Standing on the shoulders of giants

I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing a book for a while now – I’d made it one of my life goals for 2014 – but I always find some excuse to put off (or talk myself out of pursuing) the project. I don’t have any formal writing training; my ideas aren’t creative enough; people wouldn’t be interested in reading my stories.

Recently I’ve started reading books (actual books! not just online articles, which I’ve been doing for too long now) again – another 2014 goal, which has motivated me to make progress on other things. Last week I got a library card and proceeded to fill up my queue.

I love that I can place holds for books online and have them delivered to my local branch. In just a few days I received Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” Hillary Clinton’s autobiography, the first novel in the Hunger Games trilogy (don’t judge! I want to read them before I watch the movies) and a book on native California plants – I felt really ambitious with the heavy stack of books in my arms!

While waiting in the check-out line I spied Profiles of Great Black Americans: Female Writers, featured on the shelf as part of Women’s History Month. I figured it would help inspire me to pursue my own writing goals, so I added it to my stack and brought it home.

The 60-page book would’ve been a quicker read if I hadn’t stopped so often to fully digest what I was learning about these authors’ lives: wait, what happened to her? and how old was she? damn…

In grade school we never read Asian literature; the only writers of color were black (which explains why I really admire Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, yet know zero Asian authors nor works). Though I can’t relate to any of the black-specific experiences and struggles I certainly empathize as another woman of color and draw inspiration from their stories.

Maya Angelou was sexually assaulted as a child and did not speak for five years; she was a mother, professional dancer, civil rights activist and producer/screenwriter before she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize, began writing when she was seven and would later become a major supporter/follower of Malcolm X. Nikki Giovanni was a charter member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lorraine Hansberry worked a number of odd jobs before completing A Raisin in the Sun ; she was also active in SNCC and was even monitored by the FBI for criticizing JFK’s administration on his lack of work on civil rights issues.

Zora Neale Hurston struggled to continue her success as a writer even after her bestsellers Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God; she died in a welfare home and was buried with a gravestone that was unmarked for 13 years, until Alice Walker discovered it. Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison was a single mother with a full-time job when she first began writing, which she would do once her two sons were in bed.

Alice Walker was a powerhouse in the civil rights movement and even witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in person; she wrote several acclaimed novels before The Color Purple. And Phyllis Wheatley, the country’s first black author, was born in west Africa and captured and brought to the US when she was seven; her owners nurtured her education and she quickly became well-known and admired among prominent figures such as John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts.

After learning about these women’s lives I feel more confident in my ability to share my own stories: I have enough interesting life stories (or story ideas in general) and writing resources at my fingertips, and in theory I have a lot of time on my hands… I might start off with some shorter stories first and then work on a story arc/outline for a full-on project to make it more manageable and less daunting.


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