Much of the growth that really matters most is infinitesimal in degree. Change is happening but we can’t see it or measure it because it’s happening in such small increments.
All writers have their challenges. One of mine has been giving the main character forward action. My unexamined and undeveloped instinct is to talk more about a situation that a characters is in than show exactly how that character is grappling with it.
I wrote about discovering that here. While getting my MFA, after doing a review of the themes of my work, I discovered that I mostly wrote about women frustrated with the social and political structures that oppressed them. It was mostly complaint–creatively written, with lots of value and merit, for sure, but the stories didn’t necessarily arc.
In the class that guided us to review our story themes, the professor Eloise Klein Healy asserted that what we’re wrestling with as individuals will always be reflected in our writing. Conversely, I imagined at the time, personal growth will also be reflected in your writing.
All this to say, my second short story collection represents immense growth for me on multiple levels. I’ve written frequently about the dark phases of my writing production when I couldn’t will myself to write. For my first book, to validate and honor the work I had done (at a time when I spent a lot of time bitterly complaining about what I had *not* done), I collected old stories from the past decade, adding three new stories before publication. The collection was well-received and won an award. One critical review said it seemed like an MFA project, which I put down to the patchwork nature of so many stories written at disparate times for disparate purposes.
One thing that really struck my about one of my reviews at that time is that my Publishers Weekly review for Ancient, Ancient ended with the line: Salaam’s unusual settings and lonely characters will call to readers who hunger for sex, identity, or just a place to belong.
When I read that line, I thought back to the class that taught us to look at our themes and as I say in this video, I thought, are my characters lonely? Am I lonely? How does a character who’s *not* lonely behave? Obviously, just because someone wrote something in a review doesn’t make it true, but there was a ring of authenticity to the comment that made me say to myself–I look forward to the day that I develop my own personal preoccupations so that I’m writing about something different.
Well, about four years after Ancient, Ancient was published, I came out with my new collection, When the World Wounds. With the exception of one story, all the work was unpublished and the majority of it was newly written for the collection. This was a huge achievement in and of itself. That lost person, who needed to put together a collection of short stories to rebut her own self-criticisms was no longer calling the show. Ancient, Ancient had done what I needed it to do. It had affirmed my work as a writer and drowned out the doubt and criticisms I had been lobbing at myself. It pulled me out of hiding, as I doggedly sought reviews and publicity and set up social media pages for myself as a writer. And once all the activity for the book died down, I found the writer in me emboldened and awakened, certain that I had to keep going, using the momentum I had established.
It was a fantastic experience to write the stories as a unit and I think the collection has a cohesion to show for it. I’ve gotten great reviews for the book, which you can read here, but what inspired this post was my latest Publishers Weekly review. I was thrilled to get a starred review. And I was equally thrilled with the last sentence of the review: These passionate stories of personal revelation, rebellion, and discovery celebrate strong-minded, determined characters and the search for independence in worlds that offer no easy way forward.
Again, I’m not arguing that because it was written in a review it’s true (I have critical reviews as well), but it delighted me to hear my characters being called “strong-minded” and “determined.” Mostly because those adjectives describe me as a writer and what it has required to continue on. The work in Ancient, Ancient (with the exception of the three new stories, “Marie,” “Battle Royale,” and “Pod Rendezvous,” and I would include “Rosamojo” in there as well) were written at a time where I was just experimenting with words. I was young and traveling the world–I had time and space to explore. This was a wonderful way to discover myself as a writer, but when the responsibilities of life hit and youth faded, it couldn’t carry me through. For me to continue to develop myself as a writer, I had to become focused, strong-minded, and extremely determined. Everything I write now comes as a result of my determination to keep going, to invest in my craft, and to continue flowering as a writer.
In 2017, I celebrate the determination that has allowed me to continue writing, and I salute the determination in you. Whether publicly or privately, where we put our efforts leaves a mark on the world–be it spiritual, psychic, emotional, or physical. As always I am a bold stand for every person to be able to make their unique marks on the world. And also proud of myself, for struggling through the difficulties to continue to make my own unique markings.
Wishing you power, possibility, and staying power for all of our unique voices. May we sing healing songs and weave possibility that creates a stronger fabric for our family units, local communities, nations, and the world population.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam