My great, great poet friend, Randall Horton suggested to me a while ago–ok, several years ago–that I read Wrapped In Rainbows, a biography of Zora Neale Hurston. I was looking for a book to read at the time. I wrote it down on my to-read list, and kept moving. Two years ago, I walked down the hill to the Harlem Book Festival in sweltering heat (it’s always in the thick of summer, on a main drag of Harlem that has little trees. We need to fix that) to check out what it was about. It was several avenues long, filled with food and African-print clothing and rows and rows of books. I remember passing by the Penguine table and seeing big posters advertising the publication of another friend’s book, R. Dwayne Bett’s A Question of Freedom. I picked up a postcard and kept strolling down the aisles. I came across a table for $5.00 books, and stopped to check it out. Right where I stopped to browse, there it was: Wrapped in Rainbows.
The book is over 400 pages. That’s a big commitment, I thought. I bought it, because I said I would, but it stayed on my bookshelf for over a year–past another Harlem Book Festival, and into the colder months of last year. During that time, I’ve been trying to clear some space in my studio as my books are taking over my life. I thought this was charming at first, until I realized I also want to live and not trip over books. I had to look long and hard at what I had around me, and purged books and decided to be on a book-buying moratorium for a while and really try to get through the ones I already purchased, the books I had already around me. I picked up Wrapped in Rainbows, which I had tried to start several times before (the underlining and marginal notes up to page 50 or so indicated that). This past December, I committed to it.
In addition to just being an important book about an important writer, Wrapped in Rainbows documents a black woman writer’s life in a time when it was difficult and almost impossible to be. I can’t count how many times it was mentioned, but an important echo throughout the book was that many decisions Ms. Zora made all throughout her writing life were to accomplish this dream of “Making a living as a writer” or “Making her writing pay for her living.” Which, I think the second distinction is most important. Ms. Zora seemed to not want an extravagant life–maybe that was impossible for her, coming from very meagre upbringing in Eatonville, moving around the country, landing for a time in New York City, with only her words–and her hands, if she had to take on domestic work–to support her. She seemed blessed to be awarded some of the prestigious writing awards and was funded by the schools she attended to do anthropological work, which she seemed especially interested in, but all for the means to produce some writing with her discoveries. I think, growing up, and knowing this about Ms. Zora, that she also had a background in anthropology, and that helped her know more about the characters she wrote about, helped me justify my inclination to choose History as a field of study when I got to college and realized I didn’t want to be reading the same British writers over and over in efforts to acquire an English Literature degree. I wanted stories. I wanted narratives. I wanted to read stories about other people, understand the places from which they came.
What I didn’t know about Ms. Zora was her patron saint, whom she called Godmother, the woman who funded a lot of Ms. Zora’s quiet hours and jaunts back and forth from New York to Florida and around the south with Langston Hughes to write plays and collect folklore and write short stories. I think reading it now, after I’ve lived a few years “as a writer” (for, my family didn’t use that label with me until I had published a book…even though I felt all along I was a writer), and understanding what that means financially–which is to say, it means not much at all unless you find funding from outside sources. The Godmother figure in Ms. Zora’s life could be paralleled to organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts or places that award stipend money w/o needing to do some type of “work” in exchange, but that let you live where you are, work for a bit on your own endeavors, and just write.
It was heartbreaking to read this book now, to see that what I wanted to do–to write only, to write enough that it pays for my living–is unattainable without giving away another part of myself. We say, as writers today, it’s impossible to make a living as a writer w/o at least a teaching job. My mother asks me constantly if “what I want to do in life” is teach, because that’s what I do now in part with academic advising at a university, and I pause for a moment, and think about it, and I say: “No. I understand it as a means to an end, and I like doing it. But that is not my passion. Ultimately, I just want to write.”
This same passion was the undercurrent for Wrapped in Rainbows, and that same passion seemed to fuel Ms. Zora’s every decision. In all of the documented exchanges between Ms. Zora and anyone else in her life, she’d tell about whatever it was she was doing, and mention how hard at work she was on her plays, on her research for her next project in Haiti, or on her second or third novel. When she had what she needed: a room of her own, and enough food to sustain her, she wrote freely and produced some of her best work. Their Eyes Were Watching God was produced under these conditions, and written in the course of several months! She was not, at that time, juggling academic appointments, and grading papers and preparing lectures. She was at her typewriter or in her apartment or small house with the beautiful garden with pen and paper in hand, writing.
I think the passion for writing, and only writing made her make other “sacrifices”–several times she entered into a marriage and then we would find her in one part of the country, and her husband in another part of the country, and she would report to whoever she was communicating with that she was in that part of the country fastidiously writing. Always writing.
It was when she had to use whatever money she made to pay for other things than “living” that her writing changed. I was heart broken to hear about the charges brought against her, and how it damaged her reputation and her own resolve as someone resilient, someone just wanting to put some words on a paper. She received an advance that could have helped her produce another great, great work of literature, but that money had to go to pay back lawyer fees, and such. She was no longer writing to live, but writing to pay back. There was a different desire to get a book out into the world. The context of what writing was and meant and could be for her, changed. Writing had to pay for other things.
I would be remiss to not mention the sections of the book that mention Ms. Zora’s time in Harlem, and her relationships with other writers and thinkers and visionaries. What is so beautiful about not having so many technological advances then is that these exchanges were documented somewhere that other people could find them, and later, write books about them. That scares me when I see everything turning to electronic this, and electronic that. Yes, this blog post is electronic, and could be erased from the world and there might have been no proof that I had written it. And my e-mails to Randall, and our gchat conversations. But maybe I’m old school, and the Historian in me resists this to some degree. I still hand-write anything I’ve ever intended to type up and send out for publication. To hand-write is part of my process. To document on paper. To write a card by hand to say, “Thank you for your constant push,” and put a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox.
Where’s this going? I don’t know. I think we’re losing something and gaining something each day as writers. We sacrifice the word to pay the bill. We can polish the word better when the bills are paid. In Wrapped in Rainbows, there’s a section of photographs of Ms. Zora. My favorite one is her sitting at what looks like an entertainment tray holding her typewriter. The chair looks to be like a dining room chair. Her hair is held down by a bandana tied in the front. The room is small, and i think, yes, that’s a mattress right behind her. She’s slouched over a bit, because the table only comes up to her knees, and is probably not ergonomic, but she’s doing it. Her fingers are pressing keys, and a piece of paper is sticking out of the type writer.