Sunday, January 22, 2012

Goodbye Granddaddy: In memory of Joe R. Dixon March 1, 1922-January 21, 2012

     Yesterday my grandfather died and although I am sad because I will no longer hear his voice again or be able to spend time with him, I am grateful for every moment that we shared and all of the lessons he taught me. I have written previously about the role he played in my life, but there are not enough words to express what he meant to me. Although grandfathers are important, he was much more than that to me. From my birth, he was my father figure. He provided for me, loved me unconditionally, taught me right from wrong, and lay the foundation for my belief in Christ.

    When he was alive, he liked to tell the story of the time he stopped by my new pre-school to make sure I was getting along okay in this foreign environment. The story goes that I was kicking dirt on the playground  until I saw him standing at the fence looking at me. I immediately began crying and throwing a temper tantrum until he had to sign me out of school and take me with him. What's funny about this story is that he wanted to take me with him and secretly hoped that I wouldn't be happy there. The story continues that for the rest of the day Granddaddy and I went to the mall and ate soft serve ice cream and people watched (as we often did) until it was time to go home for dinner.

     I guess the reason this story is so special for me is because I've always known that he was standing "over there" watching me live my life, but the minute I needed him he would be there to make things right again. There's also another story that doesn't involve me directly, but involves my aunt who is just a few years older than I am. She had been bused to an all white elementary school and on the first day of class she recalls looking out the window at my granddaddy who was following closely behind the school bus in his pick-up truck. Only later did we learn that my grandfather had a shot gun on the seat next to him and he had been ready to use and suffer the consequences  had anyone tried to cause harm to one of his baby girls.

     That was my grandfather, the protector and the provider. He made sure that his family had food and shelter and plenty of love. His generosity extended beyond his immediate family as well. If he knew or even suspected that you had a need, he would take care of it without expecting anything in return.

     Not only did my grandfather give material things, but he also shared the most important gift of all. A gift that would last for all of eternity. There was not one conversation that I can recall ever having with my grandfather where he did not share Jesus. Regardless of the topic of conversation, Granddaddy would find a way to share the message of Jesus's love, grace, and mercy. Once when he was here in Florida and had to be hospitalized, he shared a room with an elderly white man who was a retired college administrator. After my grandfather was released, I received a phone call from this man to find out how my grandfather was doing. Before the man hung up the phone, he told me that my grandfather had reminded him about Jesus and what eternity with Him would be like. I don't know if this man knew Jesus before or if he is even living now, but I do know that my grandfather made an impact on him and could possibly have changed the rest of his life. These men were from two walks of life and they easily could have ignored each other as they lay in their hospital beds. They were both born during a Jim Crow America, one was highly educated while the other was not. One used his brain to provide for his family and the other his back, but they used love and Jesus as a common denominator to build a friendship.

     My grandfather knew no strangers and he loved everyone he met.

     He loved his country and served during World War II. He fought for a country that did not regard him as a man. He held his shoulders back and his chin up and demanded not to be any body's "boy" or "nigger." He was not political, but he followed current events and could weigh in on what was happening around the world. On election day when Barrack Obama's name was on the ballot, my grandfather stood up from his wheel chair and marked his ballot. When he was asked why he didn't want to be in the chair, he said "I want to stand as a black man to cast my vote for another black man."

     My grandfather was my hero. Yes, he had clay feet and he made mistakes in life, as we all do, but he taught me about God's grace and mercy and my grandfather always did right by me. I will miss my grandfather for the rest of my life here on earth, but I know that he is in the next life waiting for me with a soft serve ice cream cone in hand.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why I Write

Today in class I told students that I would answer any question they posed to me. I instructed them to write their question on a piece of scrap paper and then fold it in half before handing it in anonymously. During the last few moments of class, I read through each of the questions and gave an immediate response without filtering my answer or trying to project a professional image. Of course many of the questions were related to the course: How do I get an A? or related to something that I had stated prevously.

However, some of the questions were personal: What's your favorite color? (Green) and Which writer do you most admire? (Toni Morrison). There was  one question, though,  that really made me stop and think and that question was Why do you write? Yes, it would have been easy to give a quick response but this question, in my opinion, deserved reflection, so here is my answer:

I write because I understand the power of a single voice. I have witnessed how people have tried to silence me and others with their good (and sometimes not so good) intentions.  I have heard comments like: Don't question or Good girls don't talk about that! yet I still had questions and there were things I wanted to talk about and I knew that I wasn't alone, so I wrote to ask the questions that I needed answers to and to begin the dialogue that I needed so deperately to be a part of.

A good story can be a catalyst for personal or societal change. There were times when I finished reading a poem, short story, novel or play and it made me have a better understanding of something or of myself and made me want to change. I write thinking that maybe there will be one idea in my writing that will make a reader think differently about something or feel affirmed about something else.

 Years ago when I was a student, I actually believed it when my teachers told me that the pen was mightier than the sword and that words are indeed powerful. I had the audacity to think that I could make a small ripple in our world by sharing my ideas in writing.

As a child I wrote because there were things happening in my world that I couldn't explain, so I put pen to paper and poured out my heart. For years I kept diaries and then journals and I hid them away so that no one would know what I was thinking deep down inside. As I got older, I realized that I had the right to feel anyway that I wanted to feel and if someone didn't agree with me it didn't mean that I was necessarily the one who was wrong.

Even now  I sometimes write to process my emotions because they are too strong and too powerful to express in words because when I speak the words may come tumbling out of my mouth without my having an opportunity to revise or amend. When I write my feelings down, I can read over what I've written and decide if I need to add or delete any part of my message. Maybe it's a cowards way out, but I've seen how harmful unwieldy words can be. People have always said that sticks and stones can break  bones but words can never hurt, but they lied because words have the power to kill. A word said carelessly can kill a dream, a spirit or a relationship.

So I write to find the truth in a situation and sometimes I write just to find my truth.

It may sound dramatic, but I write to stay alive. If I did not have a way to express what I was feeling or to question those things I had doubts about, I would die. Perhaps not a physical death, but a slow draining of my creative life force.  I feel like I would become just a shell of who I was created to be.

Not all of my writing is public, nor should it be. A great deal of my writing is between the pages of my journal and there are other things that I've written that I may share with readers in time, but I don't write to get published. I write to somehow make it right.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Finding the Emotional Truth

I have received so many emails, text messages and Facebook posts from readers who've said that the reason they connected with The Other Side of Through was because it was so real. At first I wasn't sure what was meant by these comments and then I realized that what was being said is that the novel openly discusses topics that many find taboo, such as infidelity, abuse, unforgiveness and church hurt. Those readers who know me personally seemed to be surprised that I spoke with such candor about things that I wouldn't necessarily discuss in everyday conversation.

Although I am not timid or bashful by any means, I am somewhat reserved and am definitely a private person, so people, especially students, were very surprised when they read my novel because they couldn't believe Dr. Thompson wrote THAT!!! Many people want to assume that Jessie is my alter ego or that I am dissatisfied with my own life and marriage, but that's not true. What is true is the lesson that I try to teach all of my students when we discuss writing fiction: Find the Emotional Truth.

I've always felt that writer Anais Nin was on the right track when she said that "the role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say." What I mean is that the best writing, at least to me, is writing that says what we are all feeling, but may be unable or unwilling to say.

When we begin to identify the emotional truth of a situation, we learn that everyone basically feels the same emotions, but may have different life experiences that trigger them; therefore, it's important that as writers we learn to really feel those emotions so that we can describe them to ourselves and to others. I tell my writing students that it really doesn't matter whether or not they have ever experienced what it is they are writing about. What is important is that they find the emotion that is true for that situation and write from that perspective. For example, a writer could be working on a story about a man who has recently become a widower. This character may have lost his wife suddenly and is now having to readjust to being alone. It doesn't matter if the writer has ever actually had the experience and it doesn't even matter if the writer is male or married. What does matter is that the writer has felt whatever the core emotions are and in this case it's probably fear and regret.

In my writing workshop I would encourage my students to journal about what it feels like to be afraid. Afraid that no one will ever love them again or that the love they've experienced once in life may be all there is and that they will never get a second chance at happiness. Then I would ask them to journal about not being able to say goodbye to a loved one and what that would feel like. I would encourage them to remember a time when they didn't get a chance to say goodbye and what they wished they could have said. Next, I would probably ask them to reflect on losing pet or a loved one and then we would take all of those raw emotions and project them onto our character, the widower.

If you are thinking about writing seriously, then  that's what I encourage you to do this week. Take a moment to think about the emotions you've experienced in life: love, anger, betrayal, faith, joy-whatever comes to mind. Spend some time writing about these emotions without censoring yourself. Be completely honest without fear of what others would think or say about what you are feeling. Just write what YOU feel, not what others told you you should be feeling.The second part of this exercise is to apply it to your genre. So if you're writing poetry use the words that really capture the essence of that feeling. If you're writing a memoir, then use description so your readers feel those emotions, and if you are writing fiction apply those feelings to the character you've created.

Let me know what you think after you've tried this writing task and please keep those questions coming.

Happy Writing!

Michelle Donice