About Sound Recording
In this excerpt from a talk for teachers and librarians at the 2014 conference To Light the World: Stories of Hope and Courage for Challenging Times, Walter Dean Myers takes the audience through the stages of writing a book, while also sharing poignant memories from his early life. Mr. Myers’ creative spirit, sense of humor and humanity shine throughout.
Date: April 3, 2014
Walter Dean Myers: [What I want to do] is to talk you through a book—how I got the idea, how I went about writing the book. Then we’ll open the floor for questions. Okay? Say “Yes.”
Audience: [laughter] Yes!
WDM: Yeah okay, good. So what happens is that you have these good-doing ideas about books, you know? And you want to do this, you want to save the world, one kid at a time, or something of that nature, and people expect this of you as an author. I remember one time I was on a program with Seamus Heaney, E.L. Doctorow and Ntozake Shange, and at the back of the stage we were all talking about the fact that publishers hold back royalties in case of returns. And we were complaining about that—oh, they should give us the fullroyalties—but when we came out on the stage, you know, we all turned into some kind of different people. Seamus Heaney was talking like, “I was standing on the moor and the wind was blowing through my hair.” [laughter] And, you know, Doctorow was going through a thing, and I said, “Oh, that’s cool.” [laughter] But we all have these public personas. But you write because somehow, as a child, you learned to love books, you learned to love stories, and you write because this is what you do.
My dad—my step-dad, I was raised in a foster home—said to me one time—I went to visit my parents, my foster parents—and he said to me—you know, my parents had clearly had an argument about me, as anybody who has kids knows what that’s about. And my mother said, “What is it that you do again?” Now these are people with no education. My mother went through the third grade and my father could not read or write, he had no education. “And what the heck were you doing? You don’t have a job, what do you do?” So I said, “Well I write stories.” So my dad said, “You wrote stories when you were a boy, you’re a man now.” And I tried to explain what I did and make it sound as good as possible—and how I have these ideas, how I write them down, I do an outline, then I type them up, send them to the publisher. My mother was satisfied—she was always satisfied, poor old lady, always satisfied. I could never do anything. Anyway, but my dad wasn’t satisfied, naturally. Later on, I heard my mother talking to a neighbor saying, “My son types stories for a living.” [laughter] And I thought okay, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good. My mom eventually became an alcoholic and very sort of rough life. But I was the apple of her eye. I mean, I could do no wrong.
I remember as a kid I was dragged a block by a cab, hanging on the back of a cab, and I was a mass of bruises. And I went home, and I went quickly to my room because my pants were torn and bloodied. So, my mom called me out for dinner, she says, “Come out for dinner.” And I said, “I’m not hungry.” My father says, “What do you mean you’re not hungry? Get up for dinner!” I could hardly move, my legs were so badly bruised. And so my father made me take my pants down, and I was mass of bruises and dried blood. And so he says, “What happened to you?” And I don’t know what happened, something came over me and I said, “Momma beat me with a stick.” [laughter] Oh, my father was so furious, he was so furious at my mother, that she should hit me with a stick and do this damage to me, right? This poor old lady. Now the lie didn’t bother her, she was so concerned about me. Strange, that’s what happens when you’re a mother.
Anyway, so when something interests me I want to write about it. And if it interests me and there might be a story to it, ahh yes! So I heard about this dancer in the Lower East Side, and his name was William Henry Lane, and he went by the title of “Master Juba.” You know, Master Juba. And he danced on the Lower East Side, and years afterwards he was known as the father of tap dancing. Now he lived in the Lower East Side and I had done a book on the draft riots. So in the Lower East Side of New York, in 1848—1848, 1844, 1843, who lived in the Lower East Side were the poorest people in the world. And that was poor blacks, poor Germans, immigrants, and poor Irish, right? So this is a guy who does clog dancing in the Lower East Side. And I said, this sounds like a great idea for a book. So I say to my little wife, I say, “Oh little wife, this is a great idea for a book, let’s see if we can do anything with it.” And she says, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
We didn’t know exactly where the guy was born. Was he born in New York? Was he born in Providence, Rhode Island? Was he born in the South? We don’t know, but we know he lived in New York. And we know that, somewhere along the line, Charles Dickens came to New York City, discovered this guy. And Charles Dickens wrote about him in his book, American Notes. Ahhh yes! So then we know that this guy went to England, he went to England and he was a sensation in England. And he died over there. Nobody knows how he died, nobody knew how he died. You need an arc in a book, okay, so you can say—you don’t have to say, “Well he was born on this day”— that’s not that important. But you need to say, “Well, this is where he first emerged.” Or, “He emerged at this time, and Charles Dickens saw him, and that was so cool, and that was so good. And then he went to England, and he was a sensation, he danced around. Then what happened to him? No one knows where he died or how he died.” I said, “Oh, man!” So I’ve been thinking about this book, and thinking about this book, and I can’t write it because I don’t have an ending. You can’t say, page one hundred sixty-four, “After that, nobody knows!” [laughter]
So I said, “Okay.” And I spend ten percent of my life in London. Every year, all of October, end of September to sometimes mid-November. So this is my one vacation. And so, there we are in London. And I work in London. I get up at five o’clock in the morning and I do my five pages. Then my wife gets up at nine-thirty or ten o’clock, or whatever, and we have our day. So she’s up, I’m up, and, normally, I get up and I annoy her. But if I run out of things to annoy her about, then she does other stuff. And so she hired a researcher, a British researcher. We gave him all of our research, and he found where the guy died. Oh, oh, so now there’s a book, there’s a book! And I want to get this book out immediately. So I say, “Oh my God, I’ve got a book,” and I begin the process of writing the book. Alright!
So what is the book about? What is the question I’m going to ask, things I’m going to fulfill? And the question is, “Who is Juba?” And I was thinking, call him “Master Juba”? Ehh, I’ll call him “Juba.” Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t work. So, now I start off looking for photographs or pictures of my characters. Now some of the characters—oh, oh, I decided to do a fictional account of this story. Why a fictional account? Well, earlier I had done a nonfiction account of a little girl who was brought to England in 1848, and given as a present to Queen Victoria. I bought her letters. She was given to Queen Victoria, and Queen Victoria—slavery had ended in England—Queen Victoria said, “It was nice for you to give me this little child.” And Queen Victoria sponsored her education. The girl corresponded with Queen Victoria, and I bought the letters. They’re in my basement. If you want to come to my house, come to my basement, you can see them. And Whoopi Goldberg bought the rights, the film rights. Maybe she would do it, maybe she won’t. But I like the money! [laughter]
So, I decided to do this as fiction, fiction. So, the first thing I needed to do was to get pictures of my characters. So, I say to my wife, “Find pictures of my characters.” This is Juba, this little picture [showing audience] comes from a British newspaper. This is a caricature of his dancing. This is a playbill from his appearance at Sadler’s Wells in London. This is a picture of Juba. This is a picture of this guy. Now, the picture that we’re going to use is slightly different than this because my wife didn’t like the way his hair looked. That’s pretty crucial. [laughter] So she photoshopped his hair. She’d like to photoshop my hair! [laughter] So we found this picture of Dickens at the time he came to America, and Dickens looks so different than the usual pictures of him. But this is Dickens as a young man, this is Dickens as a young man. An Irish dancer. Now I had to have characters around Juba for him to talk to and explain the story. So this is a woman, an Irish woman who teaches dancing. These are friends. This is a rival dancer, Jim Diamond, who was an actual person. This is not the actual photograph of him, but it’s the closest I could find. Another dancer. This is the map of the area in which they lived. This is the woman who ran the club that Juba danced in. I had made up a friend—you need a friend so he has someone to talk to all the time, because you don’t want a lot of narrative.
So, alright, I come up with the characters like this, and my wife puts them on a large piece of cardboard or oak tag—depends what she has—which is about four feet wide, about this big [showing with hands apart] and all the pictures of the characters on this board. Then the board goes on the wall behind my computer. So, every morning when I come down, I sit down, I look up, there are my characters looking down at me. And it’s really strange because, sometimes after you see your character long enough, you begin to think, oh, she wouldn’t say that, or he wouldn’t say that. Or you grow attached to some of them and you grow less attached to others. Alright, so I have my characters, I begin—I have my question— and I begin a scene-by-scene breakdown.
The reason that some writers—what’s writing all about? It’s telling a story. Why can some people tell stories and other people cannot tell stories. I know the secret. And for a dollar apiece… [laughter] The idea is you have to have something to write about. You have to have something. Not just an idea, but something to write about. And I know that if I’m doing a novel, I need to have thirty scenes—thirty, count them—thirty scenes in which something physical is happening. Something that I can write about every single day. Now, I know the story that I’m going to tell. I know what I want to say. But I need thirty scenes which tell that story.
Now this is not my bright idea—it’s sort of my bright idea, I mean I was the one that stole it. I picked up a book of film plots and the film plots—it had film scenes in it, rather. And Wuthering Heights had eighty-seven scenes. So, whoever wrote this down had eighty-seven scenes in the movie. The Godfather had like three hundred scenes. But I’m saying, you know, in every scene it has something visual going on, something happening on the screen. I can do that! And I know that if I come up with thirty good scenes in which something physical is going on, every time I sit down I have something to write about. If I have a scene in which there’s nothing going on, I will change that scene. I will go over it, I will read the scenes to my wife, or my bad son, and they’ll listen to see if something is going on.
Alright, so here’s a scene. A girl comes home, and she’s been out all night with her boyfriend. And the mother is pissed off. And so the mother says, “Where have you been all night?” And she says, “Oh we lost track of time.” And there’s a little back and forth in the talking. So, after a page and a half, that scene is over. Okay? And now I’m sitting there with a writer’s block. So I change the scene. The girl comes home, there’s no mother around. She hears some noises. There’s the mother, under the sink, taking off the u-trap because the sink’s stopped up. Right? And so she says, “Oh, what are you doing? And the mother says, you know, “The sink is stopped up.” And she says, “Oh, there’s Jeff! Do you want Jeff?” The mother says “No.” So Jeff leaves. And the girl and her mother get under the sink with some wrenches to change the u-trap. Alright, when they’re under there I have something physical going on. They are under there, they are changing this u-trap. The mother skins her knuckles, there’s a little bit of blood. The girl says, “Oh, do you want…?” The mother says, “No I don’t.” But there’s something going on. So, the two women change the trap, they’re talking back and forth, half the talk is about her being out all night, the other half is about, do we need Jeff to do this? But something physical is going on, something physical is going on.
Alright, I go through my outline and I get thirty scenes, and, you see, here are my thirty scenes. I’ve got my thirty scenes. Now, I’m looking at the scenes. Do I have enough people in this book? So Juba, who is this dancer, does he have someone to talk to? So, I begin the book.
If you know entertainers—especially in the nineteenth century—if they’re not working, they’re starving, you know. Work is hard to get, especially a black guy who is going to be a minstrel. Now minstrelsy means a number of things to a number of people. So, primarily, it’s white guys with black face on. So Juba does not want to be a white guy with—well he can’t be a white guy! [laughter] But he doesn’t want to put black face on, because they made black guys put on black face too. And they made black guys put on caricatures. But he thinks he wants to be more than this.
So, he’s on the Lower East Side and he’s learned Irish dancing, which is very interesting, the clog dancing and the step dancing, the jigs and reels. And this is fascinating to him but he’s also adding something to it. He’s adding black rhythms to it. He’s expanding the dancing.
Alright, so he’s dancing, and a guy asks him to come to the club to dance and there’s another black dancer there. And someone says to the other black dancer to coon it up, coon it up—meaning, make it more laughable, make it more satirical. And he does. And Juba says, “This is not me.”
So, he goes on, and he’s struggling. He’s working, helping a guy sell fish in the daytime, trying to become a dancer. And, one day, Charles Dickens comes to the club. Now this is documented. Dickens comes to the club. There’s a write-up of Dickens coming to the club I cut out—I have the papers from the time. That would be a graphic. There’s Charles Dickens, and Charles Dickens describes the guy. And, of course, in my book, Charles Dickens comes over to him and says, “Oh, you’re a wonderful dancer.” And he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And there’s a little conversation, which probably never happened. But Dickens does write it up and it appears in his book, American Notes. So it appears in American Notes—cut that out, a picture of Charles Dickens.
A guy—there’s a white minstrel guy named Gilbert Pell who has seen all the minstrel shows, but he wants to depict blacks differently than the others. He wants to show the beauty of black dance and of black music. And so he asks Juba to come to England. And Juba says yes, and he goes to England. And he’s known in England as “Boz’s Juba.” “Boz” is Dickens’s pen name. Boz’s Juba. So I have his name, Boz’s Juba. So he goes to England and he has a very successful tour. And now he’s ready. When the tour is over, he’s ready to come home. He’s ready to come home in 1852. And coming home means coming to a land in which they still have slaves. And if you remember Twelve Years a Slave, you could be kidnapped, you could be kidnapped and dragged into slavery. You could be kidnapped! Alright, so he decides not to come home. And he thinks he can make it in England. He finds a young lady, who he falls in love with, presumably, and they get married. And he struggles to make it as a dancer, but it’s very, very difficult. And he goes further and further downhill. He finally—he’s pursuing job opportunities all over England—and what happens is, he finally dies in a workhouse in Liverpool.
Okay, so I finished my first draft and I said, “Oh this is so wonderful, I love it so much.” I give it to my bad son’s mother [laughter], and she goes for it, and she says—she picks out spots in which I should be describing things, and I’m not describing them because I don’t see visually that much. So I say, “Okay, alright.” So I go through things and I put in all the descriptions.
Then I send it to a dancer, a young lady who did Irish dancing for five years. And I’m paying her to do this, to look at this thing. And she says, “Oh, it’s a lovely, lovely story, and you have the spirit of the dancing but you don’t have anything about the physicality of it. The physicality of the dancing is very, very important to dancers.” So, now I’m at a point where I’m going back to the manuscript, looking at the physicality of the dancers. After that, I will send it back to my little editor, and she will make her comments. And the editor wants me to do an afterword about the research. I did the research in England for two years, then we hired a researcher, we hired a dance person, we purchased playbills, we purchased death certificates. All this research. Then I wrote my fictional narrative so that they coincide with all of the factual material that we can document.
Is this fun? [laughter] Yes it’s fun, it’s absolutely fun! This is what I do. So, I’ll send it off. Then the copy editor will look at it—first, my editor will look at it, and send me a letter saying, “This is a perfect manuscript, nothing is wrong with it. There may be a few little changes—page two, page three, page four…” [laughter] And I’ll have to go through the whole process, and then I’ll send it back to her. And she says, “Now it’s wonderful. There’s a few little changes…” [laughter] I will go through that. And that’s work, but that’s good. This is what they pay me for. They pay me to do the work, they pay me to do that work. And they know I will do the work.
Then it will go to a copy editor who will check every factual detail, you know. Some of the playbills, as I mentioned earlier, just have out-and-out lies in them. “He danced here and he got five hundred dollars.” No he didn’t, not in that time period! There’s a dinner, and you had to check the prices of food. My wife had a problem with how to smoke oysters. You know, you put oysters on the grill and you smoke them the same way that you smoke other meats. But all this stuff will be checked, everything will be checked. I have a map of the area. That will be checked. There’s a church mentioned. That would be checked. Everything will be checked. So, then, after that, they’ll send me a check. [laughter] Which is really, really, really nice.
So while I’m working on that, I’ll send this—this is off, I sent it off Friday, last Friday. And I took Saturday and Sunday off. Monday, I started a new book, you know, I had the outline finished already. And I will have the new book finished, which is a self-help book for kids between the ages of ten and fourteen who have just given up, totally given up on their futures. And, in this book I have all my little wisdom, whatever wisdom I’ve got left. Plus I’ve got—I solicited comments from many, many good-doing people, people like—or conversations I’ve had with people over the years. I had a conversation with Thurgood Marshall that I had, I had a conversation with Dick Gregory. Different artists. There’s a white judge in Tennessee who gave me some—you know, I asked all these people, “What one advice would you give to a thirteen or fourteen-year-old inner city kid?” And they came up with some—some of it was just stunning, stunning advice. So it was really, really good. So, I’ll have that finished by the end of May. And then I go on to a book on the Civil War, which is, you know, fun.
This is what I do. This is what I do for a living. Every day I wake up, I’m glad to be alive. Well, I guess if I were dead, I wouldn’t know how I would feel about that! [laughter] But, I’m glad to be alive. When I wake up in the morning. “Ohhh, I’m alive again!” And I’m excited about every book I do.
This book will tell the story of a wonderful dancer, who made a very brief but wonderful splash. It will tell us the story of an artist who’s trying to make it. It will tell us the story of an intercultural event. The self-help book, hopefully, will make some difference in somebody’s life. The Civil War book—you know, you saw Glory—I’m telling the story of two people, one begins as a slave, and one begins as an extremely poor white person. And they both go into the war. And one goes, he fights for the Union, and one fights for the Confederacy. And then, at the end of the war, when the white soldier comes back from the war—and the war’s been very cruel to him. He had nothing going on prior to the war. He worried throughout the war—and I have letters showing this—that his family would be taken care of by the plantation owner, who did not take care of his family. He comes back, and now he’s in competition with the person that was a slave. And now, the guy who was his friend at the beginning of the war, now is his rival and has become his enemy.
So, this is what I do. I do it every day, you know. I do it in America, I do it in London. You have any questions you’d like to ask me?