Last week, in the first days of Black History Month, a collection of essays written by luminaries in the black community was published. The book, BLACK COOL, is an anthology on cultural aesthetics edited by a national best-selling author, and has a forward written by a Harvard University professor with numerous honorary degrees and awards. The most surprising aspect of all of this is the matter of my own involvement—I wrote an essay that appears in the book. I’ve written two novels, two plays, three screenplays, many short stories, several TV scripts, and dozens of poems in my writing life, but prior to last year, I’d never written an essay. What’s more, I’d never written an essay that I didn’t want to write. But I did. And it got published. I’m going to tell you why.
The story begins with a conversation on a street corner in Louisville, KY. I was talking to a friend about artists and depression, how the ebb and flow of creativity is almost like a mood swing, and I wondered if the highs in some twisted way necessitated the lows. I mentioned famous examples—from Billie Holiday to James Baldwin—but later the conversation swung back around until I was talking about my own life, and more specifically, my own father. Weeks later, as she was putting together her book proposal for BLACK COOL, my friend reminded me about the conversation, saying: “You should write about that for my book. The dark side of cool nobody talks about.”
My first response was to laugh, but later I thought, Okay, I can do that. Excitement bubbled in my stomach; with the publication date almost two years away, I was full of hope. Six month later, when she wanted a first draft for the editor I thought, Shit, I can’t do that. I’m a novelist. What do I know about writing an essay?
Then I thought about my students, and what I would tell them if they were in a similar position: If you want to write a good essay, read a good essay. Within hours, I had checked out dozens of collections from my local library—Baldwin, Didion, Mailer, Capote—and after reading them I felt even more hopeless about my own chances. I could now identify what made an essay brilliant, but I didn’t feel any closer to being able to replicate it.
So I went back to my friend. Just tell your story, she said. You know how to tell a story. She was right, of course, I do know how to tell a story. But that isn’t the lesson that came out of this experience. The first lesson—and there are many—is to listen to your friends, especially if they have a career you envy. Take other people’s advice, especially successful, savvy, smart people. The second is to get out of your own way. Check your internal dialogue. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something, tell yourself you can. The third is to push yourself, to intentionally go after things that you believe are beyond your reach. The fourth is discipline. Instead of pulling out when the deadline loomed, I re-committed; I cancelled dinner plans, sat down with a mason jar filled with tea, and hammered out a rough draft. The fifth is perseverance. When notes came back from the editor, I re-wrote the essay. And when more notes came from that draft, I re-wrote it again.
I am thrilled to be a part of this wonderful book, to share the pages with writers I’ve admired, but even more so, I’m proud of how I got there. It wasn’t part of my original plan for myself, but when the opportunity arose, I took it. That is what so much of my writing life has been about—refusing to walk away from a challenge. With every new project, regardless of the genre, I am re-committing to this life, and more determined than ever to write down my story.