20 Minutes of Inspiration

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Karen Baker

New writer Karen Baker recently stumbled upon the Write Despite challenge. Wrestling with a short story she needed to get down on paper, Karen says 20 minutes a day have made all the difference.

Please welcome Karen Baker to Write Despite.

 

I found Write Despite through a very dear friend of mine, who gave me the delightful news that her daughter-in-law, Karen Guzman, was having her first novel published. When I was Googling around one day, I decided to look Karen up and I discovered the wonderful treasure tool, Write Despite. It was the perfect nudge for me because it featured the 20-minute challenge right there in the first line on the front page of the website.

I have to say that Write Despite has come along at just the right time for me. I have had a story going on in my mind for some time. It is with me all the time like an invisible friend. One day I finally started to write it down. I thought if I could get it out of me, then my mind would have some space to be calm, and start a new story. I always feel like I am trying to help this character, as if she is a real person. The story is about Angie, a middle-aged married woman who is very unhappy and has a few health issues that she is consumed with—so much so that they are interfering with all of her relationships. They aren’t even life threatening, but she relies heavily on her pain medication and has forgotten the joy of living.

When a “health nut” outsider arrives one day, a new spirit of fun begins as one very interesting fact about who she is and why she is there is revealed.

The 20-minute-a-day challenge has really made a huge difference in my dedication to writing, because it keeps it simple and fun.  The time is perfect because with the busy schedules that everyone seems to have, 20 minutes of writing is manageable and feels like a huge accomplishment. Why, after 20 minutes, it leaves me wanting to write a little more. It’s similar to the feeling of when you’re reading a really good book, and keep telling yourself you’re going to read just one more chapter before returning to the dishes.

Thanks to Karen and Cathy for making writing fun and for demonstrating the possibility that dreams can come true.

 

Ponder this…

I was lucky enough to attend the annual Writer’s Conference at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., a couple of weeks back. The Twain house is a fabulous resource for writers—and a pretty cool museum—if you’re ever in the area.

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The conference featured workshops and discussions about aspects of writing from the creative process to marketing your book. I took part in two workshops led by Connecticut author Susan Schoenberger, whose new book is scheduled to appear this summer. Susan’s first novel, A Watershed Year, is a lyrical tour de force. Pick it up, if you haven’t.

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I want to share some spot-on tips from Susan. Now, stay with me. They’re all over the map—little fortune cookie notes on the writing process—but I think they’ll speak to you if you’re in the fiction trenches.

  1. Every scene in a novel or short story should contain three elements, or at least echo them: Desire, Action, Obstacle
  2. Write in scenes-between-characters, not chapters as “chunks.”
  3. If you find yourself writing a lot of “backstory” into your early drafts (like me) realize you’ve got some more drafts ahead of you. The goal is to internalize the backstory, so that you can deftly eye-dropper it in as you go along, not vomit “all the stuff the reader needs to know” in your first chapter. *I FOUND THIS ESPECIALLY HELPFUL!
  4. The subconscious mind is a treasure trove for writers. Tap into it. Dreams can be very instructive, as can the quiet voice that bubbles up when you turn down the volume on all the other crap in your life and de-clutter your mind.
  5. Good fiction is a window into a character’s interior world, where readers can also see themselves reflected. You want readers to say, “I’ve been there. I get that, but I’ve never heard it in that way.”
  6. If you’re publishing, balancing writing time with social media/website maintenance/agent querying, etc. is a huge challenge. Don’t get lost in the business end of things. Write. About 75 percent of your “writing time” should be spent doing just that: writing. The remaining 25 percent goes to hawking your work…or you won’t have any work to hawk.

Agent Revisited

I recently sat in on a panel with Jeff Kleinman—again. He’s the agent from Folio Literary Management I wrote about last year. If you missed that post, here it is. He gives lots of great information for submitting novels to agents, especially literary fiction, and had a few new insights this year. But even what I got from the panel last year bears repeating.

 

mistakesOn Biggest Mistakes

Kleinman has four must-haves for writers who submit to his agency:

1) Premise – You MUST have a logline, even if you don’t use it in your submissions. You have to know it in your head because it will help you hone in on your book. Too many good writers don’t have a real sense of what their book is about. A logline, as he explains it, is much like the statement you see on a movie poster. For Splash it was: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.”

2) Characters – You get rejected mainly because agents DON’T FALL IN LOVE with anyone in your book. That means you didn’t do a good enough job of bringing your characters to life. Go deeper! Interview your character with crazy questions and keep asking him or her why.

3) Momentum – Make sure words serve to turn pages. Understand what your reader wants to know next.

4) VOICE. This can’t be stressed enough. In commercial fiction it’s what’s most important and it’s a huge problem for many writers. Ask yourself how you can focus and drill down to get something that’s distinctive. Establish voice in the first three to four sentences. There has to be an authority in the voice that the reader buys into.

Also, there’s this. People read for three things: Character, voice and plot. Kleinman suggested reading The Goldfinch as a great current example of all three. The painting in this book, he says, is the plot device that carries the story forward.

 

On Rejection Lettersrejection cartoon

If you’re getting:

All form rejections—Then your premise needs work. It doesn’t sound at all interesting.

“Minimal” rejections, as in “Hey, it’s not right for me”—Then your writing is stronger but you still don’t have a great premise.

Personalized rejections—Then clearly something is starting to work. They want to engage with you more. Now you’re likely done with your query letter—it’s probably good enough.

Requests for the first 50 pages—This is the basic minimal amount that gauges their interest in you and it means you have a strong premise. They’re willing to go further.

Requests for the full manuscript and they still reject it—Then it’s always, always CHARACTER. You didn’t engage the agent enough with your characters, especially the main one.

 

On Queries

query envelopeYour query letter should state:

– Why you’re writing to that particular agent.

– Who you are, and how you met the agent, if you did.

– Your contact info.

– What your book’s about—one to two sentences only. Your synopsis will provide the rest.

And hey, get this: He says not to sweat the synopsis too much: “We usually only ask for a synopsis to ensure you’ve written the whole thing.” We suspected as much, didn’t we?

 

Notable QuotesQuotation-Mark

 

“All agents can do is point out that you’re bleeding. We don’t necessarily know where you’re bleeding from. You have to know how to fix it.”

“Agents want to help you improve your book, but only when you’ve taken it as far as you can. Make sure it’s as ready as you can make it.”

 

Key Recommendation

Paperlet, an online writer community, not only allows readers to comment on and edit each other’s work, but actually helps you “build” your story by walking you through the basic structural steps. Check it out at www.paperlet.com.

Hope you find this stuff as useful as I did, everyone. Write well!

–Cathy

 

 

Support Great Fiction and New Writers

Hi All,

Just a quick note to say that Fiction Attic Press is forming a partnership that will allow the press to expand and offer publishing opportunities to more writers. We just need 38 more subscribers to come on board in the next 12 days.

I’m proud to say that Fiction Attic is publishing my novel, Homing Instincts, in the fall. The publisher, Michelle Richmond, is wonderful, a true supporter of  literary fiction and those of us struggling to write it.

Please join Michelle and me in supporting Fiction Attic Press. Join our community. We’d love to have you!

http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/fiction-of-wit-and-substance

–Karen

Author Vanessa Hua’s breakthrough publication

Most writers remember their first publication: the magical acceptance letter (usually after a raft of rejections,) reading the galleys, seeing the finished thing alive in the world. We thought it would be fun to launch an occasional series featuring authors talking about their breakthroughs. Sometimes the story behind the story is the best part.

Please join us in welcoming Vanessa Hua to Write Despite.

Vanessa is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. An award-winning writer and journalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Crab Orchard Review, New York Times, New Yorker, Salon, and elsewhere. A former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, she has reported from China, South Korea, and Panama.  She blogs at threeunderone.blogspot.com and can be found at www.vanessahua.com

vanessa hua

Late in 2005, I won the Cream City Review fiction contest – my first short story in print.  When I received the e-mail, I stood up in the newsroom and shouted with joy and excitement, struck by the heady, dangerous feeling of affirmation.  I’d been judged worthy!   By then, I’d also reported from China, launched an award-winning campaign finance investigation, and had married.  When I won the contest, it felt all parts of my life were coming together – professionally, personally, and creatively.

I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, won writing contests in high school, and had studied creative writing at Stanford University. After graduation, I focused on my journalism career.  In my spare time, I wrote scenes, sketches, starts of stories that went nowhere.  When I re-read pieces I’d written in college, I felt conflicted: proud that the stories had merit, yet it felt like a stranger had penned them.  I didn’t remember how to write a story.

Eventually, I signed up for a fiction workshop where I produced the story that won the Cream City Review contest.  I’d learned about the journal after reading the publishing bio of another student in the class whose work I admired.  That success helped keep me going as I started writing more fiction, submitting to journals, taking workshops, joining writer’s groups, and going to writing conferences.  Of course, if you spend too much time chasing validation, you might succumb to the despair of rejection – and I’ve been rejected many times since then.  And you have to spend more hours writing than talking about writing.

In 2007, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a novel, and I headed to UC Riverside, where I earned my MFA.  Five years later, I had the pleasure of being asked to judge the Cream City Review fiction contest.  I hope that the prize helped encourage the winner in her career, too.

In deciding where to submit, I continue sending to places that publish writing I admire.  I also seek out paying journals, those with interesting business models, such as DailyLit, and strongly promote the work of their authors, such as At Length.  I also enter contests, such as The Atlantic’s student fiction prize, which I won in 2008.  Your chances might be slim, but if you don’t enter, you have no chance at all.

To buy Vanessa’s stories, go to

https://dailylit.com/book/262-line-please or

http://www.amazon.com/Deal-short-story-Atlantic-Archives-ebook/dp/B008873WK2/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391965062&sr=1-2

Write Despite Book Giveaway Winner

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The comments are all in, and Author Hardy Jones has chosen the winner who will receive a free, signed copy of his novel, Every Bitter Thing.

From Hardy:

All of the responses to the “Perseverance and the Writing Life” were strong, which made my selecting only one for the book giveaway difficult. In the end, I choose T.D. The comment was well written, thoughtful, and clearly expressed T.D.’s desire to persevere. For all who left comments, best of luck with your writing and your submitting!

Congratulations, T.D.
Now come out from behind those initials and claim your prize.
Hardy is popping your book in the mail today.

And thanks to everyone who participated.

Cats and Characters

I’m reading two books on writing right now, both of which were recommended to me by other writers, and both of which are technically geared toward…movies? Well, acting and scripts anyway.

They are:

Getting into CharacterGetting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, by Brandilyn Collins

and


Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
by Blake Snyder

The first one was suggested by one of the comments here on Write Despite (thank you, anonymous tipster), and it actually gave me a real breakthrough. Of course I realized all along, while working on my novel, that I need to know my character’s motivation. As Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” In my book, my character didn’t seem to want much. She wants to be happy. And kind of to be left alone. And sometimes water. Hey, just like me.

But that’s of course not enough to draw a reader in or sustain them through 300 pages. Getting into Character’s chapter on “Coloring Passsions” broke down the process into manageable bites—a character’s conscious motivation, subconscious motivation, etc. so I was able to see that what my character really wants is to figure out why she is the way she is. What happened in her life that brought her to this point? Luckily, she’s returning home to her family and now, knowing this is her motivation, I should be able to open up whole areas of discovery as she digs and prods and questions her past. Best of all, she should no longer passive. Stronger characters make stronger books.

Save the catSave the Cat!, is written by a true Hollywood insider, and this guy has lots of energy. He loves exclamation points! (See title.) And chapters like “Give Me the Same Thing, Only Different!” and “Let’s Beat it Out!” and he’s heavy into pitches and loglines. Know what a logline is? It’s one sentence—ONE—that sums up a whole movie. See if you can guess these famous ones:

“Adventuring archaeologist races about the globe to prevent Nazis from turning the greatest archeological relic of all time into a weapon of world conquest.”

Too easy, right? How about this one?

“When she falls in love with a sweet, but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée, while she comes to terms with her own heritage.”

And this?

“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.”

Snyder says if you have no logline, you have no script. Or in my case, no book. After some tinkering, I did come up with a logline for my novel and I think it suits it. And forcing myself to do so made me zoom in on the two or three BIG ideas of the book, which in turn made me think about whether those 300 pages that come after it can, or should, live up to it. Pretty good for one sentence.

If you’re looking for some guidance, I recommend both. If you have your own faves, tell us! What writing books do you turn to? Which ones have been duds?

–Cathy

A Matter of Perspective

So we’ve all got different tastes in fiction, but I want to share a new novel that I’ve just finished, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. So many aspects of this story are moving, but I was particularly impressed with how skillfully and effectively Strout handles multiple perspectives through a third-person narrator. Take a look, if you’re struggling with the same.

— Karen

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Author Letitia Moffitt: “We want success in this thing we do” (And it just don’t come easy)

Letitia Moffitt knows a thing or two about endurance—the physical and the mental kind. Her first novel Sidewalk Dancing is scheduled for publication by Atticus Books in early November. After you read Letitia’s piece below, you’ll want to order a copy. Browse the other great Atticus titles while you’re at it. Small presses are publishing some of today’s best literary fiction, the stuff the big houses are afraid to take a chance on, for fear of angering their corporate overlords.

Right now, read on. Laugh, nod, and get over yourself. We ALL feel this way, at least sometimes. Community can be healing. So join ours and please welcome Letitia to Write Despite.

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I write novels and run marathons, and it’s not hard to see the similarities in these endeavors. Both take persistence, both can be agonizing, both will drive you to drink. Gatorade martini anyone? At this point I’m supposed to give you a bit of earnest, heart-felt, inspirational advice: to keep trying, to keep going, never to give up on your dreams or lose sight of your goal because you’ll get there, you’ll succeed, and it will all be worth it, all the frustration, all the setbacks, all the failure.

But I’m not going to tell you that. That’s what Facebook is for. Sooner or later somebody you’ve friended is going to post some motivational aphorism with a pretty picture in the background. A sunrise, perhaps, or some flowy water. Here’s the thing, though: writing and running are the things you do because you don’t need motivation. Success or failure is beside the point. You’re going to keep running until your toenails fall off and your forehead is crusted with salt. You’re going to keep writing until your brain is mush and your liver rots. You do it because, well, you got to do something right? It might as well be this. This is what we do, regardless of the outcome.

But who am I kidding. We still dream. We dream of a big book contract, of qualifying for Boston. We can’t really say success doesn’t matter, because that’s crap. Yes, there are some people who just run around their neighborhoods and never enter a race, writers who just create stories for the fun of it and never bother to check out the litmag scene to see where those stories might go. We don’t want to be like that. We think—we certainly hope—we must aspire to greater things.

I like to think I’ve had moderate success with each of these endeavors. On the running side, nine marathons, two ultramarathons, and any number of halfs, 10Ks, 5Ks, and miscellaneous distances. As for writing, a couple dozen short stories and essays in literary magazines and a novel, appearing next month, from a terrific indie publisher. None of this came easy. I was not a runner in high school—I wasn’t much of any anything in high school, come to think of it—so all this marathonning has only occurred in the most recent years of my life. In those years I’ve managed to injure myself in about sixteen different ways while training for races, and that includes some places you have to scratch your head and wonder how did that happen. When you say running, you usually mean, like, on your legs. How do forearms and teeth fit into that? Trust me, they do. I have the scars and the dental work to prove it.

As for writing, well, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer, and I don’t need to tell you about how success in writing doesn’t come easy. Remember the days when rejection came in the form of little slips of paper and not little slips of email, and everyone used to make jokes about wallpapering their room with them? I kind of miss those days.

A running friend of mine told her mother the first time she planned to run a marathon. Her mother’s response: “Why are you doing that? You’re not going to win.” Ouch, Mom. When I was a kid and told my own mother I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Technical writing is very good.” No, Ma, a writer. “They always need people to do technical writing.” Decades, publications, a PhD in English and a book contract later, she still asks me if I’m doing any technical writing. I don’t even think she knows what that means; I suppose she thinks of “technical” as “lucrative” or “practical.” Or maybe just “not a waste of time unless you produce a bestseller that gets turned into a miniseries.”

Oh, I know: the fault lies not in our mothers but in ourselves. We want success in this thing we do, because nobody ever doesn’t want to succeed, and during those times when the effort may kill you, when the setbacks and failures threaten to break you, you have to believe you’re doing it for a reason. It’s too hard otherwise.

Besides, we see those people who really do run just for fun, the bucket-listers, beaming about how they finished their one-and-only marathon in just under 2 days, and we have to fight the urge to get away from them as quickly as possible so other people won’t see you with this loser and think you’re one too. We hear about friends who have “published” a “novel,” and we’re afraid to ask how much they paid the “publisher” to “print” it. Surely we’re the genuine article, not poseurs like those people. Aren’t we?

We run, we write. Sometimes we go into it with our eyes fixed on the prize. The Pulitzer, the National Book, maybe someday the Nobel. Sometimes we go into it absolutely dead certain we will never publish so much as a haiku ever again but we do it anyway, just to keep sane. Sometimes we just go into it. As with running, we just go. We keep on going.

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Author Hardy Jones: Writing is Like Exercise

Hi everyone!

Many thanks to all who commented on Gigi Amateau’s post last week. She has picked a winner for her book giveaway. Congratulations to Kipley Herr!

DSC_0606And now please welcome novelist and teacher Hardy Jones to Write Despite. Hardy joins us today to share his thoughts on the persuasive powers of T. Coraghessan Boyle, the litmus test of revision and the importance of answering the phone when opportunity calls.

If you haven’t read Hardy’s novel “Every Bitter Thing,” please check it out. The writing is powerfully observant, and the story will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Also an essayist and short story writer, Hardy is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Cameron University. He also serves as Executive Editor of Cybersoleil Literary Journal.

Please welcome Hardy Jones to Write Despite

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1. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I have had many great teachers and mentors, so it is difficult to single out the best writing advice I received. But I want to highlight advice I received from Moira Crone, Thomas Russell, and Randall Kenan. Crone, with whom I studied fiction writing as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, explained short story form to me and enabled me to write with more control and understanding of the components of fiction—hooks, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.  While the Aristotelian structure is not the only way to organize a story, learning it was a great help to me as a beginning writer.

My first graduate workshop was with Thomas Russell. It was a Fiction workshop and in it he said: “Many authors write the same story over and over.” We were reading D.H Lawrence, and Thomas Russell explained how Lawrence primarily wrote about the sexual tension between men and women. As a student, Russell’s comment did not make sense, and I did not want to write the same story over and over. As I have matured as a writer, I now understand what he meant. One does not literally write the same story over and over, but an author explores the same themes and tropes in one’s work. For example, I often write about dysfunctional families with an only child and about father/son relationships.

In a Creative Nonfiction workshop at the University of Memphis, Kenan said: “I’ve come to believe that there is enough time to write everything.” This comment stuck with me because I have a bad habit of pressuring myself and often feeling rushed.

2. Please tell us your favorite three authors

Picking only three is difficult. Some authors are my favorites for specific lessons I have learned from reading them. Others are my favorites for that reason plus sheer enjoyment. The Brazilian fiction writer Jorge Amado fits both of those criteria. The first work I read by him was the novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I am in awe of how his prose blends erudition with humor and bawdiness. Next is the nonfiction author Joseph Mitchell. I appreciate his ability to write about marginalized peoples and not make them into caricature. Third is the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing possesses an emotional intensity that I admire. A fourth author I want to mention is T. Coraghessan Boyle. In a sophomore literature course, I read his story “Greasy Lake,” which I enjoyed and then sought out more of his work. I read his story collections If The River was Whiskey, The Descent of Man, Without a Hero and his novel World’s End.  He is the writer who convinced me to be a writer. His subjects of teen angst and rock-n-roll, writing infused with a few curse words, and the comedic approaches to history and storytelling grabbed me.  By the time I finished World’s End, I had decided to major in English and fling myself into writing.

3. Briefly describe your journey to publication

My first publication was a short story titled “Moving Day,” and it appeared in the LSU undergraduate journal The Delta. I wrote it for an undergraduate fiction workshop I was taking with Moira Crone. She had given us the assignment to begin a story with the words “I remember.” When I sat down to start the story I didn’t know what I was going to write. I sat in front of the computer for a few minutes repeating “I remember” and in what seemed like an unconscious act, I placed my fingers on the keyboard and typed: “I remember when Mama told us we were moving out of the trailer park.” With that sentence, a young boy’s voice took over and led me to write eight pages.

For my novel Every Bitter Thing, I wrote the initial draft between August 2000 and May 2001. The opening scene came out in one sitting. I had been kicking around the opening line, “Dad was always friends with butchers,” in my head for about three years, and one afternoon, frustrated with something else that I was writing, I started a new file and typed out the sentence. The rest of the scene came out in about forty-five minutes in one of the moments that writers live for: the characters, the setting, the actions, even the dialogue simply flowed out. After such an auspicious start, I was unable to write for several weeks, and when I did return to the manuscript, I fluctuated between continuing with it as fiction or making it into a father/son memoir. Once I had written fifty pages, I decided to go the route of fiction. By releasing myself and the characters from what I perceived as the constraint of memoir, I was able, ironically, to be more truthful about the father’s bigotry and the protagonist’s sexual abuse by an older boy.

While the novel’s initial draft took nine months to complete, it took seven years of revising and submitting the manuscript before it was accepted for publication in April 2008 by Black Lawrence Press.  At that time, my wife and I were in the process of buying a house and I was tired of the numerous phone calls from banks and finance companies. I was on the phone with a colleague when a beep let me know I had another call.  Assuming it was probably another loan officer trying to pressure us, I decided I wasn’t going to click over. Luckily my colleague was more level-headed and said I should take it; the call, he said, may be important. He was correct. It was Black Lawrence Press’ then Executive Editor Colleen Ryor saying that they had decided to accept Every Bitter Thing. After all those years of work on the manuscript, I almost did not answer when opportunity called.

4. Advice for those now on the road to publication?

Never submit something that has not been revised numerous times and start small. Don’t start at the top with a prestigious journal that primarily publishes established authors. Doing so sets one up for disappointment, and the writing and publishing life is full of that. Normally, young authors are working in short genres: poetry, short stories, and personal essays. Therefore, journals are a perfect match. With an established track record, an author then has the “credentials” to submit to larger journals, agents, and presses.

5. Do you write every day?

I wish I did. When I was composing Every Bitter Thing, I did write every day for those nine months it took to complete the initial draft. With my teaching schedule, I try to work in a few minutes when I can between classes and meeting with students. In that way, I follow the advice you give on the blog: twenty minutes a day. That is good advice, because writing is like physical exercise: your muscles become stronger as you work regularly, and eventually one is maximizing those twenty minutes. When I feel as if there is not enough time to write, I like to use the image of the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote in between seeing patients in his medical office. That writing schedule worked out well for him.

 6. What are you writing now?

Currently I am revising a memoir, People of the Good God, which is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. I have a short story collection, Grandmother’s Coconut Tree, for which I am seeking a publisher. The stories are set in Southeast Asia and the American South. The ones set in Southeast Asia are flash fiction and are more experimental. I am also working on a personal essay collection, Resurrection of the Unholy, which is about my childhood and growing up in the South during the 1970s and 1980s with a bigoted sexagenarian father. My father was born in 1917 in east Texas and he never let go of the racist ways he was taught and witnessed growing up. As a child, however, I felt that something was not right with his attitude towards African-Americans, and as I grew I knew that his attitude and words were wrong.