The first things I noticed about Tayari Jones (after sitting down in the lobby of the Embassy Suites, fiddling with my hands and wondering if I was in the best seat possible to see her when she walked in) were her eyes. I don't mean her beauty, but her alertness, her focus, her ever-present I-have-an-answer-to-that look, her continual observing and evaluating of the world around her, a quality that's so necessary to posses in order to be a good writer.
This is something that I, personally, had almost forgotten. I had recently covered the clear-glass globe of my world with sticky-notes of To-Do Lists that never seemed to get done. I had bogged myself down in the failures of the semi-finished (books to be read, family to call, student papers to grade, stories to edit) and these lists were obstructing my writerly view of the world, along with my own creativity.
When I drove Tayari to FAU for the first time, I wasn't expecting any gems of wisdom (I was more so concerned with what notch the A/C should be on) and I didn't know I was receiving them until after the workshop entirely. In the car, she told me about how she wakes up around 5am (ouch!) and journals, writing letters to certain people, and prayers for others who likely won't ever see them. This last bit I took as her focusing on her personal, emotional, and mental health. It was extremely refreshing to spend the week with a person and writer who so openly spoke about all aspects of her life, even the centering bits that happen in between the moon and the sun, over a morning cup of coffee.
This alertness and self-caring warmth was echoed in the first exercise we did in the workshop itself: pointing. It’s my new favorite thing. She gave credit to the person who first initiated this technique, but I was too excited to record it. Tayari would pick three or four people and have them each take turns reading a new chunk of prose they had written. While they’re reading, the rest of the class records phrases or images that struck them, so that they can point them out to the writer. We then go around the room, briefly stating what we liked best about the piece. This seems like a very sugary sweet exercise where writers are merely massaging others’ egos (she did mention, repeatedly, that it was like a nice massage; “Get your massage oils out.”) but here are three practical reasons why I think this exercise is great:
1. Its obvious confidence-boosting qualities can help a writer feel good about what she’s working on, giving her energy to revise it.
2. Since we’re writing awesome phrases down, it reminds us that writing is about the words—the infinite ways there are to string juicy thoughts together! Isn’t that why we got into this in the first place?
3. It pushes us to get more creative and sexy with our language, to try harder. (What if you everything you wrote was to be read during a pointing session?)
Tayari also pushed us to re-work our pieces by imagining them as endless stories in order to make the choice of where they begin and end, on the page, a significant one. She taught us how to educate ourselves on our minor characters by giving them monologues that will likely never make it into the story, and she taught us if you’re writing based off of a real personal struggle you’ve faced, “If it doesn’t make you cry, then you’re not doing it right.” She reminded us to push ourselves to be unique with such phrases as, “Stop it, that’s generic,” and “Be you as hard as you can.”
Her workshop was a jolt to my writerly soul, and I’m so grateful to the people in our Creative Writing program who worked to get her here (and those whose workshops push and inspire me every week!), to the Sanders Foundation for funding these opportunities, and to Tayari, for riding with me to FAU that afternoon, in my little hatchback, A/C blasting.
Kim is about to complete her first year in the Fiction MFA program, and is ready to flex her reading and writing muscles in the summer sun. Send her summer reading recommendations at email@example.com.