Richard Wright: Hurling Words

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. 

~ Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

Freewriting: A #LoveLetter

Every Tuesday during the month of February, I’ve been leading a community writing workshop at the Mondawmin Mall’s Re-Entry Center in Northwest Baltimore. It’s something I’ve been doing for the past five years simply because I love sharing and inspiring others to find and develop their voice through writing.

Considering it was Valentine’s Day, I thought it quite apropos that we wrote about love yesterday. Not that sappy kind of love we wrote about in grade school, or that Hallmark kind of love, but love. Pure, deep, all-encompassing love. I asked everyone to write about who, what or why they love, and let them take the theme wherever their hearts, minds and pens desired. What came out were eloquent, insightful and brilliantly unique pieces that explored the breadth and the depth of love. Here’s what I wrote:

Oh writing? How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love writing. I love words. I love how they ebb and flow, swirl and swing on the page. I love how words strung together can form beautiful poetry, unbreakable narrative chains, passionate arguments. I love how words have the power to make us act, feel, think, dream, relate.

I love No. 2 pencils for they make me feel smart and determined. I love how pencil sound against paper. I love notebooks and journals and college-ruled paper. I love how felt-tipped pens give my words flair and finesse. I love handwriting. I love my handwriting, and all the loops and curls. I love typing words on a fresh screen. I love Helvetica and Arial and all the other fonts that make my words look gorgeous and perfect. I love how I can share my deepest dreams and craziest ideas with my pens, pencils, papers, (or my Macbook) and how they, like no other, can keep a secret.

I love giving birth to ideas on the page and the screen. I love creating characters, giving them breath, movement and purpose. I love taking my characters where they lead me, and leaving them better or different than when I first met them. I love creating landscapes for my characters to explore. I love painting pictures with words so readers can see. I love the musicality of words that can make even the most mundane moments of our lives sound beautiful and extraordinary.

I love sharing my writing. I love reading my writing — silently or aloud — giving my words power and depth, giving my life purpose. I even love it when someone gets what I’m trying to say, especially when they have to swim through a sea of jumbled words to get to the meaning. I love that I have the chance to create, revise, improve and flourish every day.

That’s what I love.

Who, what or why do you love?

At the Intersection of Music & Words

“I am beautiful no matter what they say/Words can’t bring me down…” ~ Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”

I join the chorus of million around the globe who are expressing their shock and sadness at the tragic loss of the iconic Whitney Houston. Her music – from the big, soulful ballads to the buoyant dance cuts – moved me at different points in my life. My favorite songs of Whitney’s are the gospel tunes from The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. It was a testament of her faith; her love of God and love for song evident in every note. It is no doubt she did what she was called to do on this earth. Whitney Houston shared her gift of song.

When I heard the news Saturday night, it rendered me speechless. I didn’t want to talk or tweet about it. I didn’t want to read the hundreds of tweets and Facebook comments, or countless news reports that condemned Whitney or laid blame or analyzed her demons. I didn’t find it comforting to wade through the stream of “what if” chatter, the negativity. None of that can bring her back to life. None of that can change or lessen the depth of the tragedy. She’s gone.

We will miss Whitney Houston mostly for selfish reasons. Her voice – its incomparable range and grace and power – could fill a space and touch something deep within our souls. We sang with her, ebullient and lovestruck. We slow danced as her voice serenaded us. We nodded our heads as she reminded us to exhale. We lifted our hands in praise to God as her voice twirled and swirled and leapt to the heavens.

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Rather than I chose to reflect on the good: the light and love that radiated from Whitney’s soul. I wanted to read how the writers and music critics memorialized Whitney’s gorgeous, angelic mezzo soprano voice and the legacy of music by which she will be remembered. I wanted to stand at the intersection of music and words and marvel as the traffic went by.

In a NY Times article on Whitney’s death Jon Pearles and Adam Nagourney wrote: “Ms. Houston’s range spanned three octaves, and her voice was plush, vibrant and often spectacular. She could pour on the exuberant flourishes of gospel or peal a simple pop chorus; she could sing sweetly or unleash a sultry rasp.”

LA Times ‘ Pop & Hiss – LA Times Music Blog writes about Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You”: “It’s two words — the “I” at the beginning of the line, and the “you” at the end — held for a few beats longer than most others could sustain but with ironclad control, that seals the deal, a single pair of syllables so convincing that it should have won her both an Oscar and a Grammy. She sings the words differently throughout; at first, it’s with love, then with conviction, then with desperation, a drama that unfolds across four minutes. She shaped notes so that they sounded like floating hearts one minute, only to explode as the emotion turned from love to loneliness.”

“Houston’s flawless voice was untouchable, and her versions of “I Will Always Love You” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are considered two of the highest peaks pop music has ever reached.”

Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press: “She was bigger than music. She was a lyrical narrator, expressing in that glorious voice what we were living.”

All the beautiful words written to capture the timbre and the essence of Whitney’s iconic voice will outlast any of the negative press surrounding the details of her death. In the end, what matters is that she gave us love.

Breakfast Bliss

First Watch, 1431 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville. 410-602-1595 | http://www.firstwatch.com | On Twitter: @First_Watch

There’s nothing I love more for lunch than breakfast. There’s just something about a forkful of fluffy scrambled eggs followed by a forkful of yummy, buttery french toast drenched in good maple syrup. Just writing about it makes me want to eat breakfast right now.

I don’t know when my love for breakfast started. Nor do I care. It’s just something about the symphony of flavors and textures of breakfast foods. Maybe it also has something to do with the symbolism a fresh, flavorful breakfast holds: renewed optimism at the start of a new day. I can get very quixotic about breakfast foods, so let me stop now before I lose my train of thought.

I met my mother for an impromptu lunch at First Watch in Pikesville the other day. I love First Watch for its simple yet sophisticated wholesome breakfast menu. Their food is made fresh and there’s a certain sense of healthfulness that I get in each bite. I’m not just eating french toast. I’m eating french toast that is good for me. First Watch’s fare is a long way from the greasy, oversized portions you’d get from the local diner. Don’t get me wrong. First Watch has some of the most generous-sized pancakes around. But they’re not gluttony-inducing, artery-clogging pancakes; they’re just good for you.

Perfect example: yesterday I ordered First Watch’s Banana Crunch Pancake with Granola. (First Watch boasts an impressive assortment of whole grain pancakes, BTW.) Everything about that pancake — the sweetness of the banana and the savory crunchiness of the granola — was perfect, blissful. So what it’s 890 calories. Those 890 calories were holy and pleasing and acceptable to my stomach. I felt smarter, happier and healthier for having eaten them. I know you’re probably snickering, thinking about the butter and syrup (and extra calories) that obviously accompanied the pancake, but I am refusing to mention. Unspoken calories are just that: unspoken.

The point I am trying to make is that First Watch’s breakfast food is divine. From their light, airy egg dishes, to their healthful (read: well seasoned, not greasy) First Watch potatoes, to their wonderful array of fresh sandwiches, soups and salads, First Watch gives standard fare a healthy twist.

The interior decor was bright, cheerful and comforting. The soothing greens, subtle oranges and sunny yellows on the walls and accents reflected the bright, sunny promise of the morning. First Watch, named for the first shift of a sailor’s day is all about getting the best and most out of the morning…with syrup on top and some fresh fruit on the side (my words, not theirs.)

My only complaint about First Watch is that they’re only open for breakfast and lunch. As someone who believes in the virtues of eating breakfast any time of the day, I wish they were open for dinner.

In any event, they’re still a winner in my book.

Grade: A+

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In Honor of Black History Month…

As an avid reader, I almost always have my nose in a book. Sometimes I’ll be reading more than one book at once, reading a few chapters of one and then switching to the other for a few chapters. Despite my undying love for books, there are not too many books that affect me in such a way that they change my life.

However, The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of the books that changed my life.

I had been introduced to Jones’s works through the Writing Program at JHU. In one of my fiction writing classes, I read “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” a short story from his collection Lost in the City. I aspired to write about Baltimore the way Jones wrote about his native Washington, DC.

It was during the fall of 2009 when I was in a fiction workshop that I got another introduction to Jones. I had submitted my first set of manuscript pages for workshop, and was nervous about the feedback I would get from my classmates and my instructor. I was stunned when my instructor pointed out, almost immediately, that the opening chapters of my historical novel reminded her of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Known World. I was floored! At the time, I had heard of the book, but had not yet read it. I ordered the book with the intention of starting it while on Thanksgiving break.

From the first page, the opening paragraph, the first sentence, I was hooked. Jones’s gorgeous prose and compelling characters drew me into a world I never knew existed. Without giving too much of the plot away to those who have yet to read The Known World, this novel is about former slave Henry Townsend who becomes a slave owner in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, and the people on both sides of slavery. There were many sentences, chapters and moments in the book that swept me off my feet and took my breath away. To have my own unpolished writing compared to his was a tremendous compliment, and at the same time quite intimidating.

I started The Known World that Thanksgiving weekend, and finished it a few days before Christmas. The ending was so breathtakingly beautiful that I wept, my tears staining the last pages. Everything in the book made sense and was tied up, but not in a contrived way. It was pure and logical. Intrigued by the man and this book, I scoured the internet for anything I could find. In one interview before he won the Pulitzer, Jones said that he had the book floating in his head for several years. Once he left his job as the editor of a tax newsletter, he wrote the novel (it’s 388 pages in paperback) in three months. However, the ending he already written. He said, in fact, that most of his story endings, he knows and writes ahead of time.

I revisited The Known World several times trying to deconstruct elements of it to learn from the master. The story of The Known World isn’t told in linear fashion. There are several secondary storylines running concurrently with the main one. And there is an omniscient narrator hovering overhead informing the reader of every single detail down to the thoughts of each character. When I started working on my novel, I had an omniscient narrator, too. I was dismayed when my instructor and classmates shot it down. “It cheapens the experience,” my instructor said. “It’s a device used by lazy writers.” Well, Edward P. Jones isn’t lazy. I tried rewriting portions of my novel using a third-person narrator, but there were details that they couldn’t share because there were things they couldn’t know. Only my omniscient narrator – who was about to be laid off by my instructor – would know! I kept plugging away attempting to restructure my novel using the third-person narrator, which stifled me greatly.

Imagine my delight and surprise when my workshop instructor called me a year later to tell me she had invited Edward P. Jones to speak to her class. She asked me if I’d like to sit in. I told her I was already there.

Meeting Jones in person was a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. It is not every day that a reader gets to me his or her favorite author and engage them in a conversation about craft. Armed with his books and a writing journal, I was prepared to ask questions and take notes.

There was so much that I learned from Edward P. Jones on that evening. It affirmed me as a writer to be in his presence and relate to his thoughts and perspective on writing. I strive to tell my story as well as the stories of our people and the culture. Edward P. Jones is a master at that. For Black History Month, I will be re-reading The Known World to commemorate our history, our heritage, our culture and our literature.

“Fiction,” Jones said, “[is] adding wonderful sauce to all of the lies so the reader will be able to swallow.”

That sounds delicious.