Wednesday, March 22, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Chasing the Past

by Tyrese Coleman

In elementary school, I won a medal as my first and only writing prize. I had created a picture book called Shirley’s Blocks about a girl named Shirley who wished for a set of blocks for her birthday. Or, maybe it was Christmas—plot is not within reach of my memory right now. Although I don’t think it is as important as what I do remember, such as the bright lights of my classroom, the comforting isolation of concentration while coloring in a green turtle or tracing my careful and deliberate penciled lettering with a black pen, the shadow of my body hovered over the white paper as I positioned the turtle next to Shirley, a little black girl with long hair, holding a red block. This is my earliest writing memory.

I named her Shirley after my aunt, my father’s sister. My mom and dad were never married and had me at a young age, my mom 17 and my dad 20. I must’ve seen my Aunt Shirley the weekend before I wrote the story. My parents shipped me back and forth on the weekends, and I lived mostly with my great-aunt on my mother’s side the rest of the week. My Aunt Bee Bee woke me for school in the mornings, helped me get dressed, fed me breakfast or gave me money to eat it at school, made sure I was outside waiting for the bus, especially on cold mornings when the warmth from the kerosene heater reached the far edges of the house and into my bedroom, the comfort of the bed I shared with her more enticing than those bright classroom lights waiting for me beyond the hour bus ride.

I was to receive my award at a large, fancy ceremony at what used to be called The Mosque in Richmond, Virginia, but is now called Altria Theater. I wore an uncomfortable velvet dress and white tights. I’m not sure how the ceremony was explained to my mother, but she was not in a rush to get me there. We arrived late, very late, and as we ascended the stairs to where the usher told us to go, we met my teacher. My memory flickers here, like an old-time movie with scratches and ticks and skips. In the way of my understanding what happened is the lingering confusion of a seven-year-old who only knows that she was supposed to walk up to a stage, have a medal threaded with a satin sash placed around her neck, and be told that her book was the best in front a crowd.
 
But in between those scratches and ticks and skips of memory, I recognize, now thirty years mature, the glance of irritation from my teacher sliced toward my mother’s direction. This look in my now adult mind reads as some expectation of disappointment, and I think my teacher probably wished I’d come from a different home, a different family, one with a better sense of haste, with parents who weren’t children themselves. I’d missed my award. Missed the whole damn thing.

My teacher had my book. I had not seen the final product. It was perfectly bound and laminated with my drawings of Shirley and her blocks. I don’t know if I cried or not. I think I must have because I still carry with me the disappointment and anger from this moment, conflated by the raw eagerness of childhood emotions still worming through my psyche.

My journey across planet write is circuitous, where I am always chasing this memory and the feelings from it, hoping that when it comes back around again, I can smother it, erase it, make it flick and fade away with the joy I get from writing and sharing my work with others now. And then other times, when that rotation comes back around and I am forced into that sadness I associate with some of childhood and with using that childhood to express myself, I deliberately wallow inside the dark lines of the flickered memories, wanting to root and curl up in those feelings that make the stories I tell real. I return to the comforting isolation of concentration, the hovering shadows my body makes as I crouch over my laptop or journal, choosing each word deliberately, hoping to tell the story of little black girls who look like me, who remind me of my Aunt Shirley, who are as special to me as those women who woke me in the mornings for school and who made me miss my medal, because, without them, my first writing memory would not have so much power. And I want my writing to have power.

Here is a story by Tyrese Coleman:


Prom Night

Outside fogging car windows, empty parking lot lights glowed like part of a fairy world Keisha wasn’t allowed in. X, still wearing his tux, passed the blunt toward the front seat to his boy dressed in a white tee; he hadn’t gone to prom. The radio played 90s hip-hop—money, cash, hos, moneycashhos—they rapped along. The fairies outside her window were blond and pristine with stars for eyes and gold-coin titties. Could heavy-breasted black girls be fairies? Nah—her magic was lost at ten when her mother’s boyfriend fingered her, taken when men at her grandmother’s house parties grabbed her, made her sit on their hard laps and bounced, bounced, bounced her soft baby-girl body against dirty construction clothes rotten from sour Wild Irish Rose. Gave the magic away at fourteen to an older boy who said he loved her. What else was she supposed to do with it? So, did it matter if she let these boys have some of it too? Did it matter if they laid her flat, pressed her face against the blue leatherette seat, did a Chinese fire drill around the car to switch places when the first was done, high-fiving on the way around like teammates through an obstacle course, while Keisha suffocated silently until every drop of any magic she’d ever had was gone?

She sucked the fat brown tube when the blunt came her way. Her fingertips tingled unpleasantly. She shivered in the boiling car. X said her hands were cold. He kissed her. It was messy despite his soup coolers, wet, his breath tasting of stale cigars and McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Keisha and X were alphas: smart, popular, college bound. His friend, she couldn’t remember his name, was the Nobody, the Dope Boy, the Sidekick. Nobody was the poor kid the hot guy friended in elementary school, or his cousin he shared sloppy seconds with.

Nobody faced the steering wheel while Keisha and X kissed. She sensed Nobody’s hard-on, lingering in the air with the weed smoke. What did he think? That this is how it happens in pornos, his anticipation a tight spring before release? She knew nothing about him, and his power scared her. X pulled away. Nobody faced Keisha. She stared at her shoes.

Nobody got out of the car—was it too late to say no? X massaged up her thigh. She looked over the front seat through the windshield to a haze of black, golden darkness, like Christmas, wishing she could fade into the land of the little white fairies, fly into the iris of a glowing dot of light between dark trees with notched, shadowy holes. Be magical, like what she’d dreamed this night would be.

The headlights of a security service car turned a corner, tiger eyes burning brightly. Nobody jumped into the front seat, turned the engine over, and drove off. The boys wanted to park somewhere else, roll a new blunt, drink more beer, listen to more music, and run a train on her.

But—the engine’s vibration. The car’s motion. The taste of open air, fresh air—warm, spring air struggling to breathe while summer sits on its face—the taste, the caress over her bare shoulders and open toes. A spell broke. She made them stop the car. Eyelids half-shut, she walked home in her slinky dress, her pumps glittering an unearthed enchantment across the blacktop.

Originally published by Stoneslide Corrective, May-June 2016

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Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and 
attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review's 2016 Writer’s Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Day One, Buzzfeed, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hobart, listed in Wigleaf's Top 50 (very) short fictions, and forthcoming at The Kenyon Review. She can be reached at tyresecoleman.com.







Wednesday, March 15, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Never Too Late, Never Give up

by Gay Degani


My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.

I’m not bragging about that. The book is under 300 pages and not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

Like many others who yearn to put words on paper, my dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. With me on her lap, my mother read aloud the Bobbsey Twins, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Heidi. My dad introduced me to the dauntless detective, Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At twelve, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that Mrs. Hawkins, my Creative Writing teacher, had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and was more surprised when I won second place. Wow. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in 19th Century English Literature at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day. Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

In a retail executive training program after college, I learned that the Junior Department at the Del Amo Broadway was only a small segment of a huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses in East LA. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience of learning the complexities behind the obvious helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results. Words no more spring spontaneously onto the page than pantsuits and mini-skirts miraculously appeared on shelves, rounders, and mannequins.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not much. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all candidates an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass this kind of exam whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer? Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other.

Later, as a Gap district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Working toward team goals in a positive atmosphere as well as appreciation for a job well done, helped to create a desire to achieve. Strong characters in good stories have to want something too. They have to strive and overcome disappointment. What pulls the reader along is how characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

I had kids. I thought becoming a stay-at-home mom would allow me infinite time to sit down at a typewriter and pound out stories. They would nap, wouldn’t they?  Play outside in the backyard? Entertain themselves? As it turned out, I was no Danielle Steele or J.K. Rowling. There were no scribblings of passionate love scenes on the dryer in the middle of night. No sneaking out in spare moments to tea shops to create wizards. My job was all consuming: Room mother, Cub and Girl Scout leader, swim mom, have van will travel.  Here was a lesson I taught myself: whatever I chose to do, I did it full on to the best of my abilities. 

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. I had a simple goal: I wanted to buy a computer. What I learned was more valuable. Selling Tupperware taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything one does, works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I wrote screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took UCLA extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. Mimicking what I had learned from Tupperware, I surrounded myself with like-minded people, set goals, planned for results. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made for good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. I’ve published many stories in print and on line, been nominated for Pushcarts, won contests, short-listed, long-listed, and honorable mentioned here and there.  I published an eight-story collection in 2010 about mothers and daughters, Pomegranate. Pure Slush released my full-length collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015, which includes my novella, “The Old Road.” My suspense novel, What Came Beforethat twelve year endeavor—is currently available in its second edition by Truth Serum Press.

I’ll be 68 on the 19th of this month. Thank goodness, it’s never too late.


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Gay Degani has said almost everything there is to say about herself above, but she'd like to add that since she was born in Louisiana, spent her earliest years in Iowa, and road-tripped every summer to both for each of her summers while growing up in California, that she gained a strong love of place: desert, mountain, plain, swamp, farmland, and beach. She hopes her work reflects that love.