Keep Going No Matter What: Ayana Mathis' Advice

01/09/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

Ayana Mathis, the author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, explains how to keep going, no matter what the journey.

1. Sometimes You Need A Manual
A really incredible book -- even if its subject matter has nothing to do with your situation -- can help you to understand your life and circumstance more clearly. For me, one of these books will always be Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While working on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, in fact, I used it as a kind of manual, to instruct me as a writer. For example, I was struggling with the use of time. Toni Morrison is a master at moving between the past and the present in brilliant leaps that never confuse the reader. Her novel became a teacher to me, demonstrating how what has happened to a character 10 years ago factors into what is happening right now. This is something characters do on the page, but people also do it in real life. We are all an aggregate of our past and present, of personality and upbringing, race and class, the list goes on. Understanding the ways in which these things impact our present situation is crucial to getting by and getting through.

2. When In Doubt, Cook Italian
When you’re working on a project for months and months -- whether it’s a book or anything else that requires a sustained effort -- it’s easy to get discouraged. The rewards are few, and you feel as if it's never, ever going to be done. At the end of particularly trying days, I head into the kitchen and cook something that’s fast, delicious and not particularly hard to make. Spaghetti alla bottarga is a slightly obscure but amazing dish I've made over and over. You sauté some garlic and cherry tomatoes in olive oil, toss in cooked pasta and grate the bottarga (fish roe) while everything is piping hot. In about 20 minutes, I can see (and eat!) the fruits of my labor, which makes facing the next day’s long slog so much more endurable.

3. Friends Make Everything Easier -- And Smarter
A few years ago, I met a writer named Justin Torres in a creative-writing class. The evening of the second session, he read a story called “Niagara.” Listening to him, I thought, “My God, who the hell is this guy?” I was gobsmacked. The story was shockingly good. (Several years later, he published the brilliant We the Animals.)

Over time, Justin and I became very close. We can talk about anything from, say, "Friday Night Lights" on NetFlix to the particular challenges faced by writers of color. Having friends who are just a little smarter than you or a little further along in their goals is crucial when you’re trying to do something difficult. These kind of intimates set the bar a little higher. It isn’t simply that they inspire you, it’s that their example makes you aspire to do better and be better.

4. Accept The Fits And Starts
One the most challenging things in life is learning a new language. I lived in Italy for five years in my late twenties and early thirties. I wasn’t writing during that period. I got a job with a tour operator in Florence -- and I had to learn Italian. The interesting thing was, there were days when I could chatter on about anything under the sun, only to find that the next morning, I couldn’t even order a coffee. Acquiring any skill is like this: You make a little progress; then you lose ground; then you make a little more progress. Accepting the fits and starts is the only way to keep yourself from giving up.

5. When Your Tank Gets Low, Refill With Beauty
When I was young and broke, poetry kept me going. A poet named Yusef Komunyakaa saved the day. Whenever I needed to recharge, I turned to his collection Magic City. Like me, he had grown up with only his mother, so in his work I found some echoes of my own experience, but more importantly, he writes vividly about childhood and the strangeness and magnitude of a child’s imagination. The first poem is called “Venus’s-flytraps.” It’s about family secrets, but there is such mystery in the poem -- it perfectly describes the way a child fills the gaps in her knowledge and understanding with make-believe and imagination. For anyone who has had difficulties as a young person -- which is all of us; I can’t think of anyone who had a perfect childhood -- it is especially powerful. Painful events are articulated with such breathtaking beauty. The language soars above the darkness being described -- and it takes you with it, so that you too are flying.

6. Sing! No Matter What
When I was a little girl, I was often asked to sing solos at my family’s church. I loved to sing, but I was also knee-knocking frightened of getting up there. My mother would have to take me aside and talk me through my nerves. She’d say, “Whatever you’re most afraid of is the thing you most need to do.”

While working on Hattie, especially those early chapters when I was feeling my way into the book, I'd think, "What am I doing? I am not equal to this task. At all." Later, after I had gotten an agent, the fear became, "She'll hate it. Publishing houses will hate it. I'll have put myself out there and it'll be a great big humiliating flop." I knew I had to get over my fear. It wasn't so much a matter of conquering it. I don't believe that's how things work, because fear doesn't go away. You have to do what needs doing in spite of doubt, sometimes even in spite of terror. So I’d think about what my mother used to say to me. And it helped -- just like it did when I'd have to walk to the front of the church and sing “Amazing Grace” when I was a little girl.

Ayana Mathis' 5 Writing Influences

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