How Jesmyn Ward Brings Writing to Life
The author of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ talks about nurturing students, characters, and children
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I t may be surprising to Jesmyn Ward that Sing, Unburied, Sing, her first novel since winning the National Book Award, is heralded as one of her most heart-rending and thought-provoking works to date. But to the fans who have been anticipating her next book, praise was to be expected. As with much of Ward’s work, the Black body features prominently in Sing, Unburied, Sing—in the relationships of parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, and, yes, the living and the dead. The themes Ward explores through characters and locale resonate so deeply that readers feel the thrum of loss, see the pathways to addiction, and understand how the past can haunt you despite your attempts at escape.
While on tour, Ward discussed her approach to the creative writing workshop, her thought process for creating characters that live on and off the page, and the work that went into her New York Times bestselling anthology The Fire This Time. Below is an excerpt of a longer interview with Jesmyn Ward. The full transcript and episode can be found on the Minorities in Publishing podcast site.
Jennifer Baker: Because your work is so lush and always invokes emotion, I wonder if you go over writing methods when it comes to helping your creative writing students find their process?
Jesmyn Ward: When I teach I attempt to expose them to as many contemporary writers as I can, because I think that often they come to me and they’re well versed in the classics but not really contemporary lit. So you know, I try to switch up my syllabus every semester and try to introduce them to new voices, so they can see what other writers who would be their contemporaries, what they’re writing, what they’re working on, what they’re thinking about. Of course my hope is that they read the work and then they find something in it that maybe that they like, that they find impressive, that maybe they want to emulate in their own work. One of the most important things that I teach them early on is that writing requires revision and that writing is a process. I teach undergrads and I think often undergrads don’t realize that. They think when you’re a writer, especially a creative writer, that you write something and it’s perfect and you hit send and it goes out to the world. They really don’t understand what a process it is and how there’s an entire group of people working together to revise your work, to refine your work, before it ever reaches an audience.
One of the most important things that I teach my students is that writing requires revision and that writing is a process.
JB: And do you ever broach the subject of the business or do you kind of concentrate on the craft itself?
JW: We mostly talk about craft in my courses, but I do always, on the last day of class or the next to last day of class, I just normally set that day aside for any questions that they might have about the business of being a writer and the business of publishing and then they can ask me anything. So we devote at least one class period to talking about the business of writing—talking about what it’s like to find an agent, what it’s like to work with an agent, what it’s like to work with a publishing company.
JB: I was thinking a lot about the discussion of motherhood you had with Lisa Lucas when you were at the Schomburg. And you have this juxtaposition in Sing, Unburied, Sing with Leonie as a very raw character. As a mother writing a character like Leonie and also writing Jojo and Pop and Mam, how do you converge upon getting them all on the page in such a way that you feel like you can step away and effectively say, “that’s what I was going for”? Or do you even recognize that’s what you were going for?
JW: I don’t know. I think that it is an organic process. I mean, I think that as I write, especially through the first draft, like the rough draft, that I’m discovering who the characters are, that they’re just taking on some kind of life on the page and off the page as I’m writing my way into the story.
Because the process of writing about them complicates them, and they do things that surprise me as a writer. So yes, I think that when I commit to writing a story, part of what I’m really focused on, part of what I’m committed to doing when I am interested in telling a story, is to bring all the characters to life in one respect or another and make them complicated and as human as I can on the page. And so they take on shape, but they continue to take on shape even after I’m done with the rough draft, so when I’m going back into a draft and then revising and revising, I’m still adding more dimensions. I’m still complicating them again and again and again, so it’s a continuous thing, right? It’s a continuous task to complicate my characters and to make them more human, more believable, more, more surprising, I think. Human beings are surprising in that you never fully know, you know? You never fully know a human being. So that’s why I think, for Sing, Unburied, Sing, that’s why I think that a 13-year-old boy, Jojo, that he can be learning how to be a man and that part of learning how to be a man is to suppress his emotions and stand up straight and to walk a certain way and to act a certain way in violent situations. But at the same time he can also care for his little sister and nurture his little sister and be very maternal in a lot of ways. And I think that that happened over multiple drafts of the work.
Part of what I’m committed to doing is to bring all the characters to life in one respect or another and make them complicated and as human as I can on the page.
JB: Is there an awareness of what is “expected” or the stereotypes or these assumptions made, especially about Black life, in your mind when you’re writing? Or are you able to block that out? Because I find that I’m often thinking about how not to do things, and that can actually inhibit the process.
JW: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think about what not to do. I really focus on the situation that the characters find themselves in, and I focus on the place where they’re from, and I take all of that with me to the text as I’m trying to understand who the characters are. Because those things, place and the circumstance, of course that influences them, that determines certain aspects of their personality. So yes, I think that’s what I really focus on. That’s what I think about. I try to always think in terms of positives instead of negatives. I try to think in terms of dimensions and adding dimensions and I want to add this, I want to do this, I want this person to look at the world and understand it in this prism. And that just works for me in my process, thinking about audience and about, perhaps, what they expect to see in my characters or what they understand of them that I can’t. I can’t do that. I have to forget all that, because it makes me so anxious, being aware of audience and what they might hypothetically want.
I think that Black children in America are not afforded the gifts of childhood. They’re not seen as children, they’re seen as threats.
JB: I don’t want to say it’s a theme, but I feel like this is true of Black life or at least maybe working-class Black life, is the need for the younger characters to grow up quickly. And I wonder if that’s kind of indicative of being a Black child in America. This was referenced in some of the essays in The Fire This Time. But also here with Jojo of that road trip they took, of the consistency of him having to be the adult when he is surrounded, theoretically, by adults.
JW: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that Black children in America are not afforded the gifts of childhood, you know. They’re not seen as children, like you said, they’re seen as threats. They’re seen as adults. That assumption there, that they can handle whatever burdens—there’s a thoughtlessness to it, right? Especially when I think about Leonie and the way that she treats her children, there’s a thoughtlessness to it. Childhood for her is not some sort of sacred space. She believes the world is a harsh place and so therefore Jojo should be aware of that fact and treated accordingly, from the time that he’s eight, nine years old. And I think that that assumption on her part, that that’s telling, and that’s symptomatic of our larger culture. I mean, not just like Black families and Black parents and, you know, Black parental figures, but also the culture as a whole. I think that for some more thoughtful Black parents, that’s a struggle that they have, you know, that’s something that they have to actively push back. They have to actively attempt to create this space where their children are just allowed to be children. But, when Tamir Rice is being murdered in a park by police for playing with a toy gun, and he’s, what, twelve years old, I mean, that’s harsh. How do you protect your children’s childhood when the world is doing everything it can to rob them of that childhood? It’s tough.