What journalists can learn about authorship from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou speaks on race relations at Congregation B’nai Israel and Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 16, 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida. (AP Photo/Jeff Daly/Invision)

In 2006 the Canadian scholar Stuart Adam and I co-edited a collection of essays titled "Journalism: The Democratic Craft." It is a rich — and largely unread — anthology of work that reflects on the key aspects of knowledge that fuel the activities we describe as “journalism.”

The essays consider the essential elements of the practice: from news and evidence, to language and narrative, to analysis and interpretation. Stuart and I begin the collection with six essays on “Authorship and Craft,” written by writers as diverse as George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, and Robert Stone.

Toward the end of the process, I stumbled upon an interview with a famous author I found so compelling, so writerly — if there is such a word — that I argued for its inclusion.

The picture that emerged from this writer was of an artist committed to the truth but also to experimentation; to particularity and universality; to discipline and eccentricity — in short, to the achievement of a kind of crazy command of the English language that changed her, and changed us all.

That author was Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86.

Before I describe some of what I learned from listening to Angelou talk about her craft, let me offer our rationale for including her interview in an anthology about journalism. Stuart and I wrote: “The decision to include novelists and poets in a book directed at journalists turns on a belief that reporters, as much as writers of other literary forms, are authors. Journalists create original texts; they authorize a view of events and reality on the basis of their own work and reflection; they publish (or broadcast) what they write. So in our view, apprentice journalists will benefit from considering how serious authors — novelists as well as journalists — reflect on their work.”

Angelou was known as much or more for her autobiographical works, such as "I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings," as for her poetry. She referred to such work as “autobiographical fiction” and offered candid descriptions of methods — such as composite characters — that blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In that sense, her work can fairly be judged in a class with other genre-bending authors, such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

While she was crafting a narrative truth, she never wavered from the essential elements of her childhood story. In a 1990 interview in front of a live, New York audience, she told George Plimpton of the Paris Review: “I was raped when I was very young. I told my brother the name of the person who had done it. Within a few days the man was killed. In my child’s mind — seven and a half years old — I thought my voice had killed him. So I stopped talking for five years.” She becomes the caged bird who must learn to sing.

Her life has been so rich that it provided her with materials for multiple volumes of autobiography. Here’s a summary from reviewer John McWhorter in the New Republic: “From the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots.” He left out calypso dancer!

Of all her testimony, I find most charming (and consoling) the recitation of her elaborate rituals of writing, eccentricities that seem so idiosyncratic they can teach us how to embrace our own essential craziness as writers.

They begin in a hotel room. Wherever she lived, Angelou would rent a room in a local hotel. This room would serve as her writing studio. She would demand that all the pictures be taken down from the walls of the room. She would bring to this room the tools of her trade, as Plimpton describes them: “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.” He left off a deck of playing cards.

She would arrive in the room about 6:30 a.m., climb atop the bed and write until about 12:30 p.m., her writing elbow rubbing on the bed sheet until it became calloused. On such a schedule, she could produce a dozen pages a day, which she would edit down to three or four at home in the evening.

Why no pictures on the walls? “I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room, and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milk-maids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.”

Why the playing cards? For solitaire, to create a trance-like feeling of openness and “enchantment” that would unleash the traumatic memories of her youth.

Why the Bible? To experience the language in its most elevated and inspiring forms. Why the sherry? Why not? But especially as a reward for completed work.

Writing is a funny business, in the end. There is something Platonic about it, the way all of us must find our way to the universal categories of work: from finding an idea, to discovering a focus, to imagining a structure, to revising all aspects of the work. Those challenges must be met, but writers meet them in a thousand curious ways.

Angelou’s legacy is a powerful reminder. A glass of sherry to her!

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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