The Writer at Work

A lot of writing about writing is about you, the writer. Which is understandable, and done well, incredibly useful, but can shift the focus away from the broader structures that keep you down and hold you up. Who helps you write, and who hinders you? What needs to change, what can you let be, and what are your sources for knowing the difference? bell hooks gives some answers in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, as she looks back on her writing life.

Every time I facilitate a retreat, most of us are women and White people of different sexualities, different linguistic and class backgrounds, writing together. I’m aware that this is partly because of who is facilitating – me, a queer, middle-class, immigrant, White, multilingual woman. But it is also is because of the structures at work, in writing, in academia, in publishing, in society. And bell hooks has plenty to say about those structures.

She grew up knowing that stories are essential, and storytelling, powerful. But writing those stories down was not for everyone. Keeping a diary was ok, for a teenage girl: nobody was going to read it and she’d grow out of it. Elder members of her family could not read or write, because of structural racism. But using those skills to make a living was not realistic. Jobs came before careers and being a teacher would provide a secure income. Writing would not. Anyhow, who would want to read what she’d written? Publishers are not willing to sell a Black woman’s ideas, unless they fit into a narrow “marketable” category. She is scathing about the publishing industry, particularly how it commodifies writing. Writing at the end of the last millennium, bell hooks is wary of “inclusive tokenism” and asks a question that still needs an answer: how many Black women writers of nonfiction are there? Who publishes them? Who takes them seriously as authorities on any topic other than, perhaps, “being a Black woman”?

bell hooks revels in the form of the critical essay, a chance to “talk back” to the writer she’s been reading. She has harsh words for critical theory however; it is too “colonial”. We need to acknowledge our identities – to be conscious about our biases – as much as we need critical rigour. But for her, academia was a censor, forced careerism, and a hindrance. Her “day job” teaching at institutions like Yale encroached on her time and space to write, but also paid for it.

Writing, for bell hooks, is sacrament and vocation. She describes her process in terms of spiritual practice, encounter with the divine, and “remembered rapture” of that encounter, when the words go right. If male poets in the past could have their muses, she can have her spirit to sustain her on the hard road to publication. She believes we are called to love, but this call is not just personal: it is political and intellectual, and leads to action.

Public, free spaces where writers can meet readers and share ideas without cost were few and far between when bell hooks was writing Remembered Rapture (published 1999), and they are even rarer now. Libraries and bookshops need us more than ever, and we need them. Women still need rooms of their own to write in. Some of the women hooks writes about in this book shared solidarity through that solitude, from their own rooms, like Emily Dickinson. Others – like Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara – came out of their rooms to support other writers. We need to create and sustain more spaces for those conversations to happen.

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