When I first conceived of a life as a fiction writer I began, naturally, to read fiction with an eye toward learning the craft. I have always had an earth tongue. My imagination comes from a down home feeling that my grandmother and great-aunt kept alive in the family. A fondness for the simple way they lived, yet the complexities of their lives ring true in every story I write. A home-grown story looms larger as it’s told and somehow brings with it comfort and empathy for my characters. Readers want to grasp just what you are depicting and hopefully together we form tunnel vision. I once thought an old oak tree in the back woods, determined to survive, without the tending, pruning or pampering of a gardener had more to say to me than city diva trees. Just recently, I think that maybe the more recent story is not the tree but the gardener. Therefore, I try to tell both stories.
For writing, there are so many How-to books. At first, I assumed that it really could be learned by just reading and taking some classes about plot, character development, setting, voice and, of course show don’t tell. Years later, I found the road to a completed novel is littered with the blood, sweat and tears of the writer. One of the greatest helps to forward my thrust has been attending solid workshops. Workshops allow a writer to glean from the experiences of authors who have completed the journey, as well as those writers who are knee-deep in the process.
In 2008, I attended a workshop at CCNY lead by author Marie Elena John-Smith. There is nothing like sitting around your peers and having them go over points in your manuscripts that you once thought were brilliant. Humans shrink; I have seen humans shrink and then come alive when they see it’s not their vision being raked through, but merely the path they’re taking to get to the finishing point. Like a GPS, workshops are helpful. Ms. John-Smith became even more of a benefit as an instructor by giving us a look into the business side of writing. And even more beneficial were the connections made with other writers, who I still communicate with on a weekly basis. The support of this group cannot be measured.
In 2010, I was blessed to attend the Hurston/Wright Week lead by award-winning novelist Tayari Jones. This workshop was writing in-house, eight hours a day. And as an instructor, Ms. Jones is a consummate enthusiast. Not only did your peers critique you, but Ms. Jones held private consultation with you. She really cares about where the writer is trying to take the story. Her instruction was as refreshing as a cold shower in literature to wake up your talents, passion, setting a high standard of clarity and focus.
The year 2011, brought on a chance of a lifetime as I became a fellow of the North Country Institute for Writers of Color. This workshop held at Merger Evers College was led by Bernice McFadden. Ms. McFadden encouraged each writer to “Write from within your spirit awareness.” We learned to avoid wordiness, write a strong lead, and not make promises in our pieces that we can’t keep. She’s been known to ask, “Do you have a deadline?” Soul writing should not be rushed.
Whatever your approach, add workshops to it. They challenge us to be better writers. There are some wonderful workshops offered and I implore each and every budding writer to research them. The greatest gift you can ever receive is the sharing that authors are willing to give to build a great story. So what are you waiting for…Write the damn book!
By Miriam Kelly- Ferguson, a long time resident of New York, is a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild, a Hurston/Wright Selection and a 2011 Fellow of North Country Writers of Color Institute. Her novel “Weaver” will debut January 2012.