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Wayetu Moore

Wayétu Moore asks, Who Makes Up Your Village?

by Susan Henderson on September 10, 2018

I am so thrilled to share Wayétu Moore with all of you who don’t know her yet. She is one of my favorite writers with an old soul, an astounding ear for dialogue, and the courage to tackle big issues in her work. She is also one of my favorite humans, from when we first met as roommates at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, to laughing and telling stories back here in New York, to seeing all she has done for others, particularly those who live in Liberia, her first home.

Wayétu is the founder of One More Book; she owns the only bookstore in Monrovia, Liberia; and she’s a Margaret Mead Fellow at Columbia University Teachers College.  Her debut novel, She Would Be King, is out tomorrow, and it is a masterpiece.

This is the blurb I was honored to write for it: “This magical retelling of Liberia’s beginning is so original, so bold and poetic, Wayétu Moore is destined for comparisons to Yann Martel, Markus Zusak, and Paulo Coelho. Her unforgettable heroine, Gbessa, leads those who’ve been stripped of their homes and their language to rise up and defend not only their own futures but the memory of those who would never see freedom.”

And this is is Edwidge Danticat’s blurb that’s on the cover: “Epic, beautiful, and magical, this astonishing first novel boldly announces the arrival of a remarkable novelist and storyteller.”

So here is Wayétu, on the day before her book launch, with a letter for those of you who feel weary and beaten up by the writer’s life. Hang in there!

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Dear Writer,

I have to admit it’s odd offering advice on writing because I find myself still negotiating the madness associated with this process every day. I suppose rather than guidance on the many events on your pages and screens, the best words I can offer are those relating to the world off the page, the one you have to navigate and at times even protect yourself from to preserve the part of your spirit most vital to your craft.

You are sensitive and you cannot help it. At times this is what you hate the most about yourself, but this frustration about your soft heart and fragile skin is coupled with the realization that your sensitivity is needed to move about your craft in the way that you do. If you are anything like me, this sensitivity causes a number of functions in your life, and at times is at the root of undesirable interactions. So, my advice speaks to those.

Who Makes Up Your Village?
We all know the saying, “it takes a village.” Growing up, my parents abided by this, and were very strict about who my siblings and I spent our time with. It used to infuriate me, but later I understood their wisdom, and that they were only trying to protect us from the heartaches that stem from bad company and influences. I would honor their methods later in life—the care they took in choosing their friends and those they let into our home, and their circle. This circle, this village, has power. The members of this group give counsel, and bad counsel can sometimes lead to devastating outcomes. You’re pursuing a profession that is competitive, stressful, and to be honest, downright hard. None of us become writers to become rich. This may perplex those closest to you who aren’t writers or artists. Why pursue something with no guarantee of monetization? Those who are around you will either be your greatest encouragers, pushing you toward that extra page or chapter, or be the reason why you abandon (ed) those stories in that unnamed desktop folder. Choose them wisely and choose them well.

Make Friends With No
Rejection is not only a rite of passage in one’s path to seeing the book on the shelf of their favorite bookstore, it’s an active, enthusiastic component of your relationship with writing. It’s the mention of that ex, or the nagging recurring argument, the in- law, or the one stubborn thing your partner won’t let go of. “No” isn’t going anywhere. It comes in different shapes. It may be from an agent, an editor, destroying your “darlings,” a publisher, a magazine, or, even readers. It’s inevitable and it isn’t going anywhere. Making friends with that word will diminish the chances that you eventually become resentful of writing, and of the literary industry in which it exists. When I became okay with rejection, and stopped taking ‘no’ so seriously, my writing suddenly felt like it belonged to me again.

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Govern Your Sensitivity
Someone said something to you that felt like a jab. Or they did that passive aggressive thing to get under your skin. Suddenly, you can’t think straight. It’s difficult to concentrate on any task following that encounter, especially your writing. I will tell you something that I have to tell myself: govern your sensitivity. How people treat you exposes more about that person than it does about you. Dissecting and internalizing every conversation or interaction doesn’t only take away from valuable time that can be used toward productive ends, but over time, it can affect your overall health. Govern your sensitivity. It is okay to feel in the way that you do. Empathy is a gift. But, learning to discern which slights were worth my attention and which I should tune out took a long time. The stricter I became with myself about preserving my energy, the more energy I had to produce.

I hope these three things are helpful. Good luck, today. Happy writing.

With love, Wayétu

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Monthly Wrap: Lessons from Squaw Valley

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2009

A lot of you asked me to pass along what I learned at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, so I’ll try to boil it down to the information I’ve used the most since I got home.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

First, let me briefly describe what happens at Squaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it. For one week, you live in the Olympic Village, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Everyone’s divided into a workshop group of about 12 people; and for three hours every morning—always with an established writer, editor, or agent as the leader—you workshop each other’s stories and chapters. The rest of the day is filled with panels, staff readings, and one-on-one manuscript evaluations. The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well. I remember a writer, who had just placed an order for one of the cheap bagged lunches, telling me, “I signed up for the roast beef sandwich, and so did Ron Carlson!”

Ron and Andy.

Ron Carlson and Andy Dugas

Some thoughts (not necessarily direct quotes) from the only day I took notes:

Ask yourself what, specifically, does your character want right now? Then, have the story conspire to keep her from getting it. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t give your characters time for the problem at hand. Each of them had to stop what they were doing to deal with it. (Ron Carlson)

A novel is like a symphony or opera. If you have a day scene, you’ll want a night scene. If there’s a solo, it’s time for a trio. Fast song, slow song. Inside, outside. Internal scene, crowd scene. But also remember the importance of repeating earlier musical pieces, taking a thread and picking it up again. (Janet Fitch)

Take the story out of the head and into the body. (Ron Carlson)

Dialogue should read like a sword fight: One thrusts, the other reacts. (Carol Edgarian)

End with a sense that you know what the character’s trajectory is. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t end with the narrator in a confused or philosophical state. (Ron Carlson)

Only focus on one day’s work, not on something so daunting as “a book.” (Amy Tan)

Leave the editor at the door. Don’t worry if it’s good enough. Just write the next substandard sentence. Let your spelling and tense go to hell, and keep going. (Ron Carlson)

What’s it like to get all of this advice from your heroes and peers? To have 12 pairs of eyes on your work? To hear hours upon hours of do’s and don’ts from every corner of the business? It’s inspiring. Humbling. Overwhelming. It helps very much if you’ve made some good friends who will laugh and cry with you.

My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo. I adore them both!

If you ask me what was the most valuable thing I learned at Squaw, the answer is easy, and it’s not about craft but about the heart of the writer.

Every day, I write for hours in my little camouflaged office, writing and crumpling up papers and writing some more. I dream of communicating something important and then hate myself for falling short. There are always reasons to give up: It takes so much work to get it right; what looks right one day often looks horrible the next; there’s rarely any pay; it’s hard to keep the momentum; I don’t have the toughness for rejection. And yet, I can’t stop myself.

So guess what the superstars at Squaw Valley spent most of their time talking about? This very thing: The struggle with the blank page, with chaotic first drafts, with self-doubt, with deadlines they fear they won’t meet.

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Knowing my writing heroes struggle in this same way renews my energy and courage for editing this book. Now that I’m back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals are doing this, too: thinking, typing, crumpling, and just committing to finding the story and the best way to tell it.

Before I go, let me get back to Ron Carlson of the roast beef sandwich bagged lunch. He talked to us a lot (and me, specifically) about how it is the writer’s responsibility not to spread herself too thin. And I considered long and hard the many hours a month I spend blogging, and the effect it has on my time and my writing. So this is my very last Monthly Wrap. And soon, I’ll run my very last interview. But I can’t, and won’t, give up the Question of the Month because I like hearing your stories, and because I’m a happier person and a more productive writer when I take time off to play.

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Thank you to my September guest, Judi Hendricks, to everyone who played here, and to the three outrageously fine authors I read this month:  Ron Currie (EVERYTHING MATTERS), Dylan Landis (NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS), and Binnie Kirshenbaum (A DISTURBANCE IN ONE PLACE). I felt like I won the literary lottery!

And finally, shout-outs to some really lovely, talented people at Squaw Valley, who either led my workshops or lent me things when my suitcase got lost (Remember the LaGuardia bomb threat evacuation?) or flew with me, or gave some crucial piece of help on my book, or wowed me in some way or another: Sands Hall, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez, Andrew Tonkovich, Janet Fitch, Mark Childress, Michael Pietsch, Susan Golomb, Peter Steinberg, Rick Kleffel, and Glen David Gold.

Have a good one!

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