Wednesday, May 28th, 2014
I was seventeen and at my best friends house for her seventeenth birthday party. Despite being really good friends I couldn’t bring myself to share with her what had happened to me when I was aged seven, such was the shame and guilt I had wrongly heaped upon myself.
But my friend, her name was Jennifer was not only very smart, she was also very intuitive and in the middle of her birthday celebrations she handed me a book and said to me with compassion and conviction, “I think this book will help you.”
The book my friend gave me that day was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelo. By the time I woke up the next day and opened to the title page and read her inscription:
is dedicated to:
MY SON, GUY JOHNSON
AND ALL THE STRONG BLACK BIRDS
who defy the odds and gods
and sing their songs.
I was hooked. Do you know that feeling you get in your tummy when you know you’re onto something but you don’t know exactly what? When turning the page of the book feels exciting, an adventure in print, filled with anticipation and not knowing all wrapped into one. That’s what it was like as I began reading.
Up until that point in my life I had never read a book by a black author, someone who had the same skin colour as me. The fact that Maya was a black woman was in my mind revolutionary, a revelation and at the same time deeply affirming.
In a moment my perception of what was possible for me to achieve and become in my lifetime, changed fundamentally. If Maya was similar to me and could write and be published then maybe so could I. Maya planted the seed.
Reading on I discovered from those very first pages how much we shared in common. Even though we lived thousand of miles apart in different countries and in geographically very different landscapes.
I lived on the edge of London in what my friends at the time called the suburbs and Maya had grown up in the rural South. We shared the experiences of racism also Maya was at the deeper end of living in the segregated South.
Where our lives joined was that we both grew up in the arms of the black church, hers rural, mine in the inner city. Where our lives deeply connected and became the medicine because Maya told the story I so needed to hear was our shared early childhood trauma experiences of sexual abuse and rape.
Reading Maya’s story was medicine for me. Here was a woman, not so different from myself having the courage to tell her story despite her rapist being found dead after she revealed his name and her not speaking for five years because she believed her voice had the power to kill.
There it was in print for the world to see. She had thrown light on her story, taken it out of the dark and made it visible. There it was in black and white print. Her story could not be erased. It was a powerful early lesson demonstrating how writing about our wounds heals.
By sharing the story of being raped Maya bought my story out of hiding. For so long I had imagined that I was a freak, that I was alone in my suffering and that I could never recover from what had happened to me. Maya’s story offered me the possibility of a new and different ending.
By the time I had gotten to the end of the book I knew I wanted to write. I wanted to write and share my story in the hope that my words would touch the souls and spirits of other young women like myself who were living in a prison of shame, guilt and feelings of worthlessness.
Such was the impact of Maya Angelou’s story and the subsequent volumes of her autobiography and poetry that when my daughter was born in 1988 I named her Aida Maya after my sheroe.
Twenty years later after first reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings I wrote my first book Soul Purpose, which was also autobiographical. On page one I dared to write about what had happened to me even though at the time I wasn’t willing or should I say ready to go into the fuller details.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was the catalyst for writing my first book and for me having the courage to reveal what had happened to me. Maya had planted the seed. She awakened the thirst in me. She made me hungry to get to know myself by writing and claim a life as a writer and a story teller.
Years later thanks to the generosity and friendship of Tony Fairweather from the Write Thing literacy agency I got to meet Maya several times when she performed in a regular show she did when in the UK at Lewisham theatre in the heart of South London.
Over the years I’ve met many writers and authors that I’ve admired and have been as equally disappointed by some of the behaviour and attitudes displayed off stage.
But not Maya. She was exactly as she was on stage as she was off. She was open, warm and welcoming. She would not favour one person over another. When she spoke to you she gave you and only you her undivided attention and presence. She would call us by our names in the deep velvet, honey voice that was loved and admired.
At the after show receptions held for her she stayed until the last hand was shaken and the last person spoken with. Such was her presence, her grace and her generosity of spirit.
When she spoke with you it was that same dialect, the same tone and pitch that would have you rocking in your seat as she recited the words of one of her poems,
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still like dust I rise.
I cannot tell you how many boardrooms and corridors of power where the words of that poem vibrated in my head causing me to anchor my feet to the floor and stand my ground and find my voice. It was Maya coming to my rescue, helping a sister out, her voice singing in my ears.
So Maya is no longer with us but she has left behind a rich legacy in her stories, her writing, her poems and the multitude of speeches and talks she gave in her lifetime.
I am deeply thankful for her life and the impact her story had on me as that young seventeen year old. I am thankful to my dear friend Jennifer who had the foresight to reach out to me through Maya’s book.
This life is but a feather in the wind. At some point we all cease being in this form, in this body. But whilst we are here with breath still in our bodies, still able to move our hands and our finger lets remind ourselves how much our lives matter, our stories matter. Writing and telling our stories matters.
When we write the truth on the page it will be medicine for someone, not everyone, but someone somewhere, will be touched. So we have to write. We must write. We must share and tell our stories.
Writing changes lives and lives are changed by writing is my strap line, and Maya Angelou is a testimony to this.
April 4th 1928 – May 28th 2014
Wednesday, May 7th, 2014
This is quite a long blog post, which had not been my intention but I think if you stay with it you will find it really helpful in getting clarity on what it takes to turn pro (thanks to Steven Pressfield).
The Back Story
Last week I was doing research for a tele-class I was co-presenting on.
I had finally gotten myself to my desk to do the serious work of putting my ideas together. I always convince myself I have not really done the work if my ideas come to me when I am washing the dishes, driving in the car or just pottering around the house.
So there I was facing the computer screen about to press the magic button to dive into the bottomless pit of information Google, the digital world’s modern day oracle.
So I’m sitting in front of the screen. I type in the words of my subject, which was around ideas for ‘creative endings in coaching relationships’.
I type in the words, and within seconds Google pops up its result. I can feel the stress easing away as I convince myself the digital oracle of Google will now point me to that killer material that will take the material I’ve already gathered from good to great.
The Big Forget
I turn to the screen for closer inspection and there in the number three position on Google is a blog post with my name on it. I do a double take. Really? It’s there in black and white and I’m stunned.
I can honestly say that in that moment any memory of writing that post, gathering all the juicy information I then found I had written about once I had gotten over the shock, had totally escaped the vast memory banks of my mind.
I was gob smacked. One because I clearly wasn’t remembering and keeping track of the material I was putting out there in the world but most importantly I realized that whether I had done it consciously or not I had arrived at that place Steven Pressfield writes about in his book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work of Turning Pro!
On Turning Pro from Steven Himself
In Turning Pro Steven Pressfield writes,
“ Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.”
“ When we turn pro everything becomes simple. Our aim centers on the ordering of our days in such a way that we overcome the fears that have paralyzed us in the past.”
We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it. We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so we stick to this resolution.”
“ The Professional ……… he knows that when the Muse see’s his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”
What I Now Know For Sure
For the last two years I’ve noticed a shift in me when it comes to my work as a writer. No matter what is going on in my life the one thing that remains constant is writing.
- In the space of two years I’ve completed four e-books, one published print book, near completion of two digital online courses and filled the pages of ten or more journals and business journals and that’s for starters.
- I write whether there is a financial compensation or not and more often than not there’s no payment in sight.
- One hundred percent of my writing content on social media and the e-books I have published are free material and I pay to get all my e-books professionally edited and designed. I’m willing to write no matter what.
I’ve arrived at a place where the process of turning pro has generated a solid body of work. There are some interesting benefits to be had when this happens. Here’s what I’ve noticed and now know for sure:
- You get to a place where you can start to creatively re-position material. Material from an e-book can be easily repositioned as content for a paid online e-course. Material from a print book can be creatively extended and expanded on for a magazine or online article or feature.
- You realize that you can develop ideas and not everything is about starting from scratch with completely novel and original ideas.
- You start to value your material and how you have put things together. Having this body of work and turning pro means that I’ve become more organized so I can find content, link material and get stuff out to people quickly because what I need I’ve already created in that body of work.
- You realize that you take to the page with very little resistance 9even when you don’t feel like it and there isn’t enough time). I’m noticing how often I arrive at the page or computer screen with a skip in my step.
- In my case I‘ve noticed that even though there’s a few things in my life right now that could be better writing makes me happy, so happy I could sometimes cry from the level of real joy and satisfaction I get from having a career that leaves me feeling so fulfilled and satisfied.
- The more I write and share the clearer I get on what 20% of my actions bring about 80% of my results (Pareto Principle).
- I don’t take failure personal. If a piece of writing or work is not accepted I get right back out there and cast the net and explore to see who else might be interested. The territory of the pro means being open to rejection, to not being part of the in crowd and sometimes having to go it alone.
- My commitment to the regular practice of writing now means I can write articles, features, blog posts and just about anything in less and less time using the principle of (Parkinson’s Law). The idea being that we complete an action based on the amount of time available. If you have 5 days you will use 5 days to ruminate, think over and take the time to get the task done. If you have 5 hours to get the same task completed then you’ll adapt and get the task completed within the 5 hours you have.
- I’ve given myself permissions to do things imperfectly. I recently recorded a series of video interviews for my on line journaling writing programme. I record the interviews on my MacBook Pro in people’s home and I don’t edit. This means when we press the stop button at the end the video is complete and I know I can add this to my body of work. However the more interviews I do the better I will get as a pro, the more I’ll learn and over time the quality of my videos will change. But for now what I do is good enough.
My One Disagreement With Mr Pressfield
There’s only one point in Turning Pro where I disagree with Pressfield where he writes, “ The amateur tweets. The professional works.”
I think we can do both. I spend less than an hour on Twitter every three to fours days but what works and makes giving over this time worthwhile is being focused on sharing your body of work with others, commenting on the things that interest you and make connections with others who you would not normally come into contact with who are aligned with your body of work. Tweeting is an effective way of finding your tribe but it’s not a replacement for the work.
I’m now at a point where when someone asks me to write an article I smile. I’m a pro. I turn up and do the work. It’s hard work but I love it.
Turning Pro. What Will It Take?
- What action would take you from amateur to pro?
I recommend reading Steven Pressfield’s books Turning Pro, Do The Work or The War Of Art Click HERE to visit Amazon