What Phillis Wheatley Taught Me

Phillis Wheatley came into my life pressed between the pages of a rather lack luster anthology. I was twenty-one when I first sat down in my American Literature class ready to be thoroughly educated. My professor was young and handsome. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches and I knew that we would have great discussions that would change my life. I was right. My interactions with him would change my life.

The only Wheatley poem my anthology contained was the short but controversial,

On being brought from Africa to America

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought now knew,
 Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I read the poem with understandable concern. My white Gen-X background in no way prepared me for a woman who spoke with gratitude on having been taken from her family at the age of 7, sold into slavery at age 8 and then named after the slave ship which transported her. How she ever survived the long voyage aboard “The Phillis,” no one knows.

I sat in shock listening to my professor discuss the hardships of her life in blasé tones. He furthered the insult by saying that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. My indignation was instant. Nowhere in her words could I detect irony. I heard a fragile voice, as gentle as moonlight, singing out an ideology forced on her through hardship, a new and vengeful God coupled with the tortuous cruelty of slavery. Surely, no one with a heart could read this poem and honestly believe that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. Slowly I raised my hand, stated my case and flatly refused to back down.

My professor believed that his word was the last word on all subjects literary. My refusal to understand that Wheatley’s poem was ironic angered him so much that he began yelling “ironic” at me every time our paths crossed: In the hall, out on the green, in the parking lot. My reply to each and every one of his attacks was to simply say, “sincere.”

At the end of quarter, after turning in every paper, after aceing every quiz and test I received a D-. The girl who sat opposite me never turned in her papers, missed tests and didn’t read the assigned texts but was shocked to receive an A. I approached my professor, I stated that he’d switched the grades and he replied, “How very ironic?” Yes it was ironic that I should fail this simple class with my strong English background. Yes it was ironic that I should fight for a defenseless black poetess, and yes it was ironic that I, a woman, was forced to defend my belief before an empowered white male. I went to the Dean, I filed my complaint and nobody listened.

So this is what Phillis Wheatley taught me. She taught me that even when you’ve been bullied, brainwashed, stomped on and threatened you have to keep on speaking what your heart tells you is right. Since failing American Lit. I have become a lover of Wheatley’s poetry. In her words I find sweetness, beauty, and a refinement not of this world. Her voice is more tangible to me now than any grade. My soul is strengthened by her poem On Virtue. My love of art grows in her poem To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works. My favorite of her poems is simply entitled,

On Imagination.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
 Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Phillis is one of the reasons why I write about silenced women. Her history is part of why I will always take up a cause my heart recognizes as pure. Phillis could not speak out against slavery when she herself was enslaved but read again On being brought from Africa to America and notice how gently she presses the truth that we all have the right to find grace.

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Literature Changes Lives

You are what you read. What a powerful statement! When you lose yourself in good literature, you are doing more than reading an excellent novel, you are sympathizing with the character; you are melding your own thoughts and self-identification with theirs, even if just for a moment.

Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby of Ohio State University found in a study that readers bond with protagonists to such a degree, that for a time, the reader takes on the emotions and beliefs of the protagonist. This process is called “experience taking.”

When I first began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat, Pray, Love, I couldn’t stop crying. There was something so raw and gutting about her depression, entrapment and lack of self-awareness that I could no longer separate my own pain from hers. There was something about Liz’s character that made me confront my own long hidden suffering?

My heartache stemmed from the reality that I had let my most cherished dreams slip away. I was a wife when I meant to be a scholar, a mother when I’d planned to travel and a depressed shut-in when I’d meant to find my feet and lead a full life. I felt pain because of all the things I hadn‘t done. Two chapters into the book and like Liz, I  wanted a divorce. Four chapters in and I ended a long held friendship. By the time Liz arrived in Italy I was crying through every sentence because I felt trapped, suffocated and alone. If it were not for Liz’s distinct voice guiding me on I may have remained stuck in that place of regret and misery forever.

I cannot easily describe the evolution that took place within me but for some reason I began to heal somewhere between India and Bali. Somewhere during that mental trip my eyes opened to the reality of my life. In Bali I found peace for the first time. I saw where I stood and began to value all that I had accidently achieved in my mismanaged life. I had a husband, a son, and a home where I was unconditionally loved. So what had been so wrong for so long? The answer is…me. My thoughts and behavior, my idea of what life should have been, got in the way of what life was.

Eat, Love, Pray changed my life because it changed the way I saw my life. Now I am on track to achieve my dreams while I love and appreciate the life I’ve built. Could I have made my fresh start without Liz Gilbert? I really don’t know. What I do know is that literature is powerful. It gives a writer the chance to open minds or close them, to take their readers on a life altering journey for the better or for the worse.

So I ask you fellow writers to please be careful with the minds you handle. Words are powerful and they can bring light to a shadowed consciousness or just heap on more darkness.

Literary Betrayal

There is no rule which states that a novel or short story should end happily. Many of the greatest literary works left their audience in despair with their closing sentence. Life is a story and often times that story is so rooted in pain that a happy ending is not an option.

I recently read a trilogy so steeped in tragedy that by the end of book three I felt emotionally gutted. I’ll let you guess the name of this trilogy. What troubled me most about this trilogy was not its despair based premise or continual sacrifice of innocence and decency but the shock and awe tactics used by the author in order to maintain the high octane pace the writer had naturally achieved in the first book. This blatant use of shock brought forth the question: “What does a writer owe her audience?”

We as readers depend on authors to see main characters through to their natural end. If a well-developed character should happen to die that death should be noted not disregarded as if it were only the death of inconsequential extra. The blatant brushing aside of a beloved characters life is cold and cruel because it destroys the readers faith and trust in the writer. A well-developed sympathetic character who is killed without the necessary pause for grief and reflection leaves the reader feeling injured and betrayed. At no point should shock value replace the need for plot and character development.

Perhaps it is our lack of attention span which has led so many popular writers to gut their audience and tear away the fabric of the plot in order to keep modern readers reading. Nevertheless, a compelling book should have strong well defined characters, a sweeping plot with many twists and turns as well as description and flow. Characters should not act, “out of character,” and plot should not be sacrificed in order to build a path from one disturbing scene to the next. We as writers owe it to our readers to take them on a journey. The journey may be harrowing, grief filled and agonizing but it is the duty of the writer not to victimize her reader with one shock after another just to keep them hooked. As your guide we writers may lead you to the edge of the chasms of emotion but we should never toss you over indiscriminately just to see you fall.

Characters that Live and Breathe

How do you write a Character that lives and breathes? Study, listen and feel. With these three directives you can create a character just as alive and glorious as any composed by the greats. As I’ve stated earlier, my characters come to me, usually at night darn them, as a feeling etched in shadow, a grief, a loss, a short-lived joy or the fear of lack. This I build into a life by listening to the feelings around them, by seeing their color as it were in order to create a shape, a body to house them in. That is part of the feeling, the listening is more to do with taking in every element of the world around you, other people’s stories, movies, books, histories and compiling a mental map of the worlds you want to explore be it Imperial Russia or the 50’s in L.A.; be in it and with it, travel if you can to get a sense of the place. Writing is often about putting your own experiences on paper seen through the eyes of someone else. So in a haphazard and erratic way I think I’ve covered the feeling and listening part, now for a more in-depth view of study.

Become a lover of words, not the words that get you from one side of the page to the other but the words that describe a tulip opening to the sun in five hundred words or more, don’t be a miser with words, squander them across the page, use twenty when you could have used five. You can edit them out later. I say this because we have lost so much of the art of writing in our modern brevity, you have the right to write and not be brief: expound, describe your imagery and bring vibrancy to your scenery. Listen to the classics read unabridged and dramatized as you move through your day. Study Jane Eyre not for the plot but for the phrase. The opening scene when she talks of cold walks, Chilblains and frost is enough to make my toes curl and the more I listen to it the more I fall in love with the magic of this style of writing. Decide who your writing is most similar to and study them. Study and perfect your style by reading, listening and write, every day, day in, day out. Words are alive so use them.

Where to Begin

One of the questions I’m often asked about writing is where do you begin? The truth is that I have no set method I just begin. Generally I toss my first six pages and then re-write the following six at least twenty times until they no longer resemble themselves in the least. I begin with a feeling which progresses to an emotion and then forms into a character with set feelings and perspectives. I learn from this imagined person what it is like to be them, to feel so deeply about certain issues and situations and before I know it they are telling me their story.

I recently wrote a book about a girl named Coco. She came to me as a slightly anorexic fashion student with long black hair, luminous honey brown eyes and the saddest expression you could imagine. She haunted me. I felt this deep sense of longing and loss when I thought about her and every night when I woke for my usual 3:20 a.m. mental download she was there, feeling lonely, cold and very much alone. The more I thought with her the more her story formed around her, soon an apartment came to light, then a housekeeper and then her entire life opened like a flower blooming before me. I felt my way to Coco as she felt her way to me and the result was the novel Magdalena’s Shadow which is with my editor at this moment. The point of all this rambling is that it doesn’t matter what you begin with, what matters is that you begin.

Listen to people, read about them, and talk to them. Your next door neighbor has a story that would knock your socks off and so does the crazy dog lady who walks your street each morning. Listen, be present, be compassionate towards every life you meet and let the stories come.