There is nothing worse than not knowing who you are. For years, I searched for my birth family so I could see myself in their faces, as well as find out where my love of writing came from.
Once I found my English-Hall family in 2001, for the first time since I gave birth to my son, Justin, I could finally see Me in the faces of others. I learned that I came from a family of writers and poets. People like my Grandmother Ellena and my Aunt Yuvonne Brazier who are both poets and writers, not to mention some of my cousins like Ellena Balkom who is also a talented writer and motivational speaker.
However, I still see Me in the hearts of my Jackson kin. Through and through, I am a Jackson. I am, and will always be, M.C. Jackson’s little girl. Daddy was the first person to say to me, “you’re going to be a writer someday.” He also taught me the value of working hard at whatever job I had whether it was flipping burgers in the food court in the dining hall at Auburn University or standing in front of a classroom at Ball State University teaching and engaging with students.
I am also a part of the men and women who helped nurture me along the way. People like my cousin, Frankie Key, who mothered me and showed me the value of standing up for myself no matter what. People like Miss Addie Haynes and Mr. Paul Reeves, who first taught me how to speak loud and proud and enunciate my words when speaking in a public forum. People like Mrs. Beatrice Miller and my Aunt Lenora Key McClendon who helped me to see that being a strong woman, yet a caring woman, are not contradictory to each other. People like Uncle Raz Casey, who lived beyond 110, and taught me growing old is not something to fear but something to celebrate. People like my Uncle Lonnie B. Jackson who taught me storytelling is a gift and if you are going to tell a story, you better “tell it straight.” And finally, people like Mrs. Eveline and Aunt Mary, who taught me there is strength in being quiet and observant.
I could name so many more people who touched my life, and taught me the value of being a strong woman, and over time, I will, but for now, here is a poem that expresses who I am and where I came from.
My Song of Me
When you look at me, you see not just an
adopted baby of unknown pedigree.
but a baby shuffled from one
Front Porch Monarch to the other,
each trying to mark me, massaging their
imprint into my skin with gnarled fingers
in an effort to make me their own.
a love child cradled by my daddy’s callused hands,
hands that were rubbed soft with Jergens Lotion and Vaseline
after long days of toiling for what seemed like at times
only a few dimes and nickels.
A country child begat by country folk who often got pecked
by the beak of Jim Crow but who occasionally
got the chance to peck him back.
A blues child who jooked just as hard as the grown folks when
J.W. Warren plucked blues harmonies
in the guise of gospel tunes in order to satisfy
both the tea drinkers and the shine sippers who
all congregated under the Saturday night altar
of stars and vast, Alabama skies.
A sometimes fearful child who was warned about
the Billy Bobs, Joe Nathans, and Cooter Lees
who whooped it up on back country roads and side streets--
screaming racial epitaphs that burned crosses into
the souls of the hearer, but in a pinch these men
would do you right – whether you were white or black.
But most of all
I am a storyteller who is tied to generations of
other proud storytellers whose
stories I carry in my belly like unborn babies, waiting
for the day when Emancipation comes, so I can
be one of the first to set our stories free.
Today, I am not having a fun time being writer. In fact, most of this week hasn’t been fun. Why, you ask? Well, instead of working on my next novel or having imaginary conversations with Gayle and Oprah about my book, I have had to put aside my creative hat and focus on my marketing hat. I have made 15 phone calls to bookstores about possible book signings. I have sent out over 50 emails to book stores, book clubs, book reviewers, and members of the press about the release of the book and upcoming events. I have visited half a dozen bookstores and I have given out tons of flyers and postcards. I have made posts to Facebook and Twitter urging my family and friends to write reviews and post them to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million and Goodreads. And I’m not even counting all of the hard work my husband Robert and other friends have done to try and get the word out. Whew. No one said this writing thing went beyond sitting at a comfy desk with a nice mug of tea while the writing muse has its way with me.
Okay, okay. Before you say, “Blah, blah, blah, stop complaining. Wasn’t this your dream?” Let me just say, yes, you are right. But it doesn’t change the fact that this part of the process is not fun. I am an extroverted introvert, meaning, I can turn on the charm when I have to, but in all honesty, a great day to me is a day when it is just me, my muse, and my keyboard. Making phone call after phone call where I have to spark enthusiasm in the hearer on the other side of the phone is not my idea of a good day, hence why I never went into sales.
I was teasing a friend the other day when I said I have heard everything this week but “It’s not you. It’s me,” when I called various bookstores trying to set up book signings. Nobody told me that most bookstores are not interested in granting signings unless you are already well-known. Whodathunk? It’s like being back in the day when I was a new job hunter and I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have a job.
But you know, in spite of that fact, those of us who write and publish can’t give up. Even if 9 out of 10 people turn us down and make us feel like our life’s work is not much more than a blip on the radar screen of publishing, we can’t give up. Why? Because of that one success, and yes, that one success matters.
So, here are some tips to writers who are interested in publishing:
1. Make sure you spend some time building your presence on social media. Promoting your work becomes a little easier when your friends, family and colleagues are also helping to get out the word.
2. Get ready to be a cheerleader for your work. If you are too timid to shout about your work from the rooftops, you have probably selected the wrong career path. Yes, there are authors who write in isolation and never interact with the public and somehow find a way to get their work to its intended audience, but really, those writers are few and far between. Make sure you enter into the publishing process believing you will have to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing your work. Even those who publish with the large presses are finding themselves having to utilize their skills as marketers to plug their work.
3. Get organized. I have half a dozen templates of letters, emails, press releases, etc., so when I find a new outlet to send material to, all I have to do is tweak my template and then Voila!, it is off to my new potential resource without me having to spend hours recreating the wheel.
4. Schedule your day so that you are not trying to market your work and write creatively in the same time and space. There is nothing that will suck away your creativity more than knowing you have to send off press releases, type up mailing envelopes, or talk on the phone with individuals who might be lukewarm, at best, when it comes to talking to you about your work.
5. Delegate or ask for help. Once you are in publishing mode, you need a team – a team of unpaid (or paid if you roll like that) “staff” who can take some of the burden off your shoulders so you really can spend more time being creative. As I’ve said repeatedly, my husband has been my rock throughout this entire process so far. My great friend, Lauren, who has hosted an event, helped with the copy editing, and sent out reviews and press releases, has been invaluable in this whole process, and daily, I am asking her to do more and more. So, whenever people say, “Is there anything I can do to help you publicize your work,” take them up on their offer! Get them to make phone calls. Get them to send out books for review or press packets (to those who still want hard copy packets). Get them to show up at your readings and help with all of the behind-the-scene duties that will overwhelm you on the day of your signing.
So, I offer you writers this advice, not to discourage you but to prepare you for those days when the writing life just doesn't seem rewarding. When literally and figuratively you are getting doors slammed shut in your face and you say to yourself, "But I have an ISBN number. Ain't I a writer too!" Just remember, unless you are already Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or any of the other rock stars of publishing, don’t expect the red carpet to automatically be rolled out to meet you at every venue you imagine yourself reading in. Unless you are a literary giant already, don’t expect the New York Times to come knocking down your door to do a book review for your book. Instead, go into this publishing thing like it is truly a business venture that in the beginning, there may not be very many individuals believing in your work besides you and your good old Aunt Susie. And that is okay. Just make sure you help Aunt Susie learn how to send a tweet, because, really, initially, she might be all you’ve got.
Now, back to marketing my book. Oh, and by the way, do any of you have Oprah on speed dial? Okay, okay! Just asking. Sheesh! :)