The Voice of a Writer `in Process'
IN her slow, deep, and deliberate honeyed voice, writer and poet Maya Angelou says that she does not ``think fast'' at all. What this versatile woman is doing with her life, she says, is taking both the rough and sweet experiences and slowly, slowly mulling them over for meaning and worth.Skip to next paragraph
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``I appear to think fast,'' she says carefully while seated in a hotel room during an interview, ``but I don't.'' She smiles, folds her hands, and laughs a long, low laugh, as if delight and explanation are one.
Her ``slowness'' is the art of her character. ``I am in process,'' she says with command and conviction. It was perhaps for these two qualities that President Clinton choose her to read a specially written poem,``On the Pulse of The River,'' at his inauguration.
``As soon as it was announced that I was to read a poem at the inauguration,'' says Angelou, ``people all over the country started phoning me, or saw me in the supermarket or the airport, and said,`How's the poem going?' It was the first time that ever happened. I knew I had to write about what was nearest to my soul, that human beings are more alike than we are unlike. If we could get that through our skulls, we would immediately diminish so much hate, ignorance, and violence.''
TO readers of her five autobiographical books, Angelou has told her life's story with bone-hard honesty and clarity. As a black child she experienced poverty, physical abuse, and for a time lived in cars in a junkyard.
Her books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Angelou has also written screenplays and stage productions, and taught music and dance. Her new book, ``Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now,'' was published late last month.
The following are excerpts from an interview.
David Holmstrom: After so many different experiences in your life - early poverty, living in Europe and Africa, awards for writing, international recognition - what do you trust?
Maya Angelou: (after a long pause) I have to translate that into the question ``What do I know?'' I can only trust what I know, and the only thing I trust is the love of God. That is all, and even though my knowledge and understanding of that sometimes wavers, that is the rock in my life.
I believe I can do three things: I can cook. I can write. And I can drive. Given an assignment in any of those three areas, I believe I will carry out the assignment with grace and maybe even some flashes of brilliance. I trust myself in the kitchen, in a car, and with the yellow pad. But the big trust is that I am a child of God. That is the most amazing thing to me and [it] still brings me tears of joy.
Do you write everything on a yellow pad?
Yes. In the early '50s I returned to the United States from Europe. I was young and had left a child behind. I came home, and I had gone mad as a hatter. One day I was very frightened for my sanity. I took a taxi to a hospital in San Francisco and found myself in front of a young white man in a three-piece suit. He asked me what was the matter. I looked at him and just bawled. How could he understand what it was like to be a young black woman with a little boy?
So I went to my voice teacher and told him I was going mad. He said, ``Here's a yellow pad. Write your blessings.'' I said, ``Oh, please, I don't want to even hear that. I'm going crazy.'' He said, ``Start with the fact that you can hear me, that you can see the page, that you can hold the pen.'' Before I reached the end of the page I was transformed. So, everything I have written, every book, every stage play, every screenplay, was written on a yellow pad. As soon as I pick it up, I am reminded of my blessings.
What conditions produce your best writing? The discipline of sitting down and writing no matter what, or from some kind of immediate trigger?
I can't say one or the other. Sometimes I do better when a phrase will lodge itself in my mind, or a question will be asked of me, then I go to the yellow pad and write. On the other hand, I know easy reading is hard writing. In order to get it right I have to have the discipline to do the hard work of cleaning the sentences and paragraphs on the yellow pad. A poet once said that ``Each of us comes trailing wisps of glory.''
I think creativity is like electricity; we don't understand electricity at all. We've harnessed about one-millionth of one percent of it. Electricity makes no demands. It says, ``I'm here. If you want to use me constructively, here I am. If destructively, that's up to you.'' I think creativity is like that.