Advice from Tayari Jones to Writers in Difficult Times

The National Book Award–nominated author spoke to winners of the Rona Jaffe Foundation’s award for emerging writers

Tayari Jones delivered these remarks on September 13 to the 2018 recipients of the Rona Jaffe Foundation’s award for emerging women writers: Chelsea Bieker, Lisa Chen, Lydia Conklin, Gabriela Garcia, Karen Outen, and Alison C. Rollins. Author Rona Jaffe established the award in 1995, and since then the Foundation has awarded more than $2.5 million to promising women writers. The day after the award ceremony, Jones’s novel An American Marriage was long-listed for the National Book Award.

In the fifteen years since I published my first novel, I have on several occasions been asked to speak to emerging writers. I usually take the position of telling them the things that I wished I had known when I was finding my way as a writer. I tell them how I wish I had not worried so much about being liked. I wish I had known how well things would work out. I wish that I had trusted my voice — clear, but often too loud, serious, but sometimes silly. I wish I had known that my ideas were complicated, not confusing. I wish that I had known that being accessible was a good thing. In other words, I wish I had found out earlier that myself was the best person for me to be on the page and in life.

And I still believe these things.

I wish I had found out earlier that myself was the best person for me to be.

However, today, such advice seems a bit too precious as we face a world in peril the likes of which I have never witnessed. I searched for the perfect metaphor, but everything that came to mind seemed too obvious. My imagination kept returning to to image of flame destroying all that we hold dear. But the metaphor seemed a bit dramatic, hysterical even. But then as I watched the footage of wildfires churning through California — the ultimate expression of global warming—I was even more strongly tempted to use the image of fire as I speak about the challenges we face today. But still, I resisted.

And then, just a few days ago, I watched the television open-mouthed and wet-eyed as flames engulfed the National Braziliam museum in Rio, destroying thousands of years worth of irreplaceable artifacts, from precious works of art to the fossilized remains of our earliest ancestors.

When we come to experience fire not just as an idea, but as a literal phenomenon, it is clear that fire is not an apt metaphor for our moment in history — for burning is an irreversible devastation. Firefighters with their hoses and chemical remedies can halt the damage, but they cannot restore.

We are citizens and artists and we have the power to take our country back. The goal is not to return to the nation (and even the world) that we once were — for so many of us know that yesteryear was hardly a dreamscape. Even in 2009 when Barack Obama took his oath of office and Elizabeth Alexander offered a praise song for the day — even on that cold January morning, when millions gathered to wish our society well, we all came together to celebrate hope, but also commit to change. Let us not forget that even in that moment of excitement, we knew there was work to be done.

We are citizens and artists and we have the power to take our country back.

But now, all these years later, we are a nation and a planet in crisis and we must each use our resources to create the world that we want to call our own. There was a time in my life when I sat at my writing desk to spend a few hours each day, looking inward, telling my story. This was art, of course. As the descendants of Africans held in slavery in this country and denied literacy, sometimes at the penalty of death — I believed that whatever I might write was an act of defiance. And it was. And it is.

However, this is not enough.

My message to you today is not just advice for writers and artists. This is a call to action for all of us, each according to her ability. This is a plea for truth telling in all of its complexity. I am asking you to be brave enough to forsake likes and shares in favor of revealing potentially unsettling realities. Alice Walker famously urged us to “be no one’s darling.” I would like to expand on this and push you to be no one’s darling, not even your own. In these perilous times, we must interrogate ourselves on the page and in life. We have to ask ourselves how what can we do to make the world better and make ourselves better. We have to sacrifice our comfort as individuals and as artists. There is the other famous quote that says that “art should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It’s a catchy saying and true as water, but we must understand that we ourselves are both comfortable and afflicted.

In these perilous times, we must interrogate ourselves on the page and in life.

But let me return to where I started this story, as a young writer, telling my own truth and taking pleasure and challenge from the task of remembering and translating feeling into words.

I push you to responsibility, but I don’t want to deprive you of the delight of creation and the pleasure of your imagination. Rather, I urge you to find and claim your voice, mission, and joy all at once. Rejoice in resistance. Seek out the satisfaction of hard work. Learn to revel in forward motion.

Congratulations to you, this year’s class of Rona Jaffe Fellows. Seeing you standing here fills me with great optimism, which I am sure is shared by everyone in this room. Your talents are a bright light that will show us the way. As the great Toni Morrison’s declared in her Nobel lecture: “The bird is in your hands.”

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