Over the course of a writing retreat this past November I was listening to a MasterClass with the author Amy Tan. While sections of the course were directed to writers that were just getting started, I paid close attention to the lesson focused on writer’s block.
While 2021 was so much better than 2020—and 2022 even better so far—I still found myself choosing to spend what spare time I had sitting on the couch watching television instead. I know we are not supposed to be hard on ourselves, to be thinking about missed opportunities from this ongoing pandemic— after all, we can’t all be Brandon Sanderson—but I can’t help but consider how much of my real blocks are about more than just the state of the world.
During this lesson Tan talks about writing rituals, about methods to block out distractions, and then she looks straight at the camera and says: “Ask yourself: Why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?”
Her purpose, of course, was to encourage us to move past the imposter syndrome that leads into a cycle of NOT writing. To remind you about what the initial impetus was for first putting pen to paper.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t sure I knew what the answer was, or identify what that particular inflection point was in my life. [Though, it ends up, I did cover a similar question when I last went on retreat.]
Even so, much of my life is about making clear decisions, and then sticking to them. From my profession to my personal life, I make careful, deliberate choices—often after experiencing moments of worry and stress related to risk and change
This wasn’t the case with writing. In some ways yes, it was tied to my identity as a historian. Where understanding and communicating about the past is a form of storytelling. A complex, particular style of storytelling, but a way of connecting people, time, place, context, and consequence based in reality.
But I was a writer prior to public history becoming my chosen path. I started out as a writer of Star Wars fan fiction, before branching out into original stories, and it often manifested itself as an unbidden need to pull words from my brain onto the page. In college, I would find myself attached to my desktop computer pushing out characters and words within this pre-existing world, such as it was, as an uncontrollable compulsion.
But then, I considered Tan’s words at the beginning of the course, “In order to be a good writer. Read a good book.” A reminder that by doing so you’ll learn something of yourself.
On the surface, it is a statement that feels fairly intuitive. Something most writers know as they craft their work. In my case, I think that my real answer to her question is illustrated by my reaction to Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, and Dr. Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.
Smith’s How the Word is Passed is a travelogue of sorts. Within its pages he travels across the United States and to Senegal to consider how the stories and histories of Black people have been told and passed on. It is a book that is oriented towards public history, but also a deeply personal reflection by Smith about his own history, and his own connection to this past. [I was lucky enough to interview Smith for a story on SavingPlaces.org].
Miles’s book All that She Carried is a history of Ashley’s sack, an object that was on display at the National Museum of African American Culture. But it is not a linear story about the sack. Instead Miles builds out the history of the object through a combination of rigorous historical research, and a sense of educated suppositions rooted in part in historical methodology, but also on techniques from authors of speculative fiction. These speculations in the narrative, are designed to provide contextualization about an object where information is not available.
Naturally, I am an admirer of Smith and Miles’ books, but that is not why I am including them in a piece about my need to write. Rather, it is the way these authors bring themselves to their work, as they both recognize that these histories are in no way disconnected from our present existence. These texts carry with them a vision, and a recognition, that the words we use to tell these stories are critical to a broader understanding of identity and self. Not just for us, but for others as well.
In the final pages of his book Smith talks about the gaps in history, and how “they are the gaps that I am trying to understand, the gaps I am trying to fill.” Likewise, Miles starts out her book stating, “the story of Ashley’s sack that I endeavor to tell in these pages bares its thin spots and holes while simultaneously showing how material objects can help us to assemble rich histories of the marginalized.” Both Miles and Smith successfully built connections between the personal—past and present—in order to articulate meaning.
During a talk on November 13, 2021 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture Miles said—and I am paraphrasing a little since I could not get an exact quotation—“story is connected to objects. Narrative and things, how the things of our families and peoples past, carry and hold those stories. They retain those memories, and they tell us who we are in this present time, and what we are moving and aiming [toward].”
And that is why I write. To pull these threads together as a way to tell the stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that have never been told—or more accurately, stories that were historically excluded from mainstream narratives. Even when I wrote fan fiction, I was writing to fill in the blanks. To figure out where a certain character was in a chronology that, for complicated reasons based on publication timings and authors not being psychic/time travelers, was absent when she should have been intertwined in the story. I did not know it at the time, but I was figuring out what my voice was even then. In that same talk at NMAAHC, Miles frames it around “this idea of historical rescue, that [in] the work we all do we are, in effect, rescuing ourselves.”
This is the type of historian I am. This is the storyteller I want to continue to be. Both are works in progress, both require an intentionality, and an honest sense of self. Remembering this is key to finding weak points in the seemingly impenetrable wall of doubt and misgiving that is so often the root causes of my writer’s block. To do otherwise is a disservice to myself, and all that I have to offer. And yet, it is something I need to remind myself again—and again—in my journey to write (and share) meaningful stories in the years to come.