In teaching, there are said to be gateways and gate-keepers. I will return to this thought in a moment.
This weekend, Amanda and I went out of town for a mini-vacation to D.C. The original reason for this was to see Madonna. Amanda is a fan of Madonna from way back in the day, so in January, she bought us tickets for the show this weekend. And this weekend just so happened to be the weekend of the National Book Festival. So our itinerary quickly filled with heading up to the Book Festival, dinner at Oyamel (a place we saw featured on the Cooking Channel), the National Zoo the next day, and then the Madonna show that night.
It was a whirlwind. We walked ourselves sore (which was probably good, considering how much we ate).
I could tell you things about the zoo (which was fantastic), and the food (which was fantastic), and the Madonna show (which started late, but was so fantastic – seriously, if you’ve never seen an entire stadium of people on their feet, clapping and dancing and singing along to “Like a Prayer,” it is a sight to see – a sight that gave me chill bumps).
But one of the real highlights for me was the National Book Festival. We only had time for one event, and when I looked at the schedule, it was clear to me which event to go to: Tayari Jones was reading on Saturday afternoon.
If you’ve never read any of Tayari’s work, you’re missing out. She writes from her heart, which is rooted in Atlanta, even though she lives up north now. Her first novel, my favorite, Leaving Atlanta, is about the Atlanta Child Murders, an event that most people outside of Atlanta don’t know about, a period of time when 30 African-American children were murdered in Atlanta.
Her most recent book, Silver Sparrow, is about two daughters of one man, a bigamist named James Witherspoon. One daughter, the secret one, knows about the other one, and the drama unfolds as their lives become more and more tangled up.
I love Tayari’s books. They’re well-crafted, deliberate, kind, and entertaining. But in addition to admiring Tayari as a writer, I admire her as a teacher. This is a woman who has called me on my bullshit more times than I really care to admit (and I’ve only taken one week-long workshop with her). She’s the one who cautioned me against making my characters the butt of my joke. She’s the one who has reminded me to be true to the reality of a place (the place in question being Jonesboro, Georgia, my hometown, a bedroom community of Atlanta). She’s the one who, yes, writes about children and adolescents, but doesn’t have much patience for the fantasy-land where children are precocious and adorable and quirky and terribly, terribly innocent.
But even more than all of that, Tayari Jones is a gateway.
In teaching, we are told that we can either be gateways or gate-keepers. Gate-keepers make it hard for students to succeed. They treat academic success like a well-guarded fortress, and any small misstep along the path to this fortress – a comma error, a spelling mistake, a typo, a couple of absences – costs the students his/her entire journey. They must turn back. They FAIL (boom, boom, boom). These teachers guard the fortress with their sarcasm, their condescension, their snarky one-liners and epic intelligence. Their reasons are varied, but their mission is clear: none shall enter without my permission. Want my permission? A lot of people do. And a lot of people get disappointed.
But gateways… they’re different. Gateways see success not so much as a fortress to be guarded but as a destination to be gotten to. And they can help you get there. Gateways know the difference between a mountain and a mole-hill, and they don’t confuse the two just to create a stumbling block. Gateways know that, yes, you have to work hard to get to the destination, but they’re ready to help you along the way if you can do your part, too. They guide you with encouragement, lessons, celebrations for progress and admonitions for those times when we are tired of walking, when we need to sit on the ground and cry and pitch a fit. “Have your fit,” they say, “but if you’re getting to the destination, you will have to walk.” They are kind. They are the Mary Poppins of academe. (Did I just liken Tayari Jones to Mary Poppins? I’m not sure how she’ll feel about that…)
Point being, I have known gateways and gate-keepers in my journey to literary success. It’s a journey I’m still on. I’ve known people who hold students down, who see very little room in the fortress and don’t mind telling students that there’s no room for them. I’ve heard tell of teachers who nag and insult and try to break students so that no matter how hard they try, they can never make it to the fortress.
And I’ve known gateways. Tayari Jones is a gateway. At her talk at the National Book Festival, she read from Silver Sparrow, but then she spent most of her time fielding questions from the audience, questions on how to write, how to be successful, what advice she has. She talked about her community of readers, the people she doesn’t know who follow her on Twitter and Facebook, who cheer her on. She cheers us on, too. I was happy to be in the company of other writers who did #WRITELIKECRAZY with her in August. I was happy to hear that, even though Tayari wrote 100 pages during the month of August, she still sees herself working on it for about another year. I was glad to hear her advice on writing, things like character development, writing our own “true stories,” etc. I was encouraged.
When I went to get my book signed, Tayari was her always-lovely self, asking me first how I lost weight (I never have a good answer; people are going to start thinking I’m lying if I don’t come up with something good) but then also, as I walked away, the question I used to dread: “Are you writing?”
She asks because she cares. She asks because she expects me to be writing. She asks because she’s a gateway, one of my guides on this long, long journey.
“I am,” I told her. One of the first times I could answer that question that way. I am writing. I am doing the work. I am thankful for gateways. I am walking, ever still, in the path they blaze for me.
Check out Tayari’s blog at TayariJones.com.