I met a famous writer a few weeks ago who I admire greatly. I was nervous for my friend to introduce me to her because well, . . . what if she wasn't like the person I knew from her writing?
But guess what? She was lovely. She was warm and genuine and funny. Before the party ended, I broke out my selfie-stick and we snapped a photo together. And I walked away from the party just giddy.
When I got home from the conference, I worked up the nerve to send a note to her and a copy of my book. Truly, I had no expectation that she would read it. But then . . . I got an email from her saying that she had just devoured the first 64 pages of my book but had to put it down only because grades were due the next day and she had work to do.
Of course I was elated. And I thought that was that. Until . . . I received another email a few days later that read:
"Dear Heidi, Yes! You have restored my love of reading! Thank you for this powerful novel." Signed Famous Writer.
So, yeah. That happened. And I'm not sure that I have totally processed it, or celebrated it, or took to heart what it means.
But for today at least, I'm sitting down with the manuscript again after another long hiatus and I'm keeping Famous Writer's words in front me so that I can keep reminding myself I can do this. I can fill up that blank page.
I started this blog seven years ago as a struggling novelist seeking community. And to a certain degree I came to blogging as a woman who was learning how to trust her own voice.
Today, I am a published novelist--my book was met with great critical and commercial acclaim. I was dubbed a Power 100 Leader by Ebony Magazine. I've met so many wonderful readers traveling the country almost non-stop for three years; I've had wonderful opportunities like walking the red carpet for the Image Awards and hanging out with Vanessa Williams at the after-party, appearing on CNN and NPR and the NBC Nightly News, speaking at the Schnitz to an audience of 2500 people who had all read my book. The dream I had so many years ago came true! I got my big break -- now what?
I re-read this quote by James Baldwin and thought: he really gets what it means to be an artist--not just a success story. Words to live by. Thank you once again, Mr. James Baldwin!
“Then you make—oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another—some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are . . . [Y]ou make your first breakthrough [as an artist], people have heard your name—and here comes the world again. The world you first encountered when you were fifteen. The world which has starved you, despised you. Here it comes again. This time it is bearing gifts. The phone didn’t ring before—if you had a phone. Now it never stops ringing. Instead of people saying, ‘What do you do?’ they say,’Won’t you do this?’ And you become, or you could become a Very Important Person. And then—and this is a confession—you find yourself in the position of a woman I don’t know who sings a certain song in a certain choir and the song begins: ‘I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody but I couldn’t keep it to myself.’ You’ve come full circle. Here you are again, with it all to do all over again, and you must decide all over again whether you want to be famous or whether you want to write. And the two things, in spite of all the evidence, have nothing whatever in common.”
--James Baldwin, "The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity"
I've always wanted to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) held each November, but I've never been able to keep up with the word count or put in the necessary hours writing. November is particularly difficult because of the holidays and holiday get-togethers and travel. So I was excited to learn that the good folks at NaNoWriMo put together a chance to do the novel writing marathon in April. So here I am a week and a half into the work--not too far behind on the word count. There's some good stuff in the pages I have and then a lot of bleh and some terrible stuff too. If nothing else, I am purging the bad novel to be able to make room for the good in later drafts. The best bit of advice that's keeping me going is from one of my favorite poets, William Stafford. He once said: “There is no such thing as writer's block for writers whose standards are low enough.” I'm aiming really low, and I'm enjoying the work!
I am often asked about the real story that inspired The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. I will never tell.
First, I feel incredibly protective of the real girl. Yes, there is a real girl out there somewhere. She deserves to live her life without a reminder of that horrible day, that horrible tragedy. And it's not entirely clear that she even would remember what happened. It's very likely that she suffered traumatic amnesia. And then beyond that--the story that I have written is not her story--I did try to do that initially but it didn't work. I didn't know enough about her. So I wrote about what I knew: I wrote about growing up black and Danish and feeling like America's ideas of race and culture divorced me from my mom because people couldn't see her in me.
I write this today because I woke up to read the horrifying story about the Harlem mother who jumped from an eight-story building with her baby in her arms and the child survived. I received a ton of messages from readers about the story. It was as if they wanted a moment to grieve with me because I understood what that meant because of my book. I'm not sure. But I was glad to get their messages and not feel so alone in the sadness I felt about another woman feeling so unsure that she could protect and take care of her child she thought it best to take him out of the world too.
This post is a bit of ramble--written in the heat of grief and bewilderment--but there is one message I want to be very clear: to any sleuthing readers who want to find the "real girl" who was the inspiration of the book. STOP! DON'T! Give her that gift of peace and of grace. Know simply that her story of survival inspired the survivor in me and maybe in you too.
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I have been researching the life of Miss Lala for years and am working on a novel that fictionalizes her life. Who knew that she was on everyone's mind? Check out this story in the NY Times about the exhibition that opened this week at the Morgan Library in New York. I know a lot more than the curators about her life -- in fact, I found a new photograph of her recently that's never been published. It was like looking into her soul. So wish me words as I continue working on the book--ETA unknown, but it's definitely in the works!
Last week I learned that my agent, Wendy Weil, had died suddenly of a heart attack. The loss came as an incredible shock--even though she was 72, she was healthy and vibrant. She seemed much much younger than her years.
Wendy took me on as her client in 2005 with only part of what would become The Girl Who Fell From the Sky complete. The day she said she wanted to represent me I jublilated over a fancy dinner with my mentor and friend Michael Pettit who had made the introduction. And of course, I called my mom and said: "I have an agent, Mor! And she is Alice Walker's original agent! She doesn't even need new clients!" I was certain that I would be signing a contract for 6-figures just because she repped me.
Over the course of the next 2.5 years Wendy sent the manuscript to close to three dozen publishing houses--all of them rejected the manuscript. But she never stopped believing in me and the work. She said to me once: "It doesn't matter how many rejections we get, we just need to find the one gatekeeper to say yes. We just haven't found the gatekeeper yet."
I think Wendy was happier than I was when I won the Bellwether Prize and the book contract. And I know she was incredibly proud of the final product that was published and elated about the amazing critical and commercial success that the book received.
The last time I saw Wendy was at the Book Expo in June. She was beaming from the front row as I shared the stage with Barbara Kingsolver, Hillary Jordan and the new Bellwether winner Susan Nussbaum. It was a wonderful moment and I felt so happy that she could share it with me.
Wendy was a literary titan, and a smart, and gentle and beautiful soul. I will miss her, my champion, greatly. You can read about her amazingly accomplished life and all the love that her clients and colleagues had for her in this lovely article.
I am so incredibly grateful that I've been invited to return to Djerassi, a wonderful artist residence in Northern California. I spent four weeks at Djerassi in 2005 and had a wonderfully productive month. It was there I started plotting out the research I needed to do for the new book I'm working on now. Djerassi is located on a stunning piece of land that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. I look forward to the long afternoon walks on the trails. I look forward to the gift of time.
The news came just when I needed that affirmation from the universe of the new work. And then guess what? A couple of days later I found more information about my subject Miss Lala; a couple of days after that I revised the first pages (again) and think I finally have it right!
Alas, the residency isn't until 2013. But what a wonderful lifeline to get the invitation now!
Last week, I felt like I had come full circle with this wonderful experience I've had becoming a published novelist. I shared the stage with my dear friend Hillary Jordan (Mudbound, When She Woke) and Barbara Kingsolver. Barbara announced and introduced the new Bellwether Winner Susan Nussbaum (congrats!)--Her book should be published some time next Spring: Good Kings, Bad Kings.
I remember the first time I met Barbara a few months before my book was released. I was so nervous, and this time I was nervous all over again. But she's just so lovely and put me at ease. And she said to me: "It's important to me that you write this next book." Those words spoke to my soul! I am looking forward to the coming months--no engagements or other duties--just me and the writing. Wish me words.
I've been on a concentrated quest in the last few weeks and really for the last many months of trying to find some way of finding more balance and a sense of peace. I've been trolling bookstore shelves for self-help books, and meditation manuals. I've amped up my exercise regiment so that at least I can fall asleep at night even though I will likely wake long before dawn and toss and turn all night. I've sought out podcasts and video talks to bolster my days. I have listened to this particular episode of the On Being podcast with Sylvia Boorstein three times now and hope some of the lessons sink in. Maybe you're feeling the same way? Maybe this will help you too?
At the end of the episode she reads this Pablo Neruda poem. It's the poem I just need right now.
"Keeping Quiet" by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth, let's not speak in any language; let's stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.
—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)