Mai’a Williams is a poet, editor, community journalist, a run-into-the-middle-of-the-fire-revolutionary, homeschooling single mama to a brilliant seven year old, backpacking traveler with a very messy passport, currently living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s a journalist for this latin american news agency, while doing the single mama thing, looking for a nanny, and she keeps coming back to writing and editing no matter what comes up.
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
Most of my creative writing is in notebooks while sitting in restaurants with a glass of wine or a bottle or two of beer. There are plenty of days that I don’t want to write poetry after spending all day in a crowded news office writing about other peoples traumas. Like what more do I have to say after I’ve written about war in gaza, in syria, in iraq, in ferguson? And yet, there are days and nights when I still have ink and energy to spill on the page.
There are also plenty of days all I want to do is have a drink, curl up in bed and watch Netflix, when I just want a conversation that isnt about work. Plenty of days when I want to just lose myself because I feel so trapped inside my own head. My own skin.
So yeah I don’t have a regular routine. I am just trying to get it all done in a single day, a single week. Make it somewhat close to the latest deadlines. Let this writing be a prayer, be a balm, be a knife to cut the poison that still lingers inside of me.
My daughter just came in to the bedroom to give me a hug and show me her favorite timer, a plastic hourglass with blue sand. ‘It’s quicker than a minute!’ she exclaimed.
What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?
It seems to me that writing is the least tool intensive art form. Like paper and a pen. Sand and a stick.
But the writing that I most enjoy is honest, raw, simple, direct. Show me what it feels like to be inside this human skin. Show me how complex it is to keep breathing in a world being destroyed. Show me how there is still love in the midst of war. How there is anger in the beatific moments.
What motivates you to write?
I write for the girls like me. Like us. For the girls who are fighters and are too afraid to fight. For the girls who are strange and awkward and too observant for their own good. For the lonely girls, the angry girls who aren’t allowed to be angry. The good girls who are don’t feel so good inside. I just want to say, I see you. I see you and I will fight for you, so fight for yourselves, because I swear it may not get better, but you will get better at this fight. It may not get easier, but it will be worth it. And when you are down on the ground, once again, wiping the spit or tears off your face, remember that no one has the right to define your life, but you. You give it meaning. And no one else can do that, no matter how much others may tell you that they know what your life means.
Again and again I come back to the desire to tell the truth of my experience. To push back against the narratives that say that there is only way to have experienced this life. To say, yes, we can survive this too. And not only survive, but understand it and live through it and get stronger and more vulnerable to life. Sometimes I am walking down the street and I hear a line just drift across my head and I think that’s the beginning of a poem, that could go somewhere. Sometimes I even stop to write it down. Sometimes I hear a rhythm in my head and I think. Yes. That’s how that story should sound.
And I write to touch you. It’s that simple. I want to know that I am here. And that you are here.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
God, yes. It’s embarrassing, right? Because I have read so many writers say there is no such as writers block. Hell, I’ve said that before. Maybe its not writers block, its just that my mood doesn’t match the desire to write. Often times it really is because I don’t want to go there emotionally, you know? Like, do I want to spend the next couple of hours remembering how heartbreaking life is? To record these days of loneliness and uncertainty. The reason I want to write about those moments is because I want to give you the emotional truth of this life and at the same time, it’s fucking painful.
And all I can do is say to myself, okay, look, ten minutes. One page. One paragraph. You’ll get to the heart of it. Stand up and dance for a few minutes after you get that first page done. Just spill words on the page. You’ll go through it later and edit and make it work. Your readers, those girls who are like you and want to read the truth so they can know their lives are real, those girls are worth it.
Just tell the truth. Get it off your chest. It really is more painful to hold it in than it is to put it on the page. Once you write it, then you wont have to write it again. It will never be harder than it is right now. So just write. One more time, just get it down.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Dear writer, its not about you in the end. You are just writing. Think of it as taking dictation from some voice that happens to be in your brain. Just write the words. That’s your job. Don’t take it personal. They are just words, just images, just rhythms. They aren’t you. They barely describe you, because you are not words. You are life. So just write and let the words and sentences fall where they may.
What is/are the message(s) in your writing work? What are your readers’ reactions to it?
A couple of nights ago, I was hanging out with a friend, 2 o’clock in the morning. The night had grown chilly. He sang in Arabic for me, since singing is his first love. He was showing me how close Arabic music and prayer are in terms of melody and structure.
Then I recited the poem I wrote, a decade and a half ago, when I was 20 years old and it was spring in DC and the cherry blossoms had fallen to the grey sidewalks. It’s still my manifesto in many ways. In it I say, this life is an art form and this poem is a testimony to the survivors of suicide.
What I write is full of music and melody at its best. It comes out of jazz and blues and hip hop. And all I am asking the reader, to girls like me, to not give up or give in but to go on and live this one beautiful life, because in the end that is what we got. Do whatever gets you through the day. Make this survival meaningful.
Hold on, I have to run downstairs and run water through the washing machine. I washed laundry a few days ago, and then just let it sit in the machine for days, so now I have get that sour smell out, that smell of mildew, out of the clothes. I am running out of clean clothes and have to go to work tomorrow, so I have to run them through it the machine again…
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
It took me years to get to the place where I am now with these two little books of poetry.
First, I learned to keep writing. To keep editing. To keep reaching toward that sound or image that I had in my head when I first began. I have read those poems over so many times. I learned to keep reading them until I am sick of them. Put them aside and then come back to them a week or month or a year later and do it again. Tenacity.
And I learned the power of outside readers and writers. I had amazing readers and editors. As many times as I’ve read these poems, I almost couldn’t hear them any more. And then I had outside editors who read them and taught me what the poems really sounded like on the page, what they said to someone who wasn’t me, who hadn’t lived through them. Openness.
Trust my voice. Trust my ear. Trust my vision. Trust.
My daughter just looked up from her computer game to tell me that she has just passed all the levels in one stage! She jumped up and clapped for herself.
What are your current / future projects?
I just put the finishing touches on the two chapbooks of poetry. We, the editors, are in the last week of editing the Revolutionary Mothering anthology that has been five years in the making.
And for about a year I have been coming back to a book that is tentatively called 2011, which is about well, they year 2011, and the egyptian revolution and heartbreak and fighting for freedom no matter what.
There is a book on midwifery that is half way done.
What book(s) / author(s) have influenced you
Let me tell you what music has influenced my writing
Lately, it has been Sam Smith’s album on repeat in my headphones.
Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind
Lauryn Hill, especially everything she has produced since the Miseducation album
Angel Haze, especially the way she will take a Drake beat and kill it
Fairouz, which is the sound of dawn and smoke
Um Koulthoum, which is the sound of evening and dark coffee
Billie Holiday, for my father
Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, for his wordplay
Dead Prez, Hip Hop
Tupac, for embodying the many layers of Thug Life
Biggie, for telling us a million stories on a single album