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6527212 June 16, 2009

NOTE TO ... The Oprah Magazine

I don't believe in coincidences. To lean on an overused analogy, the details of my life create an endless, jumbled mess like the back of a giant tapestry. I see life that way. Perhaps that's one of the attributes that make me a writer.

So what's the coincidence, you ask?

Well, I promised myself I'd refrain from too much reading over the summer, and instead devote the time to finishing my fourth book. Like Oprah, my specialty is recovering from perpetual failure and using those dips in life to creatively propel myself forward. Last week, I kicked off my failing spree by reading Newsweek, which happened to have the article about Oprah's support of questionable medical practices, theories, and practitioners. So I had Oprah on the brain when I quickly went through three novels: A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. How's that for a wagon fall?

Later in the week, I found myself at the Rochester, New York airport looking for another magazine. And there was Oprah, looking coy behind a yellow book on the cover of her very own rag. Since I had her on my mind, I couldn't resist taking a quick look to see what the newly crowned medical kook lover might be dishing out this month. Low and behold, there he was--Michael Cunningham! And of course, since I don't believe in coincidences, I had to buy the magazine.

Despite what anyone might say about Oprah's occasional lack of solid medical experts, her magazine hits home for its target audience. In this issue, I found out how I can toss out my blow dryer and still look awesome. I got advice on dressing ten pounds slimmer and on what books to read this summer (oh boy ...). Then, to top it off, your article, Castles in the Mind, provided a glimpse into the minds of three writers who are actually damn good at it.

I enjoyed reading what Jim Shepard, Toni Morrison, and Michael Cunningham had to say in response to the question of whether or not writing is hard. As a writer, I identified with all that they said, but having just read The Hours, I was particularly drawn to Cunningham's thoughts on the matter. Turns out, his were the most relevant for me these days. He brilliantly captured the emotional yen and yang of the writer's life.

I love writing, but it was particularly torturous for me last week. The words came, but once again, they were not the words that one important woman in my life wanted to read. I've cried many a tear over this woman and her never ending opinions of me, my life, and my future.

It ... just ... so ... happens that another book I read recently was Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Interestingly, in this book, he writes:

"Sometimes I fear to write, even in fictional form, about things that really happened to me, about things that I really did, or about the numerous unattractive, cruel, or embarrassing thoughts that I have at one time or another entertained. Just as often, I find myself writing about disturbing or socially questionable acts and states of mind that have no real basis in my life at all, but which, I am afraid, people will quite naturally attribute to me when they read what I have written."

Chabon's comments bring to mind another risk writers face--judgment. Over the last year and a half, I've written here about topics that were taboo in the deep Southern culture from wince I came. Straws were building against me, I suppose. Just before I picked up the Newsweek article on Oprah, my mother decided to inform me, via a strong email, that she is ending all contact with me and my family based on how far apart we are in our thinking. According to her, she has "read enough."

It's interesting to me how, even as adults, our parents can continue to gut us at the core even when logic tells us we're stronger than that. She has managed to add insult to the very wounds the process of writing has slowly healed through the years. The very talent that renews me has now placed me in the firing line of the one who taught (or gave) me the ability to stand for something. Oh, the ironies of life ...

I appreciate how Castles in the Mind provided a mainstream avenue for Shepard, Morrison, and Cunningham to express themselves on the difficulties and joys of writing. In his piece, Cunningham writes:

"A surprising number of people--I'd put the number as high as 50% of the American population--believe they could write a good novel if they just had the time. The figures are surely lower when we move to whatever cohort of the population thinks they could, and quite possibly will, become neurosurgeons or firefighters once things quiet down a bit, and the kids are in college."

The acknowledgment I found in your pages was comforting given the severing events of my week. The true writer carries with him a unique nature and heart. (And perhaps no one truly cares except for those who must live with and love us.) I may not be famous or wealthy for all the hours, months, sweat, tears, and years I've put in as a writer. I may have failed to avoid creating the straw that broke my mother's back. I may never succeed but I can't stop. It was never a question of starting or stopping. As Morrison expressed in her piece, it's more than a profession, a hobby, or a calling:

" ... the world became alive ... and that feels like ... not exactly what I was born for, it's more the thing that holds me in the world in healthy relationship, with language, with people, bits of everything filter down, and I can stay here. Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings ... everything actual is an advantage when I'm writing."

So this writing we do is not a wish upon a star, it's an integral part of who we are--like skin on a black woman and love within a gay man. I can't be any other way, and to write well is to either write what is true, or write words that help me seek truth. I can't write what someone else wishes me to write. Would my mother have a black man peel back his dark skin and cover his wounded body with a piece of her own? How sad that she may never fully realize that this is what she asks? And this, I cannot give.

So thank you Oprah Magazine, Morrison, Cunningham, and Shepard for tying off my week in a solid, strong knot. Tonight I will throw that securely knotted, ever-expanding tapestry that is my life across the cold and lonely parts of me that still hunger for true mother love.

Goodnight Mom. I'll always love you.

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