When White Folks in Your Writing Workshop Tell You That Your Stuff Is too Dramatic… Too Violent… Too Much!

A Few Things I Shared With Another Writer About the Neighborhood I Grew Up In:

That Alphabet City Life

One night I came home and saw my friend’s father with a knife in his belly.  Later on, someone told me it had to do with drugs, the fact that he was bleeding out on the staircase of my building trying to keep the contents of his stomach from spilling out onto the steps.  One night, I got a phone call from a friend of mine telling me that a friend of ours, a big brother to all of us on our East 11th street block, put a gun to his head and shot his brains out.  His mother came home to find them splattered on the kitchen walls.  One night a date of mine pointed to a building in my neighborhood and asked me if I heard what happened to the young lady by the name of Av…  She told me the young lady was murdered by her ex-boyfriend who after he killed her, took his own life as well.  The young lady and I had dated for a summer before we both realized we were not a good fit.  One night my mom got pissed at me because I was supposed to be at home to let her in the house.  I had to explain to her that I was at the hospital watching my friend get his stomach pumped because he had overdosed on drugs in an attempt to commit suicide.

Being the only black person, especially a black person from an “urban” community, in a writing workshop can be a bit daunting for a myriad of reasons.  As with all of our other life-spaces, we have to sift through the different prisms of reality and perception before we can even get to the benefits of the space.  We have to look for the truth that can support our work while at the same time sifting through the illusions and myths of their realities, or better yet, their nonrealities, that make them blind to who we are and what we are writing about. Is my work too much because I am overdoing the dramatic or because you have no way of gauging just how normal what I am writing about is in my own reality?  Is the language too colorful because I am waxing too poetic, stretching too long the twists and turns of wordplay, or because you have never spent a minute in a black barbershop or a black beauty salon?  Am I spending too much time describing facial expressions, rolling eyes, pursed lips, turned-up noses, because less is more, or because where you come from people only use words to communicate?

How does one differentiate the truth of the criticism from the lies of their world?  When you are sitting there, listening to people dissect your work, offering their sage advice on how to improve your writing, you simply have to do what you always do in this country.  You have to look beyond the mask and not the mask we wear, but the one they wear that they don’t even know exists.  You have to jump through the hoops of their blissful ignorance to hear the one word out of ten they say that makes any sense.  You have to take into account everything they don’t know about your language, your culture, your spirit, your heart, your soul… your everything.   And then you have to acknowledge what they may know about the craft of writing, the technical craft of writing, and how this knowledge is impacting their critiques.  (Yet, you also have to keep in mind that how they write reflects how they speak, which of course reflects how they think and how they BE)

Can they help you to write better?  Hell yes.  Can their workshop critiques help you to grow as a writer?  Hell yes.  Color and culture do not negate anyone’s ability to be your teacher in life.  Yet, we have to remember that as with every other aspect of our life in America as people of color we will always have to ground them a bit if we hope to get anything from them in the form of wisdom.  Tell them what your Normal is with no apologies.  Tell them that you did not come to this workshop to have your reality negated or subjugated by their ignorance.  Tell them that you came to learn how to tell your stories in a way that people can see and hear what you saw and heard on those streets of Harlem, Fort Greene, East New York, Crown Heights, South Bronx and Alphabet City.  Let them prove to you why what they are suggesting would work, while still holding on to why you are doing what you are doing.  Learn everything you can learn from any workshop space and then flavor your lessons with who you are and what you are in this world.

And if you find all of this too tiring, then go out and find a workshop space with other people of color. This way you can know for at least one time in your life, what it is to work with other writers you don’t have to explain rolling eyes, sucking teeth, hands on hips arms akimbo, and all those other beautiful details that give us the lens we have when we write not only about the “Black World”, but simply when we write about all the worlds we call our homes.

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