When I arrive on the second floor of Charlotte’s Main Library, I notice the usual activity. Two librarians seated behind the reference desk, ready to answer questions. A couple of individuals shuffling through the bookshelves. A cluster of people seated at computer work stations.
But there is also the sound of a soft quiet here—not silence, but quiet. The type of quiet I think floods a place where people have respect for the many ideas percolating in the presence of so much information.
I take in these observations in a quick sweep of the room. Then words in the corner of my eye pull my gaze to the space near the elevator. “Unrest,” “K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace,” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” read the signs hanging on the wall. Interspersed with the words and phrases are black and white drawings of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. Just above each of their names are the words, “Justice For.”
One sign frames the familiar phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and rises above a book display. I pause and I stare. I stare at the words on the wall and the drawings of people no longer alive. I read their names in a hushed voice, barely above a whisper. Then I walk around the book display, nodding at titles I’ve already read, like Men We Reaped and The Fire This Time, and also noting the many books I don’t know.
Enlarged, photocopied book covers form a column at the edge of the wall. Recommended reading for those wondering where to start. Yellow call-out bubbles explain who might want to read each book suggestion.
“Feel defensive?” says the first call-out bubble. Then read What Does It Mean to be White by Robin DiAngelo.
“Think racism is a thing of the past?” Then read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Think you are ‘color blind’?” Then read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum.
“Think anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough?” Then read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Last autumn Angel Truesdale and her co-workers curated this display and created a reading list in response to the one-year anniversary of Keith Lamont Scott’s death—and also to support the new exhibit at the Levine Museum entitled, K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace. The library will keep the display up until the end of February. However, the suggested reading list is online now and will remain available.
The presence of this book display in the Main Library sends a powerful message to our community that these issues are important and we must engage. These voices and these stories matter, and we must not turn away despite the possibility of missteps and pain. If we want to seek authentic, genuine healing in our broken society, then we must understand the places our society came from and how those places gave birth to where we are today.
I am a black woman who often writes about the topic of race. When I look at this library display and read the suggested list, I experience a thrill at knowing I add my words to the words of many.
These curated books and other materials offer invitations to all of us. For some, these are invitations to find affirmation that people are using their voices to tell our stories. For others, these are invitations to discover another experience. In the act of accepting these invitations, we open ourselves up to the possibility of reimagining the future.
I again read the words taped to the wall. I look at the drawings of people who should still be alive. I touch the spines of books. The soft library-grade quiet present in the room allows me a moment of reverence as I stand before these books and this wall.
And I think this display whispers to me, “Your life matters.”
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration and belonging will release this summer. Please visit patricegopo.com to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.
As I write, glancing—a little too often to be very productive—out of my office windows on this bitterly cold January afternoon, the winter sun is just beginning to sink. In another half hour, it will set the bare canopies of my front yard’s great oaks into flames of orange, pink, and deep plum.
It’s a trick, of course––a bit of nature’s magic, a show that will repeat itself on clear evenings for a few more weeks before days begin to lengthen and the sun angles itself toward spring. At our latitude in Charlotte, foliage won’t be far behind. Winter’s wizened, naked crones will don green robes and become girls again. But, if I can be still like these stately arboreal sisters, resist mind’s rush toward the longer, warmer, busier days of spring and instead sync myself to winter’s slower rhythms, I can participate in this spectacular mystery play.
Relationship with and participation in nature, particularly in the life of forest trees, is precisely what Peter Wohlleben encourages in his international bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. In this genre-blending work, Wohlleben, a forester turned ecologist, provides a naturalist’s lessons about the ecology of the forest with the voice of a gifted storyteller, convincing readers that forest trees are indeed social beings that share resources with one another, nurse their “children” with sugar and other nutrients, and have an ability to learn from experience. Above all, Wohlleben champions looking at the environment through the much longer lens of forest trees, those giant beings I like to think of as our first ancestors.
Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor a bit by referring to them as ancestors, but I’m not the first to project human characteristics upon trees. It’s easy to see why. Their vertical structures bear resemblance to human bodies—long torsos that branch into elegant limbs, then extend further into slender, finger-like branches; crowns that, when fully leafed, resemble full heads of hair; knots and scars that mimic facial features. And, though they don’t have the human capacity to pick up their roots and walk, it sometimes seems they might.
Writers and artists from Virgil to Tolkien have told such tales, endowing forest trees with human feeling and mobility, while honoring their role as keepers of ancient wisdom and sacred mysteries. The largest of living beings, trees have roots in the underworld, trunks on land, and crowns stretching toward heaven, enabling them to span the three worlds of heaven, hell, and earth and making them central figures in mythologies throughout the world. Virgil even asserted that the first humans were born of a mighty oak.
Indeed, trees have captured human imagination since our beginnings, which by the way is much more recent than theirs. Trees began to populate the earth 385 million years ago. Human beings didn’t begin to evolve until around two million years ago, and when we did, it was with dreams of trees.
Our hominid forbears lived most of their lives in the relative safety of the tree canopy, dropping to earth for limited forays until climate change caused vast numbers of trees to die off and forced these early ancestors to adapt to life on the ground. Still, we haven’t lost our fascination with the great beings in whose arms we slept, ate, and nursed our young. We wonder what they’ve witnessed in their much longer lives (the oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old), how the world has changed, and the ways in which it hasn’t.
We also realize that, despite living in an electronic age, we haven’t yet lost our dependence on these creatures whose bodies served as our first nurseries. Granted, as the daughter of a carpenter, I’m a particular fan of hardwood floors and knotted pine furniture, but as I look around, I see that I’ve never really left the forest nursery. I live in a wood-frame house, sleep in a four-poster pine bed, pull my clothes from walnut dressers and paperback books from oak library shelves, toss tonight’s salad in a bowl made from teak. And who among Americans today is much different? What would we do without the trees?
Well, for one thing, we’d have a pretty hard time breathing. Remember, trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen—a good enough reason to contemplate their importance to human life. But because they are so essential to our health and well-being, trees have long held a primary role in human culture. After all, without trees there would be no recorded literature. In that sense, my vocation as a writer is as much tied to the trees as my father’s.
This year, Charlotte Lit will celebrate tree culture in our “city of trees.” Planning is underway, so stay tuned for a series of events that will include author readings, lectures on Charlotte’s tree canopy, a paper-making workshop. Meanwhile, add Wohlleben’s book to your winter reading list. Maybe even read it under a tree-shaded table in the park. Your blood pressure will likely drop and you’ll be filled with a phytoncide-fueled sense of well-being. Yep, I learned that in The Hidden Life of Trees.
The words are not going to write themselves.
This seems obvious, no? Seems as if it doesn’t need to be said, yes? And yet, here it is, for your consumption, taking a prominent place as Immutable Law of Writing #1. Here’s the full story.
I know many writers who do not write. I think what those people mean when they say they are writers is they like to write, enjoy writing, or maybe like to think of themselves as writers. Still, they do not write.
I know many people who say they want to write a book, but they are not writing a book, and make no attempt to write a book. I think what they mean is they want to have written a book. What they don’t mean is they want the experience of writing a book. What they don’t mean is they want to do the work of writing a book. They want to be authors. This is not the same—this is not remotely the same—as wanting to do the actual work of writing.
Immutable Law of Writing #1 says the words are not going to write themselves. What, then, is the solution? The glib answer is: if you want to be a writer you must write. But here is some more practical advice: if you want to write, you must write every day.
The question that follows is how to do that: how does a busy person find the time to write every day? Here are three pieces of practical advice for finding the time to write every day.
One: Decide whether you mean it.
Decide, once and for all, if writing is a priority for you. If it is, you will find a way to do it. I don’t mean to be simplistic about this, but it’s a simple matter: we do what we think is important. (The time won’t fall from the sky, however; you have to go and find it. See tip number two, below.)
It is vital here to know what you are writing. If it’s a novel, name it and outine it (at least roughly). If it’s a blog, decide what the blog is about and who it’s for, and keep a running idea list of things to write about. If it’s a business book, name it, define the audience, and outline its chapters. And so on. None of this is writing, by the way, but it helps you know what to write when it comes time to write.
Two: Once you have decided you will write, give something up and replace that time with writing.
If your days are full, it will be easier to find time within the day than to figure out the physics of making the day longer than 24 hours. And the easiest way to do that is to stop doing something that takes up your precious, precious time.
Perhaps the first thing to do is to consider time as precious.
Then, look at what you do and decide what not to do so that you can write. Let’s say you need a half-hour to write each day (see tip number three, below). How might you find 30 minutes a day? Could you give up 30 minutes of sleep, Facebook, Candy Crush, or television? (On your deathbed, will you wish you had played more Candy Crush?)
If you are a writer, you are a creative thinker, so you can apply your creativity to this. Could you do the 60-minute yoga class instead of the 90-minute? Could you work from home one day a week and save the commute time? Do you have the resources to hire out a household chore, such as cutting the lawn, or have a family member do it? Could you have a child or spouse cook dinner an extra day each week? Could you take a 30-minute lunch instead of 60? Could you resign from that club you’ve belonged to for years but doesn’t really provide you any real benefit these days? Can you say “no” to something that you’ve been asked to do? The possibilities are nearly endless.
Three: When you have found your writing time, set a can’t-miss daily production goal.
How about just 500 new words per day?
For most people, that’s about 30 minutes. How much is 500 words? It’s not much. This post, for instance, is 800 words. If you could write 500 new words per day—say, by getting up 30 minutes earlier, or forgoing one television show in the evening—you will have written a draft of a 90,000 word novel in just six months. That’s it! That’s all it takes. First thing in the morning, before everyone else has gotten up (or whenever), write a minimum of 500 new words, and do it every day.
Because, you know, the words aren’t going to write themselves.
In addition to being a seminal work of literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautifully-constructed story, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, compelling flashbacks, conflict and tension—and by the time the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” arrives, we’re totally sold on the ending, Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption.
We bring it to you today not only because it’s Christmas day, but because this last week of the year is a perfect time to think about the Christmas seasons in your future. What will you have written by this time next year?
Or maybe the question is larger than that. Perhaps we should read A Christmas Carol as a caution. None of us wants to find ourselves an old Scrooge, having not done what we were called to do—to have not told the stories we wanted to tell.
And so we ask again: what will you have written by this time next year?
From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Chapter 4: The Last of the Spirits
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible, save one outstretched hand. But for this, it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.
But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror to know that, behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.
“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.
“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”
A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and download in a number of formats. (Goodreads has some options here.)