“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”~Ernest Hemingway.
Reginald and Henrietta joined our family soon after we arrived in Jamaica. As city folk transplanted to rural Jamaica, we accepted the gifts as pets, not as the dinner (Reggie the rooster) and breakfast producer (Henrietta the Hen) they were supposed to be. Of course the gift givers were taken aback by these white folk who did not appreciate the practical nature of living things. But I was able to play with little chicks, and learn that roosters can fly (at least high enough to perch on Reggie’s favorite sleeping branch.) And I learned to wake up to a living alarm clock.
Like most people, the first place that I was published was in my high school yearbook. Many of us had our first (bad) poem published there; after all, we are all convinced we are poets. But I wrote a short story about a girl. The only thing I clearly remember about the story was that I described the girl as having freckles, and that I wrote what I thought was a plot twist as the last line. My memory is quite imperfect, but the plot twist may have been that the description appeared to be of a mature young lady, and the final line was that she was only twelve years old.
I learned an important lesson about writing when that piece was published. The number of females (including at least one teacher) who came up to me and told me they knew it was written about them was quite shocking to me. I certainly had not been describing any of them (perhaps I had been describing some ideal version of myself!).
I was once told that a famous, award winning Caribbean novelist was unable to return home after publishing her first novel. Supposedly so many people in her home town felt she had ‘put their business out there’ that she was not at all welcome! It is true that a writer is supposed to ‘write what you know’; after all, it is hard to write convincingly about a topic you are unfamiliar with. Fantasy and science fiction authors have to reach deep into their imagination, but often the human emotions and experiences that are included in their plot lines are ones people can identify with. After all, one of the things that pulls readers in is the ability to believe what you are reading. They call it suspension of disbelief, when an author can make you enter their world, and find things credible, no matter how unlikely.
But most first time writers often write a lightly disguised version of their own life, with disclaimers in the front to remind people that any similarity to real events is coincidental. That may not prevent someone from believing your fictionalized story is a little too close for comfort. A friend once told me she believes everyone has at least one book inside them, and most people at some point in their life will say, ‘I should write a book’. Most of us have amazing untold stories, or even stories told which have listeners laughing, or crying, or sitting in jaw-dropped amazement. The ease of self-publishing has turned many of us into published authors, instead of rejected wannabes.
As a writer of non-fiction (although I do have that unfinished first novel waiting to be polished and published) I have to be even more cautious about what I write. Those who are frequent readers know that I collect inspiration from NPR, from articles I read, but most of all from my life, and the lives of those with whom I come in contact. I try (and hope that I succeed) to use real-life examples to illustrate my themes without having someone upset that I drew from their life. The point is after all to show how much we have in common, how many life experiences we share.
But there is another needle that I have to thread very carefully. There is a saying in Jamaica that you may throw corn, but ‘you no call no fowl’. As a young child I was responsible for feeding Henrietta and Reginald and the offspring that survived the mongoose. There is a multicolored hard kernel corn that is thrown (clatter clatter clatter) and those fowls come running. You don’t even need to add any vocalization to get their attention (although you may if you wish!), they will come running. In the typical Jamaican evocative style of speech, it is possible to ‘trow you corn’ (throw out your corn) to get someone’s attention without calling them out by name. You can then stand back after the person responds to the barb and deny those words were intended for that particular person.
In truth, we sometimes hear corn thrown our way when it was not intended to be for us. Whether we are particularly sensitive or have a guilty conscience about something, we may rush to defend ourselves when the corn was thrown for someone else! On Friday mornings I have a forum, a pulpit from which I can preach. It is tempting to put out a message intended for one person, but often I try to avoid that. I do not want someone thinking that I am aiming my message at them. Much of the time I throw my corn at myself, a reminder to try to live by the words I write.
This Friday morning I hope you will take care with your corn, not to throw it too hard. Remember to think (and breathe) before you speak (or write!). Sometimes our words do not come out as intended, and you may ‘mash’ someone’s corn (another Jamaican saying referring to those painful toe varieties!). And remember that we have a strong tendency to judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves on our intentions (and we usually have such good intentions!).
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!