Tag Archives: writing

“What do I owe?” | An Evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fun fact: I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing. I got Between the World and Me in 2015 and never looked back. Just a year later, he started writing Black Panther, and I recall reading digital issues on my iPad in my dorm room, huddled under the covers like a child. In 2018, I was awarded my Master’s degree for a thesis in part based on those comics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been an important part of my intellectual coming of age story; so naturally, when I heard he would be keynoting at ASWAD (which was being held in my city), I knew I had to be in that room.

I sat in the packed room last night, taking in the conversation. It wasn’t a traditional lecture, but a dialogue between Coates and a long time friend, Dr. Benjamin Talton of Temple University. The two covered a lot of ground, moving from the intellectual places and forums Coates inhabits to the digital spaces he has shied away from; they discussed his seminal piece, “The Case for Reparations,” and his newest piece of fiction, The Water Dancer; and in between were insightful remarks about practicing history. He read a few passages from the novel and then answered a series of questions from the audience about everything from narrative voice to writing as activism.

There are so many strands of thought that I could potentially pull out as I use this post to digest what I heard Friday night, but I think I want to focus on two moments in particular. The first moment was a series of questions Coates asks himself when he writes:

“What’s my duty? What’s my commitment? What do I owe?”

I wrote the questions down and almost missed a significant portion of the talk because as he discussed his own duty and commitment to writing, I began to think of my own.

I tackle these questions often, think about them almost daily, mull them over with Micah. I think about duty when I write fiction, considering the Black girls for whom I write. I think about my commitment to accessibility in my academic writing. I insist upon maintaining my personality in my writing because I want to show how you make a space for yourself when everything tells you that you are not welcome. And I often think about what I owe to myself. Of course, much of what I do is for other Black girls, but truly, the bulk of my work is selfish. It’s for the little girl I was who needed the stories I find different ways to tell.

I want to show my younger self that I gave myself permission to be large.

There’s magic in that act, which, in a way, leads me to the second moment I’ve been chewing on from Coates. Someone asked Coates about the magic in Harriet and the magic of representations, and he said what I have been preaching about for the last year or so. The supernatural is present, and has always been present, in our narratives. He’s being faithful to the way enslaved folks saw the world, and despite the circumstances, it was always tinged with a touch of magic. He used the talisman Frederick Douglass received that was supposedly to keep him from being beaten ever again as an example. I would also point to Charles Chesnut’s Conjure Woman Tales, and Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of Hoodoo, and Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, and Solomon the Flying African, and and and.

Our people are magic, in particular our women. And Coates acknowledges that openly and that moment encouraged me to move forward with my dissertation investigation. To have someone who has been such a force in my intellectual life unknowingly validate my belief was a powerful moment.

And even more exciting was learning that Coates and I share intellectual lineage. When asked about professors and spaces that shaped his thinking, he of course mentioned Howard University and several of the professors he interacted with there. In his fairly extensive list was Dr. Blakey. In stunned disbelief, I wondered if he was talking about the Dr. Blakey that I knew and had as a professor back in 2017. A quick peak at Wikipedia confirmed what I knew as Coates described the work Blakey had done: Coates and I had interacted with and been taught by the same professor.

I came into that room wanting an autograph but I left with an invaluable gift: things to think about. Coates has been provoking me to push further with my thinking for several years now, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in person.


If you want to know more about the conference, check out the ASWAD website: http://aswadiaspora.org/

Meeting Nic Stone and Other Adventures in Friendship with Writers

Last Wednesday night, I got to meet Nic Stone.

For context, there are a bunch of contemporary Black and Latinx women writers (primarily YA fiction writers, but many of them write across genres) who I love, read frequently and carefully, and follow on Twitter and Instagram. This list includes, but is absolutely not limited to: Eve Ewing, Morgan Jerkins, Angie Thomas, Tiffany Jackson, L. L. McKinney, Elizabeth Acevedo, Tomi Adeyemi, Nina Moreno, Erika L. Sanchez, Lilliam Rivera, and, of course, Nic Stone.

Over my life, I’ve gotten more or less the same advice about writing, packaged in different forms: read widely and voraciously, and study the careers of those you admire. Naturally, with the advent of social media, watching my favs make power moves has gotten increasingly easy–as has connecting with them.

I was doing an early morning scroll through Twitter on Tuesday when I came across a flyer for a book signing and Q&A with Nic and author Lamar Giles in Richmond the next day. Up until the moment I saw that advertisement, I had been planning an impromptu trip to the city on Thursday for a Harry Potter flash tattoo event. Jokingly, I tweeted a poll asking my followers if I should go see Nic or get the tattoo, and to my surprise, Nic voted and quote-tweeted my poll, saying, “I voted for me, but 100% because I can’t go to the tattoo event and I’m petty.” The moment she tweeted that, I knew I was going to be at that book event. She seemed a kindred spirit: a Black Potterhead writer with a petty streak.

Even before the Twitter poll closed, I was already picking out my best Harry Potter themed outfit and planning my route to the Chesterfield Barnes and Noble where the event would be held. Before I knew it, Wednesday had come and I was driving an hour against the afternoon sun to meet Nic Stone.

I arrived just in time to grab a snack from the Barnes and Noble in the store before the Q&A began in earnest. Lamar and Nic are good friends, so their easy rapport and back-and-forth made me smile as Lamar volleyed Nic questions. As we neared the end of the Q&A, Lamar opened the floor up to the audience to ask folks what they thought two writers talked about. I smiled to myself as they called back, “Books!” and “Writing!” I made a mental note to tell my soul sister, Micah, about that part when I got home. Later, after I sent her the message, she laughed at the text and replied, “If only they could see our chats.”

Micah has been my writing partner in crime going on four years now. I’ve read multiple drafts of just about everything she’s written since Black Monologues 2015, and she’s my first pair of eyes on most everything I work on as well. Before meeting her, I was never brave enough to think that I could actually publish my writing. Now, I actively keep a stack of projects in my back pocket, ready to pitch at a moment’s notice. Yeah, we talk about writing and drafts and books, but we also have extremely emotional conversations about This Is Us. We have watched Brown Sugar together at the same time in different states so we can live-text each other our reactions even though we’ve both seen the film at least two dozen times. I bore her to tears with rants about Smallville and Avatar the Last Airbender and Harry Potter; she sends me playlists that she knows will take me years to actually sit down and listen to. We talk about God and Indian food; love and mental health; our hopes and our dreams. To be fair, I want to say a solid 90% of them involve writing–but our conversations are as wild as our dreams.

I was thanking God for my soul sister while I watched Nic and Lamar talk, really seeing what a difference it makes to have writer friends.

I waited for about an hour in line to get my books signed, making friends with some nice librarians and a high school English teacher (who was incidentally a W&M alumna) as the line inched forward. Finally, it was my turn. I walked up to the table, suddenly realizing I’d been standing there for an hour and I had come up with nothing to say to either Nic or Lamar. Fortunately, Nic noticed my Deathly Hallows t-shirt, which gave me the opening to tell her I was the girl from the Twitter poll she’d retweeted. One of my librarian friends, who I had handed my phone to for pictures, managed to capture the exact moment when Nic gleefully remembered the tweet and by extension me. She also captured the joy on my face when Nic hopped up to give me a very genuine hug.

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A little stunned, I managed to tell her and Lamar a little about me while Nic signed my copy of Dear Martin and Jackpot: that I was a Ph.D. candidate by day and a YA writer/essayist by night; I researched Black women and girls in new media fantastic, digital and futuristic narratives; and that I looked up to folks like her and Lamar. Both of them were warm and engaged as I struggled to make coherent sentences. Finally, after she realized that I was a Ravenclaw, that you could make the “Ravynnclaw” pun and adjusted my personalized autographs in the books to reflect this discovery, I got my picture with both of them, packed up my books, and headed home.

Meeting Nic was amazing for so many reasons. How often do you get to meet a NYT Bestselling author? How often do you get to hug one? Or get a book signed? But beyond that, she met me with real sincerity and interest. It would have been so easy for her to shrug it off when I said I was a writer, but her immediate response was: “Are you working on something?” In a few short moments, we bonded over Harry Potter and tattoos, as well as the craft.

That night, when I got home, and she liked and responded to many of my fangirl tweets about the event, I thought about how lucky Nic’s friends are to have this genuine person in their lives that also happens to be a talented writer.

And then I remembered, as I excitedly sent Micah photo after photo, videos and voice memos as I sat in bed, that I am lucky to have a very genuine person in my life, that also happens to be a very talented writer.

Writers need writers. But we also need friends.

It’s awesome when they’re both.


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Writing (and Defending) A Prospectus

In my Ph.D. program, after successfully completing your comprehensive exams, you then produce a prospectus. The prospectus is, in many ways, a speculative document. Think of it as a proposal for the dissertation: you are creating something that outlines the main research questions, the methodology, the existing literature, and your proposed intervention, while also giving your committee a sense of your timeline to completion. A prospectus is multi-faceted and multi-functional, thereby making it one of the most difficult genres of writing.

To start writing my prospectus, the first thing I did was check my handbook to see what the parameters and expectations were. These were the instructions given:

“The prospectus will give a full description of the inquiry to be undertaken. It will identify an issue or problem, explain how this bears upon or intervenes in a particular field of scholarship, relate the topic to previous and on-going works, detail the several parts of the project and show their interrelations, name the key primary sources, outline the principle methods, and suggest a timetable for completion. Such a prospectus should run between 3500 and 5000 words (approximately 14-20 pages) and should include as a supplement a bibliography of the principal primary and secondary sources.”

 

Next, I broke this up into sections that I knew I needed to answer:

  • Description of the inquiry
  • Identify an issue or problem
  • Explain how this intervenes in a field of scholarship
  • Relate the topic to previous or on-going works
  • Detail the parts of the project
  • Name the sources
  • Methodology
  • Timetable to completion

After I had the barebones structure, I reached out to a few trusted colleagues who were ahead of me in the same program, hoping to see their prospecti. I asked for and received about three prospecti to examine. Looking at their documents gave me a sense of how to structure my own.

Admittedly, I did something a little unconventional in terms of writing my first draft. The week after my oral comprehensive exam, I did a week long writing retreat sponsored by William & Mary Libraries, and spent five entire days just writing. I simply worked on drafting responses to each of the sections, and took advantage of being in the library to help build my bibliography and source material. By that Friday, I had a 20 page outline for what would eventually become my prospectus.

Following the retreat, with the exception of adding a section about the creative component I wanted to produce, I left it alone for almost the entire summer, coming back to it just before the start of the fall semester. Being able to leave it was a Godsend because I was able to reapproach my questions and methodology with fresh eyes and new ideas. I spent about two weeks stitching together my blocks of text, smoothing them out, connecting them more seamlessly until the document flowed as a cohesive unit.

Once I was happy with the way it read, I started to send it out to my chairs. Both offered substantive content and structural edits, which I took to heart and used to make my prospectus stronger.

After making the appropriate edits, I emailed the professors who would serve as my committee for my Prospectus Colloquium. In many programs, the defense of the prospectus is a much bigger deal than it is in mine. For some, one is not considered a candidate or “All But Dissertation” (ABD) until successful completion of the prospectus defense. In my program, we don’t even consider the colloquium “a defense;” it’s much more of a conversation about the project, a low key way to offer feedback that should propel you forward and help mold your path further.

Indeed, my colloquium was just that. Everyone was pleased with my proposed project, my methodology, my conversation with theorists, my proposed research and the creative component. They offered a few suggestions of note which would help me structure my chapters and overall narrative. Despite the project being “innovative” and “trail-blazing,” one of my chairs had very valid concerns about my work being legible in a way that would secure me a job.

I’m not sure I allayed her fears when I informed her that I’m not worried about being legible to older, white folks on search committees. My work is for Black girls that were and are like me. As long as I’m writing for them, I’m walking in my purpose and that is all I can ask for. Like I told my mother after the colloquium, I’m at a point where I’m no longer super concerned about landing a job in the Academy after I finish the Ph.D. I have so many skills and passions that something will turn up for me. That said, I have never been one who believed in simply waiting for things to fall in my lap. You must stay sharp and prepared so when opportunity comes knocking, you are ready. For me, that means getting my work out there in a variety of ways so that when the right opportunity comes, I can take it.

For the time being, I need to consider my next steps, which includes making an obnoxious, color-coded outline for my dissertation; pasting a timeline (also color-coded) to my bathroom mirror; creating a dissertation hashtag; and opening a new file in Scrivener. So that’s what I’m doing this weekend.

I’m ready to begin in earnest.


If you are a graduate student in American Studies or a related field, and need help formulating your prospectus, I am happy to send mine along. Just reach out via email or DM and say a little about who you are, what your project is and how you think seeing my prospectus could help you along.