I ALWAYS THINK I’ve heard it all when it comes to writing productivity and tricking yourself, bargaining oneself, bribing oneself into it. And then I met Marita Golden, author of more than a dozen books, and I heard something entirely new: That terror could be tamed with a timer. She told be about what writing for ten minutes did for her. Okay, I said. Write it up. And she did. Let me introduce you. Marita’s newest book will be out soon, and we’ll hear from her again when its published, but right now, as spring is trying to spring and distract you in its beneficence, how about we all get a little work done?
The Power of Ten Minutes
by Marita Golden
The clock was ticking. Really ticking. Alright, it wasn’t a clock, it was a timer. A timer that I had set to ring at the end of ten minutes. Why was I writing in long-hand on a yellow legal pad to the insistent and insisting music of a timer usually relegated to my kitchen? Because of fear. The fear, that as I struggled to write the “naked truth” stubbornly stood its ground. My fear had reached what I had learned could actually be a “fever pitch.”
Writing a memoir about being a brown-skinned African-American girl in America, growing into a brown-skinned woman in America whose identity was shaped by the color complex, I felt cowardly, inept and speechless. How was I going to write about the impact of a form of prejudice that deemed and decided that Black people who looked White, or who at least were no darker than a brown paper bag, whose facial features bore the imprint of White ancestors, and whose hair was “good” i.e, straight and silky, were better than me? How was I to write about the stranglehold of this belief all over the world and my victory over a dogma that I was taught, even by the mother who loved me?
The timer was ticking and I didn’t have much time left. My editor had told me that the first draft of the book was timid and unconvincing. Where was the “audacious” voice that marked my best work she asked? I had to drag it out of hiding and this was the day I had promised to do it. It seemed to me there was no vocabulary to write about the color complex with any emotions other than shame and confusion. So whenever I summoned the voice my editor reminded me that I had, it never reported for duty. But I knew that in order to write, to really write, as though my voice and imagination had been unleashed by a benevolent God, I had to summon the anger I felt about all I had experienced, the years of self-doubt, shame and burdensome denial of my worth, beauty and authenticity just as I was. Just as I am.
The timer was set for ten minutes because I knew no matter how virulent the terror, I could write for ten minutes. And I did. I wrote about anger by using the word anger a dozen times. I was writing about how I hated it and loved it and embraced it. I had been trained to be polite, pleasing, and never angry because angry, I was told, no one would listen. I would be stereotyped. I would be emotional and not rational. But in those ten minutes I found that revealing my anger, naming it and making a place for it on the page was baptismal. I was anointed. Writing against the clock, in the shadow of the clock, I had no time to construct defenses, no way to talk or think myself out of words or language or meaning. Writing against the clock I stopped thinking, plotting, and planning, and made space for the story to spread its wings, to sing its song. The two pages I wrote (I kept writing after the timer went off) were terribly beautiful, unconsciously brave, and formed the thematic and structural spine of the book I went on to write. Memoir asks me to flex muscles vastly different than those that I use for my novels. I am heroine, main character, narrator, both reliable and unreliable. And so when I stand on the edge of another river to cross as I write about myself and my life, and I feel moored on the shore, I remember no matter what, I can write for ten minutes!
Don’t Play in the Sun, One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex, an excerpt
(Author’s note: This is part of my response to a ten minute writing exercise I gave myself. In this excerpt I am recreating a visit to a therapist I interviewed for the book).
I sat in this room twelve years ago, and I never told you about my mother’s admonition. For if I told you, I would have to reveal the anger I have borne so long. Anger at my mother. I told you everything about everything except my color complex. Why should I? Surely it hadn’t held ma back. It hadn’t kept me down. It didn’t derail my dreams. But I wonder how much higher I might have soared without it. And if I told you about my mother’s words I would have to let go of the good girl she raised me to be, the girl with table manners and “home training” who was a good-student-make-all- the- family-proud girl, who never, ever let her mother know how deeply those words hurt. The good girl who rationalized and understood and explained away the words over the years, words that seeped into me like a lethal injection.
But I never told you about my dark-skinned-Black-woman anger. I never told you about my love/hate affair with Sapphire and Beulah. I was politically conscious, still work an Afro, and that was then, this was now. Surely those women had no hold on me. Surely those women had nothing to do with my fear that I wasn’t good enough for a good man. Surely not. Surely not.
And talking to you on this day, I don’t tell you how I wonder at my brown-skinned woman anger, wonder at its ferocity, its loyalty, its stubbornness. I don’t tell you how I dread it and yet how it fuels me. How justified I feel it is and how I will never let it go. How it occupies my like an arrogant army of conquest. I love my light-skinned sisters and deeply resent their privilege. I love this anger that has driven me to write this book as a prayer and a scream and a poem to my sisters, light and dark. I hate this anger for the ways it sets me apart and chokes me on questions that seem to have no answer I can live with or repeat. I love this anger, for it fuels every friendship I have with a light-skinned sister when I feel we are residents of the same skin-a woman’s skin and that’s all that matters. I hate this anger, for it is my legacy and my obstacle course. I love this anger, for every book I have ever written has sprung from a question or a wound.
Marita Golden is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction. Her memoirs include Migrations of the Heart and Don’t Play in the Sun, One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex. She is the Preseident Emeritus and co-founder of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation has been honored for her writing and cultural work by The Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Poets & Writers, and the Maryland Association of Librarians.
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I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
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