ADVICE ON BECOMING A WRITER by Kola Boof
by Kola Boof
As a writer, what training have you received
to help you become a better writer?
"The Curtis Mayfield School of Listening"
Believe it or not, I think my ability and my understanding of "rearranging words" to say something in a narrative form came from listening to very "literary-based" music.
Do you remember a song by CHICAGO called "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"....well the singer's question (a poetic/philisophical one) and the literary narrative of the singing (the lyric structure) in that song so spoke to me as a child/teen who was in psychiatric care and learning English all in one breath...that I became emotionally attached to that song to the point of creating daydreams and head images surrounding that one song.
I mean, that one song embodied "art" for me and became a lifeline to the reality that others "in the world" were experiencing what I was experiencing---by the time I heard the song, mind you, it was an "oldie but goodie", not new--but to me, it was just everything.
That song also made me feel that if I didn't find a way to create other art--I would literally die.
Art is about "Isolation", "Expression", "Fellowship", "Truth", "Clarity", "Critical Thinking", "Dreams"--and when you find a way to render it with "sincerity", other people find it and internalize it as a kind of offering. Art can fill up your body to the point where there's no room inside for your real life.
If you've had that feeling happen to you, burden you--then you are an artist.
After being possessed by the Chicago song...I discovered that my adoptive Black American father had early 1970's Curtis Mayfield and 1960's Dionne Warwick albums and I stole them from him (though he was long done with them and didn't mind).
It was listening to the pain and truthfulness in Curtis Mayfield and being swept away by the emotionally complex song arrangements of Bacharach/David (Dionne Warwick's producers) that sealed the LITERARY EXPRESSION inside me.
At that same time....an old white Psychiatrist at John Hopkins, I believe, turned me on to "SILENT MOVIES"---because with "silent" films, you don't have to know any language at all!!!!
You just watch the story and the unfolding pictures...the images...they tell the story.
I call it "languid simplicity".
I didn't have any friends and I didn't fit in, so the silent films became my friends.
I could escape through epics like "WINGS" and laugh with Betty Boop and the Psychiatrists convinced me that my "bone structure" was similar to screen goddesses like Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish---silent films and the fact that nobody else in S.E. D.C. watched them, introduced the idea for me that being "different" was equal to being "beautiful"---it was also through Greta Garbo movies that I learned to appreciate and accept being so much TALLER than the other kids on the block (which for most Sudanese in America is a major trauma).
I found serenity in the dark watching silent movies. The silent films are...intensely poetic and they teach you "metaphor"....they teach you how to appreciate and submerse yourself in the beauty of silence.
All THAT...came before BOOKS with me.
Then At 14, I read my first novel---"Valley of the Dolls" by Jaqueline Sussann, a book that is considered pure escapist "trash", but also a book that was so HONEST and so compelling, I couldn't stop reading it over and over again. It got me addicted to reading. Then I read Toni Morrison's "Bluest Eye", and as I've stated in many interviews.....I feel that reading "Bluest Eye" was the first time that I had heard anybody 'tell the truth' in America.
That book changed my life. I became enthralled with Richard Wright via "Black Boy" (to me...every black child in America should be required to read two books--"Black Boy" and "The Bluest Eye"--after reading those, they can't go wrong in life.)
I read Mari Evans, Sylvia Plath, Sherwood Anderson, Ralph Ellison and I even found profoundly gifted African writers--Mariama Ba, Buchi Emecheta, Achebe and Nawal El Sadaawi.
I began to write with all those ingredients....
Images of Silent Movies
The structuring of Richard Wright/Toni Morrison
The bleakness of Sylvia Plath
The womanliness of Mariama Ba
And...I honored my own will
You've read and loved two of my books, Emanuel--but be aware--that I have no formal education whatsoever.
The Public Library, after I learned English, was essentially where I educated myself---and by sleeping with very brilliant men.
Poor women with no education should realize that it's as easy to be "fukked" by "smart" men as it is by dumb ones. I always went to bed with brilliant men who could teach me something.
MY ADVICE TO ANY WRITER IS THIS:
(1) When telling a story, you should always be 'getting to the good part'.
(2) You must have 'sincerity' at the core of anything you create or act as conduit for---always remind yourself that it's the combination of truth and sincerity that makes certain hit records live on as "classics". THINK: "Betcha My Golly Wow"----that title alone is SINCERITY.
(3) Either you have something to say...or you want to entertain people and relieve them of their realities...or both.
(4) I don't know how hard it is for others, but one of my greatest strengths....is that I'm not a pretentious person. That is extremely helpful when dealing with profound material or attempting to relate painful stories. The lack of pretention. Be...and be not afraid.
(5) Use your life to write from...as Alice Walker so brilliantly showed in her short story "Everyday Use".....all that you are, all that you've seen, all that you've made it through and all that you've dreamed...this is to be used and passed on, and that's what art is for, to share.
If you're young and haven't lived yet--then learn the meaning of the word "EMPATHIZE" and get into the bowels of it! Everyone has a story to tell...if they can find the courage and the patience.
Others just get up and sing the shit.
Me, Kola. I can't sing.