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Labor (Day) Pains

By Kathy Y. Wilson · September 8th, 2004 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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I get up and go to bed according to work. Most days and nights are governed by the mental lassoing of the free fall of ideas, sentences and word searches. I even fall asleep tapping a replay of the day's words.

I work when ostensibly I do not. Constantly I fill notebooks with poems, column ideas and outlines, story notes and lists of words whose meanings I don't yet know.

I fear that, if I don't document the signifance to me of these words and the paths to them, who will? It's my duty, my job.

It's elusive. Writing precisely to articulate a moment in time, then stringing those words together to form a poetically cohesive whole is like leaping to catch a balloon drifting skyward.

If I don't accurately time the lateral leap of my imagination to coincide with the whoosh of my vocabulary, then that balloon -- that word or sentence -- is irretrievable.

This requires skill. I'm not boastful or burdened, merely explicative.

Let me tell you what it's like.

Writing doesn't suit this culture. Writers don't always fit in, except to be romanticized as the alcoholic or drug-addled dark genius suffering for her art.

Too many lay claim to it, as in: "You write? I write a little, too." Or, "I always wanted to write. I've got a book in me."

One doesn't write a little. Real writers write. Then we write more.

We don't talk about it, show it off, intellectualize or mystify it. We sit our asses down and face the blankness. We kill ill.

We're sorrounded by inspiring words we wished we'd written. Taped below a Chinese fortune on my home computer is a nearly two-year-old New York Times headline for a review of Love, Liza, one of my favorite movies: "A gasoline-sniffing ritual of communion." It is poetic, succinct, un-headliney, eliciting religiosity by using "communion" and "ritual."

I also like"Anything that can be done must be written about" from a New York Times story 10 years ago.

I take it as my personal challenge.

A journalist friend liked "sauteeing to Tupac," a portion of a sentence she'd read in Essence describing Chaka Khan cooking and singing with her kids. I want to like it as much as she.

By now you understand the obsessive nature of living every day to do the same thing a different way every day. It's work.

It's hard describing it as such to friends who call midday and don't understand exactly why I get to do what I do but who also envy it.

Envy not. Rarely are my afternoons spent wiling hours away.

Columns hide between the lines at the bank. Every hand slap in a casual greeting is filed in my memory bank to be withdrawn when I need to spend it in another piece -- maybe a poem or a writing excercise with an English class at Clark Montessori.

Words are currency for working poor writers. I work like a free slave to earn more, and daily I make the great migration north to better, leaner sentences.

Even reading is work. I'm not merely reading, I'm looking for better.

In all this linguistic spinning I trample deadlines, ultimately overcome and overwrought by the paucity of my skill set in correlation to my dreams. I'm not mature enough to write all the shit I got stacked up.

I play my position, reminiscing over bad stories at my back and taking glory for ones I pulled off. It's strange knowing that because I love what I do I must work to become better at it.

Work, though, is overrated. I've been writing seriously since the seventh grade, when my mother gave me a typewriter, a thesaurus, a dictionary (which I still have) and a pack of typing paper.

I've been writng professionally since 1987, when Joan Carroll paid me, with no clips except corny high-school newspaper stories, to write and edit Cincinnati BlackBook. I've written for newspapers for a decade non-stop and, except for a three-month mental health break, churned out weekly columns for eight years.

I learned on my own to work my words like musicians woodshed, like singers run scales, like athletes run steps. Except for the technicalities of grammar, I've unlearned everything I learned in college allegedly majoring in English. I nearly lost my mind fighting to build this lifestyle.

Like a manic street preacher, I tell parents of would-be artists to stop advocating "Plan B." For artists, there is only a means to survival, personal freedom and creativity which might entail dog walking, babysitting, waiting tables or telemarketing.

I had a job microfiliming medical records from 5:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. in a warehouse basement with a crew of likewise losers. I never stopped writing.

I sold men's sportswear at Lazarus, where I could guess a man's inseam at 20 paces. Depressed, I fell into slovenliness. I never stopped writing.

I always called myself a writer, and I knew someday I'd be paid to do it. But this clearly is not about money. It's about work and working my words to make them make me a better writer.

As I write this on Labor Day afternoon, sounds signaling the close of summer strain against Jill Scott's wail in my headphones. Motorcycles rumble past. Raggae rises, pauses at the stop sign and wanes around the corner. Neighbors yell greetings on their way to cookouts.

I celebrate a day off by working.



Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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