What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

It’s finally over.

This sense of relief is my predominate emotion after slogging through The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis. Not that the book is terrible, per se. Lewis drops some valid gems throughout the book, and I found myself highlighting passages as if I were back in college. The book was obviously a labor of love. However, her writing style, while perhaps appropriate for her career in the upper echelons of the art world (especially writing art critiques), doesn’t quite translate to the hoi polloi reading audience. Once upon a time, I lived for the flowery yet convoluted sentence structure employed in the book, along with liberal sprinklings of $2.50 words and obscure art and cultural references beyond certain circles; it’s why I was a fan of the late Manning Marable (in fact, Lewis’s writing style reminds me of Marable’s–a lot). Nowadays, maybe my brain is just too old (or overworked) to cut through anyone’s etymological maze in the name of being perceived as one of the smart kids–which I already am –or stopping every other sentence to look up a reference that I don’t understand or with I am unfamiliar.

To quote singer Tamar Braxton: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” ūüėČ

[I mean, I love using my extensive vocabulary as much as the next nerd, but as a writer I know that my readers have to understand what I’m writing if they are to be engaged enough to drop some shekels in my basket. Feel me?]

Lewis uses The Rise as a platform to examine the correlation between creativity, failure, and mastery. Or rather, why some people use failure as an impetus to achieve mastery, while others use it as an excuse to quit. Why some creative people are content to exist within the prescribed, time-tested parameters of their particular niche; while others are willing to jump off a cliff at the risk of falling to their deaths while hoping to sprout wings and fly. The premise is valid; the execution, not so much.

Lewis likes to pack a lot of information into a small space; she will mention thermodynamics, Shakespeare, Sumerian myth, modern dance, and arctic exploration–sometimes all in one paragraph. The spasmodic jumps between exemplars lack the smoothness of, say, Malcolm Gladwell¬†(to whom Lewis was unfairly compared), who has written bestsellers in a similar vein as The Rise: taking a subject and figuring out how it affects (or doesn’t) certain groups of people. Add this to the aforementioned maze-like conveyance of ideas and a penchant for name-dropping, and I understand¬†why this book was such a chore for me to read.

As I’ve said before: the book isn’t bad, just tedious. Lewis’s perspective on failure and mastery is interesting, though not presented a clearly as I’d like. There’s good stuff in there, but you have to dig for it (alcohol and/or skimming ahead optional). I just had higher hopes for the content, given the initial hype surrounding the book in literary circles.

Thanks for stopping by.

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The Spaghetti Syndrome: Writing What Works

I’ve spoken before about how it’s important to focus on a writing project and see it through to completion. But what if you have no idea what that project should be?

It’s like testing spaghetti for doneness: you keep tossing strands against the wall to see if they stick. You may have many ideas, and may even try developing a few of them, but how will you know which project is worth your time, at this time in your life?

Answer:  Your writing will tell you.

When you hit upon that work that begs for your attention, you will know it. The character(s) will start speaking to you (if it’s a fiction novel). Mannerisms, language patterns, quirks, behavior–all that will come to the forefront with ease, as if they were real. And that’s a good thing. ¬†If working on a nonfiction book, you will be lit up at the research involved in bolstering your argument; you have a spring in your step at interviewing people, even determining the content of your footnotes, if need be. The “work” becomes pleasure, and that is a stage to which every writer aspires.

[Sidebar: Writers are the only people who can call a character by name, and say that the character is speaking to him/her in her head. If such a statement was uttered in mixed company, it might get you a one-way ticket to a psych evaluation.]

“But…but…” you may splutter, “What if I have more than one book, or character, speaking to me? What if I like both of them equally?”

Ah…good question. This recently happened to me, as I work on book #2 in the series. I started on one book (let’s call it Book B), then switched to the other (Book C), as it was more developed (I actually have a complete first draft). But as I reworked Book B, it wasn’t flowing. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get past a plot snag, which made me wonder if I should go back to the original version of what I’d changed. Then I started toying with Book C. And it started flowing. And I decided that this will probably be the next in the series, instead, and Book B will then become Book C.

Logically speaking, I should just try to force the original Book B into submission, since I would be doing a second draft, and thus that much closer to publication next year. But if I can’t get into that groove where I am living and breathing that main character, and the book plot, then I can’t deliver a good story to my readers. No good book, no book sales, and I’ll end up on the corner with a cardboard sign and a crumpled paper cup, begging for spare change.

I’m in a good position, in that ¬†Book B and Book C could actually be interchanged in my publishing schedule, with no ill effects. Still, I say all this to say that while concentration on one project is important, it’s equally important to find that story that ¬†grabs hold of you and won’t let go until you finish it. That may mean switching projects mid-stream; it may also mean starting completely over. Just know that if you force something that is not ready to be forced, it will come across in your writing, and you will do your readers a disservice. They deserve better, and so do you.

Thanks for stopping by.

Gone too soon: Dr. Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

We interrupt these brain droppings to bring you important news:

Marguerite Ann Johnson, better known as Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned poet and champion of (black) female empowerment, joined the ancestors today. She was 86 years old.

For some, Maya Angelou was just a name. For others such as myself, who grew up hearing her rich, baritone voice ooze like molasses with her slow, deliberate cadence, she was a legend. Her book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was instant vintage, and an inspiration to me. Like Angelou, I was the victim of sexual assault at a young age. Like Angelou, I grew up in a southern town where black people were still, to a degree, seen as inferior. Like Angelou, I discovered an essential part of myself when I moved to San Francisco (twice!). And like Angelou, I used words to make sense of my world.

Her poems were life-affirming, especially to a black girl who was constantly bombarded by messages that she wasn’t enough. She saw all aspects of the human condition and used her words to seek understanding, rather than judgment.

There will be countless obituaries for Dr. Angelou, and the accolades will be well deserved and more eloquent than what is written here. I can only say what she meant to me, and for giving this black girl a boost of fortitude to make it through, I salute her. Rise to Paradise, Dr. Angelou. See you at the crossroads.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.” Thanks for stopping by.

 

STILL I RISE

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

–Maya Angelou

 

Telling it all (but not really): My Thoughts on Celebrity Memoirs

I recently read two celebrity memoirs that were decent, but didn’t make me squeal with joy. They are Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton and Life in Motion:¬†An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland.

 

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In both, each woman gave an account of her rise to stardom from not necessarily stellar beginnings: Braxton from a religious family of eight in Maryland, and Copeland from a fractured background in both Missouri and California. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few decades, Toni Braxton is a platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning singer best known for the hits “Unbreak My Heart”, “He Wasn’t Man Enough”, and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” (the latter from the Boomerang soundtrack). Misty Copeland is a professional ballerina who is the first black soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in over 20 years.

Copeland’s memoir was more comprehensive, getting into her unconventional (and yes, unlikely) path to being not just a soloist at ABT, but a ballerina, period. Braxton’s autobiography, however, was not much of a revelation. I blame this due to the popularity of her reality show with her sisters, Braxton Family Values. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Braxton has divulged most of the details that are in her memoir, so reading it was rather anticlimactic. The memoir served more for providing clarity on what she shared in the TV show, than learning anything truly new.

In both books, there seemed to be a lack of a ghostwriter (or if there were ghostwriters, not very good ones). In a way, that’s good, as each author seems smart and capable enough to pen a book on her own, without significant help. The downside is that the books don’t flow as smoothly as they should; this is especially true of Copeland’s book, which jumped back and forth between the time periods in her life; this may work in a spoken conversation, but it doesn’t translate well in a written fashion.

I was bummed because I was expecting more of…something from these books, especially because I was so looking forward to reading them. ¬†Perhaps this is a result of this age of reality TV and social media (over)saturation: the wanting of more, more, more and everything, everything, everything from celebrities. Indeed, I came away from the books knowing more about Copeland’s life, but it was a more superficial knowledge. This is understandable, given that celebrities deserve privacy too (though¬†privacy¬†is the antithesis of being a celebrity). Still, I wanted to learn more about Misty Copeland on a deeper level, and the book was so heavy on her world of ballet that I didn’t get that. With Braxton, I am a fan of Braxton Family Values (or I was for the first two seasons; I’m not digging season 3), so I was hoping to see more behind the curtain of Toni Braxton that was not revealed on the show. Alas, I was disappointed.

I still would suggest the books for anyone to read, and maybe I’m just strange for wanting a deeper connection with the words I read on a page. However, if you’re looking for an old-school style of biography, it’s best to look elsewhere. Thanks for stopping by.