Tonight I had the honor of hearing best-selling author James McBride speak at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Though I had fully intended to write a piece about what it has been like to be a part of the birth of the college, that will have to wait for next week as I was so deeply affected by what Mr. McBride shared with us that I felt the need to write about it.
The event was scheduled to be a reading, but other than the first sentence of his best-selling memoir, The Color of Water, he didn’t actually read. Rather it became more of an informal talk about his writing process, his philosophies on life, and his advice to the group of MFA writing students. He began, not surprisingly, with what it was like for him and his brother Hunter to arrive that afternoon, two tall handsome black men on motorcycles in overly white Vermont. As mis hermanas and colleagues Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin can tell you from personal experience, this is not always an easy experience, and yet the McBrides seemed to find working class people to connect with. The woman and her son raising money for the boy scouts by selling bologna sandwiches at the rest stop on interstate 89, the laundry attendant with bad teeth in downtown Montpelier who flirted with them.
I guess we all have fantasies of what a famous writer’s life might be like. Reading The Color of Water changed my life in many ways as I too write about being half one culture and half another. I have followed his career and was somewhat intimated by the fact that he was also a professional jazz musician (just how much talent can one man have? ) and plays with Stephen King’s band The Rock Bottom Remainders. That he just finished working with Spike Lee on a film of his first novel. But the man who stood before us was a guy. Okay, so a good-looking, successful and overly talented guy, but just a guy nonetheless. One who did his laundry in a public laundromat and looks for stories by riding on a New York City bus. One who is more comfortable in the kitchen with the cooks and dishwashers than in a room full of writers and academics. He talked about how rather than identifying himself as a black writer he preferred to think he writes about the commonality of all people, and though I think many writers would like to think they do too, he actually lives it. The reality of his life was better than my fantasy: he is proof that you can be famous and still be real.
As I listened I was reminded of a prestigious writers’ residency that Lisa and I were accepted to a few years ago. We were part of a group that included successful and well-respected writers from all over the world. During the day we would all peck away at our work in our hives and gather for dinner in the main house at night. Night after night the dining room would be filled with discussion of some obscure Russian filmmaker or German poet, the strains of intellectual conversation hovering above the room with the scent of brandy, but Lisa and I would gravitate towards the kitchen to talk with the local woman who did the cooking. We would sit and watch her work a knife like a Stradivarius, the bright colors of fresh summer vegetables flashing beneath the quick moving steel edge. We talked of our mothers and what cooking meant to us growing up, what it meant to us now. About our children and our husbands. About life. Like James McBride, we found that the story was not in the salon, but rather in the heat of the kitchen or the angry guy in the laundromat, or perhaps with the woman who sat across from you on the number ten bus, cradling a grungy baby doll in her wool-covered arms.
But mostly what I learned from James McBride had to do with fearlessness. This was a man who doesn’t care what critics think of his work, who, when he finishes a book, promotes it and then moves on, never looking back. He doesn’t fear rejection and never checks his books’ rankings on amazon.com. His advice to his audience was to fail, and fail often. That we should remember that the only ones who succeed in the business of writing are those that quell their fear. That like the Native Americans, we should put our ears to the ground and listen for buffalo. Sometimes we get lucky and we hear hoof beats. All we have to do then is pick up our pens.