I wrote my first poem at 11 years old. It was titled “Why” and explored racism, colorism, class, and income inequality. Though I had not heard the terms yet, I felt and saw them around me. I was moved to curiosity and anger as to why they existed-hence the title “Why.”
I could not understand the glaring difference between the vast, expensive homes of the neighborhood I went to school in, Capitol Hill, and where I lived in Rainier Valley. I reeled from the discovery that all Black people are not created equal and that even amongst skin that was closer to white was ideal. And I was perplexed by the nonchalant cruelty and how easy it was for poor black children to target each other for traits we all shared and could not control-our skin, our poverty, and our inability to afford luxury items.
“Why” was written one day during our free write period in English class. Pencil in hand, I scribbled furiously in my journal, the words spilling out quickly. My English teacher, Ms. G, looked at me with curiosity when I put my pencil down. She strode over to my desk.
“Danielle, you’re done already?” she asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. Ms. Glass, as we called her, was not a teacher to be played with. She was tough, and she took English very seriously. There were fifteen minutes left in the free-write period, yet I was done while my peers continued.
“Yes, I am finished, Ms. Glass.”
“Humph, we will see about that,” she said, beckoning me to hand over my journal. A look of shock came over her face as she read it.
“Danielle, please come see me after class,” Ms. Glass said abruptly and walked back to her desk.
I was nervous, unable to discern if I was in trouble. Perhaps my poem was too much for Miss Glass. Maybe she was offended by what I wrote about white men being at the top of the pecking order. Perhaps I would get in trouble at home for what I said. But once we spoke after class, I learned my fears were off-base.
“Danielle,” she started, taking off her glasses, the intense gaze of her dark brown eyes on mine, “you have a gift!”
“So, I’m not in trouble?
“Of course, you are not in trouble, silly girl!”
Now it was my turn to be shocked. I discovered that Miss Glass had another side-she could tell jokes and laugh.
“Danielle, I enjoyed reading your poem. I see potential”.
She paused, taking a moment to put her glasses back on.
“The topics you addressed are important. There is such…passion in your tone! You already know how to use your words for maximum impact. You will be an amazing writer one day!”
I looked at her, stunned by her words.
Ms. Glass then grabbed a red marker from her desk.
“You have the creative part down,” she continued as she reached for my journal again. “But to become an amazing writer, you MUST see the value of editing.”
And with that, Ms. Glass’s right hand glided over the page to make corrections. She then handed the journal back to me.
“I only edited your grammatical errors. In time you will learn to spot these mistakes and correct them yourself. But tonight, I want you to read your poem over again. Think about structure, tone, and clarity. Turn your words over in your head again and again. You are just getting started with the writing process.
“The writing process?”
“Yes, Danielle. This is just your first draft. You have a second draft and a final one before your poem is done.”
Picking up my journal, I promised Ms. Glass I would get her the second and final drafts back. I had not counted on there being so much work involved. But hearing Ms. Glass say I had a gift filled me with an indescribable joy. I was talented at something!
Miss Glass was my writing coach throughout middle school. Whenever she took out her red pen, I knew what to expect. If I wasn’t at the top of my game, she’d hand my essays back, the formerly pristine white pages resembling a crime scene. But I also became comfortable with constructive criticism. Miss Glass taught me that raw talent is never enough. To be the best, you MUST work and refine your craft.
Since that day in the sixth grade 31 years ago, I have continued to write, and my work falls into two categories:
- Inspired writing
- Disciplined writing
I’d estimate that 80% of my lifetime output falls into the inspired writing category; the remainder is disciplined. The inspired writing is the rawness, the creativity, the thing that just COMES to me. I don’t have to tap into it or force words onto the page. The inspiration just flows from within. It leads to poems and essays that enchant and inspire, leaving a lasting impression on the reader.
For me, inspired writing works quite well for shorter pieces. But for more ambitious writing projects, like the memoir I am writing on growing up during the crack epidemic, you must also be a disciplined writer. This means writing consistently-even when I don’t feel the raw, pulsing energy that controls my mind when inspired.
Disciplined writing has been a challenge for me. But because I am committed to producing two books, I have focused on strengthening this skill. Since making it my focus, my disciplined writing skills have improved tremendously.
But lately, I am reverting to what comes naturally. The inspired creative spirit has resurfaced, dominating my free time. Once again, words just assemble in my brain. Essays, poems, and ideas burn like a fire shut up in my bones, and I cannot rest until I’ve committed them to written form.
I have missed my regular morning workouts for the past eight days. As soon as my sleep fog clears, the creativity bubbles over. The workout outfit I laid out the night before, sitting in a lonely pile, neglected. At night I am up until nearly 1am, committed to at least getting the first draft out. I have written over thirty pages of original content in eight days. I am more inspired than I’ve been in years. I wish I could be thrilled with that.
Yes, there is a sense of accomplishment from seeing the blank whiteness of a Word document filled with words. Watching one page become two, two pages grow to four, and four pages multiply to eight is magical. I am so inspired, and I really don’t want to be. I know myself well, so I’m fully cognizant of what underlies my recent motivation. It made me fill my journal with my chicken scratch handwriting in Ms. Glass’s class that day: frustration and disillusionment with what I saw.
If there weren’t so many mass shootings….
If fascism wasn’t burrowing comfortably into our body politic….
If racists didn’t make Juneteenth yet another opportunity to show their behinds…
If Roe v Wade wasn’t overturned…
If these things weren’t happening? I know my compulsion wouldn’t be this strong. It’s not a divine inspiration; it’s a profane one. Part of me does not want it and wishes this cup would pass from me. But I know Ms. Glass was correct: writing IS my gift. When I wield my pen, I fulfill my calling. This is who I am and my place in my era: reflecting, observing, and sharing my craft.