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.




Embracing Publishing Trends (Fyi, Afropolitans—Now is Your Moment)

The publishing industry is a fickle thing.  The lawyer side of me likes to think that the creative world isn’t so market-driven, but it’s not quite so.  Of course the best thing I (or any other writer) can do is write the stories in my heart; however, it would be a mistake to pretend like trends don’t exist in the publishing world.  Vampires can be a trend.  So can black fiction (I’m not saying that’s appropriate, but I think it’s true).

Here’s the problem with publishing trends: a book comes out that is extremely popular (e.g., Twilight or Waiting to Exhale or the DaVinci Code or whatever the first Chick Lit book was).  Publishers get excited and order millions of other books in that genre (quality is secondary).  People buy these novels expecting to pick up another Waiting to Exhale or Something Borrowed but instead they get something that just sucks.  Again and again and again.  Finally, they decide the whole genre sucks.  Or publishers decide the whole genre no longer sells.  When really, the problem was that the publishers chose far too many sh*t*y books to begin with.  Then someone comes along with a story about a vampire, woman looking for love, or a symbologist that’s actually GOOD and they don’t stand a chance.  Or at least, the process is harder than it should be given the quality of their work. A vicious cycle.

So yeah, there are some problems in the way the publishing industry works.  But trends aren’t going away.  I accept that.  In fact, I embrace it.  The key for budding authors like myself may be to become aware of the trends and then try to jump in when we can.  My novel teacher said it’s a good time to write if you’re a minority—yes!  Want to write about China?  Probably a good move.  Personally, I’ve noticed that now seems to be the moment of the Afropolitan.  I’m talking about Africans educated in U.S. or Europe writing about their experiences.  This year alone you have Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and those are just the few that I’ve come across in mainstream magazines like Glamour and Vogue (what you thought I was reading the NYT? Actually, they’re in there too).  So if you are an Afropolitan—fyi, now is your moment.

I’m not an Afropolitan, but I’m going to go ahead and say it’s my moment too.  Or, better yet—maybe I can START a trend.  My book will be so successful, publishers will buy millions more just like it!  The only problem is, I don’t know what my genre is.  Women’s contemporary fiction? But half of it is male POV.  African American fiction?  But my whole thing is that I’m trying to write for a wide audience.  When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know!

Have you noticed any other publishing trends?  What do you think?

My Evening with “Waiting to Exhale” Author Terry McMillan SUPER UPDATE AT THE END!

TM1I remember when I first learned about Terry McMillan. I must have been 8 or 9 years old, and my Mom was so excited about this book called “Waiting to Exhale.” It was summer, and apparently all the “mothers” were reading it.  It truly felt like a must-read–I mean like, you better read this book or you can’t come to my party type of the thing.  Anyway, years later, I picked it up and read it myself.  Then I found another Terry McMillan book my mom’s shelf, so I read that. Then I found another one and another one–my mom must have just bought all of them! After that, every time I heard Terry had a book coming out I just bought it. Most recently that was “Getting to Happy” the sequel to “Waiting to Exhale.”  Given my initial introduction to Terry’s books, the book signing I attended on Saturday at Sixth & I felt very different the ones I attended for Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin. It had a familial vibe even though I didn’t actually know anyone. Many of the audience members reminded me of my Mom and her friends and I can’t help but think that if the event had been in New York I would have, at the very least, run into a couple of them.


But back to the signing. I have to say Terry McMillan was an interesting character. She had a huge red fro and thick white glasses, and didn’t just read from her upcoming book—she basically acted it out. Afterwards, this GW professor sat and asked her some questions. Terry was funny and frank, although not the best speaker I’ve heard (Jennifer Weiner still wins that contest). Terry seemed like someone who preferred to express herself on paper, which I liked because I get that. It was like whenever someone asked a question, she had so much to say but had trouble getting it all out correctly. But she didn’t try to placate us, she gave authentic, genuine, funny answers.

I, of course, asked a question. Terry had said her latest book had 15 points of view, including one from an 8 year old boy, so I asked her how she got in the minds of people so unlike herself.  She basically said that it requires a certain degree of compassion and empathy. You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To further make her point she said, “I’ve never been a crackhead, but now I know what it’s like to be one” (because she’s written about one and presumably put herself in one’s shoes) and “I’ve never been in jail, but I know what it’s like now.” Basically you have to listen to how people talk around you and then just imagine. It’s important to get lost when you write. Words of wisdom from Terry Mcmillan people. Awesome.

Other interesting tidbits: Terry knows everything about her characters before she starts writing– their birthdays, their views on abortion, whether they pay their bills on time–and most of it never makes it the story. She also discussed her views on the publishing world.  She thinks it’s pretty messed up right now because of the economy, sexism and racism. Still, she told us writers not to be discouraged, but not to quit our day jobs. Word.

In the end, Terry McMillan signed my book. She remembered that I was the “girl with the low voice” (I just wasn’t speaking into the microphone!) and seemed to enjoy being around her fans. Overall, I would describe it as an inspiring night with one of my favorite authors. Time to get back to writing (and my day job!)


UPDATE: I tweeted this blog post to Terry McMillan and she replied!!!  She said “Thank you. Very thoughtful. I’ll try to be more eloquent. Not really! I call it the way it comes out. Best to you & your Mom!”  Lol.  I said “No, don’t be. I loved it! Thanks for coming to D.C.!” 🙂  Omg, I love Twitter!!