread the word. There are many, many outlets, some paying. I really like the interviews published by Fiction Writer’s Review, like this one.

3.)   Talk up (informally) or review (formally) books you like. Start with your personal network. Then say something on Goodreads. Then Amazon.com or B&N. Then try starting a book review blog. Or a book review radio show, like a former student of mine, Sarah Blake. Submit your reviews to newspapers and magazines, print or online. God knows, the world needs more book reviewers. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two writer/teacher/reviewers I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews. Remember: no matter what happens to traditional publishing, readers will always need trusted filters to help them know what is worth paying attention to and what’s not. Become that trusted filter.

4.)   If you want to be published in journals, you must read and support them. Period. If it’s a print journal, subscribe. If it’s an online journal, talk them up, maybe even volunteer to read. One of my favorite writers, Dan Chaon, had this to say about journals: The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories. You can read his incredibly practical advice here.

5.)   If you want to publish books, buy books. I don’t want to fight about big-box stores (evil!) vs. indie bookstores (good!) or about libraries (great!) or how truly broke you are (I know! I’ve been there, too!) or which e-reader is “better” for the writer or the independent book seller (argh!). I just want you to buy books. Period. It makes me angry to see the lengths relatively well-off people will go to avoid buying a book. Especially considering how much they are willing to spend on entertainment, education, or business-related expenses. If you’re a writer, you can file a Schedule C: Profit or Loss from a Business, and books and magazine subscriptions are tax-deductible.

6.)   Be passionate about books and writing, because passion is infectious. When I moved back home again to Indiana this past summer, my husband and I set out to buy bookshelves. The first furniture store we entered didn’t even carry bookshelves, the second carried only a single type, and the third (which we bought, because they were on sale) were really intended to be decorative shelves, not book shelves. Mind you, I wasn’t really surprised by this. I grew up here, after all. If you find yourself in a literary desert, rather than fuss and complain about it, create an oasis. Maintain a library in your home. Share books with your friends, co-workers, children, and community. Start a book club. Start a writing group. Volunteer to run a reading series at your local library. Take a picture of your bookshelves and put them on Facebook. Commit to buying 20 books a year for the rest of your life.

Question: What is the secret to getting published?

Answer: Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued.

 

 

 

Loving What You Write

November 6, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

writingheartI was walking around my yard in a bit of a daze. The day before I had finished the novel revision I’d been working on for months. Like the crazy woman I am, instead of resting I was trying to organize my thoughts for the next novel. But I felt like I didn’t know how to steady myself in the real world after being in my previous novel’s world almost nonstop for so long.

I decided to go for a walk in the woods at Fairfield Hills, a campus-like park near my home. As I headed for the hiking trail I saw a friend from my church—he’s my co-teacher, in fact, for the 8th and 9th grade Sunday school class I’m teaching this year at Trinity Episcopal. He was there to go jogging and he stopped to tease me, saying he almost didn’t recognize my face because I wasn’t smiling. I said, “This is my thinking face. This is a thinking walk.” Then I told him I’d just finished my novel.

“Oh!” he said. “Then you’ve just lost a lover.”

200px-TMertonStudyI totally didn’t expect such words from him: he’s a retired Marine, a guy who’s as button down, spit and polish as you can get. But there was an odd truth to what he said. It made me think of the monk and writer Thomas Merton—I’m in the process of reading all of his journals—and at one point, before he entered the monastery when he was a young man in New York City writing and teaching, he wrote that he was missing his novel. Of course those were the days when a writer only had one or two precious hard copies of a manuscript and once you sent it out it was gone until the publisher returned it. He said he missed his book; he wanted it back. He spoke of it like it was an old friend. I didn’t think of myself as attached to my book in this way but I began to wonder about it as I continued my walk.

Then a phone call on my cell—it was a new Vermont College of Fine Arts student, about to embark on his first residency in the MFA in writing program coming up in December. He wanted advice from me, a recent graduate, about how to get the most out of the program. I asked him about his aspirations, how he saw himself as a writer, what he wanted to write. He told me he’d written short pieces but wanted to develop the skill of writing longer work. He’d started novels but had never been able to finish them. He said he often lost interest in the story and wasn’t sure if it would be interesting to anyone else.

I spoke and I realized what I was saying to him was the answer to where we both were—he starting to write and me having completed a big project.

I said, “You’ve got to love what you’re writing.”

write-what-you-loveThis is so true. A novel takes such a long time—months and years. How else can you stick with it unless you truly loved your story and loved your characters? Where is the fun and energy to keep you going if you don’t love what you’re writing? I know it’s tempting to want to follow publishing trends and write in whatever genre happens to be hot at the moment. But if you don’t love the work it will be a punishing exercise and the results will show it. The reader can tell. If there’s no affection a reader can put a book down and forget about it as easily as you might during the writing process. But if a reader can sense love it will feel as though they’ve stumbled on a secret, and he or she will feel closer to you and your work because of it. One of the best critiques I received on my novel manuscript—and believe me, it kept me going when the revision process got tough—came from a reader who said, “I can tell you love these characters.”

Interesting side note: This same reader also said, “I could feel your love of baseball.” I smiled at that because while I watch the World Series every year, I don’t have a particular love of baseball. However I have a dear friend who does, and I wrote the baseball parts of my book with him in mind thinking I wanted him to enjoy it whenever he read it. So I was channeling someone else’s love, but the love was still there.

That day I stood there in the woods with my phone to my ear watching the truth of what my church friend had said unfold before me. I thought I was walking around out there because I was trying to think through the start of my next book, but what I was really trying to figure out was this: how do I fall in love again? It almost seems impossible to do but I know it must be possible. I suppose I have to be patient with myself, and patient with my heart. I’m thinking now if I court the new novel gently, putting in the time I know it requires, the love will manifest. This is my hope.

What will you do to find the love in your next piece of writing?

Yours,

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Who’s Afraid of Writing?

October 31, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

blank-computer-screen-womanIn honor of Halloween I’m addressing the ghostly presence that haunts all writers: the blank screen/page. I haven’t thought about this specter for a while because I’ve spent the past few months submerged in a novel revision. However, last week I hit the SEND button, delivered the book to my agent, and unwittingly invited the spirit back to my desk. It’s time to begin again.

I know certain writers would rather run screaming from the room than sit down and face that blankness. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and yes, scary. But my family and close friends will tell you: I don’t do fear. It’s not that I don’t have fear—it’s quite present in fact. Sometimes it’s like a tiny badger on my shoulder, tugging at my dreadlocks in the most annoying way. I just don’t let the little bugger jerk me around by the hair all day. I believe in handling fear.

How do I do that? By constantly reminding myself fear is a complex emotion. It’s made up of many different worries and concerns. If I can get under the hood and see what’s broken, missing, or bothersome, I can address those issues and—poof!—dismantle the fear.

Here’s how it works. What is the fear of the blank screen really about? For some writers, it’s about a fear of writer’s block. And that block, depending on who you are, can be composed of a nasty brew of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, parental issues, and a host of other ghosties. Ghostbusters-2-01-4Choose one and bust away. If I’m blocked, I know it’s because something’s missing. I don’t know what to write because I haven’t done enough thinking, research, reading, planning, resting or something. I may not know what it is, but my plan of attack is to figure out what’s missing, fill the void, then get back to writing. I’m pretty good at that. Trust me, my screen won’t be blank for long.

But recently I had a totally different writing/fear experience. The final stages of this novel revision kicked my butt. Even though I knew what I was doing with it—I even had a list of to-dos I was working my way through—there were times when I was afraid I would never be done. I had this sense A LOT in the past month. If I had let that fear stop me on any given day, I would have ensured the non-finish of this novel.

So I had to break it down. What was my fear really about? And what could I do about it? Here’s what I found and what I did. I decided the issues goring me most were frustration and isolation.

Frustration

This was really the heart of the matter. I would think I had one chapter to write and it would become two. Then I had to go back to the beginning and make changes to accommodate the new material.mmsorceror I felt like Mickey Mouse trying to destroy those broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice only to have them keep multiplying. The work always seemed to increase not decrease. Fortunately, thanks to an excerpt in Narrative Magazine, I discovered words of comfort in Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. I devoured the whole book, especially Salter’s 1972 letters describing his writing of the manuscript that became the novel Light Years. I felt as though we shared the same struggles:

memorabledayscover“I’m on page 115 (of my own book). I hardly remember what is behind me. It’s like a densely enacted journey during which you’ve made notes. When I’m finished with this first, tedious working-out, in the summer, I’m going to look at it like a ruined garden, I hope I will, with dimensions that please, lovely corners, walls, and weeds, weeds everywhere…”

And when Salter had his breakthrough, I knew mine couldn’t be far behind. Even now I still love reading these words:

“But a few minutes ago, searching for the place to insert an anecdote about marriage I’d heard, a place in my manuscript which is now almost 300 pages, I had a wonderful thing happen to me, I suddenly realized: it’s there! I had begun to read and I saw that I liked it, even more, I was completely taken by it, and also, for the first time I caught that faint glimmer that is light at the end of the tunnel. To think that this will be a book, and a book that I am deeply interested in, what comes from the vitals, as Kazantzakis said. Suddenly I am filled with energy.”

Isolation

I don’t write in total isolation. I’m lucky to have a writing partner, the excellent author David Hicks who lives in Colorado but meets me via Google Hangout for several hours each week and we write in each other’s company like two people sharing an office. But as I neared the end of my revision I felt my world had become vastly constricted. I couldn’t see beyond getting my family fed, my son to school, and working on my book. As time went on my hair grew down to my hips, I stopped writing to friends, weeds overtook my yard, and rooms in my house disappeared under clutter and laundry. I started to feel like a wild woman alone in the forest and feared I would not find my way back.

still-writingBut I happened to pick up Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life and learned this was okay. She too, while finishing a book, let her hair grow long, lost touch with friends, didn’t clean windows. And in this she gave me permission to take care of myself and my book through this final push.

“I took care of my family, and my book got written. That was all I could manage…As you near the end, you will likely feel selfish. You will want to do everything you can to protect your instrument—which is to say, yourself—as you inch toward the finish line. This is as it should be, as it must be, if your work is to reach its potential. Embrace this selfishness, for now. Wrap it around you like a quilt made of air. Let no one inside of it except those you love the most. Don’t leave that essential place. Be a good steward to your gifts.

daniandsophDani’s wonderful words told me I wasn’t alone, and this time would soon pass. Even more, I will probably enter this phase again with the next book. But I’ll recognize it next time, and be a little less floored. As I came back into the world I had the opportunity to meet the lovely Dani in person and thank her for easing me through this revision and the fear. I’ve learned the light at the end of the tunnel often is people like Dani Shapiro and James Salter showing the way.

What do you do to handle your writing fears?

xo

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My VCFA Graduation Speech

July 8, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

On Saturday, July 5, I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in Writing, fiction and creative nonfiction. My classmates chose me to deliver an address. I wanted very much to do them proud. Here’s the video. Since my talk is all about creativity and connection I hope you can take something useful from it too.

 

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