I wrote a short story entitled Answering the Bell about a fatherless girl in high school training to be a boxer. She has all the problems of a typical student-athlete; mom, school, boys. I submitted the story to an anthology entitled, Shatter Your Image, by Thomas A. Fowler’s Nerdy Things Publishing. The story was accepted and is now available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.
All proceeds will go to a lovely charity called Realize Your Beauty, which teaches healthy body image to girls of all ages. (www.realizeyourbeauty.org)
I’m proud of this story. It’s my first attempt at writing a female protagonist, as well as my first attempt at a literary story. (I guess I define literary as not having an obvious genre hook to hang on to.) Check it out. Thomas Fowler is planning a Denver book signing party. When it happens, I will let all of you know!
Artists have a reputation for being quite emotional. You’re either perceived as being high strung, histrionic, or bipolar. All of which may be true at one point or another. (I tend to be histrionic, myself.) I think these perceptions come from two main areas. The struggle of trying to make money from your art, and the struggle to earn the title of artist. Whenever you try to take that title for yourself, up pops imposter syndrome.
You know what I’m talking about.
That little voice in your head that says your art is a joke. It tells you that you don’t belong in this rarified world. You’re worse than an amateur, you’re a fraud. Real artists will laugh at how bad your art is. They’ll pretend not to see you in public because you embarrass them.
Imposter syndrome. It’s real. I suffer from it. Other artists I know suffer from it. It’s very common.
For me it strikes when I tell people I’m a writer and they give me that quizzical look. Like, I used the wrong word in a sentence and they’re wondering if they heard it right.
“What? You can’t make money at that.”
“Aren’t you the dreamer!”
“Oh (uncomfortable silence,) that’s interesting.”
I immediately get defensive.
I tell them I’ve been blogging for over a year now. That I was editor-in-chief of an online magazine. I tell them I’ve been traditionally published four times.
None of those things matter. And they shouldn’t.
The truth is that I shouldn’t care, but I do. I want the respect and (if I’m being honest,) adulation of all around me. When I don’t get it, Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head. Why I get upset about what a passing acquaintance says about me, I’ll never know. I think we’re all wired to want, at some level, the approval of our community, of our tribe.
The problem is that these people don’t matter. I could publish a book, invite them to my book signing, track them down when they don’t show
up, and give them a free, autographed copy and they still would be skeptical. In addition, their opinion of me still wouldn’t matter.
I define who & what I am. The same should be true for you, too.
Look, I have a secret to tell you. There are no gatekeepers anymore.
I don’t have to have a book deal with Penguin or St. Martin’s Press. I don’t have to be interviewed by the Today Show, or MSNCBC. I don’t need any of that to call myself a writer. All I need is to give myself permission to be a writer. The rest is about the work.
It’s about getting up, every day, and finding time to write, edit, & market. You gotta do the work. Eventually, people will see the work you do and acknowledge you as the artist you are – or they won’t. Either way it doesn’t matter.
Walt Disney once said “We don’t make movie to make money. We make money to make more movies.” It was always about the art.
As you explore the art you love, dig deep into to it, immerse yourself in its workings and craft, you won’t care what people think. You’ll begin to reshape your vision of yourself. You will shatter your image, pick up the shards of your former self, and recast it into something you recognize, something beautiful.
That will be all the recognition you need.
You can like Jason’s Facebook Author page at Jason Henry Evans
or, follow Jason on Twitter @evans_writer
The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
The Sapphire is one of the most enduring black stereotypes in literature, film and television. A black woman with a strong will and a strong back. She always speaks the truth – especially to the white people. She gets laughs and inspires courage. Yet her humor masks her truth telling. We love her because she is strong, courageous even, while being heartwarming. Today we see her as an equal (which is a good thing,).
So, what’s wrong with this trope and how can we fix it?
Here are the top four things wrong with the Sapphire trope and the two things we, as writers, can do to fix it.
1.) The Sapphire loves the white family – a little too much.
She cooks amazing meals, is there early and stays late & helps raise the little white children. The sapphire is more than a maid or housekeeper, she is a surrogate mother – and that is the problem.
She does everything for the white children. Literally everything. Doesn’t this woman have a family of her own? What about her kids? What about her husband & family? Yet she is always there for her white employers. Yes, it’s her hard work and nurturing that gives her the moral authority to teach wisdom to the children and her employers. However, what is her status?
The Sapphire is in some kind of limbo where the white children are concerned. Her authority comes from her white employer and not because of her own moral authority or relationships with the child.
Look at Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, the woman is shown to be hard on Scout, to help her grow up. Scout even says:
She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why
I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older,
and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles
were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because
Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem
was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could
Her authority of Scout is only because Atticus takes her side, as the white male and head of the household. The Sapphire is in a kind of limbo because she’s doing the job of a mother – without the job title.
2.) The Sapphire emasculates the black man.
Her strength, whether its moral, physical or emotional, is unquestioned. She speaks truth to power. She is a courageous woman. However, in order for the Sapphire character to shine, she has to knock some sense into somebody. In shows like Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break, it was always the white kids who got the lessons about life from the sassy housekeeper. In shows like Good Times, it was Florida’s own children who got the brunt of it.
The character of JJ Evans on Good Times was a clown of the highest order. While later seasons showed him taking his art more seriously, becoming more of a productive citizen, the character could easily be confused with a minstrel show performing jive artists. While the rest of the family struggles, JJ was shiftless, sexually obsessed, lazy and a potential con artist. He always had a plan or a scheme that his mother, Florida Evans (or his father, to be fair,) had to stop.
In many ways, you can’t have a Sapphire without emasculating a black man around him. Go back and watch Mammy and Pork from Gone with the Wind. They don’t have many scenes together, but it’s clear who’s in charge.
3.) The Sapphire is a neutered woman.
The Sapphire’s strength is unparalleled. She is virtuous and is the soft spot everyone can lean on. All great story telling. Except, who does the Sapphire lean on? Who’s shoulder does she cry on?
Because her presentation to us, as reader, usually involved her being older, with copious amounts of fat on her, she is never presented as an object of sexual desire. Her romantic desires are never discussed.
No one is that strong.
And, while there are people who show no desire to form romantic relationships out there, the Sapphire is continuously portrayed as strong enough not to need a man – or anybody.
4.) The Sapphire is All Rage
The Sapphire is righteousness personified. She has no time for foolishness or crap while she tells it like it is. While she speaks the truth her emotions range from irritated to full blown rage. From Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, to Nell Carter’s Nellie in Gimmie a Break, this woman is angry.
A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia in the Color Purple. She is all rage and indignation and truth telling. Oprah gives a beautiful monologue about her abuse growing up to Whoopie Goldberg’s character Celie. It is a moving and heart wrenching scene. To Spielberg’s credit, he pushes Sofia to her natural conclusion and has her curse a white woman and slug a white man, which gets her sent to prison.
How do we avoid these stereotypes? How do we fix them?
As I have said at conferences before, fixing the stereotypes of black characters involves one major step: show agency.
If the black housekeeper loves the white children she cares for, show her choosing her own family over the people she works for. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, my own daughter is in a play tonight and I must see her. You’ll have to find someone else.”
No one will have a problem with this decision because it’s human.
If the Sapphire is emasculating the black male characters around her flip the script. Have those same men honor their mother/aunt/stepmother by taking the responsibilities away from her just once. Have her come home and dinner is cooking, the house is clean, and the men are waiting on her to show their love and respect. (This also has the added effect of eliminating the stereotype of the black male as shiftless, lazy and uncaring.)
Show the Sapphire as an object of desire. Have her talk about her lover, or husband or wife.
Let an older Sapphire have an opportunity to wax poetic about her lovers when she was younger. Let her brag about her figure and bust.
Let her break down and cry. Have her lean on her friends and get a hug. Allow people wait on her. Show her being vulnerable. Show her laughing, good naturedly. Let her have a passionate kiss.
Here is the incomparable Esther Rolle in Good Times showing a strong black woman being vulnerable.
Writing can be a solitary action. You can go to conferences (Pike’s Peak’s Conference is coming up!), join a critique group, get invited to book release parties. They are all fun. However, your job as a writer is to plant your butt in a seat and put words on the screen. For a lot of people, this can be very hard.
Today’s blog on historical fiction won’t have a lot of suggestions on how to put words on your screen. There is no secret to writing. If you say you are a writer, then you’re going to have to sit down and write.
There is a fallacy that writing requires inspiration at every turn.
There is a fallacy that writing requires lots and lots of talent.
There is a fallacy that writing requires an unburdened mind so you can concentrate.
None of these things are true.
All you need to write a book is a kernel of an idea and the intestinal fortitude to write it. Everything else you can learn along the way.
Is it going to be hard? Yes.
Will you get frustrated? Absolutely.
Will you discover knew deficiencies in your writing that you’ll have to correct? Count on it.
Will you probably poor blood, sweat and tears into a story you realize isn’t very good? Uh huh.
But that’s the process isn’t it? You have to go through this journey yourself in order to find the story that’s inside you. The only way to do it is to do it.
Enough badgering. Here is what helps me.
Because I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline, I plot out every scene I’m going to write for a novel. Those outlines show an emotional high, an emotional low, and a conflict. (Remember, every scene you write must have some sort of conflict in it.) Because I have these tools, (or crutches, depending on your point of view,) I can write out a scene. Then I can write another one. And another one. Eventually I have a book because I’ve outlined all my scenes.
I may decide to change something while I’m writing it, or I can go back and re-write. (more on that later) But at least I have something on the page.
Here’s another hint. Writing is a muscle, so use it every day.
If you can’t do this, I understand. You’ve got a life. Maybe you’re a full time student. Maybe you run a business. Maybe you’re fighting a disease like Cancer. I get it. But let me say this.
The world needs your story. Make your story a priority in your life. Carve out time, if only twenty minutes a day, and write.
Over a month, a season, or a year, you will write your novel. All you have to do is create a habit of writing. If you do that, over time, eventually you’ll have a completed manuscript. (Which is more than most writers have!)
So how do you do that?
It’s like brushing your teeth. You set a time of day and write. You make a writing place where you are in the habit of writing. The time is up to you. 4:30 in the morning or 10:00 at night. Whatever helps you. As for the place, it can be your kitchen table. It can be in your moved out kids converted bedroom. It can be in the tool shed. I once knew a college professor who had to write a book, so he would go to a set number of coffee shops and rotate. The time and place are up to you, it’s the habit that’s important.
Another hint: Flex your muscles by upping your daily word count.
When I first started writing I could barely write 1,000 words a day. It was exhausting. This was in 2013, the first time I participate in NaNoWriMo. That first week was killer! I knew I had to get to 1667 words a day, but I was exhausted! Things changed week 2.
By the end of the second week I was writing about 1700 words a day.
By the end of the third week I was averaging 2100 words a day.
By the end of the fourth week I was averaging 2300 words a day.
Now when I write, I get mental fatigue at about 3000 words, on average. So my advice to you is push yourself. Where ever you’re at when it comes to word volume. Tell yourself you will write 250 more words today than you usually write. If you average 500 words, try to write 750. If you write 2300, write 2550. Average that out for the week. Then, next week try to write 250 more words. I promise you that your daily word totals will go up.
Final hint: Write what you wanna write first.
Fellow writer and author James Vincett gets a scene in his mind. It’s like an itch he can’t reach. So he’ll put that scene down on paper. Then, he’ll get another scene in his head and write that one down, too. He’s written the fun stuff, first.
Once that is written, he’ll outline and write all the stuff that comes in between. For James, it’s an intellectual exercise in trying to connect two scenes together in a coherent and cogent way. It works for him.
As for me, like I wrote above, I outline all my scenes before I write. There are some I dread writing and others I really look forward to. I make myself write the mundane stuff first. I then reward myself by writing the cool stuff I wanted to write all along! Try it. Maybe it will work for you.
I am sorry I wasn’t more helpful. I’m sorry that all I could do is come up with some suggestions to help you stay motivated. However, this is where your metal is tested. Are you really a writer? If so, then write. Write every day, if you can. Get some progress under your belt. Even if you only write a page a day, that is better than no pages at all. Remember, the worst page written is better than the perfect book in your head.
Follow Jason on Twitter @evans_writer
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