Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Way With Words

I’m sure my high school English teacher, Gary Wendell, had no idea what he ignited when he told me I had “a way with words” – though it would be nice if he could see the fruits of his encouragement.

I poured his remarks – along with the wisdom of my parents, kind comments of faithful friends (who read every piece of angst-ridden poetry I wrote), and admonishments of journalism school instructors – onto the roiling mix of uncertainty and determination I harbored in my gut like marinade.

The brew turned out to be pretty good, I think, though it’s one of those concoctions that not only needs to marinate, but then has to simmer half the day, and still tastes better after a night in the refrigerator. You know, like those prize-winning sauces, chilis and gumbos you’ve read about or tasted.

As I’ve been stewing all these years, letting the ingredients of craft meld into stories, I’ve discovered that it takes more than a hodgepodge of words to be a writer. Even stringing those words with eloquence and wit isn’t enough to become the cream that rises to the top of the pot. Style (that elusive writing “voice”), subject matter and sensitivity are so important to success. I’m not saying your recipe for storytelling will get you on the NY Times or USA Today lists, but you’ll have the assurance of generating satisfaction in your readers and just doing it right.

One of my Novel Spaces co-bloggers, posted his thoughts on writing outside yourself recently. How do, can we, should authors write characters who don’t look, act or think like themselves? To me it’s possible, of course. It just requires observation, experience, research, openmindedness and the modesty to admit that no one persona you create in your pages will be the be-all, end-all representation of any particular race, creed, color or gender.

Like one of my Michigan Chronicle editors once taught me, “No, as a journalist you can’t be objective. We all bring our opinions, experiences and subjectivities to a story. But we can be fair.” This, of course, looks different in editorial than in fiction, but I can still apply the principle.

I build my characters on archetypes and psychological profiles so that they’re true to themselves and their role in the story. Would I date Luke from Where Souls Collide? I sure hope not. The guy’s a jerk – and I’m okay with that. He wasn’t created to give Black men a bad rap. His job was to give Navena, the story’s heroine a hard time. Really. No ulterior motives or subliminal messages there. Nor was Maxwell (the story’s hero) meant to make up for Luke’s shortcomings. Maxwell had his own issues that rendered him, hopefully, human.

Those pieces of authoring are far more than words. I’ve promised myself to keep learning, that I’ll be a perpetual student of humanity. I hope that not only makes me a better writer, but a better person as well.

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