Join Me on Tuesdays for Writing Outside the Fence

I know it’s been a while since I’ve last posted, but life happens.

Today, I started another volunteer teaching stint at the Writing Outside the Fence workshop at the Re-Entry Center in Mondawmin Mall. I’ll be there for the next three Tuesdays from 5-7 p.m., leading workshops on writing dialogue, free writing, among other things. The workshop is free and open to the public.

To learn more about the program and its community of fabulous and amazing writers, check out this feature article that ran on or this podcast from the Enoch Pratt Free Library:

Writing Outside the Fence Reading at the Pratt

If you are a writer in the Baltimore area, and are interested in sharing your love of writing, we’d love to have you join our dynamic team of volunteer instructors. Hit me up in the Comments section below.

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?

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.

A Friend of the Written Word

I had the pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Tayari Jones, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival back in May. She’s the author of a fascinating and breathtaking new novel, Silver Sparrow, that has garnered much critical acclaim in the literary world. When I learned that she was going to be one of the featured authors at the book festival, I knew I had to make the trek from Baltimore to Gaithersburg to see her.

It was mesmerizing to hear her read from Silver Sparrow. Her words floated off the page and danced in the air, stirring up all kinds of thoughts and emotions in the standing-room only crowd. A very lively discussion about Tayari’s book, the subject and the writing process soon followed. It’s strange to say, but for some reason I felt energized and affirmed as a writer on that day.

After the reading, I went over to the authors’ signing tent to get her autograph. While waiting in line I gripped the book in my hands, its gorgeously iridescent cover shimmered in the sunlight.  When my turn finally came, Tayari and I chatted for a few, brief moments before she signed my book: “To Kimberly, Keep putting words on the page. Tayari Jones 2011.”

I started reading Silver Sparrow when I got home that evening and couldn’t put it down. It only took me a few days to finish the novel and then to start touting it to friends, family and my “tweeps” in the Twitterverse.

Since then, I’ve been reluctant to loan my copy of the book out for fear of someone else falling in love with it and not giving it back. So imagine my surprise when Tayari Jones tweeted the other day that she was signing bookplates for readers. I jumped on it. Even though she had already autographed my copy of her book, I asked for a couple of signed bookplates for copies I had planned to give to a couple of friends. She graciously obliged my request, and she included a signed bookplate for me:

From one friend of the written word to another, thank you for the affirmation, Tayari! My novel is a work in progress, but I’m still putting words on the page...

A Story Is Born

Columbus Day 2009. I was just a month into my fourth semester of writing classes as Hopkins, a few days into a new job and I had less than 30 days until my wedding. I was trying my best to stay calm and organized, despite the growing frenzy that was brewing. There was still a lot to do for the wedding. The DIY bride in me was not willing to surrender the creative projects to my very capable wedding planner. Add to that the pressure of landing a new job…a government job where everything had a form and an acronym to boot.

On top of all of the real life pressures tugging at me, I had to churn out an endless stream of fresh writing and critiques for my fiction workshop at school. I was able to take an unpolished piece from a previous class, brush it up and submit it for workshop the first time around, but this time, I had to come up with something new. The clock was ticking. I had workshop on Saturday, and I didn’t have a word on the page. With just a few days (literally a few hours) to work with, I wasted no time putting something on the page. I pulled something from recent memory, and started shaping it into a story. I didn’t map it out ahead of time, or create an outline. I just started writing with reckless abandon. Characters just sprung into action. Scenes unfolded as quickly as the words came to mind. I didn’t put much into the piece in terms of consciousness. Looking back on my first draft of the story, I honestly don’t remember writing much of what was there. It just happened.

Then I turned the story in for workshop. My classmates had a week to read, re-read and then write a critique of my story detailing their opinions of what was working, what wasn’t and how I could revise it. I was prepared for a lot of comments about a lack of structure, a lack of focus, or about the fact that I wrote the piece in present tense.

What was said and what actually happened shocked me.

My classmates commented on how intimate and gripping the story was. Someone used the word “organic” to describe the writing. My professor sat at the front of the room, nodding and agreeing with much of what was being said. Then they delved into what needed work. Of course, the story was floundering in places. It was a rough draft. Of course, I had a lot of crying, and dashes of hyperbolic writing in places. I’m an emotional person and it tends to show up in my writing. There were other things that were mentioned as areas of potential improvement, but overall, my classmates like the piece.

The funny thing about writing workshops is that the person being workshopped is much like a pedestrian at the corner of a busy intersection watching rush-hour traffic. You have somewhere to go, you’ve got to get across, but you have to wait until the light changes. That’s how I felt watching my classmates dissect my writing, trying to figure out if my story was based on a real event (it was), or if it was part of a larger work (it wasn’t).

After class was over, my professor asked me to stay for a few because she needed to talk to me. I was nervous because a few weeks prior she had asked the same thing, but that time it was to admonish me for being late to class two weeks in a row. Commuting from Baltimore to DC even on the weekend was dicey as a bad accident or a DC protest could put the breaks on everything. I wasn’t late this particular week. In fact, I was early. I was nervous and embarrased watching my classmates stream out of the room and into the halls to enjoy the balance of their Saturday afternoon.

With everyone gone, and the door closed, she looked at me and said, “I don’t say this to everyone that comes into my class, but I have to say this to you: You have it.”

I was floored, stunned, thinking I knew what she was saying, but then I wasn’t so sure.

“I read your story the first time through and was blown away,” she said.

Blown away by a first draft? A rough draft? This wasn’t even my best writing.

She keenly sensed that I was just framing something on the page and that it wasn’t a part of a larger work (as in a novel or something), but she said, “it needs to be. This belongs in a novel.” She told me my characters — three generations of women coping together through a crisis — resonated with her. She told me my work could go places. She said I was “publishable.” I melted. I’d been called lots of things, but never “publishable” before.

After our discussion which seemed to go on for ever, I floated out of the room, onto the elevator and onto the streets of DC. Two large epiphanies unfolded before me that day. I was affirmed as a writer, by a writer, someone who went through the same writing program at Hopkins and went on to get a publishing deal with Random House. I also accepted the fact that the story that spilled onto the page was much bigger than I was willing to see before. The story had been there all the time; in fact, I had been running from it. However, a room full of talented and accomplished writers saw its merit and gave me the push I needed to acknowledge what had been there all along.