Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On Race and Relevancy in Writing

Between my last deadline and the one that preceded it, it's become an especially and increasingly turbulent time to be black in America, and as an African-American writer, current events can dictate the shape of my work in ways that don't seem fair. Yet I can't tune out for the purpose of somehow preserving my artistic envisioning. Each day, I have to turn on the misery machine and read and watch all of what's happening so that I am aware of the dangers to me and mine. After that, it's pretty hard to go back to my imagination and fashion worlds that are free of the residue of this one. Each time I enter into that creative inner space, I'm followed by spectres of conscience that wail about responsibility. Would I have this voice and platform in this particular climate if it wasn't for me to respond to what we all see as grave problems? To be an African-American who possesses skill with words but refuses to write about race is considered by some a crime of selfishness.

Yet of deep concern for me is how, when a black writer contributes intelligently and poignantly to the mass conversation on race, they become, indelibly, a Race Writer, which may seem like a rare opportunity that is unique to the African-American, and one at which I should not scoff. Except I become a Race Writer, and my lot in life will be to wake up each day and attempt to be first to the pithy maxim. In every format and medium available, I'll have to offer wry observations that my pre-installed relevancy uniquely affords me. I'll be writing less for the benefit of mutual understanding than I will be to serve the choir that wants the perfect daily sermon, or give the well-intentioned but lazy-natured a regular boost of empathetic consciousness. Sure, when you're black, and you write well about race, you get noticed, but then that's all anyone notices, and then that's what you're writing about if you want to be well read, or read at all. Ice skating uphill is what the race writer does, and I don't want that gig, man. I dread it because I've seen what it does to authors whose work was once important until an exhausted and exasperated public put it down.

My latest work involves a protagonist who is a young African-American woman who reaches for a bright future in academia while contending with a history shaped by a family of outlaws. She wishes to hew to her own path but finds herself frequently returning to aid the souls of those who made her, regardless of her disagreement with them. By word 1000, I realized I wasn't just creating a new character and a world in which she could exist, but I was expressing my daily challenge to be true to myself and yet remain connected to the souls that made me. The words wouldn't fall on the page the way they do, and I wouldn't be published and invited to contribute to projects that want a poignant black voice, were I to remain in a bubble where I solely serve my own needs. So I write, sometimes for myself, and sometimes because that's what I gotta do. Or all I can do.

As I was writing this new piece, I came to know both my character and my own inner creative tension. I eventually allowed her encounters and experiences to mirror mine. A Black Lives Matter protest here. A brush with inner city violence there. Difficult choices with no clear winners and losers, over and over again. Then I realized what we all do, at some point, which is we only ever write ourselves. My words come from my black self, and my black self is a part of a world that is made up of so many elements, black and otherwise. It's an exciting world, and a frightening world, and pieces and parts from it make my work exciting, and frightening. And real, which is all any of us want of our writing. And while I cannot, and will not, allow myself to be a Race Writer, I will write lovingly and unguardedly about race, and I will ensure that it comes from the truest part of myself, damn the outcome.

That is my true responsibility.

Danny Gardner is an novelist, actor, director and screenwriter. His long form work has appeared in Literary Orphans Journal, Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter and Noir on the Air. His debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay, is scheduled for publication by Down and Out Books in Spring 2017. He is represented by Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. He lives in Los Angeles and originally hails from Chicago.

On Race and Relevancy in Writing

Between my last deadline and the one that preceded it, it's become an especially and increasingly turbulent time to be black in America, and as an African-American writer, current events can dictate the shape of my work in ways that don't seem fair. Yet I can't tune out for the purpose of somehow preserving my artistic envisioning. Each day, I have to turn on the misery machine and read and watch all of what's happening so that I am aware of the dangers to me and mine. After that, it's pretty hard to go back to my imagination and fashion worlds that are free of the residue of this one. Each time I enter into that creative inner space, I'm followed by spectres of conscience that wail about responsibility. Would I have this voice and platform in this particular climate if it wasn't for me to respond to what we all see as grave problems? To be an African-American who possesses skill with words but refuses to write about race is considered by some a crime of selfishness.

Yet of deep concern for me is how, when a black writer contributes intelligently and poignantly to the mass conversation on race, they become, indelibly, a Race Writer, which may seem like a rare opportunity that is unique to the African-American, and one at which I should not scoff. Except I become a Race Writer, and my lot in life will be to wake up each day and attempt to be first to the pithy maxim. In every format and medium available, I'll have to offer wry observations that my pre-installed relevancy uniquely affords me. I'll be writing less for the benefit of mutual understanding than I will be to serve the choir that wants the perfect daily sermon, or give the well-intentioned but lazy-natured a regular boost of empathetic consciousness. Sure, when you're black, and you write well about race, you get noticed, but then that's all anyone notices, and then that's what you're writing about if you want to be well read, or read at all. Ice skating uphill is what the race writer does, and I don't want that gig, man. I dread it because I've seen what it does to authors whose work was once important until an exhausted and exasperated public put it down.

My latest work involves a protagonist who is a young African-American woman who reaches for a bright future in academia while contending with a history shaped by a family of outlaws. She wishes to hew to her own path but finds herself frequently returning to aid the souls of those who made her, regardless of her disagreement with them. By word 1000, I realized I wasn't just creating a new character and a world in which she could exist, but I was expressing my daily challenge to be true to myself and yet remain connected to the souls that made me. The words wouldn't fall on the page the way they do, and I wouldn't be published and invited to contribute to projects that want a poignant black voice, were I to remain in a bubble where I solely serve my own needs. So I write, sometimes for myself, and sometimes because that's what I gotta do. Or all I can do.

As I was writing this new piece, I came to know both my character and my own inner creative tension. I eventually allowed her encounters and experiences to mirror mine. A Black Lives Matter protest here. A brush with inner city violence there. Difficult choices with no clear winners and losers, over and over again. Then I realized what we all do, at some point, which is we only ever write ourselves. My words come from my black self, and my black self is a part of a world that is made up of so many elements, black and otherwise. It's an exciting world, and a frightening world, and pieces and parts from it make my work exciting, and frightening. And real, which is all any of us want of our writing. And while I cannot, and will not, allow myself to be a Race Writer, I will write lovingly and unguardedly about race, and I will ensure that it comes from the truest part of myself, damn the outcome.

That is my true responsibility.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Tenacity is a Writer's Greatest Asset


Last week, while vacationing with my family in Delaware, I received an e-mail response from a publisher. I took a deep breath, prepared myself for a rejection. The e-mail said:

"Thank you for your submission of A Bend in the Willow, and thank you for your patience while our team evaluated the project. I've heard back from my team now and will share some of their comments with you...

The story hooked the readers from page one and had them reading well into the night. The story was intriguing, well-written, and the plot and characters well-developed.

On the back of this, the team is recommending the book for contract." I had to read it three times before I believed it. 

They sent me a 12-page contract. My son, a lawyer, reviewed it for me. And today,  with hands that shook a little, I signed and mailed it back. The novel I've worked on for more than a decade is going to be published. Did you hear that folks? MY NOVEL IS GOING TO BE PUBLISHED.  Am I happy? If I had a cake I'd push my face into it just like my little grandson did on his second birthday. 

You may read a sample (the prologue) by going to the Book page of my website: susanclaytongoldner.com





can't remember a time when I didn't know I was born to be a writer. I suppose that makes me one of the lucky ones. I do know why I'm here. But as all you other writers out there know, it isn't always an easy life. In fact, it is rarely easy We writers receive so many rejections. We agonize over query letters and sample chapters, then send them out to agents and editors who often don't respond at all.  One time I received a letter from a small press I'd queried. It said, "I only publish my own work and I'd rather have a root canal than publish yours." If it weren't so funny (and almost always wins the worst response from an agent or editor award) I might have cried.

Tenacity is the most important quality for a writer. It is a gift I received from my father. Believe in yourself and the power of your words. Never give up. Keep sending out your work. And one day, you'll get an e-mail or a letter in the mail that makes you want to throw up your arms, leap into the air, and smash your face into a cake.    


Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four
brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the
University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing
most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the
Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-
line Contest where she received a thousand dollar prize. Susan won the National
Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and one of her
poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings.

Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more poetry books than one person could count.