The Gift of Story

Posted October 21st, 2014

A recent blog by Sally Lloyd-Jones got me thinking about a question we authors hear some version all the time: Where do you get your ideas, or how do you come up with ideas for your stories? The question would suggest that there’s a treasure trove, somewhere, packed with stories ready for the taking. Or that there’s a place one could go, a repository one can simply dip into, at will. But, the truth is, story ideas are more elusive than that. Their source is far less predictable, more a matter of magic, or of serendipity. An idea might spring from a period of fasting, or flash of insight during a meditative state, or result from literally tripping over an object that brings that idea to mind. No matter the origin of an idea, or the vehicle that brought it to you, that idea, that story, is a gift.

Chasing FreedomI’ve been thinking about my newest title, Chasing Freedom, releasing in January 2015, and trying to trace it’s origins. The initial idea came to me while I was busy working on something else. The something else was a series of dramatic monologues for a theater production to be performed in China, in 1988. The theme of the show was American History, and so I chose as my subjects Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. In the midst of researching their stories, and crafting their monologues, I became excited to learn that they not only lived at the same time, but all knew each other. One day, while thumbing through these histories in the stacks of the Doheny Library at USC, I suddenly thought, “I wonder what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down for a talk.” That notion was the seed that eventually led to my writing Chasing Freedom. I wasn’t looking for an idea, mind you. It simply arrived of its own! A gift.

Words with WingsI turned my thoughts to Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse about daydreaming, and I tried to trace the origins of that story. This task was more difficult, because the genesis of the idea was much less straightforward. Over the years, I’d read or heard comments by teachers about the importance of nurturing the imagination; read or heard Steve Jobs bemoan the fact that children are no longer encouraged to daydream; read or heard nameless others comment on this subject, in one way or another. Somewhere along the line, this train of thought stuck, and I began thinking about my own childhood, and how important daydreaming had been in my own formation, and later success, and I realized how much I wanted that for the children I serve through my work. Out of this thick soup of essays, articles, off-hand commentary, and personal memories grew the idea for a novel about a daydreamer. So there.

The origin of the idea for my next book, Poems in the Attic, out next spring, is a bit clearer, but not much. I watch the nightly news as much as anyone, and I’ve noticed a barrage of stories about our military over the recent years. With troops in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, especially, this last decade has produced miles of videotape about soldiers. I especially noticed the preponderance, of late, of images on television of soldiers returning home, snuggling with their children after long tours away, images of both fathers and mothers in uniform, nearly wrestled to the ground by children so excited to have them home, again. These images stuck. Then, there was the show Army Wives, which brought these themes into my living room weekly. Besides the above, there’s the fact that several of my friends regularly share childhood stories of growing up as military brats. At some point, a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the increasing number of children who have to negotiate the uncertainty of life with a parent in the military, and I wondered if I might offer some small collection of poetry that would speak into that. Hence, the story-in-verse book, Poems in the Attic.

The answer to the question of where stories come from is rather random, isn’t it? It’s mysterious. It’s magical. It’s simple: a story, and the idea that gives birth to it, is—a gift. Yeah. That sounds about right.

Under the Gun

Posted August 28th, 2014
Nikki's friends

My friends come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. I am open to each one because I judge according to character, not color.

So the argument goes something like this: Policemen come into contact with any number of violent, criminal black men during the course of their careers, and so it is only reasonable that they should view all black men as potential threats, and should have their loaded guns at the ready, whenever, wherever, and ph_nikki_groupunder whatever circumstances they happen to encounter a black male, no matter his age, size, appearance, or demeanor.

To the above, I respond thus: As Negro, Colored, Black, African-American peoples, we individually, and collectively, carry in our hearts, minds, and souls, the memories of countless lashings, lynchings, cross-burnings, cattle prodding, water-hosing, hangings, bombings, whippings, rapes, mutilations, tarring, feathering, and police-baton beatings at the hands of people with white skin. In addition, we have in the past, and continue to suffer in the present, acts of discrimination at the hands of people clothed in white skin, some of whom hurt, harm, mistreat and misjudge us every day. (For those of you who think otherwise, racial discrimination is, sadly, very much alive in America. We wish it weren’t.)

Having said that, it’s important for you to know that I do not spend my days enraged or even angry. Life is too short to walk through the world with a permanent chip on one’s shoulder, no matter the rationale. The truth is, I’ve got better things to do. So have most of my friends. Besides, we prefer to interact with, and judge, each person we encounter based on the

content of their character, not the color of their skin. Most African Americans will tell you the same.

Now, re-read the earlier paragraph, and note that none of the aforementioned atrocities lead black people to leave our homes, armed to the teeth, and ready, without a moment’s hesitation, to mow down every white person we encounter, in whom we see the shadow of other whites who may have hurt or harmed us or threatened our very lives.

What, ultimately, is the key difference between a black person who refuses to see every white person he encounters as a threat, and a white person, policeman or otherwise, who refuses to see a black person, particularly a male, as anything but? Choice. It really boils down to choice.

Here's a novel that explores the complexities of the issue of race and gun violence in an even-handed way.

Here’s a novel that explores the complexities of the issue of race and gun violence in an even-handed way.

Shooting to kill is not an accident. It’s a choice. It’s a choice in Ferguson, in Florida, in Chicago, in New York, in Anywhere, USA.

The arguments put forward by police and private citizens, for shooting to kill any and every black man or boy they see in the street, day or night, does not pass muster. A refusal to holster hate, or unprovoked fear, is a choice. Not bothering to tell the difference between a burgundy car and a tan car is a choice. Not taking care to distinguish between a car full of school children, and one full of potential adult male suspects, is a choice. Failing to differentiate between a boy, or a man, on the attack, and a boy or a man with his hands in the air, is a choice. And, by the way, punching, or pummeling an unarmed, middle-aged woman on the side of a freeway is a choice.

A choice is a decision, not a cause for making excuses. Any mature, mentally healthy adult can tell the difference between the two.

Baffled

Posted April 26th, 2014
Roommate and Tawfiqa

In my college dorm with a special room-mate,
my daughter, Tawfiqa

I just got back home from seeing the movie, “Heaven is for Real” and I’m baffled.

“Heaven is For Real,” based on a book of the same name, is the story of a four-year old boy who has a near-death experience. Once he returns to his body, he begins relating anecdotes of his visit to heaven. He’s quite matter-of-fact about it all. Sadly, no one else is. Not the members of the church board, who prayed fiercely for his recovery; not his mother who leads the church choir; not even his father, who is the church’s pastor. And that’s what’s baffling. A man acquainted with the holy scriptures, which declare the existence of heaven, in no uncertain terms; a man who has read about, and, I’m sure, preached on the promise that, when a believer dies, he or she will enter heaven and be greeted by loved ones who passed on, before—this man does not actually believe that his son has seen heaven, or that heaven physically, literally—not metaphorically—exists.

What is such a man doing in the pulpit? What exactly is his wife singing about every Sunday morning? Why do members of the church board bother to gather, at all? That is what baffles me. After all, when it comes to the Nicene Creed, Heaven and Hell, death, resurrection and eternal life are pretty basic.

In May of 1974, I rocked back and forth over the grave of my daughter, Tawfiqa, my one and only child. She died just before her fourth birthday. As a poet and author, it’s fair to say that I am quite the wordsmith. However, believe me when I say this: I do not possess the language to make you understand the depth of the pain I felt at the loss of my child. The pain I feel. The pain I will continue to feel until the day I die. What makes it possible for me to stand, let alone laugh and know joy in my life, is the certainly that I will one day see my precious child again. The Bible has taught me that. The Spirit of God has impressed that upon my heart. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who died on Calvary, then conquered death by rising again, did so, in part, to make that very reunion possible. If you believe that, as I do, you live your life with power. If you don’t, as the pastor in this film did not, then you live within the constraints of your own human power, which is to say, with no power at all. Let’s face it, human power is, at the end of the day, an illusion. I’m not interested in living with the limitations of man. Are you? But I digress.

My central question, here, is why anyone would pour himself into the work of the church universal if he doesn’t even believe in its most basic doctrines. And when he, for a moment, began to consider that maybe heaven actually was real, why did he care that people made fun of him for it? If, in fact, he’s going to heaven, he will most certainly have the last laugh. When people mock my faith, that’s what I hold onto. But then, he is not me.

Maybe the gentleman in this story was placed near the Light so that his own son could lead him fully into it. Yeah. That could be it. Of course, what this particular man was doing in that particular church pulpit is really none of my business. It’s God’s. Better I should direct my time and energy into feeling grateful—grateful that I believe in the Christ who died so that I could live for him here on earth, and with him some day in heaven; grateful that I can look forward to seeing my beautiful daughter, again, as well as my foster brother, and many others whom I’ve lost along the way; grateful that my belief in such things is matter-of-fact—not because such things aren’t miraculous, but because the God of the Universe has shown me miracles time and time again.

What about you? Have you run into any angels lately? Have you experienced the miraculous? Do you even want to? The one great power we humans have is choice.