Image: State Library and Archives of Florida
I’m old, so that title reminds me of the Don Henley song Boys of Summer and the line “Don’t look back, you can never look back.” In my case, however, it would be The Books of Summer…the ones I didn’t quite get to and the ones I ran with.
When the spring semester was winding up, I started making all sorts of summer plans for the classic literature I would read and the craft books I would analyze and the outlines of my memoir that I would pin to the wall next to my computer.
But then I got a consultancy for work related to my last professional life (public health) and found myself in West Africa for a couple of weeks and, in the end, the only substantial writing I did over the summer was in generating work reports.
Now, they were pretty darn good reports, I will say, but I’m also certain they’ll never make the New York Times Bestsellers list. If anyone ever reads them at all, I’ll be delighted.
But the work was interesting and, in a way—and much to my surprise—just what my writing needed because it got me back in touch with the activism that surrounds the global work on AIDS. I mention this because that is exactly the core theme of my memoir; my life experiences as they relate to my work on HIV and AIDS.
Interestingly enough, whether directly or indirectly, my summer reading also ended up taking a turn towards reviving my inner activist. While in Africa, I found myself finishing up the brilliant memoir by Jacqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater, which chronicles her life work in international development and the years she spent working in Africa.
She started out young and idealistic but quickly came to see the gaps in international work but rather than criticize the work or simply walk away, she followed through with her determination to change things and has made a lasting impact on development work around the world. She is a woman I admire for many reasons, above all, because she never gave up or stopped believing she could make a difference, no matter how small. She would not take no for an answer.
Between chapters, I watched the CNN coverage of the massacre in Charleston and a few weeks later, upon my return, I became preoccupied with the horrific death of Sandra Bland and have found myself trying to figure out how I can best play a part in reversing racism at least in my own immediate life, if not in the world. How can I be proactive and even half as effective as Novogratz has been in her work?
Very much related were two of the other books I read over the summer: Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird and her highly controversial book released in July, Go Set A Watchman. Both of these books, above all, further fed my inner activist and reminded me both of how little things have truly evolved since the 30s and 50s (when those books were set) and just how much harder each of us has to work individually to change our world so that women like Sandra Bland—and the countless others—never get arrested in the first place.
I believe this is particularly important for people like me—white, middle-aged, abundantly privileged and with a voice that might reach other white ears. We have to stop leaving the burden of change on the people already oppressed, we each must step up and do our part. And we must choose our words carefully and above all, not try to take their words, but simply amplify their platform and do no harm in the process.
Each night I spend an hour or so on Twitter and retweet the most poignant words of the leaders in this movement. I study their words and ask myself how can I be more effective in my own language. Each word I write matters and since I can only truly hold myself accountable for anything in this world, I must raise my personal standards.
And so, rather than reading historic works of literature, I opted to read Accidental Feminist by M.G. Lord which is a wonderful book about Elizabeth Taylor and (among other things) touches often on Taylor’s work on AIDS during her later years which is, of course, relevant to me and my writing. I once spoke on a panel with Ms. Taylor and was struck by her kindness and beauty as well as her heartfelt words on how important it was to continue fighting this virus we call HIV, but never the people living with HIV.
And then I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay which raised all sorts of feelings (and not just about competitive Scrabble). I laughed, I cried, I felt myself shake with deep memories that rose to the surface as she recounted her own experiences in life. And, above all, I was reminded again of the power of words.
Also on the list to finish before school starts are Ta-Neshi Coates’ Between The World And Me and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.
Somehow, even though I didn’t achieve any of my original writing goals for the summer, I feel like I’ve evolved as a writer tremendously through the reading I did end up doing.
My thesis will be—if I can pull it off, that is—a memoir about my own work on HIV and AIDS and the commonalities I found in the many countries I visited and worked in during those two decades. My own story will be woven throughout but I realize, more and more, that my story—my memoir—is only useful if it helps the reader to learn something new. No craft lecture can teach me that, I have to find that voice within myself and bring it to the surface.
Like—I suspect—many writers, I often doubt myself. I wonder who I think I am to even try to write a memoir? Who even cares what I might have to say? And then I read remarkable books like these and I’m reminded that if I choose my words carefully and can touch even one person as these author’s words have touched me, then it is all worth it.
And so it is that as I look back in the rear view mirror on the summer of 2015, I didn’t accomplish what I’d originally set out to do, but perhaps I accomplished something more important; I held myself accountable. I got back in touch with what really matters, the importance of the words I choose. I hope I can do the writing justice.
Let’s see what Year Two of this MFA will inspire. I’ve got my fightin’ words ready; bring it on!