Too many of us are hung up on what we don’t have, can’t have, or won’t ever have. We spend too much energy being down, when we could use that same energy – if not less of it – doing, or at least trying to do, some of the things we really want to do. ~ Terry McMillan, Disappearing Acts (1989)
“Learning To Breathe” was divided into three parts—reading, interview, and Q&A. During the reading, McMillan read a selection from her upcoming novel Who Asked You? With an anticipated release date some time in fall 2013, the novel will be told from the perspective of 15 characters in first-person. Who Asked You? is full of wit, realism, and social commentary—told in McMillan’s signature style.
One of the key aspects of McMillan’s work has been admitting or getting to a truth. She has a knack for using self-realization, self-discovery, and humor to help her characters get to their truth. The common belief is that we have to go through something or be down-and-out in order to get to our truth. McMillan dissuaded this notion saying, “You don’t always have to be depressed to admit a truth.”
McMillan has said, “Writing is a form of praying on paper.” It provides us with a way to really understand who we are, what makes us tick, and what we care about. She shared that she wants us all to be happy and “sickening in love… be assets and not liabilities… be happy about who we are…[be] forgiving…” Her critically acclaimed and award-winning novels like Mama, Disappearing Acts, Waiting to Exhale, and A Day Late And A Dollar Short are evident of this. In addition, McMillan’s writing has afforded her (and her readers) greater empathy, compassion, and a better understanding of people she might not have in real life.
When asked about how she develops her characters, McMillan said you not only have to listen to how people talk but you also have to get outside of yourself in order to authentically tell someone else’s story. “You have to get lost in someone else’s skin,” she says. “Because otherwise it’s phony.” For every story she’s written, she knows every single detail about her characters. Even if the details don’t make it into the book, it illustrates the point about knowing who (and what) you’re writing about. This, I’m sure, is how and why the characters always speak to you when in the midst of writing projects (as McMillan and so many other writers have noted).
As far as her process, McMillan never writes more than one chapter a day. A work day for her can vary from two hours to eight or more hours. But she admits that she’s quite spent when she’s finished writing for the day. For chapters that are emotionally taxing, she may take a break and continue writing them the next day. McMillan emphasized that no matter what you do, you must “find your own rhythm.”
McMillan also imparted her insights on the ever-changing publishing industry and provided some advice to aspiring authors. She said the industry is racist and sexist, to some extent. And that it is particularly harder for new authors to get contracts, especially for African American authors. When McMillan’s best-selling book Waiting To Exhale was released in 1992, the publishing world was turned upside down by the mere fact that so many black people were reading and buying books (in droves). If you looked at the press, you would think a new renaissance had started (when really it was nothing new). I was only 10 years old at the time, and like McMillan, I too was insulted because the implication was that black people did not read (let alone write) and that we didn’t buy books. The reality is that the publishing industry had ignored some of their largest book buying demographics. To
take advantage reap the benefits of this, the industry started beefing up promotion and doling out large advances to several black writers at the time. Many of these writers were pummeled with accolades and kudos that were well beyond anyone’s expectations. And sadly, you don’t hear about many of them today.
Fast-forward years later to the impact of a fledgling economy, and the infiltration of Corporate America into every facet of our lives, and we understand why it’s so hard for writers to get contracts. And if you do get a contract, forget about book tours. The chances of your publishing company setting up book tours are slim-to-none. McMillan said she is quite fortunate to be able to live off of the royalties from her book sales, but she acknowledges that she, too, could be standing in the welfare line at any moment. Her advice to aspiring writers: do not get discouraged and do not quit your day job.
The next time McMillan is in town, I highly advise checking her out. You won’t regret it.