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Writing LOVING BEFORE LOVING: A MARRIAGE IN BLACK AND WHITE

Julius Lester and Joan at a march in

Washington, D.C., demanding the Federal

government protect civil rights workers

in Mississippi. 1964
 

 

 

 

 

If I had a nickel for each time a stranger has told me, "I know my life would be a bestseller!" I'd be wealthy. Sometimes they even offer their story, asking me to simply write it down. "My life has been so amazing, the book would write itself."

 

Well, not really. Books do not write themselves, and the record of lives is not laid out like a script, awaiting only transcription. A memoir, like any other book, is a deliberately created piece of art, using, in this case, one's life as the clay. But there are endless possibilities for shaping the raw material. What is the theme? The voice? Which events to include, which to highlight, how to connect them all? And why now? Read More 

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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WRITER AND AN AUTHOR?

Joan Signing at Diesel Books, Oakland
Photo by Rob Shiefer

 

What is the difference between being a writer and an author? I am sometimes asked. The process of writing a book (I have completed eight and sold seven) is so lengthy, so all-consuming, that it merits the separate designation. Author: a person who has completed a grueling, rewarding activity, composing a coherent narrative of some length—generally at least 60,000 words. Keeping track of all the threads over many years and tying them together, while maintaining some linguistic elegance, is quite different from the week-long task of writing an essay or article.

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ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS

Signing books at Mrs. Dalloway's

Bookstore, Berkeley, CA

So many people yearn for the inspired self-expression that writing provides. If putting pen to paper is the creative mode that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, bursting with ideas, plunge in. Some artists find exquisite pleasure in painting or sculpting. But if playing with words lifts your heart, there are multiple paths for you.

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Writing Feeds My Soul

The writer relaxing at Sea Ranch,

2019. Photo by Carole Johnson

 

Writing, for me, is pure: totally involving, pleasurable, existing only for itself, not the end product. In the same way I cherish hiking a trail in the woods early morning, eager to see cottontail rabbits leaping into the brush, or the joy I get pulling weeds in my flower garden--where the aromas of leaves and fresh dirt fill my nostrils--writing is an activity that fully absorbs me. When I finish, I'm flushed with pleasure. Read More 

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WHY DEFUND THE POLICE (Story #3)

Sandra Bland at 28

 

In 1968, when I was twenty-eight years old, I suddenly heard a siren blare behind me. On my country road in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, it was a strange sound. Glancing in the rear view mirror, I saw a police car flashing red lights. Never imagining it had anything to do with me—a white, mostly law-abiding woman—I sped up. So did the screaming vehicle behind me. I continued to speed, trying to get out of its way.

 

Finally the patrol car drew parallel and then careened before me at an angle, forcing me to put my foot on the brake, hard. A cop strode to my window, looking grim. "License and registration please."

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WHY DEFUND THE POLICE (Story #2)

The incomparable

Audre Lorde

 

In 1978 I discovered Audre Lorde through her startling poem "Power" in the Village Voice. I taped it inside my desk drawer, where my eyes lingered on it daily. It felt like a gut punch, but I couldn't stop reading it.

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WHY DEFUND THE POLICE? (A STORY)

Photo: Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

On my drive into Berkeley's Tilden Park recently, I saw a white man of about sixty—twenty years my junior—standing by a black car. I paused to see if he needed help. He made a small hand gesture, which I took as a "go on" wave so I continued. But fifty feet later, troubled, I decided the gesture had been ambiguous. Brought up by parents who always stopped for strangers, I flashed my blinkers and reversed.

 

Rolling down my window, I asked, "Are you okay?" Read More 

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The First Sentence

“The opening sentence should be like an arrow shot from a bow: it will shoot through the entire text.” The late biographer Henry Mayer, a generous man, once gave me this advice. I’d approached him after a reading for his biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and when I asked him a question he offered to meet me for coffee.

Just beginning my own biography of civil rights icon Eleanor Holmes Norton, I was floundering, awash in data. Already I’d interviewed a dozen of her colleagues and family, pored through dusty boxes of newspaper clippings and legal briefs.  Read More 

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HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU NEED TO REVISE YOUR MANUSCRIPT?

She's revising!

 

 

I am the queen of revision. Every one of the five books I've published has taken years. I write, revise, and revise some more. Whenever I finish a draft I think, "That's it!" But alas, after my agent or writing partner reads it, they notice flaws and I'm off again, occasionally even slanting the entire manuscript in a new direction.

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WHAT DID YOU SEE IN THE DEMOCRATIC DEBATE?

With Kamala Harris March 29,
2019, Oakland, CA.

 

How can we ever know that what we think we saw is what really happened? I've been fascinated by this question ever since I saw Rashomon sixty years ago: a film where four witnesses describe a murder, but each tells a conflicting version. Maybe one or more are lying, or maybe they simply saw divergent—competing—"truth" because of their different perspectives.

 

This came to mind when I saw today's shocking New York Times page one headline about yesterday's Democratic Debate #2. It read: FACE TO FACE, BIDEN AND SANDERS MAKE CASES FOR DUELING VISIONS. Read More 

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The Courage to Write

Millicent Fawcett, British writer and
major activist for women's suffrage

 

“It is always a thrilling risk to say exactly what you mean, to express exactly what you see,” wrote the marvelous author Patricia Hampl. Each sentence we write boldly asserts, This is my viewpoint and I believe it worthy of utterance.

That takes courage, especially for women constantly defined as “other,” with its implication  Read More 

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HAMILTON, Its Power--and Its Blind Spot

In front of the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

 

I'm a Motown baby. I loved the musical Ain't Too Proud about the Temptations. The familiar beat, the Detroit community where they grew up— it all inspired me. A group of teenagers teamed with a dynamo producer, Berry Gordy, mined the music of African American life and circulated it all over the country. I never thought I could like another kind of show more.

 

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