My friends are writers. Not all of them, but a significant number. When you throw a bunch of writers together, they talk about books and exchange notes on craft. One of these writer friends of mine–a really close friend whom I’ve been blessed to know for ten years (!)–suggested that we record our conversation about writing and share it widely. I realize that not all of my readers know me personally, and even fewer know what I think about writing as process and form. This was my opportunity to rectify that! I’ll be sharing another piece on the topic soon. I also have another creative piece in the works that I’m eager to publish. In the meantime, however, I hope you enjoy this snippet of two nerdy friends talking about something that equally frustrates and excites them.
Q: Why start a digital journal?
A: It was something I’ve been compelled to do for a really long time. As a kid, I had lots of journals, and there were periods in my life where I would write in them regularly. These writings were really just details about my day. I came back to one of my old journals and it was something like, “Today I went to school, then I went to the grocery store.” I was never really writing about how I was feeling until I was in middle school. Even then I would only write after some huge life-shifting event.
I don’t know, I was just never a regular writer, which–I think–speaks a lot to my sort of, my lack of discipline. But when I was in college, some incidents happened in the fall semester of my freshman year that nearly made me transfer schools. And my mom told me, “You should write about your time at Princeton.” I never really took it to heart, but she was always telling me “You should write, you should write, you have to write.” She said it in part to help me process some of the challenges I was facing on campus, but also to compel me to place myself into some sort of canon or tradition. It was something that my mom really encouraged, but I’m not disciplined at all so I never did it.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school [at Oxford] in England, when I was really far away from home, from my family and my friends, that I stopped and I was like, “Ok, maybe I’ll actually sit down and get my thoughts into some sort of coherent order and share them with a wider audience.”
Q: How do you define a writer?
A: I think, for the wider public, a writer has to be a person who’s traditionally published. But I haven’t written a book, and I don’t freelance and pitch to magazines. I just write for myself.
It’s weird. I’m a writer who doesn’t call herself a writer. I think of myself as a reader before anything because I spend a lot of time reading, and I really believe in reading, in reading both physical texts as well as the environments I inhabit. I read situations, I read people. And I mean that I read people in a sort of emotional sense. And so for me, writing is what good reading looks like on paper. It’s what really close and critical reading looks like on paper. For example, just the other day I was walking from my apartment to the library and I saw this couple. I don’t even know what they were saying because I had my headphones on, but it was so beautiful because it looked like they were having this really uncomfortable conversation yet the background was so gorgeous because they were standing on High Street [in Oxford, England] and you’ve got all this gothic architecture. From that I just started thinking of a story, and, for a moment, I tried to write a little short about them. So in my mind that’s just an example of me reading a situation, reading people, reading environments.
Q: When it comes down to it, what actually compels you to start writing after you’ve done the reading, and when you start writing how do you keep it going?
A: I have a million and one story and essay ideas. It’s nothing for me to come up with an idea. The inspiration comes, and it usually comes from interaction, observation, and imagination. That starts the writing. What keeps it going, for me that’s more important because it’s harder for me to finish a piece than it is for me to start a piece.
What keeps it going is my investment–I have to be invested in it. If I’m not invested, it’s never gonna get done. If I’m writing an essay–say I’m doing a sociopolitical or sociocultural critique–I’ve got to be invested in whatever the topic is. I’ve got an essay on my blog called “Hood Love Is Good Love” and it’s on gentrification. The only reason that piece got finished is because I’m from a neighborhood undergoing incessant gentrification. Right now, I go in and out of London’s Black neighborhoods often, and those neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification. I want to write about that. The issue is very personal, so the desire to see a project to completion is there.
But for some of the shorts that I have, it’s entirely about the characters. The characters have got to come alive, and they’re the driving factors that determine whether I finish a story or not. Because, and I don’t think people realize this, but I really don’t have control over what happens with these characters. The last story I put up on my blog–“A Good Man”–I didn’t intend for it to end the way that it did. When those two characters came into my mind I pictured a different ending. When I first started writing there was this tension in the relationship. I started writing, and I thought, “They’ve got issues, but they’re going to talk about it and they’re going to make it work.” But as I was writing, the exposition started coming together, and that’s not what happened. The woman narrator was like “No, we’re not going to talk about this and work things out.” And I think it surprised me just as much as it surprised anyone who read it.
Q: Earlier you mentioned that your idea of a writer is someone who has been published in the public sphere so they have an audience established. But even when it’s something like writing in a diary, there’s always some audience, be it yourself or another person or several people. Who do you write for and why?
A: So audience is important because it does affect my narrative voice. When I’m writing I literally think “What would I read? What would I like reading?” Short answer, I write for and about Black women and girls. And it becomes really clear if you read some of my stuff. And this–the ease and confidence of writing for a very specific audience–is something I actually got from Junot Díaz.
If you read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao there are all these footnotes. There are references you’re not going to get if you’re not Dominican. There are references you’re not going to get if you’re not a sci-fi fanatic. There are references you’re not going to get if you didn’t grow up in the tri-state area. There are phrases you won’t understand if you have no fluency in Black English. And he doesn’t apologize for that. Even though there are footnotes, the footnotes don’t necessarily explain everything. Sometimes they add to the confusion. I don’t put footnotes into any of my writing, but when you’re reading there’s a lot of Black English, not just in the dialogue but sometimes it’s in the narrative exposition as well. There are a lot of references that I just don’t explain. My piece “On Love” is a short about two women friends. It’s about friendships and how friendships aren’t necessarily valued as much as romantic relationships. And so the protagonist is going to comfort her friend who’s got issues in her romantic relationship, but it’s late at night and the protagonist is at home so she’s got a scarf on her head. But she leaves the house anyway–with the scarf on her head. That means something, and I don’t explain it, but if a Black woman is reading it she’ll say, “Oh my God, that is serious. She ran out of her house in the middle of the night to comfort her friend and her hair was still tied down!”
Q: Favorite piece and least favorite piece you’ve written thus far?
A: Least favorite, in terms of the writing, is probably “Saturday Mornings at Rhonica’s.” I go back and re-read that piece and I think, “This isn’t strong writing. This isn’t beautifully crafted.” But I love the content. In terms of content, it’s my favorite piece. And it’s one of my least read pieces. That both calms and breaks my heart. I’m calm because the writing needs work, so I’m glad it’s not widely read, but I’m also like “Oh no–I want more people to read it!” That’s probably because it’s so personal. It details what so many of my Saturday mornings were like when I was growing up, and beauty salons also hold such a special place in my heart. I really don’t get my hair done often now–if ever–but there’s something about the cadence and rhythm of Black salons that I miss, and I don’t know of any other spaces like them.
Q: What’s a piece you considered including in the journal that you scrapped before it ever went public and why did you scrap it?
A: There was this piece on displacement and migration. I don’t remember what I titled it, but the gist of it was, “How do we talk about migrations of different types?” I started from the premise of being a descendant of displaced peoples. During Jim Crow, my maternal grandparents migrated from the U.S. South to Los Angeles. I think of them as Isabel Wilkerson compels us to think of migrants from the South who left during Jim Crow, as refugees. They were refugees within their own country, and that’s a weird and unique sort of experience. And my dad migrated to the United States from Nigeria. When he was born in Nigeria, it was still a British colony, and after independence Nigeria had a civil war, so I talk about my dad living through many wars. He’s this Black Muslim immigrant who didn’t really fit into Black American populations or pre-existing U.S. Muslim communities.
And then I was thinking about the sort of journeys I had made, which were very different types of migrations. My grandparents and my father had to leave the places they were from unwillingly. By contrast, my migrations have been privileged experiences. In every country I’ve lived in outside the U.S., I’ve spoken the dominant language, possessed legal documentation, and had material resources and key institutional attachments.
Anyway, I finished writing it but didn’t post it because I got to this point where I felt like it wasn’t interesting. I think there are ways it could be interesting, but it would need a lot more context and nuance, so I want to think about race, migration, borders, movement, and traveling more deeply.
Q: How is writing, to you, a unique form of self-expression as opposed to say singing, dancing, painting?
A: Writing is my medium because it’s what I can do! I can’t sing. I would prefer to be a singer-songwriter because I think that if you’re a songwriter or a poet, you have the task of capturing everything I’ll say in a long-form essay with just one verse, and that’s hard to do. I was listening to Stevie Wonder, and he’s got this song, “As.” There’s this lyric that’s so gorgeous: “Did you know that true love asks for nothing? Her acceptance is the way we pay. Did you know that life has given love a guarantee to last through forever and another day?” There’s so much emotion there. You know how many lines it would take me to say something that’s got that much in there? But I can’t sing, and I’m not a poet. I wish I were so I could do so much more in a tiny bit of space.
And I also can’t dance! I’m a Black woman who can’t dance. It’s a travesty, it really is. I wish I were a dancer, I wish I were a singer, I wish I were a songwriter, I wish I were a poet. I can’t do any of those things, so what can I do? I would do a podcast because, the rhythm and cadence of a person’s voice, there’s something gorgeous about that. And there are things captured in it that are hard to get down on paper. But I’m too lazy to invest myself in starting a podcast. I write because it’s something that comes more easily to me than those other things, and I feel like I don’t really have a choice. It’s either that or nothing at all.
Q: Looking ahead, what are some of the goals you have for the journal this year?
A: I want to write more regularly, both for my readers and also for myself. I would like to average at least one piece a month because I think that’s doable. Writing takes a lot out of me, and I feel really tired when I finish a piece. It’s hard for me to write weekly or bi-weekly. It’s really time-consuming, and it’s really draining. It’s also a lot on the people who help me edit. But I think I can do once a month.
In terms of themes, we’re just going to have to go with the flow. I want to write another piece on gentrification, that I do know. I want to write about walking through urban spaces, but I’m still trying to figure out how. I’ve had a piece in mind for a long time, but I’m trying to figure out how it comes together.
And this is probably clear if you read the blog, but I like to write about love. Not necessarily romantic love, just love as a feeling and an emotion. And, honestly, I find writing about platonic love or familial love far more interesting and complex. But, I’m scared to write more pieces about love for the blog because I feel like it’s expected of women writers to talk about love. I hate to be one of those people who’s like “If it’s expected of me, then I’m not going to do it” when something is important. And I really do think love is an important topic. I just don’t want my readers to think my journal is about love. I may or may not write about love. I want to do it, but I’ve written so many pieces about love–I don’t know. We’ll see.