African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction

African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction

by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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In college and graduate school, Jewell Parker Rhodes never encountered a single reading assignment or exercise that featured a person of color. Now she has made it her mission to rectify the situation, gathering advice and inspiring tips tailored for African Americans seeking to express their life experiences. Comprehensive and totally energizing, the African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction bursts with supportive topics such as:

·Finding your voice
·Getting to know your literary ancestors
·Overcoming a bruised ego and finding the determination to pursue your dreams
·Gathering material and conducting research
·Tapping sweet, bittersweet, and joyful memories
·Knowing when to keep revising, and when to let go

The guide also features unforgettable excerpts from luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Brent Staples, Houston Baker, and pointers from bestselling African American authors Patrice Gaines, E. Lynn Harris, James McBride, John Hope Franklin, Pearl Cleage, Edwidge Danticat, and many others. It is a uniquely nurturing and informative touchstone for affirming, bearing witness, leaving a legacy, and celebrating the remarkable journey of the self.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767910859
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/05/2002
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 426 KB

About the Author

Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is the former director of the graduate-level creative writing program at Arizona State University. She is the author of Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors and the works Magic City, Voodoo Dreams, and the forthcoming Frederick Douglass’ Women. A recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, she lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Read an Excerpt



Whether it's the first time, the hundredth or the thousandth time, give yourself permission to speak, to write your heart and soul down on paper.

Always believe--there is no better voice than your own unique voice. No better story than the one you need to write.

Select a journal--a three-ring binder, a legal pad, a leather-bound blank book, whatever's most comfortable for you. This journal is your life line to writing more effectively and productively. Select a special pen--a felt tip, roller ball, fountain pen, or a profusion of rainbow gels. Journal writing should be a tactile experience, alive with the joy of your hand moving across the page, of leaving colored markings that speak about your self and the world at large.

On page one, write:

I Am (your name)

I Believe in Myself

I Have Something to Say

When you feel doubtful about your voice, reread the first page of your journal. Remind yourself that this journal is your song, your celebration of how you observe and experience the world. It is your private practice field. You'll collect ideas and feelings, but you'll explore how best to express them--how best to sing your song, speak your mind, and say what needs to be said!

A journal is for shouts and whispers, cries and laughter. It is never a place for silence. With each sentence you write in your journal, you affirm and improve your voice, the power of your words.

Just as musicians play scales to strengthen their rhythm and tone, to limber their fingers, hands, and mouths, so, too, a writer must practice the basics of writing prose. Observation, clarity, description, voice, sentence structure, and rhythm are all essential skills that require continual practice.

Don't try to do the following exercises all at once. Take time between exercises to experience, observe, reflect, and revise. If you're struggling with an exercise, repeat it. Move on when you feel your writing is improving. By doing the exercises in this book, you'll be allowed to make mistakes and to explore thoughts and feelings. After practicing these exercises, when you do sit down to write an essay or book, you'll be much better prepared to succeed.


Treasure your journal. A journal begins the process of crafting ideas into art.

For those of you who are new to writing, this chapter will help limber your skills of observing, listening, recording, and assembling portraits of your world. For those of you who have been writing for a while, these opening exercises will give you the opportunity to sharpen your skills and reflect again how heritage can influence and deepen your writing.

In either case, don't hurry your growth. Writing is a process. Nothing is discrete; everything is interconnected. Who you are, what subjects you select, what skills you learn, and what nonfiction you choose to write are integrated, much like single grains of sand shaping a shoreline.

REMEMBER: There are many trails to follow as a writer, but the main toll road is the same--a willingness to explore who you are and a belief that your voice matters.

When you're anxious or filled with self-doubt, remember: the collective spirit of our people is with you. Your journey to discover the power of voice, your words are an affirmation of all of us. Your journal is your life line, life support, and key to finding your voice!

Open your journal. Take a deep breath. The adventure begins.



Like a cub reporter, go out and observe an event worth celebrating. It can be a political rally, church service, a family reunion, or lunchtime at your community park. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit.

When you've finished, reread your description and ask yourself: Is it specific? Are there sounds in your description? Are there colors, textures, smells, tastes? What did you fail to observe? What did you leave out? What did you write just right?

For twenty minutes, rewrite the description, adding more details.

Compare the two versions and decide which one you like best, which conveys the more complete picture.



Look for a person to describe, someone worth focusing on and writing about. It can be someone you know, a trusted teacher, a performance poet, or young girl playing defense in a pick-up game of basketball. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit.

When you've finished, reread your description. How well did you describe the person? Would I recognize them if I saw them on the street, saw them in action? How does your person dress, talk, move? What do they feel--joy, anger, exhilaration? How can you tell? What outward signs, what actions best express personality? How do they react to others? How do they react to touch, sight, taste, and sound?

What makes this person special to you? What about them are you highlighting?

Revise your description for twenty minutes, adding new details.

Compare the two versions and decide which one you like best. Which version is more accurate? The most vibrant and "lifelike?"



Storytelling is a fundamental human activity--some stories are short (leaving you breathless for more), some are long and twisting, some teach, some give praise, some slander, some help you imagine a time and place where you've never lived. In Africa, the griot was honored as master storyteller, responsible for maintaining the stories and legends of the tribe. The griot tradition did not die with the advent of American slavery. Indeed, cultural storytelling kept the past alive and sustained a newly born people. Slaves were not "blank slates" but a community who mirrored, shaped, celebrated, informed, and inspired themselves through stories.

Many of us when we hear or see the word "story" immediately think fiction, think only of stories as untrue, created out of the imagination. Not necessarily so. Stories can be true, drawn from concrete reality. But even while you may be recording a "true story," you'll want to write it as interesting as fiction--you'll want to capture sensory details, characterization, and the voice of the storyteller!

Go out and find a storyteller--a former diva who used to sing for Motown, a young adult remembering the glamor of prom night, a grandmother on the front porch spinning stories about her childhood and her family's migration north. Go to the local barbershop or beauty salon and talk to the elders or the most colorful person in the room.

Listen to the voice of this storyteller, the rhythms in his or her speech. Is the talk slow and meandering or fast and focused? Is the voice loud or soft, rough or smooth? Is the voice conversational or formal? Write a page in the "voice" of the storyteller you've studied. Try to recapture their story--feel free to elaborate, to improve upon your memory. The important thing is to keep writing the "voice" of the storyteller you've heard. To keep imitating the rhythm, sounds, and speech.

Reread your writing. Can you hear the storyteller's voice? Rewrite any sentences that don't sound like your storyteller.

Repeat this exercise with two other people. If you first wrote a young man's tale of valor, try capturing the scratchy cadences of a deejay or the ebullient voice of a teenager. Stretch yourself--look for a variety of voices to challenge you. If you haven't heard enough good storytellers, don't underestimate the power of simply asking: "Please, tell me a story. Tell me about something that happened to you." You'll be surprised by the "truths" you may hear.

Once you've captured three storytellers, list the differences among the three "voices." Which "voice" did you capture best? Who told the best story? Why was it the best? How did the voice make the story more interesting?

Over time you'll train yourself to hear nuances of speech, differences of grammar, word choice, rhythm, and sound.

For now, listen up! As a writer, you need daily practice in listening to people talk--becoming more in tune with the full range of human sounds.

For one week, listen more and talk less. Record your experiences in your journal.



Our ancestors shape our family's stories. Talk to an aunt, a grandparent, a second cousin, about your family's heritage. Ask to see pictures, mementos, genealogy charts, family Bibles. What stories are attached to these objects? What do these stories reveal about the African American spirit in your family? What makes them dramatic and intriguing?

Certain stories are easily passed down through the generations within families. Other stories are told in whispers, with long silences between incidents. Listen for the "gaps" in one of your family's stories. Listen for the silences, for what might be left unsaid, the secrets, then--explore, investigate.

For an hour, write the family tale you found; write the story just as your family member told it.

Next, put a star by all the points in the story where you don't know what happened. These starred points represent opportunities for research.

For example, in my family, my mother often told how her grandmother was a slave owned by a Georgia planter with the surname Wright:

"When Master decided to sell Grandmother, she begged to be sold with her husband and infant. Master agreed; and years later, when the family was emancipated, they kept the Wright name."

Mother's tale has been passed down for three generations; nonetheless, I wasn't sure the tale was entirely true. Having a slave family sold intact was highly unusual. And while many slaves kept their masters' names, why did my ancestors keep the Wright name? Was it an expression of appreciation? Had they refused to adopt the name of their last owner? Why didn't they just adopt an entirely new name for a new life of freedom?

Research can include interviewing relatives, friends, even family doctors and lawyers who may have knowledge about a family's history. Clues, too, can be found in family journals, letters, baby books, Bibles, slave records, and community newspapers. Rummaging through attic boxes, through both my mother's and grandmother's belongings, I discovered photos, diary scraps, and, ultimately, a poster, framed, declaring:


Various goods and animals to be auctioned,including one healthy male, a woman (good cook), and child.

Wright Plantation

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Researching, I had begun creating the basic bones for a family history. Such histories about bloodlines have rich potential to be incorporated in an essay for a family reunion, in a memoir about my life and heritage, or even in a historical document about slave history and African American migrations.

Now revise your family story, filling in the "gaps'' with investigation and research.

Compare your two tales--the one told to you and your revision. How has your research deepened your story? Is the second version more compelling? More satisfying to you as a reader? What other research could you do to further enhance your story?

Reread all the writing in your journal. You've written description, detailed portraits of people, researched history, and conveyed your own unique sense of what is special about your family and community--all the things a good writer does!

Celebrate! You're on your way!

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African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr. Rhodes has written a useful tool for the aspiring autobiographer and memoir writer. I am especially appreciative of the step-by-step approach the book takes. She includes numerous exerices that are practical and relevant. Resources, reading lists, and pertinent excerpts from selected professionals add to this reference work. Thanks for publishing it!

I haven't read any of Dr. Rhodes' novels, but they are now on my to be read list.