How I Write: Paule Marshall
Published: July 25, 2002
|Called one of the premier African-American voices by Publishers Weekly, Paule Marshall developed an ear for language and a good story in her mother's Brooklyn kitchen, where as a girl she listened to the stories of the women gathered there. Captivated by the vivid imagery of their tales, she soon began putting her own words on paper. Marshall's work often focuses on the lives of women who, like her mother, are West Indian immigrants, connecting their lives in America with the expansive African diaspora. Her autobiographical novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, broke new ground in fiction with its independent black female protagonists. Her 1969 novel The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, about politics and life on a fictional Caribbean island, was celebrated as one of the most important black novels of the decade. In Fisher King (2001), an 8-year-old boy brings together an African-American family embroiled in conflict. In all her work, Marshall embraces the themes of healing and reconciliation. She graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a MacArthur Fellow. |
Credits: Novels--Fisher King (2001), Daughters (1991), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). Story collection--Reena and Other Stories (1983).
Why: I wanted to be as skilled a storyteller as my mother and her friends were. They didn't ever think about it; they didn't ever write it down. It was just there. I was taken by their ability with language. Also, not in any conscious or deliberate way, I had this desire to put women front and center in stories and novels.
I was so impressed with the women in my childhood, who had more strikes against them than Ralph Ellison's invisible man. They were women. They were black. They were immigrants. They were working class. Yet they had a wonderful, impressive sense of self. They used language to assert that sense of self. Language for them was not only an artistic expression, but it was also a kind of weapon. They had an opinion about everything under the sun. It seemed to me these women really deserved to be noticed more in literature.
How: I'm a slow writer, meticulous. I worry about searching and tracking down the right word, whether it emerges from the dictionary or from a deeper place within myself. One of the things I've had to do over the years is to accept my pace, even though there is tremendous pressure that's brought to bear on a writer in America to produce and to produce quickly.
Writing for me is rewriting because my first drafts are just getting down all kinds of ideas, directions and thoughts about the book that I think I want to write. Once I get it under way, I discover what I really want to do with it. All kinds of new understandings and ideas emerge as I'm involved in the project. Usually I write several drafts, each one maybe taking over a year.
I try to keep writing and when new information or deeper understanding comes to mind, when there are what I feel are necessary shifts and changes in the plot, I put all of that to the side on separate sheets of paper. I'm a great note-taker.
I try to keep going with the rewriting, then splice in and make changes once I've finished with a chapter or two. For my psychological well-being, I need a sense of moving forward with the book.
Advice: Carve out at least an hour or two a day that is totally devoted to writing. That's going to be one of the ways that writing becomes a necessary, habitual part of your life. That's sacrosanct. You don't give that up for anybody. And recognize that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, that you are always learning how to write. One of the things that will help you tremendously is to commit yourself to staying
Photograph by Dean Johnson