Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. This is episode three and today we've got a conversation with best-selling author Jason Reynolds, a faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program who also holds an honorary doctorate from Lesley.
Jason is a prolific writer known for young adult and middle-grade novels that feature diverse characters who deal with topics such as gun violence, poverty, police brutality, and trauma. His books include Long Way Gown, Ghost, Miles Morales, For Everyone, and All American Boys, which he coauthored with Brendan Kiely. In this interview, Jason talks with his good friend and fellow young adult author Chris Lynch, who also teaches creative writing at Lesley.
Chris: My name is Chris Lynch, I'm a young adult, primarily young adult, author and I teach in the MFA program at Lesley University.
Jason: I'm Jason Reynolds, also a faculty member at Lesley University in the Writing for Young People's department. I am a primarily young adult, well young adult, and middle-grade author. Hit it.
Chris: Let's start at the beginning. If you are not yet tired of telling the story about not reading a book until you were 17. Would you? Maybe we can record it and this will be the one forever and you can move on to new stories.
Jason: This is it. I desperately want to.
Chris: We share that. That's fine.
Jason: We do share that.
Chris: Neither one of us read a book voluntarily until the age of 17.
Jason: Yes. For me, it was because I was growing up in the 1980s I was growing up in pretty much 100% black environment and it was culturally rich. It's one of these places where what I wanted to see in books I could never see. What I needed to see in books, the people always say, "Well, you can read a book that's not about you and still gain things." The truth is that that is very true but not for me at least not for the entryway into reading. I needed to see some cultural details. I wanted to see my mom's cooking on a page. I wanted to see sneakers and the neighborhood, boys and all that stuff.
Chris: Whatever you could get from those other books, there was always going to be a hole.
Jason: There was always going to be a hole and so because of that I stayed far away from books. I just wasn't interested. Not just me, nobody in my community, none of my friends, none of us were reading anything. Why would I engage in something that I didn't feel like was engaging with me? For me, the answer, I know your answer's a little different, but for me, my salvation came through rap music and through reading rap lyrics as a young person. As a pre-teenager reading Queen Latifa lyrics and Tupac lyrics and Slick Rick lyrics and Nas lyrics and then understanding poetry and that was my- the beginning of the springboard that led me here.
Chris: Do you recall what the first book was?
Jason: Of course. At 17 I read a book called, Black Boy by Richard Wright and the only reason that I read the book, one of them was about timing. I was at a point in my life where I could read that book but also because on the second page of the book, the main character burns his mother's house down. I was just like, "Right."
Chris: It's an action book?
Jason: I was just happy. This is an adventure story as far as I'm concerned. That was enough to hook me at that particular time.
Chris: Which segues nicely into our second question. Because you wouldn't have wanted to read it just because it was good for you right?
Jason: No. [laughs]
Chris: Right. You've got to lay the sugar on the ground for the ants to come to the picnic. How do you do that now yourself? What do you think you're doing to bring those young Jasons to your books?
Jason: I think there are a few things. Number one, I'm really interested in language. I really am fascinated with the way that we can use language to create intimacy with young people. Specifically, and I say that because as a person who believes that language is the cornerstone of culture, I think that we can manipulate it to build bridges between said cultures. If my language is rooted in my culture and if I can put that language on a page in an honest way, then that authenticity will ring true to the young people who are reading it.
Besides that, I just believe in pace. I believe in-- I mean you and I share this idea that like your books don't have to be 200,000 words, not for me and that you can't be upset if a young person who is reluctant, 'reluctant' doesn't want to read a 200,000-word book.
Chris: My thinking on that is I don't aspire to write books that I wouldn't aspire to read.
Chris: White space matters on the page.
Chris: Kids don't want to be intimidated.
Jason: Yes. Let's break it up a bit. I think there are ways for us to be creative that we don't always exploit one the page with prose. All those things are necessary for young people, especially today because they have so many other stimuli.
Chris: Could you expand a little bit on those ways that we don't exploit that we could be doing better?
Jason: Yes, sure. I think about referencing one of your books. The Beginning of Gypsy Davey-
Chri: Thank you.
Jason: - and how it's written, it almost feels like one really long run-on sentence, and I think that is the way the brain is working. That is the way a young person's processing the world. I think it's disingenuous and a bit naive to believe that young people are experiencing the world in really eloquent complete sentences mentally. They're either seeing snapshots or they seeing waves. In it, you do a good job at showing what a brainwave looks like on a page. For me, most of the time it's like this snapshot where it's da, da, da, da, da, right.
Everything is really short, lucid, almost fragmented thoughts and ideas and sentences. Sometimes I break the line whenever I choose to if I think it would create an evocative moment emotionally. Sometimes I will stretch the word out. Sometimes whatever I want to do creatively to show young people what their brains look like.
Chris: Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion was the first book that I saw that I thought, "You can do it that way."
Jason: You can do it, yes.
Chris: Back to your original experience with reading. Once you feel invited into the writing game, I think it expands the pool of writers in the world.
Jason: It does, it does matter.
Chris: There are a lot more of us out there for sure.
Jason: There are a lot more of us out there for sure.
Chris: Having done this as obviously successfully as you have has catapulted you into a different category of life. How much if any, struggle has there been to continue being the writer, Jason, and the public figure, Jason?
Jason: It's a struggle. I wish it weren't a struggle and I wish I could say that it's fine, but the truth is you knew me even before all this happened. I used to sit and pick your brain about like what if and then the what if became, that which is, and now I'm really working hard to balance it all out. Look, when you are celebrated in this industry you can never lose track of the fact that this is an industry that ebbs and flows. That things go up and they go down, they rush in and they pull back and that my job is to basically accept that which is but also focused on the work in front of me. Don't drink my own Kool-Aid.
Because they clap for you today and tomorrow they'll clap for somebody else and just try to balance it out. I stay around my friends and my family and people who really know who I am and not just people who know the work that I make.
Chris: My hat's off to you. I know I could not succeed at what you're doing. Everybody in this business thinks, "If I have my chance, I would love to do-" I couldn't do what you're doing. I think that there is a sole separate set of skills that you have that most of us don't have.
Jason: I appreciate that.
Chris: I personally hope you take care of yourself during this journey.
Jason: I'm working on it. I'm working on getting better at that part.
Chris: In the meantime, what do you think if you would even deign to say that, what do you think kids need from your books? What are you giving them that--?
Jason: I'll tell you what I'm not giving them. What I'm not giving them are lessons. I'm not interested in teaching a lesson.
Chris: That is good to hear. [chuckles]
Jason: You know me.
Chris: I do know that. I got to ask some questions here.
Jason: I'm not interested in teaching any lessons. I'm not a teacher, I'm not a minister, I'm not someone, I'm not even a parent for that matter. I'm not here to sermonize or to educate or to be didactic and heavy-handed about what kinds of different moral codes and allegorical moments that are woven into books to help kids live better lives. That's not really my goal. My actual goal is to put something on the page to help kids feel cared for. To help them feel a little less invisible. That's all.
If a kid can read that book and say, "It turns out what I thought- all the feelings I have inside of myself, I've just witnessed on the outside of myself." What a magical moment. It's the reason that magic is still a thing. It's the reason that the most famous card tricks or the most famous magic tricks or card tricks where I have to guess a card is because every human being secretly would love to know that some other human being knew what was on their mind.
Jason: It's a thing. It's a phenomenon that we don't talk about it but it's what we all desire and that's all I really want.
Chris: First, that's great to hear. It's probably a mistake to think that you're writing the definitive book on anything-
Chris: - but to think that you are writing a very important part of an important discussion. That's what you're up to, yes?
Jason: Sure. I'm not interested in honesty, man. Only in truth. Those two are different.
Chris: It's a higher calling. I couldn't agree with you more.
Chris: I have people say a lot of times, "You should write my story," and I was like, for fiction, you have to be believable.
Chris: Onto the work itself, I was doing my homework on the plane, on my way down.
Jason: Long Way Down is the story of William Holloman, who loses his brother to gun violence. Because of his neighborhood rules and all of the intangible ecosystems that sometimes surround our neighborhoods, impact our neighborhoods, the cultural codes and traditions, he is forced to make a decision to avenge his brother's death. He gets on an elevator to go outside to find the killer, and once he gets on that elevator, he is met on each floor by a familiar face but that familiar face is no longer alive. So, this is a story of 60 seconds of this young man's life, as he's forced to make a really complicated decision that could change his own life forever.
Chris: Beautiful work. I wasn't certain at the beginning, it was taking me a while-- Each book is a different thing. Each conversation is a different conversation and I wasn't sure I was quite invested in the conversation until maybe a quarter of the way through, and then every page, it just got better and better.
Jason: Thank you, man.
Chris: How about the structure? How did the structure come to you? It's the perfect structure.
Jason: Thank you. Thank you for that.
Chris: You have to have a lot of confidence to contain a whole story in such a small space.
Jason: Right. Honestly, I wrote the novel in vignettes originally, and I sent it to my agent. It was a passion project, and I told my agent, “I want to write this thing. You're probably not going to like it, I'm going to write it anyway.” Because this is what we should be doing, writing the thing that maybe no one will like but I'm going to do it for me. I'm going to write this thing. I sent it to my agent. It took her like six months to read it. She just refused because she thought it was going to be bad, and she didn't know how to tell me-
Chris: Talk about bad faith. [laughs]
Jason: It's amazing, right? We don't have these problems anymore. At this particular juncture, she just was like, “I don't think this kid can pull this off.” She read it and she emailed me and said, “I actually think it's pretty brilliant but I think you wrote it in the wrong format.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You always said that you wanted to, at some point, write a novel in verse” because poetry was my original discipline, it's what I'm trained in. I'm not trained in prose writing, I'm not trained even in narrative. That's not what I-- I don't know anything-- I've learned that later on in my life but I grew up reading and writing and studying poetry. That is what I know.
She said, “You've always said you wanted to write a novel in verse, but you know that not every novel belongs in verse, but this novel, I think, would be the one to give it a shot.” So, I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the whole novel, and it's almost like-- Everything was kind of-- it made a different kind of sense when I started to truncate the language and put it into shapes to create white space and to create, almost like creating pipes of language, like the elevator, like the image of the elevator itself, this sort of tubings of language, and then the floors-- I don't know man, it happened that way.
I wish I could tell you that it was all strategic but the truth is, there are some things that happen in art that just are, and that kind of just happen to you, and it is, oh, this is working out.
Chris: Unscientifically, I think that probably two-thirds of all work gets done by your subconscious. It seems like that's what was going on here.
Jason: We don't talk about that enough, I feel like. There's something else happening.
Chris: Rachel Manley does a whole seminar on that.
Jason: Really? I have to- 'Cause I really-- I read this article a long time ago on one of these new age magazines or, maybe it wasn't new age magazines, maybe it wasn't maybe it was Buddhism or something like that. Osho one of these magazines, and it said that most writers have no recollection of writing anything. Like, you write it and there might be snippets that you remember, most of which comes from the editorial process but in the actual drafting of the first draft, it's like a black-out. Like you do it after you're done doing it, you don't remember writing a word of it, and I find that to be true. There's a weird sub-conscious thing happening, you know.
Chris: You find it even more so when you're writing in that format since you are a poet of long-standing-
Chris: - and I know it was a while back you thought like you had drifted away from poetry-
Jason: For sure.
Chris: So, that must have been very welcome advice to you.
Jason: It was, but it was super stressful. Of course. Here's the thing, what I know, sort of what most of my readers don't know, is that I have friends who are poets, who are going to read this book as poets and who are going to judge this book as poets. So, I needed to make sure that my devices were as sharp as possible and that I was careful in the way that I spoke about the book. I don't call this book a novel in poems. That is not what it is. It is a novel in verse.
They are not the same, they do not abide by the same rules and I needed to make sure that there's a distinction there because my poetry friends Adrian Matejka and these people, I needed to let them know that I respect greatly what they do and that as a person who is technically out of practice as a poet, I'm not stepping into their space cavalierly to wield broken sentences and calling them poems. It's very-- You have to be very careful with that.
Chris: Yes. There is that out there.
Jason: There is that out there.
Chris: I'm only recently hearing about this. There was possibly some kind of controversy about All American Boys being on this reading list in South Carolina. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it was resolved?
Jason: It's not resolved yet but All American Boys-- First, I have to say that All American Boys has been banned in several places, in South Carolina, Iowa, Texas, Jersey.
Chris: It's quite easy to get banned, is it?
Jason: I know, right?
It's had its fair share of push-back because quite frankly, adults don't want to have, don't want to allow young people to have hard conversations about the world around them and Brendan and I, Brendan Kiely, for the record, and I worked very hard to create a nuanced book and a book that is complex and sophisticated and human and chock full of information and experiential truths, but if you are a police officer, perhaps you don't want your child reading about some of the complexities about police abuse.
That does not make police abuse any less prevalent, and your children are still growing up in a world where it is happening. So, South Carolina, as of recent, has banned it. It's on a reading list and the parents are saying they don't want it and that we are the problem and so forth and so on.
Chris: You invented it.
Jason: Exactly. I invented police brutality and abuse and present racism and everything else. At the end of the day, having your book challenged, first of all, I don't take- I don't think it's awesome. A lot of people are like, "Yes, now you're going to sell tons of books." I actually think that it's pretty painful to know that there are adults in the world who are working way too hard to keep books out of the hands of children, and I don't take any pleasure in that but it does remind me and it does reinforce the fact that we struck a nerve, and it does mean that there's truth-- Truth is always the most uncomfortable thing in the world.
My whole thing and Brendan's whole thing is always, look, you can be mad about it, you can have your children opt out of reading it, whatever you want, but as long as that school does not take it off the reading list, we're cool.
Chris: Is that what they're trying to do?
Jason: That's what parents are calling for but so far, that has not happened. As long as that has not happened, we don't have anything to say.
Chris: If you're not, in one way or another challenged by somebody somewhere, then you must not be saying anything.
Jason: You must not be saying anything.
Chris: If you're not saying anything, you're not doing your job.
Jason: If everybody likes you?
Chris: It feels nice for a minute.
Jason: [chuckles] Exactly. If everybody likes you, you stand-- You have no opinion. You stand for nothing. It's been happening for so long. I've gotten all the racist threats. We've been even face-to-face with out white supremacists.
Jason: Oh, yes, who have walked up to Brendan, 'cause they never talk to me, obviously. Walk up to Brendan and tell me that he is less than because he is not representing the race. That he is a disappointment to the race. We've had run-ins-- We've been through a lot with that book, but we soldier on because all we really care about are our children. I couldn't care less about the insecurities of adults.
Chris: That's a good message for everybody out there, if you're an aspiring writer or an aspiring anything, really, that, there's no level, where, if you're really serious about your work, you stop feeling that way, where you feel like you can't be bruised or offended or taken down a peg. Jacqueline Woodson, the queen of us all.
Jason: The queen.
Chris: She says that a lot. She says the imposter syndrome is a very real thing. It doesn't matter how high you get, you feel like somebody is going to figure you out.
Jason: It never goes away.
Chris: It never goes away, and that's a good thing for people to learn.
Jason: Oh, it's great.
Chris: Look at it this segue into learning and education and Lesley University.
Chris: How would you define yourself as a teacher? What's your style?
Jason: An imposter, an imposter, but I'm here. I think what it is for me-- and I try to be honest about that, and I know that's like, I know Lesley's probably like, "No, this is not what we want you to say," but the truth of the matter is that I have-- My first editor 15 years ago, Joanna Cotler, HarperCollins said, "Your intuition will take you further than your education ever will." I'm probably using that right now more than I ever have before because it's the intuition that I have that I'm trying my best to give to my students, more so than any kind of academic acumen because I don't necessarily have that, but I have intuition and I have experience.
This process as a faculty member at Lesley and teaching has been really incredible for me because it's helped me intellectualize my process in a way that I've never had to do because I didn't come to the traditional channels, so it's good.
Chris: What it's doing for you is it's developing your skill at being able to tell people how to do what you do but what you're doing, keeps growing and keeps getting better and so does your teaching?
Jason: Absolutely. I hope so.
Chris: Your people love you, I know that.
Jason: It's been getting better- listen, man, I've been working very hard and thanks to you, you remember me- I took this job because of you in the first place, you asked me to come. For that first year and even now I still email, I need help, right. Because I think one of the keys to teaching anything is humility. I don't want to pretend to know something I don't know, but we can have a reciprocal relationship where we both can exchange ideas. I'm totally okay with that and I think my expertise will show itself and it will shine and it'll be a gift, but also that shine will be strengthened by the gifts that they give me year after year and it's been- [crosstalk]
Chris: They do.
Jason: Then they do and you know this, man, they do.
Chris: [laughs] It's so satisfying.
Jason: It is.
Chris: You become better at the job by doing the job and by being as open as that, you find yourself actually learning on the job, learning more about what you do, and why you do it, this is why I do it when you have to break it down.
Jason: I got to explain it.
Chris: That's why I tell the students at the same time, you're going to get as much out of this program by the analysis you're doing of your peers as you are out of listening to their analysis of you. Because doing that, breaking it down and just trying not to change the writer but find out what the writer wants to do and finding out the ways to do that, to help them do that is an art on in itself. Mentors like you and me, that's what we bring, we bring the distillation of all of our editorial experience and we try to bring the best of that to these guys.
Chris: I think when we're doing it when we're on our game, they recognize it.
Jason: Yes, me too. I hope so. [laughs]
Chris: Where do you go from here, workwise, what are you working on? What's next can you talk about it? Is that a thing, the thing with me, I'm not good at talking about when I'm working on it.
Jason: Yes. I can talk about it.
Chris: Even your working method, which maybe we can get into that a little bit, is also fascinating to me. I remember coming down in a hotel once and you're working in the middle of the lobby, and there's buzz going every place. Not only did you tell me that you can get, you can do that, you told me at the time you said you have to have that.
Chris: You have to have a hubbub in order to have your focus.
Jason: I do.
Chris: That's remarkable, that's rare.
Jason: It's interesting, I have to have the sound of human voice. Not my own, but I need- and it can't be music. I'm not a guy who listens to music when he works. I listen to podcasts or I go somewhere with the people speaking. Because there's something about hearing other human voices that narrow my own internal mental voice. Everybody else is talking, I can hear my voice so much clearer, right. I can distill it if no one's talking, then my voice, all the voices are speaking simultaneously.
Chris: You don't have to be sitting there doing that thing where you're going, so what do I think now? What do I think about that?
Chris: That will drive you crazy.
Jason: That's it. I try to be somewhere public or either I try to be in a space where I can manipulate the sound of human voices, whether it be on the internet or whatever, just to hear humanity, I need to hear that sound. It's an interesting thing. That's really what I'm working on now. I could talk about it. I almost like hearing it outside of my own head.
Chris: You never get the feeling that's in some way it's written once you've spoken it.
Chris: So you don't.
Chris: That's good. This is why you're producing 50 books a month.
Jason: For me, I think, and I'm not producing 50 books a month, jerk face.
Jason: Make sure you get that on the record. I think for me it's more like, I need to confirm it with myself. I would lie to anybody but me. The moment I say it out loud, then I have to keep my own promise. Right now I'm working on my novel, I'm still trying to sort out the plot, but the basic premise is this young man and his family comes home from something. His family owns an ice cream truck business that has been passed down for generations as a way to subvert the original ice cream truck business which the song that you that we all grew up listening to is an extraordinarily racist song.
It's “Around the Mulberry Bush,” but the original version of that song is not bad and it's a minstrel song. Over the course of generations, they basically started their own black ice cream truck company where they play their own music and that music changes per generation. One day they come home, and their house is gone. It just doesn't exist. It there's a hole in a block. It's like been like lifted like a tooth out of them out. They had no idea where it's gone, they had no idea how that can happen.
There's tons of pages of them just like how is it possible that our house is no longer here. They have to figure out where they're going to sleep. The ice cream truck is an option, right. Based in New York City. As everybody knows in New York doesn't have space for everybody, right. You got to, this family has to separate, go different places, but they have to continue to work because they got to get money to hopefully find a better place to live. Find a hotel room something, right. They have nothing, no clothes everything's in the house. Then one day while driving around in the ice cream truck to try to make money, they see their home in a different, in a wealthy neighborhood smack dab in the middle of the block. Same house, they know it's their house, they went up to because they're happy. Like, this is the house and they can't get in the house, because it's been turned into a museum. They can't afford the tickets, can't afford the entry, but they can look through the window and see everybody trying on their clothes and taking pictures. That's what I'm working on.
Jason: Yes. [laughs]
Chris: If you wouldn't kill me, I'm stealing that right now.
Jason: Well, it'll be a race to the finish line.
Chris: I jokingly tell that to students. If you're saying your stuff out loud because you know you're surrounded by thieves.
Jason: Of course.
Chris: 'Cause we're encouraging you to pull things out of the air, but nobody will do it to you.
Jason: Well, they might. I always tell people steal it if you want. I always say you know why? Because I think that the beauty of being a writer I mean the average human being is fortunate to have one really good idea that like turn, it's our jobs to have hundreds.
Jason: It's literally the job, you could steal it, there's something else, don't worry. [laughs]
Chris: Now that ladies, gentlemen, is confidence.
Jason: That's confidence we all have to have.
Chris: Yes, well, some of us have to try harder.
Chris: You have to have that confidence. That's also very true.
Chris: No being yet a father.
Chris: Where is it you go in yourself to find a place and to find the person the voice, the attitude to reach your readers right now.
Jason: One time I heard you say that you're like stuck between a certain point in your life. What was it 12 and 15 years?
Chris: I have two narratives, one's 17 and one's 30.
Jason: Yes, 13 and 17. I think that's a very similar thing for me that I'm stuck in that. For me, it will probably be 12 and 15. For obvious reasons, 12 for me was, my pops left, my family falls apart. I think my first year in private school which was traumatizing. That was weird for me and I'm a public school kid. That was strange watching my mom deal with divorce and my brothers dealing with it. It was just one of those everything my life was upside down. Then, 15 for me I was graduating from high school. 15 for me, I was graduating at 16.
My 15th year I was coming into my senior year, and I was grappling with manhood, but I was still such a child, but I was going into a university where at 16, I would be in a space with 22-year-olds and having to overcompensate and what that meant for me. Those are the two sections, but even beyond that, when I'm approaching a book, there are three things that I keep in the back of my mind that I've always had to speak about whenever I'm talking to teachers, librarians or whoever. Three things that I carry with me, and I approach the page with.
Number one, humility. I can't pretend to know what a childlike, who I was as a child is not who they're today. The themes are all the same, right. Of course, we have connecting points, the details are very different. There are things that they do that very differently than I did or that you did. I approached the page with humility, I'm going to also try to create humility within the story, especially for male characters, because men don't ever get to spaces of humility, very rarely get to see spaces of the humility, and that we can create closets for them to cry on. Right.
Number two, intimacy. I believe that you got to create intimacy. For me, I do it through language, I do it through theme, I do it through pace at through inside jokes, humor, by all the things that I know you use, those things build intimacy with the reader. I think that's a valuable tool when connecting with anything. Young people want that more than anything else.
I tell teachers all the time, you want them to tell you all about them was the last time you shared some information about yourself because they don't know you, why should they trust you? Then the last thing is gratitude. I believe that the work that we're really trying to say in all of our books is, is thank you.
Chris: No art can do that intimacy thing the way fiction can.
Jason: Absolutely, I agree, it's a special thing.
Chris: All that stuff you just said amounts to a similar thing and that I really believe is that you never solve the issues of adolescence, you just moved demographically out of that area. If you an older gent and you get the privilege, yes is the gratitude, the privilege going back in there like we do on a regular basis, you go in there and it's playing with live electrical wires, it's still happening.
Jason: You can't solve the problem, you can only frame it.
Jason: It's an amazing thing.
Chris: We don't answer anything. We open doors to more doors, open more doors.
Jason: There you go.
Chris: Because young reader, that's what life is going to be like.
Jason: Yes, so I've learned.
Chris: Everybody, every writer has a take on writer's block. Mine is writer's block is like Dracula, he cannot come into your house unless you invite him in, but when he gets in, it can create some serious carnage. What is your take, maybe you don't even think it exists? So far it doesn't seem to for you.
Jason: [chuckles] Well, it doesn't in the usual way. For me, I like the Dracula thing though, maybe I'll just start using that one. It won't be the first thing I've stolen from you. That's it.
Chris: I'm happy to have that out.
Jason: I think for me, the way I think about it is, writer's block is a result of fear of writing badly. That's the way I think about it. For me, if we would have looked at writer's block on a spectrum, it typically happens after a really strong day of writing and the reason why, is because I think there's a consciously the insecurity of knowing that perhaps the second, the next day of writing won't be quite as good as the last creates psychological block. I don't always think it has to do with you not knowing what to say, I think sometimes it's about the fear of knowing that what you're going to say is not going to be written as well as you would like it to be written on the first attempt.
For me, because I know that editing is the biggest part of writing, rewriting is all that writing really is, I have no problem with writing badly. I know my first drafts are all trash, I am fully aware of it and I'm okay with it. I've settled into the comfort of knowing that we all write really bad stuff at first, right. Because of that, I have no problem writing, blah, blah, blah, for two pages if I have to, to pick up the pace, to pick up the wave again. Because I was an athlete, I think about basketball.
This is why I like the Dracula, the letting him in because when I was playing basketball if you were the shooter on the team, you had a hot hand, but for some reason, you were having an off game., the coach says, "Keep passing them the ball, just keep shooting." Even though you're missing, you're going to shoot your way out. The coach never says, "Stop passing at them, ice them." The coach never says ice them out, no. Keep shooting the ball and eventually, you will adjust and you will start making shots. That's how I feel about it.
Chris: You had to learn that over time, right, to convince yourself because the initial impulse is to freeze, right. When you have that good day of writing, the next day of writing is that Renaissance is about another way of saying what you were saying is, that work that doesn't yet exist, it can't be crap if it doesn't exist.
Chris: You might just verify that your next day's work is crap by writing it, but you once get used to living with it-
Jason: It's all crap.
Jason: I think it was Stephen King who was like you always stopped when you stop for the day, you stop right at the height. When you're like buzzing when everything is kicking off, everything is firing off, stop writing.
Chris: That was Hemingway too.
Jason: Was it Hemingway? That's probably who it was, it was Hemingway, stop writing then. The next day you like--
Chris: It's still electric.
Jason: It's still electric. Right. I think there's value to that. I think it's also added to my proliferation of books. I think people always like, "Well, you've written so many books," but it's not just because of writer's block is also because of mentorship. I was taught a certain way that I have now trying to teach, by the way, I'm trying to unlearn because I don't think that this is healthy. I try to be honest about that. I know people are impressed by it, but I don't think it's a good way of doing this. It's the way that I've done it, the way that I felt like I had to do it.
Chris: In the pace of your writing.
Jason: The pace. I've been fortunate in that I've been able to produce at a certain level, but anybody who's ever written a book knows how hard it is if it would be in that space continuously, perpetually living in that space, it's just not a healthy thing. But Walter, and when I say Walter, I mean Walter Dean Myers, who I became right, who I looked to as an icon to craft his career.
It was him who said, "Well, you write five pages a day, you write five pages a day, five days a week, that's 25 pages a day, 100 pages a month, a book every three months, four books a year. Like it's the way I was told to do it. It's the way I was taught, so that's the way that I've carried on his tradition once he passed away, but now I'm like, all right, I think you proved the point. Let's [chuckles] pull back a little bit.
Chris: You're also getting older. You're not getting old, but getting older. There is a difference, there is a stamina involved-
Chris: - in staying in that intense mode, you get up from the desk and you go, where did this exhaustion come from?
Chris: You want to make sure you catch it now, that's what things happen to your heart. [laughs]
Jason: I also just know, and we will talk about this, but also know that this is temporary man, you work really hard, you try to make your splash. If you make your splash you hope you make it in a way that's long-lasting, but this is an industry and a career and the lifestyle that ebbs and flows. Right now while it's flowing, I will write it, so that when it ebbs, I don't have to deal with, I don't have to be uncomfortable knowing that I'm in an ebb, perhaps the flow will continue or perhaps it won't. I don't know, but I don't want to pretend like I don't know that this isn't, I'm not going to be on this level or writing this particular way for the next-- or Jackie, but even hers, it ebb and it flow.
When Brown Girl Dreaming came out, it sort of whoosh, right. It hit the flow again. I know that's a fact and I'm okay with that.
Chris: I don't recall which writer referred to it as leaving your scratch. I want to leave my scratch, but I'm 20 years older than you. I've been scratching away everybody knows.
Chris: Everybody is scratching away for a lot longer, but I've also learned that lesson that you've learned, but I've learned dramatically that to leave my scratch, to leave a better scratch, I got to go slower. I got to think about it more like, publish less frequently but think about it more.
Jason: That's interesting, yes. By that, I think that's where I want to be. I think right now I'm trying to, I'm a kid who's brimming with ideas, I have so much I want to say but I need the time and space to really sink my teeth because I got a nasty chip man.
Jason: A nasty chip on my shoulder. There's a part of me, an unfortunate part of me, but a part of me that is part of me. That still feels like I have so much to prove. I got so many middle fingers left.
Chris: I really like to add to that, that what's really beautiful about you is that it doesn't really show.
Jason: I appreciate that.
Chris: That's a good man.
Jason: I'll tell my therapist you said that.
Jason: Thank you very much. I needed that. I appreciate that.
Chris: Doctor Reynolds.
Jason: Here we go [laughs].
Chris: I need to call you, you know doctor Reynolds, the doctor has made us a rare appearance here and we want to say thank you.
Jason: I appreciate you, bro. Thank you
Announcer: Thanks for listening to Why We Write. For more information about what was discussed on today's episode, as well as a link to Jason's 2018 commencement speech at Lesley, check out our show page, it's at lesley.edu/podcast. That's Lesley, spelled L E S L E Y.edu/podcast. If you enjoyed the podcast, we would love for you to give us a review. It will help other people to find the show.
Next week we've got an interview with L.A.-based screenwriter and playwright Jami Brandli. Here's a sneak peek.
Jaimi: For me, it is ultimately about women not giving their power away anymore. Taking it back and breaking out of these cycles and creating your own path.