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.

``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.

I believe I can be taught to photograph, or paint, or sculpt. I could become an architect or a singer. Obviously, singing has little to do with a voice. If it did, Ray Charles or Louis Armstrong wouldn't get far. Singing has something to do with something else. I know if I want to learn to paint I will study; I will approach the craft with as much respect as possible. Once I have the craft, I will put my light on it, and unless I was born with such light and sight - not a physical kind of sight which would limit depth and composition - I wouldn't become Manet or Monet, but I could paint.

Do you think that in some respects some art works are being used destructively today?

I have to go back to the individual. The art community is made up of individuals. Some of the members have become pawns in the struggle that Martin Buber talks about, the struggle between good and evil. By submitting to - and excuse me if this sounds old-fashioned - the baser instincts, they have allowed their talents to be used in the service of vulgarity and brutishness, cruelty and violence.

Just look at TV and movies, and one sees that the artistic community does not offer anybody safe haven. One can be an artist and be part of destruction and deterioration. You have to go back to the responsibility of the individual.

In addition to the world of the arts, there is much violence in all of society. How did this happen?

Now I'm really going to sound far out. I believe the force of evil is alive and doing very well. It terrifies me to say that, but I agree with the line in a Bob Dylan song that says you've got to serve somebody. Now, I've decided who I am going to serve, and I won't be willy-nilly gathered in some other direction.

I think mental sloth, laziness, and maybe even fear made us shift from what I think is loving the right, or at least [from] an attraction to loving the right thing, to a condition which blows us [in] any direction, or that says, no matter what happens, I can't do anything about it - I'm just one person. We have drifted into this never-never land where we are up for grabs.

Institutions are made up of individuals whether it's IBM, the Christian Science Church, the Black Baptist Church, or Harvard University. They have no life without the individual. Collectively, of course, they have another persona, but that persona is achieved only because of individuals. As an individual, I still make mistakes and expect certain reactions. I'm not in love with any position I hold. I'm in process, and what I believe today I will say with force and passion, but I'm not going to hold on to anything just because I am supposed to. I want to be so in process that a child could come to me and inform me of a new way of thinking.

Earlier I asked what you trusted. What do you fear?

Very little. I go back to the extremely mind-blowing knowledge that I am a child of God. There is a song I love: (sings) ``My father is rich in houses and land. He holds the wealth of the world in his hands. His coffers are filled with silver and gold. My father has riches; he has riches untold, and I am a child of the King.''

There are things I wish, and things I pray to be protected from. I pray for more understanding, for more patience. I can't say with too much conviction that I have reached a place where I am comfortable. I am in process, and I try to laugh as much as I can.

In your new book you write that a person will always be in fashion if she remains true to herself. But so many young people today don't know themselves or even how to know themselves.

We have behaved abominably toward our children. I don't know any generation which has been treated quite so terribly, and I'm going back to when we sent children into mines at age 10. It's as if we have a global blind spot when it comes to telling the truth to children, and maybe it is because we have trouble admitting the truth to ourselves. But certainly we have treated them so abominably, either by omission or commission. They know it. So they react and rebel and repel, and strike out in violent ways.

The tragedy is that they have become cynical; they have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. We could reverse so much if we said to them that to a great degree it is greed and cowardice that have brought us to this place.

I think the old saying of ``each one teach one'' should be something each adult should do, and it begins with telling the truth. I believe that all cliches remain in currency because they continue to retain wisdom. The early bird still does catch the worm. Only the truth will set us free, and until we tell truth to children, they will run around like headless people.

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