by: Jennifer Baker
Year 1: I wrote several drafts of a piece for Mikayla. I rejected them all and sat, staring at the new blank document in front of me. What did she want? What did she want? What did she want?
Year 2: As soon as I opened a document ready to tackle Mikayla’s story I’d just as quickly close it, too nervous and judgmental to type a single word.
Year 3: I attempted a letter. Not working. I attempted a This is Your Life perspective. Definitely not. I attempted to write the events leading up to Mikayla’s wedding. Too long. This is a short story, Jenn.
Year 4: I wrote about anyone but Mikayla.
Year 5: Things seemed to be coming together and pages I submitted about Mikayla’s latest emotional turmoil garnered me a scholarship at a writers’ conference.
In year 5, I submitted a revised Mikayla piece to Tayari Jones’ workshop at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and was in a conference with her the day after I received criticism for my piece.
My workshop mates noted there was too much and not enough. Mikayla as a character was interesting but they needed more of this and less of what was apparent on the page. Did I have a clear vision for her? At various points people were asking about her life choices as I considered my own.
I was stuck. Nothing worked. Nothing flowed as far as I was concerned. For four years and counting I rejected everything I had written for this character as not good enough. As far as I was concerned ir wasn’t enough that she was Black and a female and in an interracial relationship. I had a whole history for her but no story. Nothing was working and knowing that she was the linchpin in my linked collection how could I finish it if I couldn’t even capture an accurate portrait of her?
Perhaps this anthology was too big an undertaking as I entered my early 30s and pursued a divorce. Perhaps I was not the writer I thought I was in taking on various perspectives and personalities. And just when I thought I hit the point where I fixed something I found that I was still wallowing in a creative quicksand that mired my mind from producing anything I felt was up to par for this character. So I sat, uncertain, across from an author I admired and who was the main reason, well besides wine, for me applying to this conference.
My frustration showed when I sat with Tayari, my legs swung, my back arched, my will on how to fix my prose shaky. The collection that was no longer in toddler stage but heading towards preschool-age remained without the piece that would serve as the tether. Mikayla’s story had had so many incarnations and spanned many moments yet never seemed to capture her spirit. With the other pieces it was a tad bit easier but since she is referenced or appears in every story it was key that she be understood from her own point of view. I thought I’d gotten there this time.
Tayari asked, “How many stories are in your collection?”
“Eight,” I replied.
“That’s short for a collection. Why does Mikayla have to have only one story?”
I stared at her, maybe I gaped, my mouth may have dropped open.
“I don’t know,” I may have finally said before our conference ended.
After Napa Valley I went to another writers’ conference and then returned home thinking more on my conversation with Tayari. That’s when the starts and stops became full-fledged drafts. Suddenly Mikayla’s story was pouring out when I typed because I had not one, not two, but three pieces for and about her, bringing the total in the collection to ten. And instead of one story that jammed in a life from 1953 all the way through the 1980s—that had been a mess of paragraphs and jumbled timelines—metamorphosed into one succinct story of loss at 6000 words. And then another of insecurity and femininity at 6000 words. And another of civil unrest in the 1960s at 6000 words.
I didn’t have to confound myself on how much to add and whether it would be enough because I spread out her story into three shorter pieces that made so much more sense when I settled on specific moments that made her her, while also connecting the pieces to other references and characters within the collection.
Turns out I needed permission to write more. I needed someone to back up a choice with “Yes, this character is interesting.” “She’s intriguing and I’d read more about her.” I needed someone to dismiss my rejection of my work and say “This is a story worth writing about.” Having someone I respected boil it down to not stuffing her all in one place but spread her arcs out like nutella on a crostini made sense because why get one bite of sweetness and another of sour bread when you can get both?
Sometimes (read: often) writers need that reminder that our stories are worth telling. That we build people and worlds of interest and we have to trust the reader but also give the reader something to cling to. When Tayari asked me why I was doubting myself, my writing, and my character I uncovered that I was doubting that she was as important to the reader as she was to me. Once I released myself of that roadblock things flourished and made sense. This permission albeit encouragement helped me get to the heart of what I was trying to say in the first place.
Jennifer Baker is a native New Yorker and alum of CCNY and The New School’s MFA program. She’s a full-time production editor, freelancer, baking enthusiast, and reviewer for DinnerReviews.com. Her work’s been in Poets & Writers magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, and Eclectic Flash. Jennifer is the social media liaison for We Need Diverse Books where her Twitter addiction is being put to good use. She is also the co-creator of the new podcast Minorities in Publishing about adding more diversity into the publishing industry (@minoritiesinpub on Twitter). You can find Jennifer on Twitter as @jbakernyc.