Geek Girl Learns…

…from Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors

White Girl Reads a Book for Black Authors While Eating Ramen in a Japanese Cafeteria…
…Welcome to the 21st Century?

Overview

Well, my craft book for this month was supposed to be James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. The significance of February washed completely over my head, despite the sign outside the high school flashing Black History Month facts at me for the first two weeks of February. I was gonna read Bell, and nothing outside was going to divert me.

What changed, you ask?

I went to a LitTalk hosted by the Dallas Fort Worth Writer’s Workshop. The evening’s theme was Exploring Identity in Fiction, and the speakers were Julie Murphy, Rebecca Balcárcel, and (most importantly for the purposes of this post) Sanderia Faye. It was a wonderful evening, and if you are anywhere near Dallas, I highly recommend the talks.

Anyways…

At the end of the evening, each of the authors was asked to recommend a craft book, and this was Sanderia’s. I was intrigued by the idea of a craft book that only used Black fiction as examples, so I bought the book.

Guys. Guys. Guys. It was fantastic!

…ahem…

The Good

If I told you everything that was great about this book, I would need to reprint the entire book on this post. Copyright law being god in the writer’s world, I will attempt to just give the highlights

  • Rhodes’ Writing Style
    • Unlike some other books that I’ve read, she doesn’t use large words just to prove that she is smart. In fact, she goes out of the way to reassure possibly intimidated new writers that what they have to say is worth saying, and that they are the only ones that can say it.
    • That’s not to say that it is just a book of affirmations designed to make readers feel good. These are tough lessons, but Rhodes leads writers gently through the process, providing support and examples through out.
    • Speaking of examples:
  • The examples (i.e. the Reason I Bought the Book)
    • Yes, every single example in the book is by a black author. And every single one is from a short story, novel, or other format designed to put words in front of a reader. So many many many craft books are actually screenwriting books. Or, at the very least, they use more examples from TV and movies than fiction. Now, I can understand the impulse. You reach a better audience with the TV and movie examples. But I am a writer. I want lessons on writing.
    • So you have a problem. You’re worried that the example that perfectly illustrates your point is too obscure to actually illustrate it. I may be a bad writing student, but I’m not going to read every book mentioned in a craft book, or even see every movie. (Though I will admit to watching The Godfather after reading Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.) Rhodes solves this problem by actually printing out full and complete stories that illustrate the lessons she wants to teach. Yup. There are multiple, in-depth examples to show character, plot, POV, description, dialogue, and theme.
    • And they are wonderful.
  • After the lessons
    • Here we have the affirmations. Almost 30 pages worth, in my copy. And not just affirmations, but bits of advice, humorous quotes, and spiritual pick-me-ups specifically for when you are struggling alone with your writing.
    • Did I mention they were all by Black authors?
  • The focus of the book
    • I’ll cover this a little later, too, but I love the focus of the book. The subtitle is “Fiction Lessons for Black Authors” and she sticks to it. This is a book that celebrates Black history, culture, literature, and oral tradition. You can feel the love she has for her traditions in every word.

The Wonderful

And now we come to it. The number one reason that I love this book. In the first chapter she encourages all her readers to buy a journal to write in. Fair enough. I’ve seen that multiple times. Most craft books will tell you to buy a journal or notebook so that you can write everyday.

But then she gives you assignments to write, reflections on the lessons and examples.

Yes. She gives specific things to write and reflect upon. And the assignments build one upon another. This is a book specifically designed to be torn apart as the reader uses the hell out of it. Reader participation wildly encouraged. And I love it. My only regret is that I didn’t get the book until the middle of the month, so I haven’t actually worked any of the lessons. (I was too worried about getting the 300+ pages read in time.)

The Interesting

And this is where I reflect on the uncomfortable feelings this book brought up. I am a White Girl (TM). I grew up in a white suburb in the South, and went to a white college in Arkansas. This book was not written for me. (Sometimes, I don’t even know how to refer to my friends respectfully. Black? African American?) At times, it was awkward reading this book. Rhodes was frank about aspects of Black culture that make me squirm when I confront them head on. I went in to this book hoping to get insights to help my characters become more fully human. I left it with a much greater respect for Black literature in general and the Black writing experience in greater specificity.

Does that mean that I can’t use this book? Would doing the exercises be some form of cultural appropriation? I hope not, but I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable, even as I wrote this post. I will probably end up working the lessons, they are too good not to, but there are some I simply can’t. (I can’t reflect on the impact of casual racism in my life, for example.)

And yet, I’m glad I read the book.

The Verdict

I will be keeping this book, and probably tearing through the lessons this summer, when I am not driving a school bus.

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