Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Steven: Oh, The Books I Wish I Could Write

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On September - 14 - 2012

love is the higher law Steven: Oh, The Books I Wish I Could WriteWhen I think about the books I wish I had written, it’s not so much about the ONE book that I kick myself for not having written. Too often, I love a book because of all the different elements, but there’s always something I would’ve done differently. Not that I’m saying JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye isn’t perfect, or David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law doesn’t inspire the pants off me, because it is and it does, respectively. What I’m saying is that as much as I admire these books and wish that my name was on the front covers, it doesn’t mean that I truly wish I had written these books.

For one, wanting to have written Catcher in the Rye is a HUGE idea. I mean, it was so overwhelming for Salinger that he retreated and became a recluse. And I can’t say that I blamed him. Where do you go after having written one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and hated books of all time? With that being said, Holden Caulfield seems to creep into my head every single time I write a new character. He’s so much a part of my psyche that he can’t help but assert his character when I write.

The same can be said for Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law. He captures three perfectly distinct voices and personalities so well that it makes me hate him. I long to be able to what he did, write the same story through different eyes and voices. Do I wish I had written that book? I mean, I would lie if I said “no” because, well, as an aspiring writer I would kill to be published. But Love is the Higher Law is so perfectly David Levithan that I could jealous all I want; I’ll never write like him, with the same fluidity and knack for making words sound less like words and more like the most epic love songs…

Sometimes I sit and daydream about body-swapping with JK Rowling. What would it be like to be in her head? What would it have been like to put pen to paper and watch as Harry Potter evolved from lead scratchings to flesh-and-bone hero? Not to mention her ability to build an entire world that lives alongside our own and make it seem 1,000% plausible! And I won’t lie, what would it be like to have her billions? Would I roll around naked in a giant Gringott-sized vault? Absolutely. But I digress…As much as I wish I could’ve written Harry Potter, my mind just wouldn’t have been to do Potter as much justice as Rowling clearly did.

What I’m trying to say is that all of these books influenced me hugely. All of them are like the books that I wish I could write because they have inspired me tremendously. Their voices linger in my head, their stories play out in my imagination, and their words wake me up every day and whisper, “write, write, write…”

P.S. Happy Birthday to me! I’m 26 and unpublished. Holler.

10 Things Steven Hates About Summer Reading

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On August - 13 - 2012

photo 10 Things Steven Hates About Summer ReadingThis installment of TWB’s Question of the month is one that speaks to all those out there cramming to get their summer reading finished for that first day of school. It calls for me to tell you all about the best book I read this summer. Well, I can’t do that. I was bad, bad student. I didn’t read one book this summer.

Awful, right?

I think so. This is the first summer where I haven’t read anything. Not even so much as a sentence! I mean, I’ve been INSANELY busy. Actually, “insanely” is a mild adjective for the amount of busy I’ve been. But still, I had it all planned out in my head: a much-needed vacation was planned for 10 days between the end of July and beginning of August, and I was ready to sink my teeth in Mary’s Wuftoom. I ordered it online months prior and it’s been sitting on my nightstand, waiting for me, nearly BEGGING me to read it. But my brain was so tired from working so much that by the time vacation came, all I wanted to do was anything that didn’t require brain function.

Alas, 10 days came and went and it was pure relaxational bliss. But I didn’t get to read.***

Not. One. Sentence.

Seriously, guys, what’s up with that?

But August is all about summer reading. That’s the whole nature of this month’s Question of the Month. So instead of lying and telling you all about a book I didn’t read (even though I soooooo want/need/must read it), I shall regale you with musings from my childhood and the things I hated most about summer reading:

10.) Reading Lists. Why, oh why, was I only limited to certain books. Most of which I had either already read or books I had no desire to read. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? Absolutely. But…well, I read that in 9th grade and I’m not sure I can get away with passing off the paper I wrote in 9th grade English to 11th grade English. My writing has improved not really all that much, but still tremendously so my teach would totes obvs know I just copied and pasted and changed the date on the heading to reflect the current year. Okay, so I can’t read Speak for the umpteenth time, what are my choices? Malcolm X? Snooze. Madame Bovary? Ummm, yeah. The Lord of the Rings? I own the movies, thankyouverymuch. Some Book About the Holocaust That Will Make Me Both Cry and Seem Like a Spoiled Little Baptist? Well, let’s see, it seems like the shortest book on the list so…#score!

9.) Having to Read More Than One Book. Um, I’m sorry, but I thought that when summer vacation was invented, it was invented so that I could go to the beach and eat so much ice cream that I puke? When, during all of my burning and binge-eating, will I have time to read TWO books. #sacrilege.

8.) My Mom. Many days were spent yelling “I’ll read when I wanna read! Geez woman, get off my case!” When did my mom become my English teacher? Because I don’t like this whole “school at home” thing.

7.) All My Friends Finished Their Reading in June. While I was busy cramming for my Chemistry Regents that I was definitely going to fail, my friends were all like “I’m not gonna tell him that I’m getting all of my summer reading done so that when he starts his at the end of August I can be all ‘Oh, I finished #monthsago.’” Yeah. That’s pretty much the story of my young adult life. I was busy watching reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210 when all of my friends were doing their summer reading. Whatever. Brenda being a drunken mess and fighting with Kelly over Dylan was far more entertaining that any old stupid summer reading book.

6.) Being Forced to do Summer Reading While on Vacation. This was always so #dark. My mom: “Don’t think you’re going mini-golfing until you finish two chapters.” Such torture. Honestly, just slit my wrists with Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams playing in the background…

5.) Forgetting to Renew the Book(s) to the Library. Overdue fees from a library for a book that you didn’t even want to read in the first place is like getting pooped on by a pigeon after you trip on the curb. HOW ELSE CAN THE WORLD KICK ME WHEN I’M DOWN?!?!

4.) Forgetting to Return the Book(s) to the Library. See above. x10.

3.) Book Reports. Seriously? I have to write crap about this book I was forced to read? What if I just read Harry Potter for the millionth time and write about how much I wanna be J.K. Rowling?! Would that count? WOULD IT? I’M DESPERATE! I have a great book report from The Sorcerer’s Stone back in 8th grade. It has paper cut-outs and glitter and a sweet narrative arc in the shape of the Sorting Hat! No? Not acceptable. Fuck.

2.) Having to Cram at My Locker the First Day of School. Yep. That was me. I was all, “hey guys, what book did you read?” in hopes that my friends read the same book. Of course, they never did because they were either in AP English or the universe hated me (jury’s still out on which one it actually was). So I was in the computer lab cruising Sparknotes for a book summary. #backtoschool!

1.) The Fact That Summer Reading Exists At All. #truth. I’ll stick to reading at my own pace during the other three seasons thankyouverymuch.

***NOTE: Mary G. Thompson’s Wuftoom will be read within the month. I have ideas on perhaps implementing the book into a new course that I’m teaching! #holler

Steven’s Ode to the Most Expensive Piece of Paper He Owns

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On June - 3 - 2012

diploma 300x225 Stevens Ode to the Most Expensive Piece of Paper He OwnsDear Most Expensive Piece of Paper I Own,

I often admire the black frame you rest in. It’s not ostentatious, nor is it too obvious. Some of my friends have their diplomas sitting in obsessively large frames that take up most of their walls, atop a fancy schmancy drawing of their respective campuses, or a medallion, or some sort of plaque of honor. Not you. I quite like your understatedness. It blends in with the rest of my space, yet still says, “I’m here and I’m proof that you have an MFA.”

For six months you sat in the padded cardboard envelope in which you came. I apologize for that. Truth is, I kinda forgot about you. I got you in the mail a month or so after commencement (which I didn’t go to), and for a solid 2.25 days I was ecstatic and showed you off to every passerby (which was basically my mom, aunts and/or grandmother). But then I put you on a shelf in my closet and kind of forgot about you. I had all intentions of going out and purchasing the best frame the $25 I had in my wallet at the time could buy, but WalMart frames just don’t say, “This is the Most Expensive Piece of Paper I Own.” The only reason I have you framed right now is because my kind, intuitive mother bought me a frame for Christmas. (Thanks, Ma).

I’m glad I have you, though. In a world of unpredictabilities, I can always count on you to be right where I hung you: directly over my DVD case between my closet and door. Often times, we (universal “we”) spend obscene amounts of money on material things and have nothing to show for it. But not you. I spent between 50-60k on you, and I look at you with pride. You’re so clean and shiny. The glass that separates us is so sparkly. You’re always unchanging and dependable.

Kind of.

Well, you got me my current job, so that’s a plus.

It’s been a year since I earned you, Most Expensive Piece of Paper I Own, and I’m so happy to have you in my life. The experiences I had on my quest to obtain you have all but vanished, retreated into memory banks reserved only for educational purposes. I am still agent-less, and the strict writing schedule I had while taking classes in order to have you is gone, but I’m not unemployed. At least. For now.

Sometimes I wish I had just bought myself a house with that money. Would I have finished my book? Would it be the book it is now that I love? Would I have self-learned all that I learned in the program? I don’t know, Most Expensive Piece of Paper I Own. Neither of us can answer that.

Will I eventually get an agent? What does that have to with you, exactly? I’m not sure, but hopefully you’ll aid me in that quest, and other writing-related quests thereafter.

If not, at least you look nice on my wall.

Love Always,

Steven

Steven Reflects on the One Year Mark

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On May - 22 - 2012

One year mark Steven Reflects on the One Year MarkI can’t believe it’s been a year. It feels like yesterday that I was at the Super Scary Student Reading, doing my best not to pass out in front of all of my professors and peers while reading one of the more emotional chunks of my novel. I kept singing Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” in my head and somewhat convincing myself that this would make or break my career as a writer. Yes, I had delusions of grandeur. Yes, I was convinced that the raw power of my words would move an agent or editor in the audience to approach me and sign me on the spot. Instant Contract: Just Add Steven.

I was approached by countless people – fellow peers, professors, randoms I’ll never see again – and complimented on my reading and saying how “powerful” it was. But no agents. No editors. At least none that I know of. (And no, my thesis adviser doesn’t count.)

As Regina George once said in Mean Girls, “Whatever. I’m getting cheese fries.” Translation: NEXT.

I didn’t even go to my own graduation. I went out to dinner instead.

I didn’t really get proper closure. And now that I’m employed at a college as an adjunct professor in writing, I feel as if I haven’t actually left school. Technically speaking, I haven’t. The only difference is that now I’m not doing the writing.

I think that’s been the biggest obstacle-slash-difference. Not writing has hindered my emotional spirit and well-being. I miss the days of deadlines, of being pushed to achieve my best, of thriving to outdo myself each week, with each workshop. I don’t answer to a professor; I am the professor now.

They say, “Those who can’t do, teach.” For me it’s more, “Those who teach have no time to do.”

In April, I had a reunion in New York City with my old college roommates. It’s been nearly four years since we all had been together, but it seemed as though no time had passed at all. All of our old inside jokes still held strong, all of our crazed college stories still rang true, and we picked up right where we left off, all fitting together and filling the void that has been gaping wide open since May of 2008.

It’s kind of like that now, one year after graduating from The New School with my MFA. Only, it’s not like that at all. Yes, it feels like no time has passed at all, but the only void is the one left open from not writing every week.

No, I can’t believe it’s been a year, but I really can’t believe that I’ve lost my dutiful writing schedule.

Here’s hoping I get that back.

Photo Credit: Roberto Mangosi

Spring Cleaning When There’s Nothing There to Clean?

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On April - 9 - 2012

62445tnrzvd4lj7 Spring Cleaning When There’s Nothing There to Clean?Cobwebs.

If you looked into my brain right now, all you’d see are cobwebs. Deserted cobwebs, at that. The “Writing” section of my brain is so vacant, so vacuous, so utterly empty that not even spiders can survive. I’ve become a barren wasteland of creativity, a place where— dare I say it — awesome ideas go to die. Twice over.

I want to write, believe me I do. I long for it. Like a long lost lover, I’m craving its familiar touch, its scent, its unbelievable way of arousing me. I want to caress the words on a page, make them sing, scream, cry out in pain or joy. But apparently my life wants me to be celibate. (No, not in that way … that would really be awful!) My life doesn’t allow for “Writing Time.”

In my ideal world, Spring Cleaning 2012 would involve me quitting every single one of my jobs — except teaching, I do love teaching — just so I could focus on my writing. Writing is, in a lot of ways, the only thing that truly makes sense to me. It helps me sort out my life and my problems. I can somehow make sense of the world when I’m writing. So now that I don’t have the time or luxury to sit down and write, everything is making less sense.

During the years that followed my graduation from Ithaca College, I spent a lot of time writing. I wrote short pieces and finished my first novel. I also started work on the novel that I’m peddling to agents now. I started a personal blog and wrote to my heart’s content. But I also put off a lot of my life. I refused to find a Real Big Boy Job. I didn’t want one. I wanted the focus of my young life to be my writing. The way I saw it: “I’ll never have the opportunity to be ‘irresponsible’ again. Once I’m in my 30s, I’ll need a Real Big Boy Job in order to support a family and pay for that two story house with the wrap-around porch in the country that I’ve always wanted.” So I spent a lot of time standing my ground, living the life of a starving artist.

Then I graduated with an MFA from The New School and went, “Aww, crap! Now I actually have to make money.” So I work 3.5 jobs during the course of a regular week. Between that and nurturing my relationship and trying to have some semblance of a social life, I have no time for myself. And I need Steven Time. I desperately need time to be alone with myself and enjoy the wonder that is Me. When I find that time, I don’t really want to write. Not because I’ve fallen out of love with the act of writing, but because during those elusive moments when I have time to write, I hardly ever feel inspired.

Most mornings, I wake and immediately think of the repercussions of calling out of all of my jobs and just writing. But I can’t. When I think of all the things I’d rather be doing than going to work, writing is at the top of that list nine out of ten times.

Maybe it’s time to start a little bit of Spring Cleaning for myself, for my own sanity.

Clean out the cobwebs.

Stop over-working myself.

Remember what it is that I love about writing.

Remember why I write.

Make time to

Write.

Write.

Write.

Photo Credit: Vlado

Steven’s Writer’s Crush on JK Rowling

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On March - 30 - 2012

J.K. Rowling Steven’s Writer’s Crush on JK RowlingI have a writers crush on JK Rowling. If life was Hogwarts, JK Rowling would be the Cho Chang to my Harry Potter, (circa books 4 & 5), the Hermione to my Ron, the Harry Potter to my obsessed Rita Skeeter, the Fleur Delacuer to, well, every Hogwarts male with a pulse.

Sure, she’s old enough to be my mom, but if it wasn’t for her, I never would have had the incredible pleasure of tasting the intoxicating Butterbeer I had when I was at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Florida last month.

Okay, that’s not the only reason why I love JK Rowling. I will go on record, right here and now, and say that JK Rowling is one of the most prolific, skilled contemporary writers of our generation. Her prose is flawless; it has a flow to it that her contemporaries only dream of having in their writing.

Oh, and then there’s the world-building. The wizarding world, Hogwarts, and everything else about the Harry Potter series is so well thought out, so intricate, so tightly woven that it makes me curse the heavens that I wasn’t blessed with the idea (and the talent) to write the Harry Potter series (which means I would’ve been 12-years-old when Sorcerer’s Stone was released had I written it. Whatever, I’d be famous). To think that she is often mentioned in the same breath as Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins is laughable (don’t get me wrong, I also have a writer’s boner for The Hunger Games, but that’s for an entirely different reason). Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is one of the most poorly written book series I’ve ever had the displeasure of trying to read.

But I won’t be negative. Anymore. Starting … now!

Let’s get back to the world-building. She built that series with such care that each chapter in each book fits into each other, and in the end, it all comes together making sense as a whole piece. I can only dream of constructing such a world, a set of characters, a piece of writing. One of my favorite pieces by her is from The Tales of Beedle the Bard called “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” originally featured in the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. JK Rowling was able to construct her own fairytale in the vein of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, which is both entertaining and teaches its readers morals like humility and greed. It is prose poetry in the truest, most sincere form; simply breath-taking.

JK Rowling is an unending source of inspiration for me, not only within her actual writing, but as a writer in general. When Harry Potter was rejected by agents and editors (I bet you’re kicking yourselves now, eh?), she never gave up. She pressed on and became one of the best selling authors of all time. She’s a class act, a remarkable woman, and one helluva talented writer.

Since March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to take a moment to honor JK Rowling because, for this man, JK Rowling is a woman to aspire to.

Steven’s Open Letter to His Former Teachers

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On March - 22 - 2012

2007 01 18 Dog ate my homework 600x475 Stevens Open Letter to His Former TeachersDear Every Writing Professor I’ve Ever Had,

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for all of those times that I wasn’t the model student. Remember when you assigned five page essays and a convenient deathly illness would strike me the day that they were due and you would get an e-mail from me apologizing profusely about how I wish with all of my heart and soul that I could’ve been well enough to come to class because I loved the class and you and this five page paper that I conveniently forgot to attach?

Yeah, I apologize for essentially calling you a fool with the above excuses for not being in class and turning in my paper on time. Now that I’m on the other side of the teacher’s desk, I know how you felt. Had I actually been sick (and prepared), I would’ve e-mailed you my paper well before the paper was actually due, not a day or two later.

I now know how excuses feel.

I remember when you all would joke about how you knew all of our “tricks” for getting out of class and for handing in assignments late. But I scoffed at this. I thought, “How could you know that I was out drinking all weekend and I simply didn’t want to write your essay?” I was 100% certain that my excuse that I was throwing up all day with a 105 fever and green spots all over my body was legitimate enough for you to buy into. My favorite excuse was, “I really loved this assignment and the idea behind it, but I just couldn’t figure what to say because I wanted to just get it right. Can I get an extension until tomorrow?” I thought I could undermine your intelligence and appeal to you with a flattering comment about how intelligent your essay assignment was. But I never thought, “How will one extra day suddenly spark the necessary inspiration needed to complete this assignment correctly?”

I also never thought about your feelings. And for that, I am sorry.

I never realized that my presence in your class was, in fact, appreciated…even if I didn’t say anything in participation that particular day. I know now that, if one of my students is absent, I feel like I’m not doing something right, or that I won’t have enough of a discussion to adequately teach. I never knew this before.

I also know how you felt when, had I been absent because I simply didn’t feel like doing an essay, I missed receiving new homework and essay assignments and you’d wait for me to contact you because that’s my job as a student. I cursed you for not contacting me and telling me what I missed…now I know that it wasn’t your job. I probably shouldn’t have called you all those nasty names. I know you didn’t know about that, but now you do, so now I’m even sorrier.

Thank you for dealing with my shit all of those years. Seriously.

You rock so hard,

Steven

Cartoon courtesy of Saturday Cartoons by Mark Stivers

Steven Asks: Wht Happnd 2 #Grammar?

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On March - 8 - 2012

text message Steven Asks: Wht Happnd 2 #Grammar?#DidYouKnow that we live in a world of technology? Everyone has a cell phone – now-a-days the iPhone is like the common cold: everywhere and hard to shake – and with the surge in applications like Twitter and Facebook comes the death of #grammar.

I’ve noticed this when I’m editing papers. When did it become acceptable to write “n” instead of “and,” or “cuz” instead of “because”? When did the use of the semi-colon become so widespread it’s like the plague of essay writing?

It’s commonly referred to as Text Language, as if improper spelling and grammar deserves its own proper name. What used to only be commonplace in instant messaging (you know, back when AIM was an actual form of communication) is now creeping into academic essays and worse – young adult fiction.

Maybe it’s a believability issue, but I think writing in Text Language in a YA book is not an artistic move; it’s just perpetuating the idea that all teens write grammatically incorrect sentences when they text their friends, or update their statuses (or worse, when teens IM each other in books – since IMing is so popular #insertsarcasmhere). Take, for example, my 17-year-old sister, who is a frequent contributor to my Facebook Newsfeed. I’ve had conversations with her multiple times over the last few years where she has expressed her disgust when her friends (or people she knows) text her grammatically incorrect text messages. In her words, “How %@$^&#$*& hard is it to type a complete sentence with punctuation?!”

I just think that those who write young adult novels and employ Text Language are just encouraging today’s youth to continue writing (and text messaging) in grammatically incorrect sentences. If not, I fear the apocalypse. Trees will shrivel up like old, dried-up broccoli. Volcanoes will spew out venom-squirting raccoons that will take up residence in our garbage cans and eat us when we throw out the trash. Stars will collide (and not in the romantic way that songs inaccurately depict – I’m talking Bruce Willis in Armageddon or Tea Leoni in the oft-forgot about Deep Impact). Britney Spears might even cease to exist altogether.

So this is a call to all YA writers: #GrammarSavesLives

Cartoon courtesy of Chris Madden

Professor Shaw? The Other Side of the Red Pen

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On March - 1 - 2012

britney spears shaved head headlines Professor Shaw? The Other Side of the Red PenShaw. Professor Shaw.

That’s my new title. Okay, well technically my title is Assistant Professor Shaw, but Professor sounds so much cooler. I can finally thank The New School for that master’s degree — that $40k piece of paper that hangs on my freshly painted bedroom walls. It feels good.

I’ve known for many years now that I wanted to teach. That’s half of the reason I decided to go to The New School (the other half was to improve my writing so that I could get an agent and get published. Ahem … Earth to agents. This is for you. Ahem!), so it’s nice to know that I am finally teaching.

Where: The College of New Rochelle.

What: Writing 102: Critical Research Essay

When: Why am I telling you this? So you show up and slaughter me on my way to class?

It’s a required freshman writing course geared towards showing students how to write a well-developed research paper.

Typically, the thought of writing is one that makes students want to scream. So you could imagine what writing a research paper must do to them. That’s why I’ve decided to take a mass media/pop culture spin on the proceedings.

What do Facebook, Britney Spears, Suzanne Collins, South Park, Saved by the Bell, Modern Family, People Magazine, The New York Times, Drake, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, Don Henley, Chuck Klosterman, Dove, United Colours of Benetton, and many, many more pop culture references have in common?

They’re all a part of my class.

Example: On the second day of class, we listened to a few songs about fame and media influence, like Drake’s “Headlines” and Lady Gaga’s “The Fame.” My first essay assignment had my students compare Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me” to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” and discuss what each says about the media’s influence. I’m also having them read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games because of what it says about our reality TV-obsessed culture. (Does anyone think Hunger Games is basically one giant commentary on Britney’s head-shaving, paparazzi-umbrella-attacking breakdown?)

Not your typical run-of-the-mill writing course, eh?

Exactly.

It’s weird being on the other side of the red pen. But it’s natural. I come alive during class time, and I live to create assignments. My goal is to foster a fun learning environment that provokes discussions that ignites my students’ creativity, hopefully gives them ideas for their writing, and helps them dive deeper into their own thoughts. Last week, I had them read a study on online gender-swapping. Then I had them use Facebook to study a member of the opposite sex and write a few paragraphs on gender construction.

I’m employing everything I’ve learned in my career as a writing student (and that of a writing tutor) to kick ass as Professor Shaw.

We’re entering the fourth week of classes, and so far I have a wonderful group of students who really seem to respond to the material. We have our first writing workshop on Monday.

Stay tuned for more stories and lessons from The Other Side of the Red Pen as they develop!

Photo Credit: The Daily News and New York Post

Steven Questions the Notion of Authenticity

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On February - 17 - 2012

authenticity erased Steven Questions the Notion of AuthenticityDuring my first semester at The New School, I found out that there would be no young adult or children’s literature class offered in the spring semester. Of my first year. My reaction: “Uhh … what?!” Being that I was going for my masters in Writing for Children, I kinda, sorta, maybe figured that the program would offer us, oh, I don’t know, enough courses for us to be properly educated in the world of children’s lit.

Nope. I was thrust into a shark tank of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writers. The snobbiest of writers exist within those three disciplines. So how was I going to pick which literature course to take? They all sounded like snoozefests. Until I saw the “Writing in Vernacular” (I think that’s what the course was called) description. The booklist was intriguing and exciting. I figured, “Hey, if I have to take a course outside of my discipline, I guess this will have to do.”

I’m glad I did.

One of the main lessons we were taught was the notion of “authenticity.” What makes you believe the words on the page? If you were reading a book like Push by Sapphire and you found out at the end that Sapphire was a sixty-year-old white man who grew up in Beverly Hills, would that make you question the voice and, ultimately, the raw believability of the entire novel?

We see a lot of white characters written by black writers, but somehow we never question when that happens. One immediate example that comes to mind is fellow New School alum Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary. Protagonist Dade Hamilton is white. Author Nick Burd is not. Yet, there is not one moment in that book where I question the authenticity of Burd’s writing. Not one. Why is this? I often seek the answer to this, but I can’t seem to figure it out. Is it because “white culture” is oversaturated in our popular culture, from musicians on the radio to certain “spotlight” actors and Hollywood plotlines, to billboards and commercials and more? Had the roles been switched and a white author was writing about the experience of a black character, well, I don’t know; I’d be hesitant to believe it.

Maybe it’s because, as showed to us in that class on vernacular, there really aren’t books out there where the main character is black and the author is white. Not any good books, anyway.

I could ponder this and question the motives of publishing houses everywhere, but I still don’t have an agent or an editor, and I’d like to not alienate them quite yet. But I want to know: why do so many black writers write white? Is it because publishers think that only books with white protagonists sell? Is there less of a market for the Coe Booths of the world? I don’t know. I can only explain my attitude towards writing about an ethnicity that’s not my own.

My thoughts: I can’t possibly describe something that I haven’t lived. Sure, I’ve never lived in a fairy tale-esque world, nor have I lived in space, but neither has anyone else, so there’s nothing to compare my words to that exists in the tangible real world. I would feel like I’m assuming, based on what I know from my friends, what being a part of a black/Hispanic/Arabic/Asian/etc. family is like. And that’s not good enough for me.

The professor of my class, Bob Antoni, generally writes his books from the perspectives of black women from Trinidad. He’s white. But what made the difference for me, what made me cross the line from questioning his authenticity to believing him as someone who could genuinely depict an accurate portrayal of the life of a Trinny woman, was hearing his life story. He grew up in Trinidad. He knows that culture like—wait for the cliché—the back of his hand. When he read his writing, he spoke in a Trinidadian accent. When I closed my eyes, I never would have thought the man sitting feet away from me was white.

So what are “black” and “white”? I’ve always said that neither matters. Like the incomparable MJ once said, “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby/It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” And skin color has never meant anything more to me then just that: skin. But when I think about writing from the point of view of a black character, it’s not that simple. I think: “I can’t possibly write an accurate portrayal.” Would a book with a black protagonist be a beacon of truth to the black community? I’m going to say no. Maybe I’m just operating with preconceived notions of what “authentic” means. I don’t know.

Ultimately, I do believe it’s an authenticity issue. For me, at least, it is. But then again, I’m only generalizing white authors. What about all of the black authors? Where are all the books with black protagonists? That’s what I’d love to see. I think that for writers to accurately write about black characters there needs to first be an increase in black writers writing about black characters.

What do you all think?

 

Photo Credit: BaazarVoice.com

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