Writers are finding new trails for their work. "Our books can be, as some great directors' work has become, 'indies'," Valerie Woods explains. "Today we can choose to be 'auteurpreneurs'." Valerie is a resourceful Los Angeles-based storyteller who has the gumption when times are tough to dive in and find out. "So what do we do?"
She is sitting across from me. There's a circle of different chairs in my workshop's sunny beamed room. When Valerie came here in 2007, I knew she'd own this red director's chair. Valerie was writing for TV when we met. She has the warmth of a writer who knows the fear we have when we pick up the pen, or touch the key. The mellow concentration of Valerie's listening, the depth of her notes, fueled by generosity, reminds me of Vogue's iconic features editor, Leo Lerman.
Today Valerie produces and publishes everything she does, including a lot of the Wimpole Street Writers' best work.
"If you're an independent author today," Valerie says, "you're starting a business: promoting the work you believe in. Like Truffaut, John Cassavetes, Spike Lee, Scorsese, Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who didn't wait for permission -- they told their stories their way; with small budgets, mortgaged houses, used up credit cards. Writers need that kind of passion. Publishers may tell you NO. But you go ahead. Make it the best story it can be." Valerie now has editors, professional artists to do covers, and proofreaders. "With today's technology, it's easy to put your story out into the world.
"100 years before I was born, Mark Twain self-published Huckleberry Finn, Virginia Woolf self-published Kew Gardens. George Bernard Shaw self-published just about all of his work, and Ulysses, Peter Rabbit and Tarzan were self-published."
"What triggered your ingenuity?"
"In the '80s, I was an actor looking for material. I wasn't thrilled with what was available for women of color. So I started writing monologues to use in my auditions. Everybody in my acting class asked me to write their monologues. I approached publishers including Samuel French, 'I have these monologues,' I said, 'would you publish them?' 'No,' they said. My boyfriend said, 'Why don't you do it yourself?' The in-house designer at the marketing agency where I worked said, 'We'll definitely help you.'
"'Hey, here's some monologues,' I told theater bookstores. They took them on commission. My first print run sold out. I went back to Sam French. 'Add 25 more monologues,' they said, 'we'll publish it.' It's still being published today."
"Were you this confident as a kid? I was intimidated when we first met," I told her, "You know what you're doing; here you are in LA and writing this book about two sisters having this great relationship, no competitive attitudes." Valerie's brought that spirit to the group. "You make everybody feel good. You seem to feel safe within yourself, rare for writers. How did you get there?"
"Well, you know, it's my parents' fault. I was the youngest of four. Our parents didn't hide things from us. They didn't put us into a niche or label us. It was just: be who you are, broadened our horizons. My father told me, 'You should probably be an ambassador, because you know how to survive when everybody's bigger than you.'"
"You were a performer. When did it come to you? 'I'm a writer.'"
"It wasn't an a-ha moment. Everything I was doing was storytelling. It wasn't a shift from one thing to another. I was a storyteller when I was an actor. I was a storyteller in school writing stories that entertained me."
Valerie fills the room with wonder and glee, encouraging us -- gives me a look when I'm mean. Sometimes, when she's listening; she becomes reflective, twirls the spirals of her hair; a ten-year-old listening to a story. If the storyteller in Valerie is not telling a story, she's hearing stories.
"When did you fall in love with stories?"
"Listening to my mother read to us at bedtime. She loved reading. Reading was what we did to entertain ourselves. We didn't have money, so we were always at the library. There were four times a year when my father came home from work and dinner wouldn't be there. He'd look at my sister and he'd go, 'Mom's book came today, didn't it?' 'Yup.' When Mom got the quarterly Reader's Digest, all bets were off. She'd be sitting, reading. We had to make do for ourselves. Our mother got us enjoying the process of listening, as well as telling stories."
"Have you ever been stuck?"
"Yes. Then I do something else. That's the thing -- we're all writers -- but not every thought has to be a novel. Maybe it's a letter to write. Richard Bach posted this online: 'A professional writer is an amateur who never quit.' I was writing television around about 2007/2008. We had the writers' strike, and then reality TV came in. Television did not want the stories I wanted to tell. My sister read one TV story I'd finished. 'This is a book,' she said. 'A novel. I want more of it.' Television is cyclical. There'd be a day when what I wanted to write might be good for TV," she smiles at me.
"And now," I'm leaning towards her, "tell us the news!"
"Well, TV is coming back around. The executive producer Nancy Miller who created the show on Lifetime, Any Day Now, is from Oklahoma. She gathered some writers, including me, to talk about writing a miniseries on the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Now, four years later, Nancy Miller, Dayna North, and myself, pitched the idea to Octavia Spencer, who really liked it, and took it to Oprah Winfrey Network. We're now in development for the miniseries, set in a period just after WWI, when there were race riots across the country. One of the most vicious happened in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, a prosperous neighborhood of African Americans (later known as the Negro Wall Street) was invaded by a white mob which burned Greenwood to the ground, destroying it in 24 hours. Nobody spoke about it. The community was rebuilt, but the conspiracy of silence continued until the '90s. I was telling a friend of mine, born and raised in Tulsa, about the project, and she said, 'That happened in Tulsa? I never heard of it.' As we look at that story, we study what we can learn, and how to heal." I cannot imagine this story being in stronger hands.
"So, if a writer wanted to know, 'how would I even begin to think about self-publishing', what would be the first step to take?"
"You know that you start with the story. You need persistence. I remember Amanda Hocking saying -- 'People said I was lucky.' She said, 'I work really hard.' You do all the social media things so people know your book is out there and you just write because you love it."
Valerie represents what Sartre believed a writer must have: "a commitment to one's own time; the society one lives in."
"Sometimes you'll get writers who write something, think they're done and it's perfect," Valerie tells me, "so they don't take notes. Remember, you can't tell people what to write or how to write. But it's important to ask the questions that stimulate them to go deeper."
(Valerie's complete blog is on her website: http://www.valeriecwoods.com/.)