Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Diary of a Creative Writing PhD Student: One Thing My Research Allows Me to Do

My research allows me to study nonfiction texts like newspaper articles, scholarly journals, narratives, studies, and letters as well as contemporary fiction to establish a historical context that helps me create well rounded characters; characters who adapt and challenge their reality and to write a work that reflects the individuality of my characters’ experience. 

There is no quintessential slave story and I do not endeavor to write a narrative that pretends to capture all of the possibilities between the pages. My hope is to capture characters as they exist within the world I create which is based on fact. Slavery relied on a relationship between the slaver and the enslaved; my research shows for some slavers the need for the enslaved to act as if they were in some way appreciative and happy. My hope is through language and dialogue to capture some of the psychological aspects of slavery.

I’m interested in the stories of mothers trying to find their children and of mothers who had to give up. I’m interested in the ways characters influence plot; how some slaves endured slavery and the many ways people took control over their own narratives in their actions, in their thoughts and in their beliefs. I’m increasingly interested in the concept of trauma theory and how that relates to emancipated slaves and the effects slavery has had on future generations. I’m equally interested in continuing research that gives forgotten characters a voice. Through research I am finding that people are interested in reading, hearing the stories of emancipated slaves reconnecting with family. There are some books published through mainstream publishers that feature emancipated slaves as central characters. With this burst of historical fiction, why are there not more emancipated slave characters? Who can write emancipated slave stories? Who will read them?

Traditional publishing does not seem to have a wide enough space for stories of emancipated slaves. As they were silenced off the page, they are absent on the page as well. It is not just the emancipated slave that is missing from mainstream publishing but the work of Black authors is limited. Why don’t mainstream publishers publish a lot of Black/African American fiction? Why do American publishing houses distinguish between Black readers and readers of other races? 

What makes Black fiction Black? My research shows that in some areas of the country my work will be shelved in the African American/Black American section no matter what I write about. As a Black American woman writer, how does publishing my work in the UK differ from publishing it in the US?

Black and African American writers have been muffled throughout history; how can my work influence change? If publishing houses are manned by people who want the voices of writers of color to remain silenced, is the only hope for publishing a work they may not embrace to slip it through the cracks or to build another playground?  

My work is challenging me to re-evaluate my place in publishing; to explore where my work fits in and where I fit in on and off the page. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Diary of a Creative Writing PhD student: Why Write About Emancipated Slaves?

There is a recognized formula for grief. Experts say we grieve in stages; in cycles. Because everyone grieves differently, there is no set time frame for the stages. Still, society often tells those in grief when enough is enough. When we grieve a marriage friends, family and coworkers have a certain amount of sympathy before encouraging us to “move on” romantically. If we are adults when our parents die, we are granted a period of mourning before returning to work, a little sad and less productive perhaps, but we are expected to reach full capacity within a few weeks. For most losses there is an imagined timeframe, an allotted time for grief.

How long are we granted to grieve a child?

The loss of a child is an ongoing loss with consistent reminders throughout life; there are lost birthdays, holidays, graduations; there are no weddings, no grandchildren, no continuation. The loss resonates in the laughter of school children; the cry of random babies; the familiar shape of an eye, a walk, a tilt. Society grieves with and for parents whose children are murdered, kidnapped, or in any number of ways lost. It allows them time to heal; freedom to be angry; and forgives them their outbursts—unless they were slaves.

Emancipated slaves certainly had reason to celebrate: after centuries of forced bondage, humiliation, degradation, violence, rape, torture, disenfranchisement and racism, emancipated slaves had reason to be hopeful. But not for long. Freedom did not come with a voice. Not only were they often subjected to the same racism that allowed the acceptance, adaptation and continuation of slavery, but emancipated slaves were not granted the freedom of their own emotion. Society declared emancipated slaves should be grateful to be free; not angry to have been enslaved. They should be humble and prayerful, mindful and respectful, they should strive and be happy to strive to be less than, still. The lessons of slavery were ingrained in generation after generation, how could they be shed without reconciliation? How could they be written about—who wanted to read them?

Emancipated slaves were discouraged from grieving their lost years, lives, opportunities.  Their voices were stifled and often curtailed. Perhaps America hoped they would forget the centuries of abuse; that all would be forgiven. Perhaps it thought it had nothing to be ashamed of.  It seems that few people wanted to hear the truth about the lives of the formerly enslaved and if they did, they didn’t want to publish it. There had been Emancipatory narrative that explored the surface of slave life in such a way that did not offend the reader, but what literature could come from the lives of the formerly enslaved? Was America ready to read it?

Perhaps. But were they ready to publish it? It is impossible to say that publishing had its finger on the American throat so accurately that it knew what people wanted to read. It would seem that few works were published about life after slavery and even fewer fictions explore the emancipated slaves’ journey to reunite their family. It is time to give them a voice. My research will allow me to explore the lives of emancipated slaves as they try to reconnect with family, to rebuild community and to find themselves. 

Diary of a Creative Writing PhD Student: Reflections on Research--One Year Later

Today marks the one year anniversary of my family and my move to the UK.  As I prepare for my One Year Panel Review I have the opportunity to see the last 365 days titled, page numbered and revised; it’s a wonderful thing. Over the past year, I have crafted almost 30,000 words in fiction, thousands of words in reflection and research and read thousands of pages. My practice based research encourages me to build relationships with researchers, historians and professionals from around the world; as I write about relationships within the past I am building relationships for my future.

My research is taking me into new areas: I’m focusing on my place on the shelf, in the genre as well as crafting opportunities for other writers of color to publish and have their books read. My objective is to write stories rich with “Black themes” like family, love, friendship, and success, forgiveness.

I’m not just crafting stories here; I’m revising myself, my family. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m loving this book; this life.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Choosing a Username: What Does Your Username Say About You?

Since I heard about Mumsnet a few weeks ago I’ve been skirting along the edges trying to decide if I was going to dive in. I’m a mom, I’m a writer and I’m a mom who writes about Momming; so why not join a network?

I spent longer than I planned coming up with a snazzy user name that wasn’t already taken.  I thought I would make up one that captured my many roles: MotherWriterPhDtobe. But I don’t like guess work: will readers pause where I want them to pause? Will they recognize my play on words or will they think what I think when I see usernames with acronyms, creatively spelled (ok, misspelled) ones or names that challenge me to multiply, subtract and divide to add meaning to them?

I settled on battlefelton; a version of my last name.

After I selected it I thought: why didn’t I capitalize it? Why didn’t I at the very least hyphenate it like I do in life?

What does a lower case “b” and a run-on name say about me?
I thought about creating another account, one with Battle-Felton capitalized and hyphenated in its glory. I’m proud of my name and of who I represent.

But lowercased and unhyphenated, the more subtle, watered down version, is actually just fine.

To read me is to know me.

There are days I rush through life noting everything and everyone in it; cherishing encounters, counting blessings and feeling extremely fortunate. There are days I seem almost immobile—except that I’ve moved my family to the UK in my pursuit of a PhD and a story I want to see in print.

At the end of the day, I’m more than my username, titles, roles.

Next time I choose a username, if it isn’t already taken, I’ll choose “Me” and if it is taken, I’ll reflect, ponder and ultimately select a version that still shows who I am. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm a Mumsnet Blogger

mumsnetI talk about being a mom all the time--to friends, colleagues, strangers; it's a part of who I am. It's only natural that I blog about it. Of course, being a mom is not all I blog about, just like it's not all I talk about. It's a part, a component, a sliver of the pie that is me.

"How do you like uni?" a man from a local store asks my daughter.

"It's great," she answers.

I smile and walk away.

"How does he know I'm at uni?" She asks less than an aisle away.

"It comes up in conversation."


"You know: how's the weather, how are your kids...it comes up."

She doesn't believe me.

"Are you all here for the holidays?" I'll admit, I had never seen these people before.

"Sort of," I answer. "I go to school here so we're here all year round. My daughter studies business at another university. She's here for the break."

My daughter and I set off a few minutes after we've exchanged holiday well wishes.

"See, it just comes up."

I pretend not to see my daughter shake her head.

Friday, January 10, 2014

42 Blocks to Nirvana

I found this post in my writing attic--my writing past. It is from nearly five years ago and in some ways is still true and in others not as much.

Except for the accents, we could be standing in any one of the brightly lit GameStop/EB Games stores we frequent on a far-too-regular basis in Baltimore.  GameStop/EB Games have developed a brand: a unique blend of computer-geek/technology-nerd paraphernalia capturing the illusion of some sort of Nirvana for gamers of an appropriate age, and beyond it. 
My gamer is thirteen.  We are at the counter of GameStop #1234 in New York City, one of the first spots on My daughter’s mental list of places to go on her birthday trip to NYC.
Her brown eyes sparkled when she saw the familiar GameStop logo in the middle of 7th Ave and Broadway.  We are spending the day doing whatever my teenager wants to do; if that means stumbling around another video game store, it means doing so and pretending I like it.  Searching for new Play Station 3 games and comparing prices for old Nintendo DS games is some sort of ritual she engages in at every GameStop we frequent, but this time it’s different.  This time, there are no little brothers; it’s just her, me and New York City.  There is a comfortable familiarity in this expensive ritual. 
GameStop employees typically look like people who spend too much time playing video games.  My daughter tends to avoid talking directly to them.  Today, she approaches the counter slowly, in that unimposing manner that screams “tourist.”    “Excuse me?”  She asks in patented teenalese: her soft voice lilting when her tone should dip and dipping when it should lilt in that way that suggests everything is negotiable.  “Are we close to Nintendo World?”
The employees stare at her as if they don’t speak Maryland.  They gesture out the door, up the street, waving their hands to imply a journey of some video-gamish feat.  Nervously sucking a long, brown braid, my daughter turns to me to translate their reality into hers.  Yes, I explain, they really are saying Nintendo World, the true gamer Heaven, is on 49th. 
Outside on 7th Avenue, her creamy-caramel colored face brightens.  Surely, she thinks, this is her chance to ride the infamous New York City subways—I assure her it’s not.  Before we can begin to break a sweat, we spot another GameStop.  This visit is brief.  My daughter needs to make sure I haven’t gotten her lost, again.  Assured we are on the right path, we walk on.  We pass, but do not enter, Anne Taylor’s Loft, bypass 34th street and walk through Times Square.  She is not impressed.  Although we are walking 42 blocks straight up Broadway, My daughter points out people she thinks I should ask for directions.
 They are all men. 
The oldest of my three children, she is anxious for me to start dating.  Until now, her experience with divorce has been only as intimate as the writers of the Mary Kate and Ashley series could concoct.  I didn’t have writers for my separation.  I don’t have writers for my divorce.  My story unsettles her.  Her taste unsettles me. 
We walk on.  My daughter’s long legs can keep up with my natural pace, but her feet—the same size as mine—tire somewhere around a bookstore.  She isn’t tired enough to go in.  Strangers bustle about us, their clothes, speech, and gestures providing us blocks of entertainment.  Finally, we take the short cut through Grand Central Station. 
Thanks to my sense of direction, by the time we come out the side door, I am ready to ask for directions.  My daughter scouts the possibilities: “Ask him,” she says loudly while pointing to a man in a delivery uniform.  “Or him,” she suggests of an oddly shaped man in a business suit.   Instead, we ask a young woman working at a Starbucks.  The woman points us to Rockefeller Plaza; funny no one else mentioned it was there.  Her directions are precise and we only get lost once more.  The security guard we ask walks us through the Plaza and past the ice rink.
At last, he points us to the gates of Nintendo World.

For years, my daughter and I have plodded along this path, with bumps and bruises and adjustments to accommodate her eruptions of character, taste, wants and needs.  From thick pony tails to long, thin braids, she has picked up and discarded a number of friends, best friends forever and ex-friends along the way. 
My daughter has become a tall, slimming, giggly creature instantly endowed, according to her with “access to everything, cuz like for most everything you have to be 13 years old.”  Her deep brown, almond-shaped eyes sparkle as she anxiously plots painting over her room’s pale, blue sky and plump, curvy clouds.  She hums a tuneless melody, imagining thick stripes of dark blue and brown (though not imagining anyone actually painting it).  Glancing up, she promises to leave the misshapen pink (a color she has never liked) palace with her name in bold cartoon letters on the wall.  I’ll let her paint over it, I assure her.  We both smile. 
She is growing up.
 I pretend not to notice.

Nintendo World is a glaring-sterile salon for the serious gamer who needs nothing more than a less-than comfortable, plastic chair (curved to limit the length of each visit) and the company of intimate strangers.  There is a wall lined with tall bar stools spaced along glass counters for people to play the newest Pokémon game on Nintendo DS.  Up the circular staircase, there are pod-like personal WII stations obscenely close to one another.  It’s a specific type of cool.  My daughter doesn’t own a WII and she doesn’t like Pokémon. 

She’s not discouraged.  There was a time she would have been.  My little girl is growing up; I’m going to have to notice. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Look Down When You Walk: A Lesson Learned and Forgotten

I said my goodbyes, locked the door and practically ran down the twenty-eight stone steps. If I hurried to the car, sped down the street, and raced along the highway I would still be late—but I had to try.

I slid into the car, placed one foot—ever ready—on the brake pedal, began closing the car door and sniffed: shit, literally.

Between stepping off the last step and stepping in to the car, one of my feet had sunk sole deep into a pile of dog poop.

I didn’t have a dog.

I tiptoed up the steps, kicked off both shoes and leaving them outside, I rushed back in the house. Armed with paper towels and cleanser I tried scraping the offending goo from my shoe but stuck for time, I searched for other shoes to match my outfit. Ten minutes later I was again at step twenty eight.

I scraped residue of poop off of the brake, tossed the wasted paper into the trash can, slid in the car, turned the key, sniffed and inhaled deeply.

I had cleaned the poop from my car but not from in front of the car door; I had stepped in it again.

There’s a moral here about cleaning up other people’s messes; not letting your dog poop where you aren’t planning to scoop; and there’s probably a dating lesson in here too.

“I can’t believe you still don’t look down when you walk,” my youngest laughed.

That was probably the lesson I was supposed to learn. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Fountain of Youth

It turns out the ancient dreamers and philosophers were right; there is a fountain of youth. 

For some, it might be dressing or acting younger; others feel younger by surrounding themselves with older people. By now most of us have found that the fountain of youth is not an elixir, a potion or an incantation, but it does involve time travel. The past is the key to a younger future.

On a good day, my best friend and I text via Skype; on a great day we talk. We’ve been best friends for 30 years. Through all of the many stages of our lives, no matter where in the world we were, we’ve been there for each other or tried to be.

There’s nothing quite like having a friend who remembers your past but doesn’t use it against you; who loves you when your future doesn’t match your predictions and who sets you straight when you lose perspective.

When we talk, stress unknots and the illogical makes sense; I gain a new perspective, an energy that I just can’t put a price on.  I’m reminded that we’ve been through worse or better; that we’ve withstood or stood up to some of our greatest challenges—together.

I’m looking forward to the next 30 years of friendship.

How can you get your own fountain of youth?

Make connections and keep them. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Writing Life Out-Takes

I spent last year collecting career advice on the Writing Life and making a living out of words. I received useful advice on entering contests, submitting to publications, interviewing agents and other insights from industry professionals.

Still, one of the best pieces of advice came when I was off the air. The advice that made me laugh? Marry well.

Though we laughed about it, the person who gave me this advice was being serious. He had freedom to craft a career out of words because his livelihood did not depend on his income. He had married a woman who could and would support the family.

If you want to make a living as a writer, marry someone who can support you. Will you take his advice? 

Backstory: Reflections on this Month's Theme for Stories at the Storey

Meeting deadlines is as soothing to me as a creamy cup of flavoured coffee. Checking a project off of my mental to-do list settles me. ...