Becoming a Writer

News & Notes continues its series on the black literary imagination with a look at what it takes to become a writer. Farai Chideya talks with Randall Kenan, author of The Fire This Time; Kecia Lynn, a graduate of The University of Iowa's Writers Workshop; and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Ernest Hemingway once said there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. If so, why would anyone want to do this? All this month, we've been looking at the black literary tradition. And today, we continue our series with a focus on becoming a writer.

I'm joined now by three writers at different stages of their careers. Randall Kenan has written several books including a new work of essays called "The Fire This Time." Also, James Alan McPherson is the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His works include "Hue and Cry," "Elbow Room" and "A Region Not Home." And Kecia Lynn is a former student of McPherson's and a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.

Everybody, welcome.

Ms. KECIA LYNN (Graduate, University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop): Hi.

Professor RANDALL KENAN (Author, "The Fire This Time"; Associate Professor, University of North Carolina): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So let's start with this quote from Hemingway. And I'm going to go to you, James, is this really about bleeding your heart out? Is that what it takes to be a writer?

Prof. JAMES ALAN McPHERSON (Author, "Elbow Room"; Professor, University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop): Kecia and I were just talking about courage and she handed me a book called "The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear." I think it's fear more than bleeding that causes you to write because it perhaps it sort of the (unintelligible) come, the let-me-be-bleeding, I don't know, but it's the transcendence of fear, I think.

CHIDEYA: So when you think about fear, what does it mean to you?

Prof. McPHERSON: We're talking about a protege of mine, Ralph Ellison, just now and I read an article about him and his book in the Washington Post magazine about two or three weeks ago. And it interests me because I think Ellison did fear. He did fear that he was not going to beat Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." I think that is the reality, you don't bleed, you just tremble, I think.

CHIDEYA: Kecia, how does this relate to your experience? Tell us also about how and when you came to writing in your life.

Ms. LYNN: Well, I was one of those people who got bit at an early age. I had a teacher in third grade in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who used to give us creative writing exercises. And it was around the same time I had also discovered "Star Trek," the original one. And so I was already in that grand imaginative state where I felt anything could be possible and then to be able to make things up, it was really just a great fit for me. Tied to that, also being the fact this is kind of a different take on fear that I wasn't exactly the most popular kid in school, I was kind of an outsider, I was bit of a nerd. And I - many people deal with that in different ways, I chose to withdraw into fiction and I'm still doing it. That's how I identified with writing and being a writer very early as a very young child.

CHIDEYA: But you made some decisions after having other paths in your life, is that correct? That you worked…

Ms. LYNN: Yes, that's right.

CHIDEYA: …you worked for many years in fields that were not literary?

Ms. LYNN: I did. I got - I actually entered college as an engineering major. And then I had what I call my rebel moment and said I'm going to be a writer, so I changed my major to English. But then once I graduated and was faced with the big, bad, scary world, I found myself diverted into technical writing. And I worked in information technology for 17 years. Much of that time was spent as a technical writer and editor but I also did some other things. And all the while I was writing but I wasn't writing to the level that I really wanted to write at.

And I finally made a decision a few years ago that I wanted to be serious about my writing and for that, that meant for me to leave information technology and to go back to school and to study writing and to really get serious about it. So that's why I'm here.

CHIDEYA: So Randall, you are somewhat different in that you're writing in the nonfiction mode as opposed to the fiction mode. Do you think there is any difference or is the fear and trembling still the same when you have to sit down at the clickety-clack of the computer keyboard?

Prof. KENAN: Well, actually, I do both. My first two books were fiction and I've been writing more nonfiction recently. But to answer your question, I think that there is an element of fear. I also think that fear of different sorts, fear that you want to represent all the facts and get things right as they're lined up one-to-one correspondence with reality, and also, if you're dealing with people that you don't misrepresent them.

But I also wanted to chime in that I think there's also an element of joy involved, too. I actually started much as the way Kecia mentioned, being very interested in science fiction. I was a physics major when I was an undergraduate. And I was just messing around with science fiction and part of that was an element of joy that, you know, I think, begins to recede as you take it more seriously but there's still a good part of that left in it.

CHIDEYA: Now, I want to ask each of you to give me a sense of the role of teacher and student. Some people would argue that good writing can't be taught. Maybe it can be inspired or coached. And James, what do you think about that? You have been someone who, I'm sure, has inspired many people. Do you think that good writing can be taught?

Prof. McPHERSON: I just came out of a meeting - all the people in the writers' workshop, who are often the students, and that issue was raised. It can be inspired. You can teach technical things, but the substance has to come from the individual and I think - what all you can do is encourage the writer to impose order of that substance.

The substance, which is, the order is his, better to use it where it can be communicated to others. That's not just about it. You know that - the students are very enthusiastic actually and they're glad to be here and (unintelligible) reading and work. But what - the stress was that this particular community that didn't affirm each other in positive ways and that's what makes Iowa unique.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Your - the Iowa Writers' Workshops are legendary in the writing world as places where people go to become the next whatever, the next person published in The New Yorker, the next person to win a Pulitzer. Kecia, is that a lot of pressure for you to be in that environment?

Ms. LYNN: You know, when I decided to get my MFA, I was 38. And I said, you know what, I'm going to apply to all the top programs, what do I have to lose? If I don't get in - and apparently, a lot of people apply for MFAs who don't get in the first time and then they'd do it again. And I applied to Iowa because of its reputation and because I honestly, I didn't think I'd get in and I got in. And I said, this is what I asked for which was I wanted to step up my game. And where better to do that than at Iowa where you have Jim McPherson, you have Marilynne Robinson and all these great teachers, and mainly again, the sense of the great community of writers. These are the people I learned from, not just the teachers, but also the students because we were all writers together and it's exactly what I asked for.

CHIDEYA: Now, Randall, you teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but I'm sure that you have studied at the feet not just of people who taught you directly but also inspiration. So James Baldwin once said, the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. And your book "The Fire This Time" plays off his classic "The Fire Next Time." So what do you think he means by excavating experiences and is that what you do in part?

Prof. KENAN: Yes, I think that almost any writing that is interesting comes out of a culture in crisis. And if you know anything about history, almost every culture is at crisis at any given point of time. And I think that, you know, Baldwin, who was a huge inspiration to me, came about as a writer at a time when, you know, we can look back and see all the things that were happening in the civil rights movement. He grew up at a time in the Harlem just before the war - World War II - that was, you know, deeply tumultuous. I think any culture can give a writer a lot of wonderful raw material to deal with and - one step beyond that is our humanity, which every writer deals with.

CHIDEYA: Humanity, James, what does that mean to you? What do you try to convey through your work, that is - and I guess what I would ask you and this gets asked very often of black writers and I'll just step up to that plate, do you write about an African-American experience or universal experience? Do you write for an African-American audience or universal audience? Or do these thought processes not enter into how you write?

Prof. McPHERSON: They don't enter into how I write. I'd rather write something that's human, negative and positive. And I don't put a racial category upon it, around it, although most of my encounters are black. I looked at the interaction between individuals. Many ethnic groups not always in terms of racial tension but in terms of cooperation. It come and goes (unintelligible) interest.

I try to write - Albert Murray gave me the phrase, but it was Allison's best friend, he said, you want to become an omni-American, a person who has a sense of all levels of the society and all groups within the society and so you could find the commonalities, things that they shared - something they shared in common, and so that it goes beyond race. It goes beyond race. And that's what I tried to focus on.

CHIDEYA: Randall, from the perspective of the marketplace, because folks got to eat, do you think about who your book is targeting, not just in a racial sense but more in the sense of, gosh, am I going to hit the mark? There are people who never found an audience while they were living. And then years later, after their death, they're championed. But, you know, I know that you've got bills to pay if you're like most of us. How do you balance that aspect?

Mr. KENAN: You don't. I think that there are, especially for black writers in the last 15 years, of viable, commercial, black literature market, or whatever you want to call it. But I think the kind of writing that I've always been attracted to, commercial success is not guaranteed, is not to be wished for. It's a fluke. And I think that you, you know - I think Philip Roth said that you have about 3,000 serious writers in America. You can probably count on reaching that. Anything beyond that is crazy.

And I think that the main goal is to do the work well. Get your - as one of my mentors used to say - take your words, your rewards from the page and just be happy that you can go forward. I mean, I don't mean to sound pessimistic or cynical about the world of letters, but I think that any writer who wants to stick with it and become good at it can't expect financial rewards.

CHIDEYA: Kecia, is this something that you've made peace with or do you think he's wrong, or how do you feel about that?

Ms. LYNN: Peace, are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYNN: I - you remember, I was working in I.T., okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYNN: And now, I am here, you know, having recently graduated from the writer's workshop, currently working for another writing program on university, making probably about a quarter of what I used to make. I am in this for the love of writing. I am in it because it is something I - you know, people have dreams and some dreams are just really hard to let go of. And again, I identified as a writer from a very young age, so this is one of those things -I had reached a point in my life where I said, I need to do this regardless. And, yeah, I worry about the bills. But right now, I'm really focused on trying to synthesize everything I've learned in the two years at the workshop and really apply it to my writing.

CHIDEYA: James, we only have time for one snippet of wisdom from you. But what's something that you tell to your students to inspire them when they're down?

Mr. McPHERSON: I talk about the blues, the tragic and the comic interacting. I talk about how the comic can transcend the tragic. The Greeks did that with comedy. And try to see that it during the day and comedies at night, that the blues does that. I think that you got to sort of phase, first of all, the thing that's causing that mood, and then you got try to find ways to transcend it.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm going to have to end it there. James Alan McPherson, Randall Kenan and Kecia Lynn. Thank you so much.

Mr. McPHERSON: Thank you.

Ms. LYNN: Thank you.

Mr. KENAN: Thank you.

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