Welcome Keenan Norris “On Writing” to the Goddard MFA faculty in Port Townsend!
When I was a child, I concocted stories and either acted them out or wrote them down. I was an only child; I spent a lot of time indoors by myself. My imagination had to work over time.
While an undergrad I met the novelists Susan Straight, Gary Soto and Christina Garcia. It was they who inspired me to send my short stories to literary journals. I published my first stories while an undergrad. I learned the difference between ego and real confidence in my writing and ultimately I learned how to stand by my work even as I reimagined it, recreated it.
I entered an MFA program too soon. Not only that; in my early twenties I had a tin-eared agent and was marketing what I imagined would be my debut novel, a travesty upon the page, to editors at the major NY publishing houses. More than a decade later, that manuscript sits in my email archives.
In 2013 an entirely different book, my debut novel, Brother and the Dancer, was published by Heyday Books. It’s 2016 now and I’m finishing my second novel and beginning a third. I’ve also had offers to write a non-fiction book about Chicago Migration narratives famous (President Obama’s, Richard Wright’s) and not so famous (Grace Lee Boggs’s, my family’s migration to the Chi). Opportunities to publish are far more frequent now than before. My new projects bear little relation to that first effort at a novel more than a decade ago. But the essential activity has not changed. It strikes me that I am a writer not because I have a novel that was on shelves for a time or because a friend sent me a cell phone video of a copy of a critical text of mine at a library in Singapore, but because I have simply continued to write and send my work out and welcome the rejections as much as the publications. I’ve believed in the substance of my stories. I haven’t given in to the cordoning institutions that I regard with such suspicion.
I don’t think too much about why I’m a writer anymore. I do think a lot about what I want to write. Brother and the Dancer was long on impressionistic flair, but short on plot and formal control. It has its strengths, of course, especially where the flourishes of emotional impressionism work, but in the end I think it’s basically a coming-of-age story I had to write in order, as Baldwin said, that I might write anything else. My new novel is much more plot-dense and is more patiently, carefully told. I like writing a book that moves along dynamic plot lines.
The novel concerns four men and four women seeking redemption in a blighted recession-era ex-urban American city space. These characters are elaborately connected and simultaneously divided by their desire for personal and civic redemption; each wants redemption but visions it differently, whether as the ultimate meaning of child birth, or the goal of ethical entrepreneurship, or an internal spiritual journey, or a violent vigilante quest. They are also connected by a child, the book’s main character, Luster Little, a fourteen-year-old chronic truant with the uncanny ability to roam all over town, see and overhear and mentally record every moment of dissolution and renaissance in the city.
I write because I hate the platitudes of politics, the abstractions and delays of law and the standardization of education. I’ve always been a writer; therefore my wage-earning options have always been relatively limited. I could become a lawyer. I could try and find a position in the university system or in the government. I currently teach at community college and even here I feel a certain tension at the distance between what I teach and what a raw, true story can tell. Great stories, like life, do not teach so much as tell, and what you take from that telling can never be quantified by an exam or assessed in an interview. I am not a teacher. I have no wisdom to dole out. What I do have are generations of stories of family and love and war and scholars and maids and migrant workers and ghettoes and the desert and sudden premature unadorned death and defiant life.
I don’t think writing stories is about conveying wisdom but about portraying tension, throwing the reader onto the line of anticipation or decision or the aftermath of something important. Mitchell S. Jackson’s recently published The Residue Years accomplishes this feat splendidly, carrying its readers along in its jagged wake. Rebecca Solnit and Ta-Nehisi Coates, despite not being novelists, do this. The best books, the best essays, the best writers do this. Let me end here, with words better than any I can contrive: Ralph Ellison, at the height of his powers, reflecting upon a recent commencement speech he’d delivered to the dutiful young scholars of Bennett Homemaking Institute (now Bennett College), circa some year that might as well have been yesterday: “Someone had been so naïve as to select ‘achieving peace through creative experience’ as the theme of the institute, and I knew that I wasn’t going to tell them that creative experience brought peace, but only a fighting chance with the chaos of living.”