The Watermelon in the Room

How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

            Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.

“WHAT!?!”

Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.

All of this to-do over a watermelon!

But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.

For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.

My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.

A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.

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      And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.

Right there.

In the room.

The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.

What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.

The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.

watermelons2

 

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I am a reader first. A reader is what I am.

readinginbed

Art by Mary Azarian

I love to do a lot of things. There’s never enough time in the day, or in the week, or in the year. Music, for one. Never enough time for music.

Last spring I had to get on an airplane. This is not a problem for most people. It is for me. I object to be flying both because it’s an environmental disaster and because it’s a horrible experience. Of which I am afraid. Naturally, I am afraid I am going to die. I do not want to die.

I called the lawyer to set up an appointment to rewrite our wills. “Are you flying somewhere?” he asked. “How did you know?” “Did you last fly seven years ago?” he said. I nodded. “That was the last time you called me.”

I laughed, sort of.

It is apparently standard practice now, in Vermont at least, to fill out an extensive advance directive. This document is not a whole lot of fun. It asks lots of questions I don’t want to have to think about, and I bet you don’t either. Basically, they come down to this: How dead do you want to be before we disconnect the machines?

The document also raises questions about funeral choices, etc. The truth is that I want my funeral to be held before I die. Who cares afterwards? Pas moi, I suspect. So I put that in. Why not?

What does this have to do with writing? Not much. But it has a lot to do with reading. “As long as I can read,” I wrote, “I would like to be alive, even if plugged in.”

Many of us are readers first. But when people ask us what we do, it’s hard to answer that we read. We write, we play music, we garden, we attempt to train obstreperous dogs, we paint, we ski, whatever: we DO STUFF. Yet I have read since I learned how to read. I read constantly. Read a lot. I cannot be without reading material. I take books in the car in case of an emergency. I read on the treadmill. I am an only child, and I was always allowed to read at the table (breakfast, lunch, dinner). I now realize that perhaps this gave my parents a chance to talk to each other without my whining about wanting to read. I still do (read and whine, actually). Bob puts up with it.

For years and years and years and years, most of my reading consisted of books for children and young adults. That was my work and my delight. Now I prefer to read grownup books, even though my status as one is questionable. And I still love long, long books.

I cannot read one on a screen.

I want to hold it on my lap.

I cannot hear one in the car.

I do not like those book-y apps.

I’ve read some great books recently (you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine). Books that surprise me, please me, challenge me, amaze me. The novel for both young and old people is alive and well! I have enough books in the house to tide me over until that advance directive comes into play, which I hope is never. Too many books to read. I laugh, I cry, they change my life.

Last week we lost power in a magnificent snowstorm. We lit candles. I read. The house was deliciously quiet (and we have wood heat, so it was warm). We couldn’t flush toilets, but I could read. We couldn’t eat, but I could read. No machines purring, no writing nagging at me, no email or internet. Reading!

This is my last VCFA faculty blog post (my choice, but it’s time, even though I suggested this blog in the first place, or so I believe–). It’s been a delight, and I thank you all for reading my ramblings. I’m not disappearing, so stay in touch.

Afterword: for more on writing itself, please read this delicious post by mystery writer Leonard Rosen. It may inspire you. http://lenrosenonline.com/2013/04/harold-his-purple-crayon-and-the-writing-process/

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Pushing the Limits

Coe’s post about keeping the momentum and Amanda’s Hey You post both made me think about the mind-games we have to play with ourselves to keep going. Which of course reminded me of my own large project under way right now. It’s trying, poor thing, to get past its saggy-baggy-middle and I often find myself getting royally in its way.

IMG_7905Some of you know that from mid-October to early November, I was part of a group that aimed to trek the Annapurna Circuit. We didn’t do the whole thing because the week we started was the week that Nepal and the world (or at least anyone who was paying attention) got gob-smacked by this terrible catastrophe that killed over forty trekkers and left maybe 50 missing.  We were three days away from that pass and the worst we suffered included bad colds, sleep-deprivation, and mild altitude spaciness. We ended up hiking in some glorious places, meeting some generous, gracious people, and falling in love with Nepal.

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Wait. There’s a writing connection here. I kept a daily journal for the 22 days of the trip. Here’s what I wrote on Day 4:

To Chame, uphill and downhill until I feel I have no breath left at all but still I keep going and somehow at the end of the day I am still breathing and my muscles have stopped emitting screaming pain signals from all this overtime work. Past dozens of waterfalls that are sculpting the rocks. Each striation gleams, ivory on granite, elephantine in scale. You can hear the water roaring down, sometimes half an hour before you round a corner and see it. It is as if the source of all life on the planet is here; here is the heartbeat, and our puny wants and whims fall away at the sight.

And story is like that. You should be able to feel it long before you know what it is. You have to trust that every corner you turn is taking you in the right direction.

Sometimes, too, you have to recognize that there’s an avalanche ahead and you may have to turn back. That’s not failure. It’s letting go your original, logical plan, and going with what the universe has handed you.

That could be an 800 foot waterfall, or it could be laughing children. Be grateful, and keep on trekking.

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Keeping the Momentum

congratulationsCongratulations to all the NaNoWriMo winners! You all rock!

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is still something I’ve actually never tried; the 50,000 word goal intimidates me too much. I mean, I’ve barely written that many words in a year — definitely not a month. But still, I have huge respect for everyone who participated, even those who fell short of that (quite possibly insane) goal.

There’s something so admirable about dedicating an entire month to one writing project, maintaining your focus day after day, and learning to silence your inner critic long enough to keep pushing ahead, even when your novel seems to have veered off in a rather unfortunate direction.

That’s one of the main benefits of NaNoWriMo — you don’t have time to stop and analyze what you’re writing. You have to keep your head down and get those words on the page… now!

And when you think about it, isn’t that the kind of determination writers should have all the time, every month? We shouldn’t have to wait ’til November rolls around to make our novels-in-progress our priority, right?

Well, guess what?

It’s December 1st — a shiny new month! And if you participated in NaNoWriMo (or not!), you can start this month with a NaNoWriMo-esque kind of energy and dedication. It’s all about momentum, isn’t it? If you didn’t get it last month, maybe you can get it now! And you don’t need to set a 50,000 word goal or anything, but you can write every day. And you can move your project 31 days closer to a complete draft.

Let me put it this way: Every month can be National Novel Writing Month… in our minds.
:-)

Start now!
~Coe~

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How Etymology Can Change Your Life, And Other Matters Lexiconical

For years, those same years during which I couldn’t decide which I loved more—acting, writing, painting or sculpting, I tortured myself with one word: dilettante. Even my profile in the high school yearbook mentioned that “there must be at least three Louises,” one who painted, one who wrote, one who acted. Was I pleased by that suggestion? No, it confirmed that I was a dabbler, someone who skimmed the surface, who was a little good at a lot of things, A Jacqueline of all trades, mistress of none. In short, a dilettante.

Then one day, on an impulse for which I will be forever grateful, I looked up the word with which I’d been flagellating (a word which comes from the Latin for whip, but which is a cognate or close family member of the Old Norse word for fluttering wings) myself. Guess what the dictionary told me, dear readers? The root of the word (from the Italian by way of Latin) is a verb which means to delight. WHOA! What a revelation. Somewhere along the intersection of history and language, English speakers had separated art and knowledge from delight; and a dilettante had come to mean a person who wasn’t serious enough, who took mere joy from what they did or studied. Double WHOA! What’s wrong with taking delight? In lots of things? In anything you can wrap your hands or mind or heart around?

That is how, O Best Beloveds, the dictionary set me free. To be whoever I pleased. Among my many subsequent identities has been Etymologist, one who revels in the changing shape and meaning of words. (This specialty’s name comes, ultimately, from the Greek word eteos, meaning true or actual.) I’ve loved learning, for example, that almost all Indo-European words for write find their roots in verb forms that meant to push, scratch, carve, or cut. Little wonder, considering what hard work writing used to be before paper and computers. How rich and right, too, that the origin of the word human is probably a mashup of the Latin homo (man) and humus (earth)—not to be confused with beings of a higher order, you see.

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If you’d like to dabble (which word originally meant to splash rather than immerse in water—can you really get clean that way? Tsk. Tsk.) in word origins, try this site, which introduces itself, aptly and juicily, thus: “This a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.”

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

So. What words have changed your life?

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The Overheard Conversation

Writers love to eavesdrop. There’s no better grist for the mill than the conversation of strangers, not intended for your ears. On a craft level, eavesdropping is a wonderful exercise in learning to write authentic dialogue. The overheard do not explain what or whom they are talking about for the benefit of Nosey in the seat behind them, and yet Nosey gets the gist of it along with the frisson of stolen pleasure. That’s what you want from dialogue! The eavesdropper has to try to make sense of what’s being said and in so doing becomes a truly engaged listener. Aren’t those exactly the kind of readers we crave?
Eavesdropping, after all, is what literature is all about. The reader is the proverbial fly on the wall, vicariously delighted or horrified at what is taking place. And so it’s not surprising that the overheard conversation is a mainstay of literature, especially for young readers. How many dastardly plans have been heard through keyholes, in the pages of a book? It’s a popular conceit that can easily backfire and strain the reader’s suspension of critical doubt. There’s the gratuitous just-happened-by nature of it all. Unless of course it’s the coincidence that starts the book. (The only coincidence we can ever really get away with).
The young protagonist who is actively attempting to overhear something he’s not meant to hear is more believable but you have to be careful that what he hears really sounds like conversation and not simply a convenient platter of plot point. The worst example of this is the conversation ostensibly already in progress that still manages, somehow, to provide all the pertinent information the character needed to hear.
When we write from a limited viewpoint, either in first or second person, there is much that must happen off-stage. For that matter, even in a novel of Dickensian omniscience, not every scene that happens can be recorded. That would have to be renamed the excruciatingly boring omniscient point of view.

But here’s something to think about. I’ve just written a scene that will definitely not be in my new middle grade novel. Moth has just confessed something dreadful to his mother in the hope that she will come clean about her own big secret. He goes off to his room, disgruntled, fuming. Dad comes home and mom knows she has to tell him what just transpired and, in so doing, has to reveal to her husband at least some of her guilty secret. I understood this scene would have to happen the moment I’d finished the scene between Moth and his mother. But even if it occurred to Moth to try to overhear what his parents might need to talk about, there would be no way on earth mom would let that happen.
The thing is, this author had to know what went down between mom and dad; just how much mom would confess; how angry or understanding dad would be; how unsettled they both would be, when next Moth saw them. I gave Dad a beer and wrote the scene like dialogue in a play, since it would never appear in print.
Little did I know that in overhearing that mom-dad scene the whole story would shift, inescapably, in a way that I had not foreseen. I had no idea what Dad was up to. Neither had mom!

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Writing, Encouragement, and “Poetry”

When I do my “What’s in Your Suitcase?” school presentation in high schools, I talk about unpacking your personal suitcase so negative events and energy from your past don’t follow you around and screw up your everyday life. I talk about how most of us are lugging along bags that we’ve never even looked at.

I then talk about repacking the suitcase and what frame of mind one must be in to repack a suitcase that one has unpacked. One of my favorite parts about the repacking spiel is: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

I get a good few laughs when I talk about this. I tell the audience about how I’ve met students in classrooms whose life plan is to be in the NBA…but they don’t play on the school’s basketball team. I tell them to think back to American Idol contestants who couldn’t sing one note but based their life’s dreams on making it onto the show. I say, “You have to know what you’re actually good at. You don’t want to seem delusional, do you?”

I tell them to look at me. I say, “I cannot be a ballet dancer. I am a big-boned woman, five foot ten with size eleven feet. I probably couldn’t have been an Olympic gymnast either. I don’t think they make leotards in my size.” I tell them that I was a good basketball player, but not even close to WNBA…though WNBA didn’t exist when I was in high school. Maybe had the WNBA existed for me as a child, I would have felt a deeper reason to play better basketball. Would I have worked harder knowing that an opportunity could come out of that particular talent? Maybe. I’ll never know. Look for opportunity, I tell students. Real opportunity.

In schools, I meet a lot of to-be rappers. Most of them will not rap for me. I tell the audience that’s okay, not everyone can show their strengths on the spot like that.

But then I tell them about the time I met a student who said he was going to be a famous rapper and actually rapped.

I said, “Get out. You can rap?”
He said, “You care about rap?”
I said, “First concert I went to by myself was Public Enemy. 1987.”
He said, “Conscious rap. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
I said, “Show me.”

He looked around, nervous. It was a small class. He was on the spot and there was no way he was going to rap for me.

I said, “So you want to be a famous rapper?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “But you can’t rap for me?”
He said, “Nah.”

I wasn’t going to push him. I know the feeling of being uncomfortable and feeling like my dreams are stupid. Boy do I know that feeling.

A girl in the class said, “How about a battle?”
He shook his head.
She said, “Come on. You’re good. I’ll do it if you do it.”

Inside of a minute, there was a rap battle. She started. He responded. They went two or three rounds and were amazing. I got a video of it on my phone.

Why was this student able to rap for me? In the end, it was encouragement. It took one person from his class to say, “Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.” Encouragement is a big deal. Not just for kids or teenagers. Encouragement is something everyone needs all through life. Encouragement is just a damn nice thing to do for another person.

I’m a published poet. I started publishing in poetry. I’ve known a lot of great poets. I know super-famous poets. I know poets you’ve never heard of but their poetry is just as fantastic. As a writer, I’ve known good poems and bad poems, just like any writer. We can’t be perfect all the time. I’ve known better poets than me and I’ve known better poets than you. And that’s okay as long as poetry is being written.

At some point in the last few years, I met a person who used air quotes on me in regard to my poetry. She said that my “poetry” was _________. You fill in the blank. I can’t remember what she said because I was too perplexed by the air quotes.

airquotes

Um.

“Poetry” is very different to Poetry.
Air quotes are not very encouraging.

I didn’t write a poem for a year or so. I’m not sure why. Maybe for the same reason as those future rappers I meet who just can’t throw down a rap for me while I’m in the class—too embarrassed, been teased by their classmates, been made to feel like they were “rappers” and not just working on rap the way every “real” rapper works on rap in a day.

I was lacking encouragement.
Or worse, fighting discouragement.

I think it’s good to remember that no matter how long we’ve been in a thing, no matter how hard we’ve worked, no matter how many things we sell or know or how many things we write, there is a person who can out-write us. Our job is to encourage that writer. Our job is to remember that as a community of writers, we are all in this together. We are laying down the times we live inside of words that will, all going well, outlive us.

Last night I found the first poem I wrote since I was air-quoted. I’m going to paste it at the end of this blog. It’s not 100% done. I don’t care. The teenagers who rap battled for me did so with raps off the tops of their heads—not revised, not practiced. That’s guts. Not “guts,” but guts.

Maybe you, reading this, don’t like rap.
But was this post about rap?

I have spent my life empowering and encouraging people to find their guts. This takes a balance of tough love and soft love. It takes being able to see that everything anyone creates is real, even if I don’t like it. I am not the sun. I do not get to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Luckily I was grown with my feet planted in dirt. I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.

I can’t wait to see my next high school rap battle. I can’t wait to see one of my high school student writers sell a novel. I hope it’s better than anything I ever wrote. I hope they keep their feet in the dirt, too. I hope more than anything that they never get so near the sun that they choose to burn a fellow writer rather than encourage them.

Fellow writers, hear me: Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.

Ground Naked (Unfinished)
by A.S. King

The beast took my friend.
Ate him up
from the center of his brain.
The beast took my friend
because the beast
was hungry.

Lurks everywhere, this
ugly thing with teeth
dull teeth so they hurt
gnaw slowly. The beast
grinds and expels and
grinds and expels.
My friend was ground.
My friend was expelled.

The world pretends.
The world pretends
we’re imagining things.
It’s happier with naked
celebrity photos or war.

My friend was naked in war.
My friend was ground naked by war.
My friend was expelled naked
by war but the police report
gives no account of
the real killer.

My beast.
My gorgeous beast.
Gets no attention.
Every time they say
he took his
own life
the beast grows hungrier.

Amy

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