Autumn Allen is the 2020-2021 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library.
By Autumn Allen
My journey with the novel I am writing, All You Have to Do, began in January of 2018. I completed the first draft as a mentorship project for my MFA. Since then, I have gone through many stages in learning how to complete the work. Looking back on the past three years, including a research fellowship and my current Writer-in-Residence position sponsored by the Associates of the Boston Public Library, I have identified three necessary ingredients in my pursuit of writing.
Curiosity (Why start?)
I am, by nature, a curious person. Ideas come to me as questions or wonderings, and the strength of the question’s pull determines how big a project the exploration becomes.
The premise for my story began with major questions about life that had plagued me for years. Some years ago, my younger brother was in prison and my older brother was shot in the street. He survived—they both did—but it was an extreme time for my family, trying to figure out how things had come to this. We all went to the same elite preparatory schools. We lived on a quiet street. We never expected our boys to become a statistic. It seemed as if they sought a life they had been purposely shielded from. Questions ran through my mind for years. Why the boys, and not me and my sister?
But it was hearing about a childhood friend of my brother’s, a white boy who had seemed a trouble-maker when we were young, that really got my head spinning. Why was he doing well, and not my brothers? Why was trouble a phase for white boys, something they could outgrow on their way to an inevitably successful life, but a destination for my brothers, something for them to grow into? How do race, gender, and class undermine the promise of the American Dream and the efficiency of a good education in getting one there?
James Baldwin said, in a 1984 Paris Review interview, “When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”
I needed to write this book in order to learn something I didn’t know: To address my burning questions about my family, about how our different paths reflect and respond to our position as Black people in America. It was through writing that I could explore and possibly grasp something close to understanding.
Ethan Canin’s advice for writers is, “I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something.” The past three years have been filled with discovery. Every step was steeped in emotion. I started by interviewing my younger brother. We talked about experiences we had had in common as children, but he also shared some things I never knew. It took a few weeks to digest his memories and feelings before I could begin to write about it.
I also explored how my mother’s experiences with integration affected her adulthood and our upbringing. I wanted to trace how the trauma of racism affects future generations. Seeking to know more about my mom’s generation led me to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where I received a research fellowship to study the transition from Civil Rights to Black Power. It could take me a lifetime to unpack everything I discovered in that one month. But one thing that stood out was how similar the perspectives of the youth of the 1960s seemed to my brother’s, even though, on the surface, the face of racism had changed. The archival material put me in their shoes, which is where I needed to be to write.
Ethan Canin also said: “Stop worrying about writing a great novel–just become another human being.” This is what I have tried to do in seeking two protagonists, a young man in 1995 and a young man in 1968. For writing is a game of hide and seek with my characters. As Grace Hartigan said, “Art cannot be seized head-on, it must be stalked, it is elusive. And the only way it can be ever found is not knowing it except through occasional flashes of insight and revelation.”
How could I continue to stalk my subject?
Discipline (How to continue)
I graduated in May 2018 with a very rough draft of this novel. It would need a ton of work in order to be coherent, let alone publishable. I hadn’t been a writer before entering the MFA program. I had completed one (laughable) novel during National Novel Writing Month, but although I had always loved to write, I hadn’t made time for it since becoming a mother.
So after graduation, my task was two-fold: To learn more about the craft of writing and revising, and to set up a sustainable writing life around my existing responsibilities as an educator, mother, homeschooler, daughter. As Mason Curry wrote in his introduction to Daily Rituals, “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” A solid routine—so difficult to establish when you have no deadlines, no pay, and no one waiting for your pages!
For craft, I read voraciously—craft books as well as novels—and I took classes at Grub Street and attended conferences like Kweli’s annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference. For motivation and accountability, I reached out to other writers of color and formed a writing group, Women of Words, which has been instrumental in getting the work done.
David Mitchell wrote, “You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing. For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways I can make sure to carve out time. Part One: Neglect everything else. Part Two: Get disciplined.”
It was helpful to read so many writers saying that you really don’t have time to do everything and write a book. Making space for this work is simple, but not easy.
Stella Bowen: “Pursuing art is not just a matter of finding the time—it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.” For me, reaching that free spirit requires hours of padding—time to relax, daydream, be quiet, read, think, walk, pray. And since 2020, to grieve, mourn, cry, and laugh. If I’m not making time to attain the attentive state of mind, then I’m not making time for writing.
Eudora Welty: “It’s the act of being totally absorbed, I think, which seems to give you direction. The work teaches you about the work ahead, and that teaches you what’s ahead, and so on.”
It is a tremendous act of faith, writing a book. I could not have mapped out this process when I started. Draft one taught me what I needed to do next. Studying structure and reading taught me what I needed to do next. Historical research brought an entirely new storyline into existence. Workshopping my story taught me what was missing. Enthusiasm and faith in my ability to pursue the project had to be meticulously groomed.
Commitment (Why finish?)
It is comparatively easy to begin writing. Henry James: “When I remember how light-heartedly I began this book!—I thought it would be easy—-my God!” (I didn’t think this one would be easy, but I didn’t foresee quite so many drafts.)
Continuing to write, and to revise until you’re satisfied, takes a tremendous amount of commitment and willpower. I was tempted to quit last year when a major personal loss took the wind out of my sails. The residency was great timing not only for harnessing my willpower and discipline but for convincing me that my story belongs in the world.
The questions I am exploring in this work are of utmost importance to me, as a parent, an educator, and as a human being living in a society at a crossroads. When we offer a quality education to children of color, we assume we are giving them the tools to succeed in society. But what if it’s not that simple? What are the consequences of making such assumptions?
Again, my work of fiction is asking more questions than it answers. But by entering into the minds of Black youth and being honest on the page with what I find, I am making a statement: That their voices are an essential piece of the American landscape, and that we will never heal as a society until we hear those voices. If one person feels seen and heard because I wrote, then I am satisfied. I have fulfilled my responsibility, and I have made a difference with the creativity that I consider a gift from God. What better reason could there be to keep writing?
Toni Cade Bambara said: “The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family, and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain’t easy.”
Writing a novel is hard work. Staying honest on the page can be anxiety-producing. In my writing group, my early readers, and my family and friends, I have supporters who believe in the importance of my work, and who remind me, when I doubt myself, that I must keep going.
And then, too, I am an artist. I write for myself. Because if I don’t write, I am not at peace.