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Advice on Writing and Creativity From Famous Black Authors

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

What can the greats teach us about sustainable writing strategies?

What can the greats teach us about sustainable writing strategies?

As a not-yet-famous author of novels and short stories, I enjoy reading and learning from the best, and the best, to me, include writers of all races and nationalities. In this article, I am presenting advice on writing from renowned and legendary African-American authors that I've found to be useful in my writing adventures and journeys. In packaging this advice to share it with you, I have chosen to wrap it all up inside something that I call a sustainable perspective for writing. What is a sustainable perspective for writing? A sustainable perspective for writing is the outlook all writers and authors must have in order to complete any writing project.

While good writing skills make it fairly easy to begin most writing projects, since writing can be a completely daunting task that involves a lot more than technical skills and facility with language, in order to finish what we start, most of us need something more. We need to have an outlook, a personalized pathway that pushes beyond the pain, an outlook on life and/or on writing that can enable and allow us to go beyond beginning. We need to have a perspective on writing that sustains us, one that will fire us up using all the fuel and energy and creativity that we need in order to finish what we start.

To write a novel-length story, you will have to write from 80,000 to 100,000 or more words. But before you begin your exciting journey, you should give yourself a daily, weekly, and/or monthly word-count goal. You should have in mind an idea about how many words you want to get on paper by the end of a day, a week, and/or a month. Knowing how many words you’re capable of producing within a certain amount of time will help you keep a sustainable perspective about what to expect from yourself, realistically, as you work on completing your novel-writing project. And, continuously reaching your sustainable goals will keep you inspired and equipped with a durable, sustainable perspective (we’ll look more closely at this idea later). Having a sustainable perspective will help you maintain a positive attitude, and that positive attitude is the thing that I know is the primary key to completing your first novel.

What is a sustainable perspective? A sustainable perspective is a way of looking at your book project that will “outlast” any obstacle that life might send your way.

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Advice on Writing

The first author we’ll look at here is one of the world’s most renowned poets who had a sustainable perspective that worked well for him. With this in mind, I will begin with a brief look at the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872–February 9, 1906), and then I will look at the idea, based on quotes he shared throughout his life, that I believe reveals how and why this renowned poet and writer developed and maintained a sustainable perspective for writing. In his brief lifetime, Dunbar published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, a play, and wrote the lyrics for a musical. The acclaimed, legendary poet contracted and suffered from tuberculosis at a time when there was no known cure for the disease, and he passed away when he was only thirty-three years old.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar was among the first African-American writers to receive national attention. His parents, until after the Civil War, were enslaved in Kentucky. His mother and father had a troubled marriage that ended when he was a child, and his father, Joshua Dunbar, left his mother after Dunbar's younger sister was born. Joshua died in 1885, when Paul was only thirteen years old. Paul Laurence Dunbar started writing stories and verse when he was a child and became president of the literary society at his high school. His first poems were published in a Dayton newspaper.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar worked as editor for a newspaper called Dayton Tattler, a paper owned by whites, with editorial that targeted black readers. The Tattler was published by two of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s friends, two high school classmates of his whose names you might recognize—Orville and Wilbur Wright (yes, the same ones). It was working with his friends at this newspaper that impressed upon Dunbar, then an aspiring poet/writer, that he would have to reach beyond the economically and educationally challenged black communities of the nation to find readers in order to further his writing and publishing ambitions.

When writing poetry, this prolific writer wrote in both standard American English and Negro dialect. In 1893, his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was printed. Most of the poems in the collection were written in traditional English verse, the rest in dialect. In 1896, Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors, was reviewed favorably by William Dean Howells, an acclaimed editor, critic, and author.

Realizing he would have to target and reach white readers, after high school, Dunbar continued to pursue his dreams. During the times in which he lived, the majority of America’s reading public was composed of whites who demanded works exploiting the language and lifestyle stereotypes of black Americans. Therefore, to capture the attention and interest of this audience, Dunbar often wrote in dialect, and it was his use of it, ultimately, that won him recognition and notoriety as a poet. Still, he was never satisfied with his reputation as a dialect poet.

Quotes by Paul Laurence Dunbar

From some of Paul Laurence Dunbar's quotes related to life, struggles, creativity, or writing, I will explore what I see as the sustainable perspective that enabled him to succeed while writing what he felt he had to write during his lifetime to be heard.

"Hope is tenacious. It goes on living and working when science has dealt it what should be its deathblow."

I agree with Mr. Dunbar on this. This was true then, and it is true now. Hope is something you will need to have as a writer of novels. Hope and its first cousin, faith, are what keep me going on days and nights when I am tired and feel like I can’t go on. When everything around me that I can see or hear seems to be saying I should give up, faith and hope are what keep me writing.

“People are taking it for granted that [the Negro] ought not to work with his head. And it is so easy for these people among whom we are living to believe this; it flatters and satisfies their self-complacency.”

As an African-American writer, I understand and identify with Dunbar’s statement in this quote. It is very easy for people who don’t experience America the same way we experience it, as African Americans, to not understand our walk, our struggle, our challenges, our journey. It seems easy for them to think we’re inferior, non-thinkers, and it seems to satisfy some type of “need” many seem to have that convinces them to believe mass media portrayals, stereotypes, half-truths, and lies about us; to be completely “unacquainted” with what is the truth about us. I think what Dunbar felt, how he saw what he had to do in order to be accepted, read, and known as a poet, challenged not only his creativity, but also his humanity. Even though he might have had to use “dialect” to be accepted and read, he made sure he infused his dialect poetry with a lot of his truths, and I, for one, tip my hat to him for a job done well.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

"What Joe Hamilton lacked more than anything else in the world was someone to kick him. Many a man who might have lived decently and become a fairly respectable citizen has gone to the dogs for the want of someone to administer a good resounding kick at the right time. It is corrective and clarifying."

So true, Paul Laurence Dunbar. So true, and I agree. We all need someone to administer a hearty kicking, every now and then. As you begin or as you continue on your writing journey, a journey that you will not give up on, there will be some days when you’re going to need someone to kick you into gear, in some way. I am usually the one who has to administer the kick I need to keep going. Sometimes, the kick I give myself is a break from writing. Sometimes I binge watch old TV shows or movies, or I read a stack of novels (I’m a fast reader) or magazines. The trick, for me, is to do something different to get my head out of one space and into another space. Once I get my kick, I am fueled with fresh ideas and renewed hope, and I feel more and better able to get back to my writing in an inspired way.

"I hope there is something worthy in my writings and not merely the novelty of a black face associated with the power to rhyme that has attracted attention."

I think most of us want there to be something more, something worthy, and something of lasting value in what we write. So, once again, I share this same hope with Paul Laurence Dunbar. I think most of want to bring lasting value to our writing, something that goes beyond the novelty of who we are, because we all bring some type of unique perspective to our work; to our masterpieces, as writers and authors. But I think most of us also hope that what we write will contain enough of the distinctive, uncommon fabric of the struggle and of the volumes of lessons learned that make us who we are. We hope what we have to say will open an eye, provoke a thought, challenge a viewpoint, or simply provide a different or a new way for our readers to look at things that are important to us.

With a sustainable perspective, you will understand that improving your writing means often saying goodbye to a lot of words you might still believe were pretty good. But, after cutting them out of your story, you will see you have improved your story, probably a great deal.

Sage Advice on Writing from Maya Angelou

The next contemporary author we'll look at had a sustainable perspective while she lived that worked well for her. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, in St. Louis, MO, but spent her childhood with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou didn’t spend time with her parents until she was six years old. As a writer, she is best known for her poetry and for penning seven autobiographies, the most well-known of which is the first one, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. An inspired poet, Angelou wrote several books of poetry, but first gained attention for her acclaimed memoir autobiography. The title of the memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a line from a poem titled “Sympathy,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Maya Angelou faced a lot of hardships and challenges as a young child. Like many children when their parents split up, she and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live in with their paternal grandmother, Anne Henderson. In addition to experiencing vicious racism and discrimination in her life, at age seven, Angelou also became the victim of child sexual abuse. While visiting her mother, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. When she told what happened to her, her uncles found and murdered the rapist, and she believed she caused the man's death by telling what he did to her. This series of events left her so traumatized, she vowed never to speak again and spent several years of her young life as a virtual mute.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

Quotes by Maya Angelou

Following are some of Maya Angelou’s quotes on writing and on life.

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

Having a sustainable perspective means continuing to write, even when the right words don’t want to be seen. It means staying true to what you love to do, until what you want to say has no choice but to obey.

“My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself.”

Having a sustainable perspective means learning not to take yourself so seriously—at least not all the time.

“In all my work what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.”

Having a sustainable perspective means continuing to write because what you are writing matters—a lot, for you, and for other humans.

“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated, and more intelligent than college professors.”

Having a sustainable perspective means having a solid respect and admiration for knowledge and intelligence, knowing that it does and should transcend education.

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your god. Instead, pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

Having and maintaining a sustainable perspective means you write because you love writing—not because you love money. A sustainable perspective will: Allow you to bounce back, no matter what life brings; will fortify you for outlasting writer’s block; will allow you to treat your first draft as a first draft; will underscore that perfection comes from editing and revision; will drive you to make time every day for reading and for writing; will free you to write the story you want to write; will persuade you to think of yourself, right now, as the successful writer you want to become, and will inspire you to find joy in writing, not just in the dream of writing “a best seller.”

Toni Morrison's Guidance and Advice on Writing

Next, we will look at some of the writing advice and creative wisdom that was shared through interviews engaged in through the years by the late, great author, Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019). Among Morrison's most well-known works of fiction are (among other books): The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977); Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987). A fact of her life many people might not know is that, for many years, Toni Morrison taught writing classes at Princeton University.

Based on some of the responses she gave during an interview in 2014, with NEA Arts Magazine, Morrison believed writers should always write the book they want to read. Considering topics they're interested in, ideas they feel are not being written about at all, or are not being explored in a particular way, writers can write the books they themselves would like to read. She said she wrote her first book, The Bluest Eye, (first published in 1970), because she wanted to read it. She had never before seen or read a work of literature about the "most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls." She felt that even though little black girls had been included in works of literature, they had mostly been used as props and had not been taken seriously. So, she decided to write the book that she wanted to read.

Having a sustainable perspective, one that will keep you writing while keeping your ideas flowing and going strong, means finding or coming up with topics that you, yourself, would like to read about. For this reason, I always begin any of my writing projects with this advice in mind, and, after writing seven novels, I have never written one without first setting out to write a book that I want to read.

It was in that same 2014 interview, with NEA Arts Magazine, that Morrison advised writers to ignore the old adage that says you should write what you know. After warning us all, saying, "you don't know anything," she revealed that she often told students in her Princeton creative writing class to ignore the advice about writing only what you know about. Instead, Morrison challenged her students to learn and to write about things and people and events they didn't know anything about. She challenged them to research and to learn what they needed to know to create events they hadn't already lived through. She encouraged and inspired them to create people, events, circumstances, and things that interested them but were strange to them. She challenged them to imagine things that were completely outside the world of their own existence.

Morrison was named a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Barack Obama.

Morrison was named a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Barack Obama.

This type of thinking, for any writer, forces the imagination to work on all four cylinders. First, you must get outside of the box represented by what is already in your own mind. Next, you have to do the work/research that is required in order to create, from what you don't know, a world, people, and events, and you must put them together in a way that makes you want to know more about them; a way that makes you want to read a story about them. You have to dedicate yourself, wholeheartedly, to learning—and continuing to learn will always nourish your mind and your creativity.

Having a sustainable perspective, to me, means you must be able to find a way to write about what you know and about what you don't know, as Toni Morrison recommended. If you, as a writer of novels, can only write about stuff you know, you will, most likely, run the risk of running out of ideas quickly. If you don't run out of ideas quickly, you could risk writing about the same topics so much, even you might lose interest in what you are writing. Now. When you are writing about stuff you don't know about, the learning process alone should keep you energized. Why? Because, in order to write convincingly about something you don't know about, you have to learn so much that even before you begin writing, it is likely you will become a sort of expert on that topic. As you prepare to write about previously unknown ideas that you had to learn about, by the time you complete your writing project, no one should be able to tell you've written about something you did not know about before you started writing.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Richard Wright's Advice on Writing

Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908–November 28, 1960), besides being the author of Native Son—one of the first novels I read as a child, was an inspired writer of novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Born in my home state of Mississippi, although the family moved around a lot, Wright and his brother were raised by his mother, Ella (Wilson) Wright, primarily in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi.

Wright is best known for his work, Native Son, a bestseller first published in 1940, and Black Boy, his autobiography, published in 1945. Later in his life, he won critical acclaim for a collection of four stories in a published work called Uncle Tom's Children. Although Wright became an exceptionally talented writer at a young age, like many other authors, his writing was heavily influenced by tumultuous and traumatizing events that occurred during his childhood that included, among other things:

  • His parents were born as free American citizens, but both of his paternal and maternal grandparents were born into slavery.
  • Wright's father left his family when he was only six years old, and did not reappear in his life for twenty-five years.
  • After he accidentally set fire to his grandmother's Natchez home, Wright's mother beat him until he was unconscious.
  • His upbringing became even more abusive and miserable because when living with his grandparents, they also beat him, often, for causing the fire that burned their home.
  • Wright's mother, who was a school teacher, moved the family around a lot during his childhood. Even though the family usually lived with extended family, he did not grow up in a stable home environment.
  • In 1916, his mother moved them to live with her sister and her sister's husband, Maggie (Wilson) and Silas Hoskins, in Elaine Arkansas, but the family was forced to flee after Silas Hoskins "disappeared." It was reported that Silas Hoskins was killed by a white man who coveted his successful saloon business.

Never able to attend school regularly until he was thirteen years old, Wright's intelligence still led him to being promoted to the sixth grade after just two weeks when became enrolled, in 1921, at Jim Hill public school in Jackson, Mississippi. While the tragic events of his childhood left marks on his mind, Wright used it to weave into his writing much of the horror, angst, and emotions he experienced in the early years of his life.

The events of his life helped provide Wright with a sustainable perspective for writing creativity while he lived. His perspectives on life and on writing worked well for him and led to him becoming a published storyteller at the young age of fifteen. That was when a local black-owned newspaper, the Southern Register, published his first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre." Although no copies of the story are known to survive, Wright wrote about the story in chapter seven of his autobiographical novel, Black Boy.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Quotes by Richard Wright

The following are some of Richard Wright’s quotes on writing and on life, which I believe reveal how he was able to maintain a sustainable perspective that fueled his writing creativity, throughout his life.

"Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books."

While his writing success shows that he maintained a sustainable perspective for writing, the quote above shows that Wright understood that reading is fundamental to life and to writing. He understood that reading could provide support and perspective at times when his "environment" failed to provide these things.

"The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination."

Learning to grasp what you can from the struggles and challenges of your life is crucial to maintaining a sustainable perspective for your writing life. Wright's upbringing left monsters inside his mind, and the quote above shows that he learned how to use those monsters to fuel his creativity.

"Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread."

Taking time to do "self-inventory," getting to know the heights and the depths of your own soul is needed in order to develop a sustainable perspective for writing. Wright's quote, above, recognizes that feeding our hunger for self-realization is just as important for writers as feeding our hunger for food.

"It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different."

Wright's quote, above, reveals his respect for and understanding of the importance of learning as a way to bring new life and new understanding to his struggle through life. It reveals how he used reading as a way to see into worlds he was not able to see from the vantage point of his own life.

“All literature is protest. You can’t name a single literary work that isn’t protest.”

Richard Wright recognized the universal truth that works of literature are a form of protest. He realized that literature is always a reflection, it is how an author presents some fundamental aspect of life and/or society, an aspect that the author would love to see either changed or removed entirely from his or her life, and from the world, for good. The sentiment of this quote, I'm proud to say, is part of my own sustainable perspective for writing.

"I knew that I lived in a country in which the aspirations of black people were limited, marked-off. Yet I felt that I had to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive."

Wright refused to allow the reality of living in America while black to limit his thinking or his writing. Instead, he used the anger he felt inside, anger birthed from the truth of what it means to be black in America, to fuel his writing and his creativity. He allowed constant, unending struggles and race-related challenges to his existence to become part of his writing raison d'être, or part of his reason for being a writer.

How can you sustain your writing practice?

How can you sustain your writing practice?

Your Sustainable Perspective for Writing

It doesn’t matter whether you are self-publishing or going the traditional route to publishing (that is, finding an agent and/or a traditional publishing company to publish your book). Either way, you will need a perspective on writing that will sustain you so that you can finish the projects you begin.

Your ultimate goal, as a writer, should always be to creating and publishing a high quality book, and working to achieve quality in your writing will help ensure you’ll produce a book you can be proud of. Knowing that you have produced quality work will make the joy of seeing your first novel published simply indescribable. That first look at your well-planned, well-written first or fifth novel will be a special, “one-of-a-kind,” once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yes. Every book is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because you will never research and write that particular book again. So. As this article comes to a close, I hope that you (and your muses) will always find and lovingly embrace your custom-tailored sustainable perspective that will see you through writing project after writing project, for years to come.

No matter what life brings, no matter how hard life pounces on you with a multitude of demands and surprises, no matter what life comes up with as a challenge for you, your sustainable perspective will gift you with a way to bounce back, so that you can stay on track and continue. It will enable you to endure, from “once upon a time," all the way to, “the end.”

© 2020 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

Comments

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on December 28, 2020:

Thank you so much, FlourishAnyway. So good to see and to hear from you again! I'm glad you found this article enlightening, as that was and is always my goal. Thanks again, for visiting and reading, and for sharing your comments.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 28, 2020:

The insights provided by these successful writers were enlightening. Thank you for sharing your learnings about sustainable writing.