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Revision: The Writers’ Lost Art

Writers must possess the ability to see. Revision is the window for seeing possibilities in your work.

A quick browse on the Internet, and you’ll find countless writing prompts. Bookstores display books with offering you 101 Things to Write about. But little attention is given to revising. And, I would argue that it’s the most important part of the writing process, yet possibly the most neglected and least understood.

Revise derives from the Latin word, revisere, which means to look back. When I think about looking back, I picture stepping out of a moment and turning my body to face that moment head on. The distance grants me the ability to see completely and objectively.

As writers, we must finish a draft of our work and then step away. There’s not a golden time frame. Twenty four hours is a good starting place. When you look again, see it as an observer rather than as the author. Ponder how form would change the piece? The point of view? The tone? The verb tense?

Then, create a variation of the original with one of those changes and see what works better for the piece. Too often, writers are too connected to their original creation. We must have the humility and patience to see our work again. 

One of the definitions of revision is to look again “for the purpose of … improving.” Revision leads to better writing. I would argue that it’s wiser to spend more time revising than creating. 

If you want to learn more about the revision process, hang out with me this month to learn more. 

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It’s more than race

It was a June Sunday morning in Flint, Michigan. I had stopped by a major bookseller to look for two specific kinds of books, one of which was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

I recently was inspired and compelled to create a curriculum for middle and high schoolers on the topic. And like any good researcher, I wanted to gather some books to assist me in my efforts. 

I walked down the carpeted floors and approached a tall, female employee. She wore a black and white polka blouse, and her face mask donned images of Disney World and bore the words: “It’s Magic!”

As I drew closer to her, she made an awkward turn like the ones I used to make when I turned a corner when I was in the marching band. Perhaps, I was nearing less than six feet in front her. 

Nevertheless, I made my inquiry and ask her where I could find a non-fiction book on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had searched the history section and found nothing. 

As she grabbed the tablet stretched across her chest, she gestured to her right: “Most of the books about race are over there.”

I pulled my neck back just a bit, unsure of how to take her comment. Thankful that my face mask covered one of my infamous Chasity Gunn faces. By now, she was searching her tablet and her personal cell phone to assist me. Unfortunately, she could only find one title, of which she would have had to order because the store was out of stock. 

I stopped myself from making a snotty comment about ordering from Amazon. Instead, I thanked her for efforts and walked over to the ‘race table.’ Covered with books, mostly by black authors and mostly many about race, the employee’s description was not entirely inaccurate. 

I was infuriated to see how scantily stocked the table was. The words of my retail days echoed in my mind: ‘stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.’ Seeing stacks of books only two or three deep did not constitute a fully stocked display. And, this table was toward the front of the store. Prime real estate for shoppers. 

I calmed my emotions by thinking to myself that perhaps this was a table that had been created in the past couple of days, it was not a scheduled display in which the company would have ensured ample copies to stock the table. Or perhaps, the table was such was a hit that the retailer couldn’t keep the books on the shelves. Or maybe, the bookseller carried low quantities of books by black authors. 

I was disappointed to see a bookstore that covered so many square feet, have so few books related to race, that they could fit onto a single table. 

“Most of the books about race are over there.”

Her words replayed in my mind, and I was angry and disappointed. Not so much at her words as an individual, but I believe her words capture a common mindset in America. When I said: “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she thought race. When we, as a society, hear “slavery,” we think race. When we hear “Black”, we think race. And there’s where our thinking stops.

Like so many other issues and historical events, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is more than a story about race. It’s a story about a group of Americans who were tired of being harassed and pushed to the back. They using their constitutional rights to fight unjust mistreatment.  It’s a story about a community of people of various ages and backgrounds collaborating for a common goal. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about courage. It’s about long suffering. It’s about justice. 

Dec. 20, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott Prevails - Zinn Education ...

Yes, race is also a theme woven throughout this story. And it’s an important one. 

However, if we continue to diminish such events and stories as purely and solely racial, we are going to miss powerful moments that can help us heal as a nation. 

I’m currently taking Yale University’s free course on African American history. Jonathan Holloway describes the course as being about citizenship and asking the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” African American history is about dualisms like God and man, freedom and slavery. 

In other words, it’s more than race. 

Many of us are learning more about race and its historical context in our nation. In our studies, I hope that we see beyond race. I hope we can identify universal themes embedded in these encounters. I hope we will stop reducing all Black people and our stories to just blackness. We are more than the social construction of race. 

We are thinkers, healers, parents, students and human beings like the rest of the world. The Black Experience in America is the American experience. I think we can see the experience of Black folks as a human experience, the barrier that dehumanization creates can be torn down. And we need it to be gone if we are going to move forward and build together as a nation. 

So, the next time you are reading and talking about race, ask yourself: what else is there?

I think you’ll be surprised by what you find. 

(To be clear, this post is not meant to berate the employee I encountered. I believe she was doing the best she could with the limitations she had to assist me. There were factors outside of her control. I am using my personal encounter with her to illustrate a larger principle.) 

Lynching

Crowds and Lynching

Crowd at a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana

Lynchings were often public events. Folks gathered from neighboring towns and counties. They traveled on horseback and foot. These events were often photographed, and the photos were later sold on postcards.

In this photo, a crowd looks back at a photographer, Lawrence Beitler, on August 7, 1930 in Marion, Indiana, as two drooping, beaten black bodies hang in front of them. Notice the young couple on the left of the photo, and the man towards the center who is pointing toward the bodies. I wonder what motivated him to raise his hand toward the dead men. Peer closely into the center of the photo and notice the woman wearing a fur coat. An uncommon wardrobe choice for the heat of summer.

What you can’t see in this photo is James Cameron. A teenager who was badly beaten and sitting near the dead men. This photograph sparked several poems. I am sharing one of those poems in today’s post. It’s titled: “The Crowd Looks Back”

Today, people don’t dress up attend lynchings. But thousands of Americans are witnessing black people be killed in front of their very eyes via social media and news outlets. I have heard it be refer to as “murder porn.”

We often discuss what happens to the victims of such incidents and their families. But, what happens to the crowd who views lynchings? What motivates onlookers? Once you have seen a lynching, what responsibility, if any, do you have? When we view view death as a community, where does our focus land?

Drop me a comment, and let me know what you think.

Lynching

Justice on Display

In the 1800s and 1900s, lynching were public demonstrations. It was not uncommon for people to travel by foot, by wagon or by train to view a lynching. Photographers were there to take photos. Some viewers brought picnic baskets. Others collected mementos in the form of body parts of the lynched victims.

Much like today, Americans viewed black men and women be killed in front of their very eyes. The media heralded the stories, but little was done about it. Many of the witnesses considered the lynchings, often conducted by vigilantes, to be acts of justice. My poem “Justice on Display” ponders this notion.

You can listen the poem here.

I invite you to listen to the poem a couple of times, reflect on its content and then answer the questions linked below. You can journal your answers privately or use them as conversation starters with your family and friends. Answer as few or as many of the questions as you would like.

Lynching

Noosed: A collection of poems on lynching

It all started with a poem.

As a child, I was an avid reader and a writer. I worked at my local newspaper when I was in high school. I attended a journalism camp for minority writers held at the University of Alabama, and my decision to become a newspaper reporter was solidified. I was an editor for my college newspaper and covered the educational system as a reporter in middle Tennessee. When the recession hit in 2008, the newspaper industry took a dive, and I moved to the Midwest to study creative writing in a graduate program. 

My first semester there I encountered an image that has haunted me for nearly a decade. It was a photograph of a black man being lynched amongst a crowd of white onlookers. I was fascinated and grieved at the same time. I was drawn to the project for unknown reasons. 

I have been researching and writing poems about lynching since then. The project has taken years and is still incomplete. It’s gruesome and exhausting work. Viewing the photos of dead women and men causes me to weep.

As I have worked on the project, I have read recent reports of black folk killed in the hands of law enforcement officers. I hadn’t felt compelled to write about them until now. I foresaw a connection between the lynchings of the 1800s and the killings of the 2000s. But, I wasn’t sure what the connection was.

Now, with the murder of George Floyd that connection is clearer. 

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In the 1830s, he proclaimed that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” And I have found this to be true. I am not called to political office, but I am called to the pen. I am not called to being an activist, but I am called to the pen. I am not called to Hollywood, but I am called to the pen. 

My plan was to release an audio book of the poems in 2021. I had ideas of creating a curriculum around the book that could be used in high schools to aid teachers in conversations with their students about race, history and justice. In September, I planned to debut the poems in a theatrical production and hold a talkback with thought leaders. I even planned to create handouts or booklets listing strategies to pave the road for cultural progression. 

I haven’t discarded those plans. But I am shifting them. I am sharing these poems now. In hopes that my pen will be mightier than the sword and mightier than bullets. 

Because we live in the Information Age we are inundated with information to the point that it can leave you overwhelmed, exhaustion and perplexed, I will share the poems in segments so that you can digest them.  I may offer commentary or thoughts for you to ponder. Occasionally, I will give action steps. 

More than a call to do, this is a clarion call to be. Be human. Experience your humanity. 

Toddlers are taught about their five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. (Some propose that we have more than five. But I want to keep this simple.) As children we are taught and encouraged to be in tune with our humanity by way of our senses. I want to encourage us to return to that.

We must see each other. 

We must hear each other. 

We must smell the stench of racial hatred and be disgusted by it. 

We must taste our own spit tainted with pride and prejudice. 

And we must touch each other. We must feel each other’s pain. 

So this project is an invitation for you to be a human. Not an activist. Not an ally. Not an avenger, but a human. I sincerely believe that we have lost some of our five senses, and that if we are ever going to racially reconcile as a nation, we must regain our sensory functions. We must be human beings, fully and completely. 

Let’s embark on this journey together, no matter how uncomfortable or pain it will be. Let us see again. Let us hear again. Let us smell again. Let us taste again. Let us touch again. And some for the first time. Let us be. Humans who care and love other humans.