When I was young and broke, poetry kept me going. A poet named Yusef Komunyakaa saved the day. Whenever I needed to recharge, I turned to his collection Magic City. Like me, he had grown up with only his mother, so in his work I found some echoes of my own experience, but more importantly, he writes vividly about childhood and the strangeness and magnitude of a child’s imagination. The first poem is called “Venus’s-flytraps.” It’s about family secrets, but there is such mystery in the poem—it perfectly describes the way a child fills the gaps in her knowledge and understanding with make-believe and imagination. For anyone who has had difficulties as a young person—which is all of us; I can’t think of anyone who had a perfect childhood—it is especially powerful. Painful events are articulated with such breathtaking beauty. The language soars above the darkness being described—and it takes you with it, so that you too are flying.
6. Sing! No Matter What
When I was a little girl, I was often asked to sing solos at my family’s church. I loved to sing, but I was also knee-knocking frightened of getting up there. My mother would have to take me aside and talk me through my nerves. She’d say, “Whatever you’re most afraid of is the thing you most need to do.”
While working on Hattie, especially those early chapters when I was feeling my way into the book, I'd think, "What am I doing? I am not equal to this task. At all." Later, after I had gotten an agent, the fear became, "She'll hate it. Publishing houses will hate it. I'll have put myself out there and it'll be a great big humiliating flop." I knew I had to get over my fear. It wasn't so much a matter of conquering it. I don't believe that's how things work, because fear doesn't go away. You have to do what needs doing in spite of doubt, sometimes even in spite of terror. So I’d think about what my mother used to say to me. And it helped—just like it did when I'd have to walk to the front of the church and sing “Amazing Grace” when I was a little girl.
Where to find the Oprah's Book Club 2.0 version of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
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