Maya Angelou: She Taught Us Why The Caged Bird Sings

Most of the time when you hear a celebrity has died, it’s just shocking. But everyone once in a while when a famous person passes away, you feel a genuine sense of loss. Like there’s now this absence in the world—your world—because they are no longer in it.  The first time this happened to me was when Whitney Houston died.

Now, with the news that Maya Angelou is gone, it’s happening again. At a young age I either wrote a paper on her or read her autobiography—I forgot which one, but it left me with the sense that she’s someone I’ve known for most of my life.

Maya Angelou

(Photo by York College ISLGP)

One of the Most Inspiring Writers of Our Lifetime

If I had to use one word to describe Maya Angelou, it would be inspiring.

Inspiring as a Person

She’s inspiring as a person because she had this crazy emotional strength. She’s quoted so often because her philosophy is uplifting. She makes you believe that you too can be victorious, triumphant, conquering, etc. no matter what you’re dealing with. Even her autobiography is entitled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Think about that for a second.  The idea of a bird being trapped yet still finding a reason to sing.

Maya Angelou encouraged you to have compassion and faith in yourself, and to embrace the gift of life even in the most difficult times. And she did so both through her words and her actions.

Inspiring as a Writer

She is also inspiring to me as a writer. Maya Angelou had a gift. It was more like Whitney Houston’s voice–innate talent perfected over time–than simply a mere reflection of discipline, in my opinion (although she obviously worked hard). She had this ability to lyrically turn a phrase, but in a way that was also accessible. She accomplished what most writers aspire to do, I think. She touched people. Through her poems and books she showed readers that she understood them. And we also understood her.

Anyway, it’s a sad day. But I’m glad to say that I lived during the Maya Angelou era.



She Did It, So Why Can’t I?: Lawyer/Novelist Helen Wan

Welcome to the latest installment of “He/She Did It, So Why Can’t I?” a series of posts about professional people who wrote novels on the side.

This week I had the incredible opportunity to meet Helen Wan, a first-time novelist who lawyers at Time Inc.  Last September she published The Partner Track about one woman’s experience at a major law firm in NYC and the nuanced ways her status as an Asian-American woman complicates her ambitions.

Helen and Monica

The novel has received a lot of attention from major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.  In my opinion this is both because it’s an interesting read and because it provides law firms and others in the corporate world a forum to discuss some touchy, but important, issues.

Anyway, it’s always fascinating to me to hear about an author’s journey from “aspiring writer” to “published author” and Helen’s story is no exception.  Below are some of the reasons why.

It Took Her Over a Decade to Publish

The process from start to publication took Helen 12 years.  On the one hand, she says that there were gaps in time when her manuscript literally collected dust.  On the other hand, she also says that the growth she experienced during those 12 years ultimately helped inform the novel.

How did she do it? Well, she got an agent the old fashion way.  She wrote a query letter, sent it out and endured some rejection before finally landing one.  Interestingly, she said it was finding a publisher that was the hard part.  Many publishers simply didn’t believe there was a market for a story about an Asian American woman trying to make it at a law firm.  My guess is that they realized the errors of their ways while reading the cover story of the Washington Post magazine last weekend.

Her Novel Doesn’t Fit Neatly Into One Genre

Anyone who reads this blog knows that the topic of genres is one that I find intriguing, troublesome, fascinating and confusing.  While I understand the general purpose of categorization, I’m not convinced that publishers go about the process in a way that maximizes the benefit to the author or the reader.

In Helen’s case, the problem was that her novel did not neatly fit into any one genre as the WaPo wrote:

Her main character wasn’t some confused editorial assistant, so the book did not qualify as chick-lit. There was no trip to China, where the protagonist met relatives from her parents’ homeland, so it was not a traditionally ethnic story. The book’s law firm setting gave it elements of a legal novel, but the main character was a Chinese American woman. No one had seen that before…”

I did some digging to see what everyone decided.  On Amazon, the novel appears to be listed in the Asian American category.  In Goodreads, its listed under Adult, Drama, Law, Chick Lit, New York, Contemporary and Novels.  Barnes and Noble tagged it with Legal Matters and Grisham & Co.

Shrug.  All I know is that Helen agrees with me that the whole genre thing is very confusing.  I should have asked her what genre she would place the book in.

Helen’s Agent Was Willing to Work With Her on Her Novel

At some point during this novel-writing process, I had concluded that agents are no longer willing to take the time to turn a good story into a great novel.  Gone were the days when agents were there to provide feedback and insight in addition to pitching your novel to publishers.  Either your novel was near-perfect on submission or it was not published.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Helen that I had reached the wrong conclusion.  While there are certainly agents who are focused solely on publishing as quickly as possible, many are willing to work with authors and that was her experience.  She advised that when I’m ready, I add that to my list of requirements in an agent.  I will!

She is Now a Spokeswoman for Diversity and Inclusion in Corporate America

Fiction is a platform that gives you immediate credibility on a topic.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

We writers are often told that we need platforms to get published; however, Helen is another example that the reverse can also be true: publishing fiction about a non-fiction topic can make you an authority on that non-fiction topic whether that was your intention or not.

In the case of Helen, she is a now a go-to person for HR and diversity departments who want to have a discussion on diversity in the workplace.  It makes sense—clearly these are issues that she has thought about in depth.  That said, from what I understand it was neither her intention or expectation to be placed into this role even though she certainly seems to have embraced it.

I think her experience and others like it is something that writers should be paying attention to as they start thinking about the selling part of the noveling process.  Perhaps they/we need to consider platform from a different perspective.  Instead of blogging about writing—like so many of us writers do—maybe it makes more sense for a crime novelist to blog about crime or a chick-lit novelist to blog about dating or a fantasy novelist to blog about the Game of Thrones, you know?

Because look at Helen—first, she published a book.  Then, the book gave her a platform to discuss an issue that is important to her that had nothing to do with writing or publishing.  This platform enabled her to sell more books than she or her publisher expected.  The sales allowed her to quit her job at Time and become a full-time writer.

Even though to some extent the attention has veered away from “writing” and “noveling,” in the end it is the platform discussing diversity in corporate America that enabled her to live the dream of being a professional, full-time writer.

Anyway, I had a great time meeting Helen and discussing both writing and diversity issues with her.  Til next time—adios!

Jennifer Weiner: The Ombudsman of Publishing-World Sexism

We all know that I love Jennifer Weiner. And that, while I enjoy her books, it’s really her perceptiveness of the publishing industry and her willingness to call people out on their ish that makes me a real fan. She questions the institution and the way things have always been done and I really believe that her role as the “ombudsman of publishing-world sexism” is opening the doors for me and female fiction writers everywhere.

The New Yorker wrote a profile on JW and her “quest for literary respect” this week. When women write about an emotional journey they are often marginalized—dismissed as something that is not literature despite containing dark themes or vivid descriptions.  Their work is devalued by places like, well, The New Yorker. The decision for that publication to profile JW is interesting in itself—The New Yorker is one of the few magazines that publishes fiction, but usally written by men. It’s basically part of the uppity institution that JW’s known for criticizing.  I guess profiling her was the magazine’s response to criticism?

But in true New Yorker style, the article was extremely well written and I felt a fair depiction of her. I learned about JW and her career and I admire her even more now. The piece notes that author Jonathan Frazen described JW’s fight against the publishing industry as “self-promotion.” I think he’s right. And I like that. JW seems to have this complete and utter trust in her abilities and instincts. First, she confidently writes about people like herself in a style tone that enjoys to read and then, she advocates for herself when it feels like no one else will. The result? Millions of books sold and the elevation to cultural spokeswoman. The reality is that modesty is not always such a virtue when it comes to your career. It’s those who self promote who get noticed and heard. So, whatevs Franzen.

Slate also reacted (in not quite as friendly a way) to this idea of JW’s literary quest as a means of self-promotion.

Anyway below are some highlights from the profile that I found interesting:

  • JW has never been reviewed by the New York Times despite having sold millions of books and been on the best seller list for months. This is interesting because “un-literary” but successful male authors such as Dan Brown have been reviewed several times.
  • The New York Times has made some changes to its Book Review, including hiring Pamela Paul—who cares about gender issues—as the new editor. Recently they introduced a new column called “The Shortlist” that features a capsule of reviews grouped by genre.  JW’s response? “Maybe they are doing focus groups, and lots of people are, like, ‘Could you please not write all the time about whatever Presidential biography you are reviewing for the second time?’”
  • On JW’s separation from her husband: “We expected that things would proceed one way—he’d be the primary breadwinner, a successful attorney, and I’d make less money, stay home with the kids, with fiction essentially a lucrative hobby…When it didn’t work out that way, I think we both had a hard time rewriting the contract of the marriage.”
  • This quote from Adelle Waldman’s novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P”: “Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. . . . It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact. . . . But who cares, right? It’s just girl stuff.”