Deciding to Write in Dialect

When my mother started teaching, the word Ebonics hadn’t yet been coined; nobody had grappled in the academic journals as to whether to accept it in the classroom or make students speak a more mainstream, i.e., white, speech.  All she knew was that she couldn’t understand her students easily and assumed that if she couldn’t, than neither could others and this barrier in speech would create a barrier in life.  So, without saying that black speech was bad, she […]

February 3rd, 2015|Creative Process|

What makes a story resonate?

My mother was known for being a storyteller. As she grew older, she repeated the stories more and more, but I still listened. I knew exactly what she was going to say; she’d use the same phrases over and over, with the same inflections. But every time, I enjoyed hearing her. And she enjoyed telling the stories.

So why didn’t it work to just take her stories, write them down, and include them in my book? […]

January 26th, 2015|Creative Process|

Fears About Writing About Race

I’m nervous even as I write this first line.  How does a white person write about her interactions with black people in a way that doesn’t offend anyone?  There are so many ways that I can be offensive without meaning to be.  And it’s not just being politically incorrect that scares me.  What’s defined as correct changes over time.  I’m talking about something more personal.  In many cases, I’m writing about people I know, love, and respect, and I […]

January 19th, 2015|Creative Process|

Family Reaction to My Writing

Not very long ago, I wouldn’t have been able to write much about my sister Connie.  She’s nine years older than me and I imagine she didn’t find me particularly interesting when we were young.  I know, though, that she liked the letters I wrote to her at college, for she told me she read them out loud to her friends over lunch.  Once I was away at college myself, I realized how precious those handwritten letters were.

I wasn’t […]

January 12th, 2015|Creative Process|

How I Became Cyrano de Bergerac

Writing in my mother’s voice came in handy when she decided to seek my father’s input on her journal.  They’d been divorced for thirty years, but she still valued his opinion and denied ever having felt anger at him for leaving her.  When she asked me to mail a chapter to him for comment, I wasn’t surprised.  What did take me aback, though, was the tone of the letter she drafted to accompany the material.  It was an attack […]

December 29th, 2014|Creative Process|

I’m no expert on the civil rights movement.

When people ask me what my book is about, my standard response is to say that when I was ten years old in 1967, my father transplanted our family from a suburb of Boston to a small, all-black town in Mississippi, where he was the first medical director of a clinic and my mother taught at the local high school. And I was the only white student at my junior high.

It’s an important story and one that gets people’s […]

December 15th, 2014|Creative Process|

Starting with a Single Anecdote

My mother was lost for days, believing that she had completed something worthwhile and convinced that there was nothing more she could do.  Then we had a breakthrough.  “Start with a single anecdote, one that you find exciting to tell, that you know inside out, that you think will move people.  And rewrite it, providing as much detail as you remember.”

Then I suggested the day that she had marched in Mississippi with her students and fellow teachers in memory […]

December 8th, 2014|Creative Process|

My Mother’s Journals

All her life, my mother loved being a storyteller. She had a phenomenal memory and spoke of her children and grandchildren, her nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents. She was the historian of the family and eventually, when everyone else from her generation had passed on, the extended family all begged her to write everything down, fearing that otherwise, the stories would be lost.

It wasn’t until she’d been retired from teaching for over fifteen years that […]

December 1st, 2014|Creative Process|

Writing in My Mother’s Voice

Sharing a writing project with my mother was a remarkable experience. It allowed our relationship to grow in a way that would otherwise not have been possible. It prompted me to spend over a thousand hours listening while she told and re-told all the family anecdotes. More than that, however, it pushed our relationship to a new level as I constantly asked her how various incidents had made her feel. As we worked together, her stories grew from simply […]

November 24th, 2014|Creative Process|

Fears About Writing

In addition to concerns about my siblings’ reactions to my work, I have the fears that every writer has:  is my book worthy of publication?  I have no doubt that the story is an important one.  It’s worth telling of my mother’s transformation from a woman with tremendous insecurities – one who viewed herself primarily as a platform from which her husband and children could fly – to a confident high school teacher capable of dramatically changing the lives […]

January 19th, 2014|Creative Process|