Tayari Jones Speaking Writing Truths

NOTE: Just as I was finishing this post this morning, I got called away to pull someone out of the ditch with that truck right up there. Let’s hear it for old-school four-wheel-drives and a good tow strap. Upon my return I learned that Tayari got some huge news. Heartfelt clodhopper congratulations from frozen Wisconsin, Tayari!

When I first began reading this Tayari Jones interview and got to the line about the relationship between writing and work, my eyes lit up and I highlighted it, intending to ReTweet it. But then I read her part about contests and wanted to highlight that. Then the bit about “anything other than writing” being an intrusion. And by the time I was four questions in, I realized I just need to point you to the whole powerful thing.

To the best of my recollection, I’ve only met Tayari once (we were at the same Bread Loaf conference she mentions) [UPDATE: We subsequently had a brief on-the-fly hallway hello at the Tucson Festival of Books right after her big news]. Our “writing life” experiences (and interpretation of those experiences) overlap in many areas and diverge widely in others. I’m not an academic, let alone a literary academic. Sometimes this lands me inside the cool kids club; sometimes outside. Bread Loaf was the perfect example. On one hand it was simultaneously one of the most meaningful, transformative, privileged, treasured, happy weeks of my life. I met people like Tayari and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and C. Dale Young and Linda Gregerson and Charles Baxter and Austin Bunn and Randal Kenan and Helon Habila and Edward Hirsch and Dean Young and Thomas Mallon and Tom Bissell and Vendela Vida and Christopher Castellani and Sigrid Nunez and Patricia Hampl and Beth Ann Fennelly and Naeem Murr and many, many others and more importantly was immersed in their work and their work ethic and their craft. I felt like I had snuck behind the velvet rope and indeed I had. On the other it was also one of the first times I experienced firsthand maneuverings and references that made it clear there were certain circles to which my nursing degree and barn boots did not equip me with the means to participate or navigate. When I got back home to my fire department and my Ford Taurus with a trunk full of books and self-recorded CDs and a bunch of mid-range gigs on the calendar, I realized I was where I belonged–so much richer for the Bread Loaf experience, dead grateful, but even more dialed-in on what I hoped for in a “writing life.”

So when Tayari speaks about that writing life, I am reminded how much the definition of those two words relies on us knowing ourselves. And not foisting our definition on others. I tend to rattle on about how I’m full-time freelance, how I don’t have a teaching gig to fall back on. But of course I have a nursing degree to fall back on. And in the interest of midlist survival I have turned my books into a show I take on the road [COVID-19 UPDATE: Currently not so much!]. Sometimes as a speaker, sometimes as a solo humorist in a theater, sometimes as the front man for a band performing songs I wrote but that of course leverage the books. And I do voice work. And collaborate with musicians on songs, album notes, and festivals. Point is, for all my talk about being a “full-time” writer, I’m not sitting down to the writing desk for X hours every day like some quill-scratching ascetic. I’m hustling. Or, more aptly “hustlin'” with all the connotations therein. But I do all those things so I can keep writing. So when Tayari says:

Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my writing, so I feel like I’m writing all the time.

I think it’s a new thing, this idea that writers believe that doing anything other than writing is an imposition. Art has never been convenient for anyone. No one’s life is convenient. With artists, it seems like more of an outrage that your life is inconvenient. But it can be done.

I say, yessir and hallelujah and feel just fine about that van down in the garage, packed with boxes of my own books and even here lately some t-shirts, and the cash box and the table I’ll set up at the next gig, because art isn’t intended to be convenient.

Tayari then moves on to something else I’ve had to rethink over time:

When we tell people that they must write every day, it makes people who work, people who perform childcare, eldercare, people who have other responsibilities think, “Oh, I can never be a writer.” It makes people feel that writing is for a privileged class of people who, if they weren’t writing, would be eating bonbons. But we make the time.

Couple things there. First of all, yep, we make the time. I write in hotel rooms, backstage at backwater theaters, in the passenger seat on family trips, in my deer stand. But I also spent years up on my high horse about the idea that YOU MUST WRITE EVERY DAY. I’ve told a lot of folks that one over the years. And in general, I do write every day. But three years ago, while taking myself to task for being an old dog resistant to new tricks, I started to rethink a lot of my well-worn homilies, specifically thanks to this piece by Daniel José Older. How grateful I was then, to read Tayari on the subject and find myself refreshed, recalibrated, and reminded.

This isn’t an essay, this is a post, hurriedly typed up because I been busy yankin’ people out of the ditch and because I have deadlines to hit today, so I’ll wrap things up here and say, just head over and read Tayari’s words, because every answer (including what she says about the business of writing) is so on mark, and in those areas where her experience doesn’t match mine, her answers only broaden my understanding.

Lots to do today. And I won’t do it all artfully. But I have art in my life, and so grateful for it.

And Tayari: Good on ya! Go, go, go!


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