Drinking from a Literary Wellspring in 2020

“I can tell you, without diversity, creativity is stagnant.” -Edward Enninful

Just before the start of 2020, when I reached a point in my writing journey where I had little inspiration and even less motivation to write, I took a hard look at the influences around me. I looked to my bookshelf, in particular, and realized there was a distinct lack of diversity. The shelves were overwhelmed by authors who looked like me, talked like me, had similar backgrounds. The lack of diversity made me a poorer, less inspired writer.

So I decided to make a change. I gave myself a reading challenge.

As it was 2020, I added those two twenties together, making a nice, even forty – I would read at least forty books by diverse writers. Knowing my weaknesses (and foolishly/arrogantly thinking I may not be able to find enough diverse books to read), I gave myself these minimal criteria to use while picking the books I would read”

  • 20 books written by male authors.
  • 20 books written by female authors.
  • At least 20 books had to be written by BIPOC men and women (diverse nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc.
  • Up to 20 books could be written by non-BIPOC

I made certain that my challenge was S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. I would read 40 books, where at least half were diverse authors. I would record each book I finished on a word document, where I would include the book’s title, author, author country and ethnic group, and book genre. I would give myself an achievable and realistic monthly goal of 3-4 books, and I had all year to do it.

The year started out slow, but steady. January and February went by, with three and four books read, respectively. March was very slow, with only two books. But beginning in April and May, I began to hit my stride – my interest was really peaked by the books I was reading, and I couldn’t get enough.

June came and I completely outdid my earlier attempts and read twelve books, finishing my original goal of forty books early. I upped my goal to sixty and read the twenty additional books in July and August. I upped by goal to eighty and reached that goal in late September, with twenty books read in one month. Honestly, I believe a madness took over my mind – and I couldn’t stop.

My well of creativity was so terribly dry. I saw through this reading challenge that one of the reasons for this feeling of aridness was because I was starved for stories which made me think, made me feel, made me laugh and cry. The fountains from which I drank inspiration and meaning had become stale, uninteresting, and meaningless.

The books I read from Muslim authors were eye-opening and heart-wrenching. The books I read from African and South American authors were breathtakingly beautiful and epic. The books I read from African American and Indigenous Americans filled me with a sense of conviction and humility.

It was as wonderful as it was painful. I could talk to others of nothing else. I had to share the stories I was reading with friends, family, anyone who would listen. They got quite sick of it, but I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn’t help it.

My final count for the year 2020 was one hundred twelve (112) books. Of those one hundred twelve books, ninety-one different authors are represented, of which forty-seven of those authors are BIPOC – which I’ll admit was less than I had hoped.

I had new favorite authors, however, and a much greater awareness and appreciation for how diversity is a glorious, beautiful state of being. I also learned how far we still have to go in the struggle for equality and the protection of human rights – not only here in the United States, but also all over the world.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Photo of the fountain outside the Cincinnati Public Library, taken by J.F. Schmitz.

With Mortified Fondness

In many ways, I was a typical teenager. I spent a great deal of time in my room. I listened to music and wished I was anywhere but where I was at any particular moment. And starting sometime during my sixth-grade year (I was eleven at the time), I started writing poetry.

I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe. I had dedicated journals where I would painstakingly copy the flowery, overwrought poetry I’d ‘perfected’ on simple notebook paper several hours before, and I suspected that one day they would become collectors’ items when I was older and much, much more famous.

I still have those journals. Sometimes I open them up, sift through the pages, and feel mortified fondness for the poems written there.

My poetic style is more sparse than before; I became enamored with haiku and tanka and never really looked back. It is very difficult for me to write a poem that expands beyond a half a page. But that poetry was the beginning of so much more…

Like most poets (and writers in general), the same themes come up all the time in my work.

Despite what some think when they meet me in real life, my inner world can be quite dark and filled with shadows.

Themes of loneliness and heartbreak abound. A turbulent and fractured spirituality colors perception and experiences. The desire for connection is overwhelming and the emotional distance between myself and others seems quite real.

It’s one of the reasons I love Poe so much.

His work is romantic and melancholy, much of his work is somewhat autobiographical, and there is a spirituality in his words and his imagery that feels just as real as it is symbolic. It resonates for me now just as strongly as it did when I was an adolescent.

In addition to other projects, such as “The Bells of Reine” – a short fiction inspired in a loose sort of way by Poe’s poem “The Bells” – and my haiku anthology, I’m compiling a collection of poetry and short fiction entitled “Ophelia’s Tears”.

“Ophelia’s Tears” will explore themes of romance, heartbreak, my struggle with gender stereotypes, bisexuality, as well as darker elements like anger, trauma, and feelings of despair.

Some of those poems and short works will ultimately preview here on The Writings of J.S. White and I hope you enjoy them if, and when, they make their appearances. It is also my hope that they will resonate with you as much as Poe so often resonated with me.

Mind Like a Magpie’s Nest

I promised to expound on my newest projects: the short fiction “The Bells of Reine”, and a haiku anthology that is (for now) untitled but will cap out at a respectable one hundred poems.

Suffice it to say, the short fiction is personal and dear to my heart, which means I will agonize over it for quite some time, and the anthology needs more poems and some editing.

Now let us get to the heart of this post – ideas.

Ideas are my bread and butter as a writer and an ongoing goal of mine is to keep my proverbial pantry well stocked.

Sometimes the ideas flow like water. The dam breaks and I get a sudden rush of plot points, characters, backstory, settings, scenes. More often, the ideas trickle in…slow and sticky like molasses. The ideas come into my mind, but don’t move. Won’t develop. Stop and refuse to go any farther. I might get a character one day, a snippet of dialogue another, a string of conversation overheard morphs into a half-baked concept of a scene.

Many are terrible. Some are good. A shining few might earn the badge of originality.

I’m not one for idea notebooks. I buy notebooks with all the good intentions of using them for my project ideas, but inevitably, they end up sitting in some hallowed drawer in my house. Beautiful. Pristine. And very, very empty.

Most of my ideas are kept in my head or on random bits of paper or on the back of receipts hidden in yet another drawer. My mind is like a magpie’s nest and is full of such literary debris.

My favorite time to work is at night when everyone else has gone to bed. From my pile of papers or receipts, from the shadowy nooks and crannies of my mind, I recall a surprising number of those little tidbits and mull them over, or reconstruct them, or add to them. In this way, they are never left alone, but aged and curated.

And sometimes I just savor them, sipping their many flavors like fine wine, before squirreling them away again to enjoy or to work on another day.

Mind Like a Magpie’s Nest

I think that, like a magpie’s nest,
my brain is full of treasure.
Yet, none may see,
except for me,
how full the quiet pleasure
that combing through
those rubbish thoughts
gives my nighttime leisure.

Copyright © J.S. White

Picture was originally posted on an article by Newcastle Herald (11/23/2015) and is the work of Eleanor Lennard.

The WHY Behind Writing

Why do we write?

Is it simply to express ourselves and nothing more?

Is it therapeutic? Does it help us work through our problems or relieve our stress?

Do we write to turn a profit or to become a household name like Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling?

Do we write to express our opinions, illuminate the fallacies of the world, or implore the world to change its ways and seek peace and understanding?

Or perhaps we long to usher in a new golden age of literature.

There are as many reasons to write as there are writers, and there are just as many reasons or excuses that we use to dissuade ourselves from writing.

I was browsing through my Instagram feed and I came upon a post by an author and businessman who I’ve come to admire. Simon Sinek is his name. I became aware of him after reading his book Leaders Eat Last for a business class I was attending at the time. He speaks beautifully and simply about how our work and daily life needn’t conflict, that fulfillment at work needn’t be a dream of the few. In another, earlier book he wrote before the one mentioned above, he explains that in our life (whether professional or otherwise), if we can get to root of our WHY – the WHY behind what we do, then it doesn’t matter what it is we choose to do, we will find the enthusiasm and the drive to be successful and fulfilled.

My own reasons behind WHY I write are evolving even as we speak.

When I was a girl, reading books and dreaming all the things a young girl dreams, I wanted to write to bring my dreams to life. I could not live them and so I decided to live vicariously through my characters, to live a thousand lives in a thousand different lands. When I grew older, my girlishness turning into the contradictions of adolescence, my reasons morphed into a desire to give voice to the longings and emotions I suddenly felt so strongly I could burst with them. As I practiced and grew older still, I would write for the sheer joy of creating, for the freedom it gave me. In some ways, I still do.

But now, as I come upon my mid-thirties (I will turn thirty-five in October), I find my reasons are changing yet again. Now I long for connection.

With my worlds, my words, my writing, I long to connect to the deep well of humanity’s experiences. To find friends where others might only see enemies, hope where there appears to be nothing but despair. To connect with the emotions and dreams that churn deep within our collective souls. And perhaps, in connecting with others, I will connect with even deeper parts of myself.

So, in the spirit of connection, dear readers, I ask you the same question I have been asking myself these days.

What is the WHY behind your writing?

It doesn’t matter what you answer might be. Your reason can be singular, or your reasons might be legion.  So long as you know them when they speak to you, so long as you listen to their promptings, and do not silence them…that’s what matters.

Old-Fashioned Chicken ‘N Dumplings and the Writing Process

As a mother, it’s difficult to find the time or the energy to write. Often, I don’t have one or the other, and so nothing gets accomplished. But that isn’t to say I don’t work on my poetry or my stories every day.

There is more to the writing process that physically sitting in my chair and working (although, without that, there is no writing to speak of). On the contrary, my mind is always working on my stories or my poetry. I’m always considering little things that need revision, reworking, inclusion, or more researching.

The best part? Those things can be done anywhere.

When I do have some free time and a bit of spending money – those days when I can get out of the house on my own without having to run errands – I often like to go to restaurants or coffee shops. Unlike other writers, I don’t always take pen and paper with me. In fact, the majority of the time, I’m lucky if I have a pen in my purse somewhere, much less a pad of paper to write on.

Many may not realize it but going out and eating by yourself can be one of the best opportunities to work on your writing. I like to think of it as a dual-purpose exercise in writing and mindfulness.

When you go out by yourself (and make a point to avoid playing on your phone the whole time) you become very conscious of three things: 1) yourself, 2) the environment around you, and 3) everyone else.

Let me give you an example of my own experience the other day…

A couple of days ago, I had a chance to go to town after dropping my son off at pre-K. He’s a special needs child and so his pre-K starts later than regular classes, so I was free around lunchtime until the early afternoon.

I decided to stop a local bistro-style restaurant and, as I’d had a light breakfast earlier in the day, was hungrier than usual. I’d been thinking about trying the restaurant’s old-fashioned chicken ‘n dumplings – a down-home favorite in my little southeastern corner of the United States. I ordered that, a side of fresh-cut fruit, and a sweet, iced tea (another Southern US favorite).

While I waited, I took in the view. The place was bright and decorated plainly. The tables were simple and there were far more tables in the space than there should’ve been for such a small space. Most of the other patrons were people a bit older than me, many in their forties or fifties. A few were around my age or younger, they seemed to be having lunch with friends or perhaps lovers.

Most restaurants that I enjoy dining at have background music playing, but this one did not. The waitresses were dressed very casually – jeans and t-shirts. They were all women except for the cooks and bus boys. They were different ages. They were also very busy (it was lunchtime after all).

When my meal arrived, my chicken n’ dumplings were served in an individual cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid. When I opened it, a cloud of steam escaped and revealed the delicious, shredded chicken and thick, floury dumplings in thick aromatic gravy.

And instantly, I was reminded of my grandmother and my childhood spent eating home-cooked meals with my family. It made me think of all the elderly women in my life. Memories, sporadic and unconscious, moved through my mind. Tales wove themselves together, emotions surfaced, expectations relived. Disappointments and regrets rehashed…

So why am I telling you this? And what has it to do with the writing process?

I had some free time. I went out for lunch. I ordered chicken n’ dumplings.

My point is this. Even something a simple as going out to lunch rewards you with a rich tapestry of information that, if you can harness it and utilize it, will lend something beautiful and real to your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a memoir, a poem, or an epic fantasy about elves battling demons.

Those elderly women I thought of become characters. Waitresses, bystanders, and bus boys become the background noise of your work. It gives a sense of reality and time to the events of your stories. It breathes life into your poetry and gives substance to your prose.

Whether you are physically seated in front of your manuscript or not, everything you do can be valuable to your process. Use everything. No matter how small. No matter how insignificant it may seem.

Your life is an amazing story. Properly distilled, any experience you have – no matter how mundane it may seem – can and will breed countless other amazing stories and works of art.

All you have to do is pay attention.