When did you fall in love with writing (your defining moment)?
Wow. Not one defining moment, but there were several transforming times for me. As a child my mother would tell me stories of her life growing up dirt poor in rural North Carolina, and I was fascinated by her stories of a life so far removed from mine. I would ask many questions, and she would tell me her truth. That was the beginning of my enchantment with storytelling.
She’s a writer herself, and she used to read me fairytales and children’s stories when I was so small, but she would also read to me stories written by some of her favorite authors, people like O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. I was young, in my single digits, bedtime-story aged. We wouldn’t talk about the stories. She would just read, and I would let the words wander around in my head and do their magic. That was another defining moment because—and this is honestly true—it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I found out that O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant weren’t children’s authors. I had carried those stories around with me –“The Last Leaf,” “The Necklace”…—and thought they were fairytales because I had heard them with the fairytales when I was a child. So I was a lover of stories long before I wrote my own.
I wrote my first piece of fiction, or part of one—I never finished it—that I felt incredibly proud about after my senior year in high school. I felt that I could write after that. I attended an open-space high school with a stellar reputation in Columbia, Maryland, but to my memory, I was never required to read a book by a person of color until I went to summer school in San Francisco the summer after my senior year. The vast majority of the students were black or Asian, and we were handed a list of books written by people of color and told, “Read one.” I read Langston Hughes’ “The Best of Simple” and was blown away. I had heard of Langston Hughes all my life— his poems “Mother to Son,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”—but I had never read his fiction. The characters were so real and funny and poignant. “This is the great Langston Hughes?” I thought. “These people seem like people my parents and relatives would maybe know.” It was an awakening. Great fiction could be about people in my universe, so I started writing what I knew in a more intimate way. There were other transforming moments, but that’s a few.
What stories or, since you’re also a screenwriter, what movies, inspire your creativity?
Well, I would have to say O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” It was one of my favorite stories as a child, and when I found out it was written for adults and then went back and read it, I was, at first, confused, and then I understood that my memory of the story, the one I had carried with me all those years, had been colored by my own life. I had been a sad child in some ways, and the story gave me hope. I had always thought the story was about a little girl who was lying in bed dying and her mother is caring for her and the little girl thinks she’ll die when the last leaf falls from the tree she can see from her window. But I was stunned when I read it as an adult. It’s about a grown woman who lives with her friend who thinks she’ll die when the last leaf falls from a vine she can see through the window from her sick bed. I had placed myself in the story, and it gave me so much hope and strength as a child. My mother would read it to me by my bedroom window, where I could see our Japanese maple tree as I lay there listening. I had imagined myself as the protagonist, and my mother as the protagonist’s friend, and my maple tree as the vine. In the end, the dying woman gains strength and lives. In my child’s mind, I had let the story encompass me and give me strength.
In terms of movies, well, the list is too long to write here. Suffice to say that I survive thanks to the art of film. I watch a part of a film, or a whole film, or films most days of my life. It’s not just one that stands out but rather I could be reminded of a film I hadn’t thought about in a decade or two, and it could call up so much for me. Films have so much meaning in my life, and the art form influences all forms of my writing, perhaps more than books. The author Marita Golden described one of my essays as having “a definite cinematic quality.” I’d describe much of my fiction and creative nonfiction as cinematic.
Pleasant People – Pamela Woolford
3200 word Women's Fiction
This story explores facades of American society, walls between races, and a connection between two women stretching even beyond the grave.
I’m back there again. I’m in the house. It’s warm. Pleasant, the way I like it. I’ve just had that satisfying meal, and I’m content because it’s spring and I’m on break and I’m home. And then the scream, the shrill. I run to her. I remember the running. I just remember the running, which is odd because I couldn’t have run more than a few paces before I reached the door. And that’s where the memory stops. But I’m not sure I see the point in pushing it. All of them seem to say the same thing--the counselors or therapists or whatever--that I should try. But I think there’s a reason I don’t remember what happened, and I’m not sure I want to know the reason.