Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rejection

Well, the Pistons are in the Eastern Conference finals once again. The fact that they’re there, means many others aren’t. In this game – it seems to me – victory is reserved for those who stare down rejection: three-pointers denied, free throws that won’t fall, blatant fouls and bad calls. Even so, this former high school power forward can vouch for the fact that b-ballers have nothing on writers when it comes to the big R.

I still remember my first.

Somewhere between my sophomore and senior years of high school, I decided that years of daily “Dear Diary” entries, and countless lines of carefully rhymed verse had prepared me for the real world of writing: the poetry page in Seventeen magazine.

Five poems – per the magazine’s guidelines – made my personal cut. Using my father’s 200 pound manual typewriter, I transformed each loopy word into uniform stanzas (except for the one key that insisted on dropping its letter just below the line), folded my hopes into a business sized envelope “borrowed” from my father’s office, and sent them off with a self-addressed stamped envelope and all my dreams of becoming the next Maya Angelou.

Weeks later, my father approached me with a handful of mail and my SASE. “What’s this?” he asked, probably recognizing his typewriter’s signature on the envelope that bore my name. “It,” I told myself, heart racing, face burning. “This is it.” Maya, Nikki, Langston, Stefanie.

Not.

I opened the letter as he watched. I felt him studying my fallen face. Absolutely crushed, I was also a little angry. Righteous indignity beat inside my chest. Dad asked what it was and I told him – leaving out the hopes and dreams part, emphasizing the “they didn’t like my poems” that kept bouncing around in my brain. The sorrow of that moment still makes my pulse race. I so internalized that rejection that I figured my writing career was over.

My dad, being the insightful man that he is, smiled and praised my courage. He told me that it took a lot of guts to send out something personal, let other people read it and judge it. He was so impressed that I had taken such a chance. And he was proud of me for not being afraid to try.

His viewpoint morphed that painful experience from an ending into a beginning for me.

Fast forward 25 years. Picture me seated at a computer keyboard (sans dropped letters) still angst-ridden and hope-filled, churning out query letters, submission packages and SASEs for my first manuscript. The ritual is no less gut-wrenching than the Seventeen magazine attempt. And no more successful. But, it is different.

My husband told me a few days ago that he knew I was serious about publishing Where Souls Collide when I received the book’s first rejection. He said he could tell by my reaction, because I was so upset. What’s ironic is that I don’t remember my response. I’m sure I was disappointed – crushed, angry, indignant, no doubt.

But, in the years since I mailed off my Maya hopes, I learned that the word NO is a big part of freeing caged dreams. I got over that first “Not for us, sorry,” moved on, and racked up a slew of similarly phrased rejections. They’re all in a red folder with the date I received them noted in the upper right corner. And everyone who turned me down received a very polite “Thanks for reviewing my query, perhaps we can work together someday” kind of note from me.

Several letters contained helpful suggestions for plot or character adjustments. Most were complimentary of my writing. Many (too many!) were form letters without a hint of what went wrong. I learned how not to internalize every comment (positive or negative) and how to hang onto my belief in myself.

And then, on October 10, 2006, I got The Call from Dorchester. Suddenly I realized that the timing was perfect. Had Seventeen come calling on my adolescent self I could not have appreciated the moment the way I did when it finally happened. With all the energy I put into reaching this milestone, the accomplishment wouldn’t be considered “slam dunk showy” or “nothing-but-net easy” on a basketball court. Worlds wiser and really ready, the dream points I’ve scored in getting published resulted from the shoot around it often takes to outplay a bigger opponent.

Dropped pass. Sketchy plots.
Double-dribble. Weak heroine.
It’s all part of the game.

Take the shot; go for your dream.
There is no other way to win.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Personal Space

So, have you tuned into the whole Barack Obama MySpace debate? Or is it floating over your head in cyberspace somewhere? From the vantage point of new author who doesn’t want to tick off any potential readers (translation: book buyers), I thought that maybe I should sit back and be quiet. Just let the issue ride.

Ha.

Many of you know that I am a journalist by training – a former radio, television and newspaper reporter who once had a weekly column in the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s premier African-American targeted weekly paper. I’m also a bit of a chatterbox in real life, so being quiet is just plain hard for me to do.

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: An Obama supporter, Joe Anthony, had been manning a fan site on MySpace for Barack for just over two years. Apparently Anthony and Obama’s people shared rights and responsibilities regarding content and site maintenance. However, with the site’s growth in popularity due to Obama’s escalating presidential campaign, his camp saw a need for greater – or shall we say, sole – control of the MySpace page that bears his name. Anthony now wants to be paid for his work. The two camps have parted ways over the issue, with MySpace stepping in to grant Obama domain over the site. A call from Obama to Anthony may help smooth things over, though he’s still pretty disgruntled.

Why?

I guess I look at this from the perspective of personal space. In the early days of the internet boom (well, around ’94, ’95, I’ll say), rights to domain names were a hot topic. Once companies began to understand “this web thing” and started trying to figure out how to get on the Net, savvy entrepreneurs took to buying up celebrity and corporate brand names like wildfire. Individuals and companies were actually paying people to get their names for domain use. Then, of course, the law stepped in and people had to start finding other ways to make money on the internet besides usurping people’s cyber identities for re-sale.

Seems to me that’s where MySpace is at the moment. Booming from its own self-population, I guess backers and users feel that restrictions on naming sites on social networks like MySpace would inhibit the free-flow feel of the place.

I came across this controversy because I do have a MySpace page and I’d tagged Obama as a “Friend” there. I’ve also tagged the Toni Morrison fan site as a Friend. But that site makes it explicitly clear that Toni doesn’t run that page. It’s maintained by a fan. I appreciate the distinction. If Toni decides to host her own MySpace page, I see no problem with her having the rights to name her page after herself and gather her own cadre of Friends. And I’d certainly hope her biggest fans would understand that.

I can tell you that I assumed Stefanie Worth would be available as a site name when I registered at MySpace. (I mean goodness, I haven’t even made it to Oprah’s couch yet. Who’d want my name, right?) But you can bet I would have been a tad pit peeved to discover that someone – fan or otherwise – was running a page under my name and wouldn’t let me have it back! I mean, come on, can’t you call yours People Who Love Stefanie Worth? The Society of those Smitten With Stefanie Worth's Books? Fans of the Great and Powerful Stefanie Worth? Okay, I’m kidding about the names, but, really, must we argue over this?

You wouldn’t go to the store with someone else’s ID and make purchases under their name and good credit. You wouldn’t open a business under a well-known alias and perpetrate your way through sale after sale, would you? So why do we think that’s okay to do in cyberspace? If Anthony’s site had been named Obama ’08 or We Back Barack, would this controversy even have erupted? Would he still expect to be paid?

While the laws and regulations regarding some internet dealings are still pretty loosey-goosey, things are beginning to change in terms of copyright, etc. Look at the Napster case. And there are colleagues on my writers loops fighting sites that make free book downloads available. (Gulp. Please stop. We really don’t make that much off our books as it is. Please pay the $6.99 paperback price.)

To me, a lot of this haggling can be alleviated through common sense. You wouldn’t stand on my foot in an elevator, please don’t step on my name – via domain, social network sites, etc., – on the web. Give me MySpace and I’ll give you yours.

Peace.
Stefanie
www.StefanieWorth.com


For more commentary on the Obama MySpace debate, visit:
The Battle to Control Obama’s MySpace at
http://www.techpresident.com/node/301
Obama’s MySpace Conundrum at http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/02/obamas-myspace-conundrum/
Our MySpace Experiment on Obama’s official site at http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/blog/rospars

The King's English

(Originally posted on my other blog, February 9, 2007)

I was skimming through The New York Times’ online version recently and ran across their Feb. 4 article titled, “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.” Beside the headline is a pair of hands with two fingers each bent to mimic quotation marks.

I knew what the story was about before I even read it. Still, I scrolled down into the depths of the debate on black people who can talk; that whole “articulate” conversation.

Now, I don’t read the NY Times often (a former Mizzou colleague recently joined their staff, so I peeked in) and not many topics raise my ire. However, this perfunctory surf opened up the gates to a whole herd of memories and opinions that sparked this column.

Let’s see:
  • “You talk like a white girl.” – Classmate taunts. (elementary school)
  • “I thought you were white!” – An in-store customer who’d chatted with me on the phone a few minutes before. (high school)
  • “Where are you from? What do your parents do?” – My on-air audition for Mizzou. The answers, BTW are St. Louis, nurse and works for the Department of the Army. The instructors’ amazement? I sounded so “Midwestern.” Duh. (college)
  • “If you don’t mind my asking, are you white?” – A phone exchange with someone who knew of me, but had never seen me. (fully grown woman, as Cedric the Entertainer might say)


This is the part where I vacillate between sighs and GRRRRs. By the time I was 12, I was sick of people commenting on my voice like it was some rare, extraordinary attribute. Imagine how those backhanded compliments come across now.

I sound the way I do because that’s how I was taught to talk. My father always stressed being able to “speak the King’s English,” which he and my mother did very well. Neither of them claim overly impressive backgrounds. They hail from ordinary southernish upbringings with hardworking parents who earned far less than middle class money.

Yet, both my parents possess incredible tenacity. They each set their sights on a goal, figured out what they needed to do to achieve it, and went about making it happen. Subtly for my mother and overtly for my father, Lesson One translated into making sure their kids knew how to “talk right.” And I have to say that more than anything else, surprising people with a pleasant tone, and well-pronounced “ings” and “ers” has probably gotten me further than talent alone.

I find that both amusing and maddening.

That anyone would assume how I’m going to sound when I open my mouth is, first of all, a little insulting. Come on. Nothing made me crazier in Journalism School than watching my fellow black students get booted out of the broadcasting sequence because they “sounded ethnic.” Especially considering that white students with southern or Bostonian accents got to stay, along with a bevy of international students.

Until then, I’d never seen the reality of non-standard speaking make its point so succinctly. Just being able to move my tongue deftly between teeth and gums made the difference in my college career; allowing me to anchor early morning TV news and long format evening radio.

Now, some people associate "articulate" with "intelligent" as if those who aren't swift of tongue must be stupid. So, was I the smartest student in the J-School? Not hardly. (No slacker, but never valedictorian.) The guy I dated throughout most of college ran circles around me academically. And, of course, he was extremely well-spoken. By choice, he was in the print sequence back then, better known as newspaper, and is now an exec at one. So, while his voice may not have caused him grief, others -- whose speech betrayed their backgrounds -- suffered for it.

That’s where the whole drawl vs. diction debate got hot: Well-spoken-but-sounds-black did not play, while well-spoken-Alabama-dialect did. I happen to have an incredibly middle-of-the-road tone that has nothing to do with my race. It is fairly indistinguishable in a crowd and, obviously, very inoffensive to those who need a well-spoken woman of color to conduct an interview, address a staff meeting, or facilitate a workshop.

(SPOILER ALERT) There’s a line in Dreamgirls where Jamie Foxx’s character tells Beyonce’s that he chose her vocals because they’re…what was his phrase? Innocuous? No personality? Something along those lines. That’s my voice: The Innocuous Blessing + Parents’ Demand of King’s English = The Ability to Get Folks’ Attention and Then Put Your Talent on the Table.

Please note today's takeaway: I am hardly an endangered species in the black community.

I guess that’s why I’m a writer. Now author. (Big grin there.) Voice comes through via air and on a page. Mine, though nondescript to the ear, has been known to pack a punch in a paragraph.

Whether in a column, feature story, ghost-written speech or manuscript, I’m known to be a good writer. And that’s all I want. Here, in the world of keyboard strokes and ink, no one has ever called me articulate.

For that, I simply say “thank you.”

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