The Way of the Writer

A review of The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson.

by Cassie Hayes, Managing Editor

Reading Charles Johnson’s book The Way of the Writer is a lot like listening to your dad. One-third of it is fragmented, rambling anecdotes about people you have only heard of vaguely. One-third is a lecture about how society is going to pot. Then there’s a third of hard-earned and sensitive wisdom that keeps you pondering for days. And the wisdom is why it’s worth it to keep listening.

The book came about when the poet E. Ethelbert Miller asked Johnson via email a long series of questions about Johnson’s life, career, philosophy, and craft. Johnson later took what he’d written to Miller and edited and combined the emails to become The Way of the Writer, something akin to Stephen King’s On Writing, but more literary, more academic, and more philosophical, probably because of the different personality behind the writing. Because of the fractured origins of the work, the book feels very pieced together, going through wide-ranging subjects and—sometimes annoyingly—repeating and cycling back to information and ideas over and over again. It’s not completely a craft book. It’s not completely a memoir. It’s not completely a philosophical exploration. It’s not completely anything—except an opportunity to be a fly on the wall as E. Ethelbert Miller’s brain-picking questions lead to a very talented and brilliant philosopher, educator, artist, and writer opening up about what he’s learned over his long and productive career.

Throughout the book, Johnson preaches discipline, patience, dedication, curiosity, and getting pure enjoyment out of your work. His advice ranges from the broad, such as that a writer may have to “work a lifetime before he (or she) stumbles upon that one story that becomes an archetype for our thoughts, feelings, and experiences,” to advice more specific, such as how to better develop dialogue and characterization and the importance of plot in fictional works. These more craft-specific chapters are what I find most compelling. The chapters that feel more like memoir come across as preachy, and the philosophy chapters—such as the entire sixth and final section of the book—come across as pompous and educated-out-the-wazoo.

But in those craft-based chapters, Johnson’s sensitivity and his true passion for literature and young writers shines through. “Despite its importance,” Johnson writes, “art should always be a form of play.” He rants about “the natural, inevitable, and annoying human tendency to oversimplify people and things (or any phenomenon) to make them manageable,” which makes me want to give him a standing ovation. He includes writing exercises and tips he used in his classes while he was teaching at the University of Washington, gives several examples of books that have helped him and his students over the years, and even offers a chart of a hundred of the best opening sentences of some classic books.

Although you could certainly take the fact that he includes the opening sentence of Middle Passage, his own book, on this list of best opening lines as proof that he’s not exactly the most humble or unbiased of guys, I like how personal the book is. This book is not meant to be a “how to be a writer” book. It is the way of the writer—what works and what doesn’t for this particular writer, Charles Johnson.

Out-of-touch and elitist at its worst, refreshingly old-school at its best, Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer is a fascinating read in which you feel like you’re swept away in the writer’s own thought process and struggle to make meaning of his life, world, and craft. It ends on a sour note, with the final section focused more on philosophy than writing and that detracts from the power of his earlier craft-based discussions. (A good rule of thumb for you writers out there: if you start rambling about Sartre, you’ve probably gone on too long, and you had better have a dang good reason for it.) But, despite the ending, there’s a lot to learn from someone who’s had such a long, disciplined, and passionate career. I would highly recommend The Way of the Writer for anyone interested in fiction or teaching, and it’s an interesting and helpful read for anyone interested in nonfiction. There’s not much about poetry, but the ideas behind the book are useful for anyone interested in pursuing the writing life. (If you’re willing to tune out the constant name-dropping of John Gardener, which verges on the obsessive.)

In his chapter on writing book reviews, Johnson writes that he tries to include as many quotes from the book being reviewed as possible, so that readers of the review will be able to get a taste of the author’s writing for themselves. So, I will end this blog post book review with words directly from the introduction of The Way of the Writer:

“It is all one piece, this writing life, and each activity—professional and personal—enriches the others. Everything flows from the same source—the love of art. All art.

For the kind of writer I’ve just described, what might have been selfish or ego-driven at the onset of his or her career gives way—as is always the case with love—to the simple desire to humbly serve and possibly enrich, if we are lucky, literary culture of our time.

My hope is that, if nothing else, readers young and old, beginners and veterans, will experience on these pages devoted to the craft, the discipline, the calling of writing, that predisposition to love the goodness, truth, and beauty found in fine writing (and all well-wrought art). And to see that serving such a mistress for a lifetime is, in the truest sense of the word, a privilege and a blessing.”


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She got her undergraduate degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington, and she currently attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her work appears in From Sac, Five:2:One, Work Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.
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ARKANA UPDATE

by the Arkana Staff

TODAY our brand new issue went live on our main website: arkanamag.org! This issue contains twelve new works of literature, including four short stories, four poems, an illustrated narrative, a work of creative nonfiction, and two author interviews.

The short stories range from the exploring the magic of nature in “In the Forests of the Night,” to coming-of-age tales as kids encounter life’s complexities in “Shelter,” to the supernatural mysteriousness of “Empty as Churches,” to the humorous anecdotes of “The Obituary” and “The Poets Registry Office” in “Two Conversations.”

The poems—“Grandma’s living room of false gods,” “Sunflower,” “My Beautiful Radium,” and “Mad Woman” deal with madness and hate, family and place, and all touch on our mission statement’s promise to “seek and foster a sense of shared wonder.”

The illustrated narrative, “Being Rita,” is a beautiful work pairing visuals and the written word, both mediums coming together to portray the confliction of having difficult or unpleasant family members.

The creative nonfiction, “To the First Time Flier,” presents a narrator musing on America and privilege when talking with an immigrant on a flight to America.

And, finally, members of our staff were lucky enough to get to interview two authors for this issue—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and the forthcoming An American Marriage, and Alexander Weinstein, author of the speculative fiction short story collection Children of the New World.

Also, we’re super excited to feature four original works of art with some pieces in this issue. Make sure to check out Sarah Simon’s work with “Grandma’s living room of false gods,” Thomas Gillaspy’s work with “Empty as Churches,” Deborah Torley Stephan’s work with “In the Forests of the Night,” and Rollin Jewett’s work with “Two Conversations.”

We hope you enjoy all the new work we uncovered through reading through submissions and through some wonderful writers and authors taking the time to send work our way. Anyone who wants to come is invited to our Issue 3 launch party, and stay tuned to our blog for some notes from the Issue 3 genre editors about the work included in the issue.

Head on over to arkanamag.org to start reading Issue 3 or our archived issues now!

More Poetry from the Poet-Tree

Poet Tree

An exquisite corpse from the writers at the C. D. Wright Women Writer’s Conference 2017.

by the Arkana Staff

On November 3 and 4, Arkana was excited to have a table at the inaugural C. D. Wright Women Writer’s Conference book fair. We asked visitors to our table to write a few lines of poetry on “leaves” of green paper, which we then put on the bare branches of our “Poet-Tree”. Later, these lines of poetry were compiled by members of our staff to form an exquisite corpse poem.

Enjoy the following poem by the writers at the C. D. Wright Women Writer’s Conference!


I am nothing but a rope of smoke
Tied around the stars

Why be loved like the sun, only craved when I’m gone
Unbridled intensity–cut it off before I burn

There was wrong, and there was left

Will you? Will you listen. And if I were beautiful, would you recognize my scent? Would you memorize

She took a dress and went that way

She was the kindest form of chaos

We want for no one we hold on to everyone. To remember is our lot in life–the everyday woman

He heals all but the hidden wounds

And what is it meant to be, only beautiful in writing and austerity?

I write because I think I think because I can

I write before I die I love before I hate

Be a leader, in a world ever changing, hold up the victories, hold up the heartbeats, hold up each other

Nothing ever really dies, you know?

Crash upon the earth with the brown leaves of time

Too humid for fall

The leaves are falling, carried on great gusts of wind- like red crispy snow

The sweet stickiness of a November thunderstorm

Wipers swish over wet windows

The fog rolled over her misting

Beware the stinging ladybugs of Arkansas

The imitation of her magic, the arduous donation of the scarf, the veil, the necklace around her throat

Mimosa, Chocolate, or Kerosene?

I walked down the old lane and questioned choices made before my knees started aching. Then I thought of dragons & fairies and pirates with long hair gleaming in the sun. And I forgot, and choices were good again.

Do you hear my hum of bees
wax of words
the honeyed seas salt of my last waking thought

I could only speak for myself

The Green Ocean that you can never hold your head above. While sitting in that ocean you are always waiting for that moment that you sink. You gasp for air while your head bobs in and out. Then you’re gone.

Where water is still it will deepen.

I must learn to live my own, carve the lesson in my bones. When I stand before my own gods, I must stand there all alone.


*Photo credit: Drew S. Cook

Diversity In Publishing: Will It Ever Be Rectified?

A personal discussion of the need for diversity in publishing.

by Victoria Mays, Scriptwriting Editor

I am black. I am a female. As a writer, those very distinct qualities that are genetic and unalterable are the very things I fear being discriminated against in publishing. Though one may believe the fight for gender equality in the field has been conquered, the question still remains: Did we fail to include minority women? In my case, black women. So, that still leaves me at two strikes. When I was asked to do a presentation over diversity for class, I wasn’t surprised by the numbers for the lack thereof in the industry. It wasn’t news to me that the fight still isn’t over and that it may never be over.

As a black woman, I feel the need to create literature that will be empowering and uplifting to people that can identify with me personally or know someone that can. Throughout my high school and early college career, I studied some of the so called greats in the literary canon: Virginia Wolff, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell and Oscar Wilde. Though I admire and respect the energy and passion they put into every work that has gained them the fame they have today and wouldn’t dare rob them of it, I have always wondered why there weren’t any black writers amongst the literature we read. Writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Walter Mosley and Richard Wright that captured the essence of the black soul and shared the struggles that my ancestors had to endure and overcome in their time.

Being a writer of the times, I feel the call to represent the beautiful and ugly things that black people have encountered in their human experience. In his essay, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” Jame Older stated, “Publishing is always negotiations between what you want to say, what you can say, and what society will allow you to say.” Not only do I have to worry about publishing quality work, but also facing the fear of presenting quality work that isn’t accepted because of the message that it conveys. Will it be another story thrown into the pile of work that doesn’t contain the idea of a universal character that “generally indicates a false neutral that more or less resembles whiteness?” (Older)

The VIDA Count, a system that “started when the cofounder Cate Marvin sent out an email addressing the lack of feminist conversation in contemporary literature,”  has expanded to include data that addresses race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and ability (Prufer). The data covers information for a variety of publications. While we still have work to do as far as increasing diversity in the publishing realm, VIDA shows us where change and progress is needed. If everyone in the industry were to get on the page and use the data that is free and readily available to the public, we could take steps in the right direction.


Victoria Mays is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas.  She is a freelance editor and writer.  When she’s not crafting stories, she is inspiring people through her blog, Soul-Liberation.

ARKANA UPDATE

by the Arkana Staff

We’ve received so many awesome submissions during our issue three reading period that we’re having some tough discussions about what to include in the upcoming issue of the journal. Thanks so much, anyone who sent work our way!

In November, we’ll be transitioning from reading/discussion mode to production mode—putting together the issue. This means the glamorous work of copyediting, proofreading, matching artwork with written work, reading and re-reading the issue, and getting it put up on our website. For a bunch of lit nerds like us, despite the hard work of production mode, we’re ready for the fun of formatting the issue and making public the work we (and YOU, writers, artists, and readers) have uncovered.

Recently, some changes have appeared on our website. We’ve added an Archive page to help you get to the work that you want to read. So feel free to comb through our back issues before the new issue drops in early December.

Also, on our About page, take a look at our masthead, updated with the new issue’s staff, comprised of grad students here at the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Want to hear from these folks? Follow our blog to hear the voices of the people dedicated to the misunderstood, overlooked, and silent.

The blog itself has been revamped to make navigating to old posts easier. So check out the menu at the top of the page to find some thought-provoking writing about everything from the publishing world and grad school life to pop culture and movies.

We’re hard at work on the new issue! Meanwhile, keep up-to-date with the workings of Arkana by following us on social media (Twitter, Facebook, and our brand-spanking-new Instagram). Or just head back over to our website and get lost in writing of mysteries and marginalized voices.

As always, thanks for reading, and happy writing!

An Excerpt from Mental Illness and the Poetics of Failure

Brief musings on costumes, artists, and mental illness.

by Drew S. Cook, Poetry Reader

A surprising number of photographs of people dressing like Sylvia Plath for Halloween can be found via a Google image search. One might ask: what does a Sylvia Plath costume look like? I imagine her 1953 interview of Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle. In the months leading up to the interview, she shopped voraciously, feeling a tremendous pressure to not only give a good interview, but to meet the standards of appearance that were aggressively asserted both by Mademoiselle and society at large. Despite the pressure, Plath delivered in terms of both substance and form, nailing her first interview for the magazine, to which she wore a highly fashionable dress, fitted jacket, pearls, and gloves.

If we accept The Bell Jar as autobiography, then the entire Mademoiselle-New York adventure is prelude to a significant mental health crisis. Yet, this is Sylvia Plath. Driven by self-loathing and genius to persist, to outshine, to overcome, Plath’s smile seems genuine in the photos that remain of that momentous occasion—after months of certainty that she will fail, she discovers that she is knocking it out of the park. This is the smile of a mentally ill person who has, yet again, kept herself alive in the land of the sane. Three years before her fateful encounter with Olympic-tier gaslighter Ted Hughes, Plath is a young woman who, on her own in the big city, survives. She despairs, she is outside, she is neurodivergent, but she belongs wholly to herself.

The iconic moment with Bowen is not the costume, though, that Halloween celebrants choose. To them, Sylvia Path is a woman—any woman—with a cardboard, mocked-up oven over her head. Plath is only her suicide, only her sickness. She is not even a poet anymore. Instead, she is just a joke about a chronic, sometimes fatal condition known as bipolar disorder.

Plath’s story offers a cautionary tale to mentally ill artists. No matter one’s achievements, no matter the effort, to write as a mentally ill person is to expose oneself to ridicule from bad actors, and uninvited psychoanalysis from the well-meaning. It is, in the terminology of feminist rhetorical theory, to subject oneself to “containment.” One can no longer write about a thing; rather, one is perceived as writing from a place.


Drew SCook is many things: an expert in obsolete operating systems, a student of literature and poetry, a psychiatrically disabled person. He is other things, too, and grew up in the Ouachita Mountains, whose sights and sounds continue to inform his writing. Drew is currently a Co-Executive Editor at Trio House Press. His poems have appeared in Nimrod Journal, Pleiades, and elsewhere.

Notes From Bethabara Park: Cheri Paris Edwards & The Other Sister

 

Personal reflections while writing a book review.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Country Way East, Okemos MI, Wednesday, March 16, 2017:

I believe that novels have the mystical ability to enter our lives at a moment in which we find ourselves standing at the crossroads in-search of something that changes our hearts and minds in an effort to teach us a deeper meaning of life and love and purpose. Perhaps this is the point of Cheri Paris Edwards’ novel: The Other Sister.

My love life stinks. For the millionth time, I’d reached the conclusion that my girlfriend and I had no future, besides the meaningless banality of frivolous momentary interludes of empty sex, drama, and random cafe-affairs of aimless chit-chat.

“… I keep replaying the discussion we’d had at Venice Cafe. It rang loudly in my head, trying to capture some profound meaning amidst it all. Anyways, perhaps I spoke too much and didn’t allow you to speak enough. Perhaps there were questions left without space and time to call them out and allow them to be answered. …”

Tom’s Oyster Bar, Detroit MI, Thursday, March 17, 2017:

I pulled into Downtown Detroit and headed straight to Tom’s Oyster Bar to think about Velma’s note. I ordered rum and reached into my jacket for Edwards’ book to read over notes, marginalia, and to think about the impact it had on my immediate circumstances. Edwards’ book is about safety, and the sacrifice of new beginnings, Sanita Jefferson returning to Illinois for an unrealized reunion with her ecstatic parents. Regardless of her sister, Carla’s cold receptions, Sanita plants her feet firmly on the yellow brick road and sets out for new horizons of promise and prosperity. Then she runs into Terrance Catching.

*phone vibrate*

“Confessional: I’m not sure you noticed but I placed my leg next to you on purpose. Today I wanted to touch you. I looked at you and thought of what it would be like to have you hold me, hug me, touch me. Then I thought to myself, no…he would hurt you – not on purpose, not intentionally – it’s just how he is made…how he has come to become in this world….”

St. Michael Hotel, “Whiskey Row” Prescott AZ, Saturday, March 19, 2017:

I arrived in Prescott just before the sun set low when the gentle breeze cooled native souls, where cowboys reminisced, and “Preskitian” residents told olden stories to thirsty tourists at Hooligans Pub. Rowdy, arrogant, raucous mid-westerners (the ones harboring feelings of entitlement and privileged belonging) drank Modelo beers and propped up their Walmart western boots on Hooligans ledge overlooking the nostalgic panorama that is Whiskey Row. Down below, restless vagrants meet at the intersection of South Montezuma and East Gurley Street to discuss the day’s strategy for panhandling enough change to get cigarettes and whiskey. Later that night they would meet up across the street in Courthouse Plaza to divvy up the ante before heading on over to Bird Cage Saloon for the two-dollar draft and cheap Tequila shots.

*phone vibrate*

“In my past relationships, I’m often quick to nurture, fast to heal, to capture and conceal secrets, hurts, pains. Your writing, like mine, is your place of healing…I get that…but where does Jeremy house his love…for himself? for the women both past and present in his life? I know I risk much sharing these thoughts with you. But, the older I get the more I appreciate risks and honestly… from others, from myself to myself…please come and see me when you return to Michigan. I will get you from the airport if you need.”

I would often follow them to BCS where I listen from a short distance to their sullen proclamations of love lost, sacred land long gone, and familial discount. They talk about the futility of life, where they have come from (mostly Chino Valley, Phoenix, and various Native American reservations), and where they are going (mostly nowhere and everywhere). Prescott treats its homeless community very well, offering food, clothes, money, and a warm cot if the weary destitute so desire. Every night around midnight the desperate winos and raggedy hobos congregate at the southern tip of Montezuma Street, just outside of the St. Michael hotel where they plan to head on up to BCS for a little revelry, reflection, and relief. I sat over in the far left corner and thought about the love of my life, Velma Duke, while reviewing collected thoughts and notes on The Other Sister:

  • The Other Sister is a good read…I really like the writing…Edwards is a good writer…
  • Edwards has a gift for story-telling and understands the art and craft of novel-writing. ..
  • Good characters, deftly constructed…
  • Good moral messages…spiritual meanings and good commentary on that which afflicts society today
  • Common current event themes of disease, death, destruction, HIV
  • Good use of biblical themes…thou shalt not judge.
  • Good array of family matters and complex relationships…

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem NC, Saturday, April 2, 2017:

“Love’s in need of love today… Don’t delay, send yours in right away. Hate’s goin’ round, breaking many hearts. Stop it please… Before it’s gone too far.” –Stevie Wonder

I finished my review of The Other Sister while sitting in the back-booth of a quiet, rural suburban breakfast retreat over near Wake Forest University by historic village of Bethabara Park. I drained my orange juice, left a small tip, grabbed my Chrome Book, got in my car and headed towards University Avenue – toward High Point to visit an old friend. I Jeremyed in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion and thought about Edwards’ overall message, an essential lesson on hope, love, community, and sacrifice – all the things the African-American are in desperate need of. Sanita’s (Jazz) double-life antics catch up with her, sending her back home to face her dubious reality. Carla leads a respectable life of promise and prosperity, committed to excellence, having played by the rules, working hard to achieve and triumph. This is the complex dice both play out in this Christian amalgam of faith, love, and hard-lessons learned. Demonstrably, Edwards is from the old-school, and TOS is saturated with biblical themes, religious characters (conflicted in secular contexts, of course), and goody-two-shoe morality, which at times seemed boring at worst, contrived at best, but typical and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, the point is clear with TOS, and we get it. Love your family, forgive people, and allow for redemption in the face of repressive odds. Love is key….and we need it. All of us.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

Interview with Playwright Sharai Bohannon

An interview about writing, plays, and MFA programs.

Conducted by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

I asked Sharai Bohannon for an interview to discuss the debut of her play, Craigslisted, and she happily agreed. Later that day I visited the set of Director Trent Reese’s production of Bohannon’s play to get a better feel of what the play is about. After breaking from a scene rehearsal, the cast returned to the center area of the stage. “I need you on books,” Reese said to his production assistant. Then he turned to his cast and shouted toward center-stage, “We need pace, we need drama, we need action.” Heads nodded and Reese turned towards the top of the small seating area to take birds-eye view of center-stage where characters “Dave” and “Maggie” try to work through a complex dilemma of love and betrayal. Reese has a genuine smile and jovial personality but he is very much in charge of this production. Reese told me that Bohannon’s play was chosen in efforts to support more unpublished playwrights. After rehearsal I returned to campus to make arrangements for my interview with Sharai Bohannon:

Arkana: Your play, Craigslisted, will debut on September 15 at The Lantern Theatre in Conway, Arkansas. I know that the play took shape and form during the last half of graduate school. Can you elaborate on the conception and development of your play, tell us what it’s about, and how it made its way to Lantern Theatre?

SB: I was nearing the end of my time in school and worried about how I was going to pay off all of my student loans and find work with the modest collection of degrees I have. When it was time to begin my thesis play in earnest those fears sort of manifested in Maggie. I wrote a SUPER rough draft that was chosen for Texas Tech University’s 2015-2016 Lab Season and also chosen for the school’s WildWind Performance Lab where we workshopped it until it was a completely different, and better, script. All of the subsequent drafts happened because we had all of these smart artists in the room giving me feedback and making me look at everything from different angles. While I owe everyone during that time some major gratitude, Kamarie Chapman was the MVP because she served as the original Dramaturg and helped me narrow the monstrosity that I’d written down to the smaller list of what I really wanted the play to address. She also had the original idea of “seeing what was on the screens” which became all of the projections that are seen throughout the play.

During my last year of grad school, I was sending the play literally everywhere that had a submission opportunity that fit the script. My friend Trent Reese (who is directing this current production and is on the board of The Lantern Theatre) sent out a note to playwrights from our undergrad letting us know that The Lantern wanted to do more new works. Eventually, my play was chosen and it’s been a fun whirlwind ever since. Trent also directed my very first play in undergrad, and The Lantern produced my first non-academic production, so this production does bring me full circle in a couple of ways. I’m excited to get into town and thank everyone in person and see everything come together during tech week.

A: How do you decide what to write about? Where do you find inspiration?

SB: Lots of times projects find me. I’m definitely guilty of forcing some pages out because an opportunity calls for it, or just so I can keep saying I’m a playwright, but the projects that I love come from sitting down with people who spark my imagination. I’m currently working on a retelling/adaptation of Faust with my friend, Sophie Duntley, because she had the idea and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on it. We started firing ideas off of each other, discussing the gender politics of there being a Lady Faust, and now we have a wonderful cast, a wonderful venue, and I’ve been spoiled by having a writing partner to help shoulder the stress of writing a full-length. I hope she realizes what she’s done because I definitely want to do it again (and soon). A different project that I’ve been loosely working on started as an inkling because I had the final image in my head. I started writing but wasn’t really excited until I went on vacation and a different friend randomly mentioned a topic that sort helped to make everything I wanted make sense while allowing me to learn about an important topic. That’s all I can say about that one right now because it’s still sort of abstract and I don’t want to start committing it to being something that it might not be.

A: What is the job of the (African) American Playwright?

SB: I think the job of the African American Playwright it is to write what’s in their heart and on their mind. I believe that’s the same of any playwright though. Everyone on the planet has different views of the world that comes along with being born into our ethnicity, gender, society, upbringing, family’s income level, sexuality, etc. I think the job of The African American Playwright is to not let people get in their head for being true to themselves and their vision. It’s very easy for someone to tell you what you “should” be writing instead of evaluating what you have actually written.

A: What have you found to be the biggest struggle publishing your work?

SB: I’ve only had one piece published so far. I typically submit to productions, workshops, and residencies though. There is something about a play being published that makes it feel permanent and I definitely enjoy the freedom of changing things up from production to production. I went to a Sarah Ruhl event earlier this year and she also mentioned that a play isn’t finished until it’s published when someone asked her how she knows when a script is done. I’m not saying that I’m not interested in being published but I admit that I’m not putting enough energy into that part of being a playwright at this current moment. I’m still really excited by having a dialogue with production teams, hearing actors make discoveries that influence the next draft(s), and watching audiences respond to my work (which is the most honest feedback there is).

A: What are some of the challenges currently confronting the writing community?

There are a billion writers and a lot less than a billion opportunities. I also think the lack of funding prevents most of us from pursuing it full-time. We have to support ourselves which often means writing gets set on the back burner and/or we’re forcing work that is not our best because we’re tired and only have so few moments to write while riding trains or eating lunch. It’s a hard field we’ve chosen and I don’t think we talk about that enough.

A: What advice would you give to current MFA students?

SB: Take the note and say thank you. I see lots of playwrights argue with every single note they are given and it’s obnoxious. I’m not saying every note you’ll be given should be treated as the gospel, but if you’re defensive all of the time then you’ll miss the notes that are helpful too. The flipside of that is to learn which notes to ignore. Lots of people want to help, and sometimes they seem right, but you know your play at the end of the day and need to know what best serves your script. It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning myself, and being too far on either side isn’t ideal.

My second piece of advice is to make your own writing communities. Having friends who understand what you’re going through, and who are facing the same concerns, is invaluable. I learn from my writer friends every day and like to think that we’re indirectly responsible for encouraging/supporting each other to do better as artists.


Sharai Bohannon’s Words of Wisdom:

On playwriting: Figure out who you are and write from that place. There are enough people trying to imitate someone else. Write about what excites you instead of what you “should” be writing.

On race, class, and gender in writing and MFA programs: You have to be your own advocate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” be writing. I tend to write strong women and some people don’t know what to do with strong women so would encourage me to put more male voices in my work, or want me to attach my characters to men to “give them purpose and goals,” and I rightfully refused. I’ve also had people tell me that they were hoping I would give them “the black scene” when they asked me to contribute to something but were surprised that I followed the guidelines of the assignment. I’m not saying all of this just to end the interview on a negative note, but to sort of point out how easy it is to get outdated/offensive feedback in these situations that makes you just want to give up. These are the situations where having your own writing community, knowing what types of feedback to ignore, and writing the types of stories you want, comes in handy. Focus on the mentors/faculty members who actually get it and learn as much as you can from them because those are the ones who have actual things to contribute to your development anyway.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

Book Review: The Turner House

 

A review of Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel but I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.

The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that has never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:

Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).

Good stuff. I also liked the WWII flashbacks to Detroit’s Hastings Street, Paradise Valley days, and post-Reconstruction Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as why black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boast such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.

Flournoy’s research for her novel included Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material. Sugrue’s study gives some attention to the area known as Black Bottom, who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, too, but there are other sources as well for anyone thinking about Flournoy’s topic beyond her book. The digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library is loaded with primary sources on black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

I found my family story in this novel, particularly the men in my family, how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons, and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). Even with its minor flaws and mistakes, The Turner House is still worth the read.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.