Sunday, May 25, 2014

Making My Peace with the N-Word

By Len Lawson

As an English professor, every year I offer my students an argumentative essay based on the topic, "Should the n-word be used in today's society?" This comes from Gloria Naylor's essay, "Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?" In the essay, the author describes how hearing the word used toward her in elementary school by a white student transformed her understanding of race in America. In the classroom, discussions on both sides of the argument among my students have been intense, visceral, and down right incendiary. Each year a student will ask, "Mr. Lawson, what is your opinion on the issue?" I always reserve my opinion to keep the sides moderate.

As a black man, I have had the n-word used around me by white people--once as Naylor did in elementary school at a cafeteria table surrounded by white students and several times in a relationship used against me to get me to retaliate (unsuccessfully). Between these two instances, I have known that the word meant nothing good for any black person, and I never used it. However, the onslaught of hip hop music in our society presented an astounding blacklash against the word's origin. Although many African Americans use it as a term of endearment, I never enjoyed hearing it because I always associated it with something negative regardless of its intention.

As a writer, I have struggled with the perception of using this word in poetry and fiction. I have come to the conclusion that in order for characters to remain authentic, in many cases the n-word cannot be taken out of the mouths of characters who would use it in reality. The integrity of the characters will be maintained and not compromised. Moreover, the fiction will resonate with readers if they are fully acquainted with what type of characters--perhaps even narrators--use the n-word in their speech.

I realize some may say that I am hereby giving people a license to use such language in their writing and even in their own speech. However, as illustrated above, no one needs my permission to use the derogatory term. Our society has already indicted some of its own precious characters for using the word. Nonetheless, regardless of its efforts, our culture cannot contain the parent that uses the n-word around his children and even teaches them to use it. Our culture cannot stop anyone else bold enough to utter the word from grabbing it with his fist and hurling it with hate at anyone who happens to be his target. We can all see this in movies as well. If we didn't care for the n-word, then why did we not see anyone boycotting such films as 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Roots, and others for its use?

In conclusion, authenticity remains a valid excuse for writers of any race to use the word. However, each individual must search his own soul before penning the n-word on paper before seeing it in print beneath a cover with his name on the front. The word itself is history, yet as a society, we simply cannot seem to keep its sensual, polarizing, forbidden fruit out of our mouths in the present. Therefore, we leave the debate to be reconciled by subsequent generations. As for me, when I see the word or even write it, all I see is hate--never love--and perhaps never peace.

Monday, May 19, 2014


By Laura P. Valtorta

I don’t suffer from writer’s block. Too many ideas. But I do suffer from format block, style block, and diarrhea of the pen.

There’s a Puccia family story that needs to be told. Everybody has that story. The bitch mother. The renegade father. Children who take risks and tear your heart in two.

Readers don’t care about my family. Why should they? And yet, these family sagas have been told for generations, and somehow they capture audiences’ attention.

Last week Marco and I saw two plays: Hamlet at Drayton Hall on the University of South Carolina campus, and Blindsided: the Wedding put on by New Life Productions at the Booker Washington Community Center. Both were delightful. Both were about families. My family. That’s why I was interested. I saw myself on stage with those actors.

Hamlet at Drayton Hall immediately felt like home. It was set in an insane asylum. One of the main characters was a horrible mother. She let her son down. She couldn’t keep her farthingale on. Not to mention her partlet and her bumroll. Hamlet went mad over this. Angry at the betrayal of his mother.

In Blindsided: the Wedding, we saw a talk show host , portrayed by my actor friend, Pat Yeary, (she was in my short film entitled Disability) who set out to trick her guests into reuniting with their mother – another nut case – who had abandoned her children when they were babies. Entertaining. Lots of audience participation and laughs.

These shows inspired me because they managed to portray family issues without losing my interest. In real life, nobody cares about Bruce’s overachieving children or Sally’s annoying grandkids. Nobody wants to hear that my children are extremely good-looking. That’s for me and Marco to discuss in private.

For entertainment value, in the outside world we want to know about the disasters. How a family can weather all the emotional bullshit and survive. Or die of poison, one after another, inside a creepy castle in Denmark.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Who is Writer’s Block aka The Block?

By Kimberly Johnson
Aaagh. I cannot break through this peat-filled bog—I’m trapped and I cannot craft an introduction for this blog. In the hopes of replenishing my creative engine, I cranked up YouTube and viewed an episode of Sherlock, the British thriller, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Maybe a change in scenery would help me. It did. Afterwards, a conundrum vexed me:  What is this fiendish fellow called Writer’s Block? I ran to my closet and found my Sherlock Holmes’ chapeau (it was a baseball cap) and ferreted out this dastardly time-stealer.

In my opinion, The Block is the 50s creature, The Blob. It’s odorless and shapeless. When it takes over your mind, you’re powerless. Blogger Charlie Jane Anders believes there is no such animal as Writer’s Block. It is just a creative slowdown with causes and solutions. Anders features them in her blog, “The 10 Different Types of Writers Block and How To Overcome Them.” I have number 8: You can’t think of the right words for what you’re trying to convey.

What does It feel like? When does this malady occur?

To me, it feels like a blank space—nothing coming in, nothing coming out. One fiction writer characterized it as annoying and scary. Another writer conjures up the monster-under-your-bed scene from childhood. As for showing up, the Block rears his head when you run out of petrol with the storyline.

How do you end It? Hmmm. Watson, that’s not so elementary.

So I went to the experts to solve this quandary.

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’— Maya Angelou

You hear of writers having such a tough time. They say, 'I can't make it work', and I always think, 'Why not?' I don't believe in writer's block. I've only been stuck briefly but then something will interrupt my day. I'll focus on that and when I go back to my work, I'm not stuck any more.  — Elmore Leonard

I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done. — Barbara Kingsolver

Sunday, May 4, 2014


By Mike Long

Author Richard Prosch and I are fortunate to have short stories in the new Western anthology from High Hill Press, namely Rough Country. Richard asked me for a brief look back on how my piece, “Choteau's Crossing,” came to be.

It all started when Brett Cogburn invited me to have a drink at the Western Writers of America Convention in Las Vegas in 2013. We talked some (drank more), and some time later he called. He said he'd read my first novel, No Good Like It Is, and that there was a scene in there that he especially liked. In it, some unlucky Texan bandits attack a lonely trading post on the Canadian River up in Indian Territory and find out there are some irritable buffalo runners inside.

Brett went on to say that he was putting together an anthology of maybe 15 stories, and that he kind of liked my style, and that if I could turn that scene into a stand-alone short story, and if it well pleased him, he might include it. He said he was "pretty daggone picky," but I was welcome to try. Now, I'd like to tell you he was just being cute and precious, maybe exaggerating a little, but that would be a Black Lie.

He was being the dark soul of understatement. I understand that some authors stood up to him and wrote whatever the hell they pleased, but I'm old and small and feeble, not to mention trying to get noticed. The result was that over the next several months Brett twisted and squeezed me like a wash rag until he got that story the way he wanted it. I'd be home, feeling “pretty daggone” good about what I'd just sent him, and the phone would ring. Here'd come this loud Oklahoma twang saying, "Hey- you got your big boy pants on?"

I put him on hold, poured myself a stiff one, and bent over. See, I didn't have a real editor for my two novels, so it was a new and sometimes painful experience for me. Thank goodness for scotch. Merely remembering it gave me a chill, so I just now went and fixed myself a delicious Rob Roy -- three kinds of liquor but it does have ice. I will never lose weight if I keep writing.

Anyhow, he encouraged me to try 'first person,' and I found I liked it. I put myself into the head of a simple sixteen-year-old poor boy from Weatherford, Texas, out on a lark with some other dumb-assed teenagers who run into reality and ensuing trouble. That wasn't too hard to imagine for a former eighteen-year-old, who was afraid of heights, went to parachute school, then Viet Nam and never advanced much mentally. Finally we came up with a story we could live with, and I was ”pretty daggone” proud. Try it and let us know what you think. 

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