First Draft, Ep. 96: Renée Watson (Transcript)
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Renée Watson whose most recent Young Adult novel PIECING ME TOGETHER, is out now. Renée has written picture books, and middle grade, and young adult novels. Put on a one-woman show. And is now the founder of I, Too Arts Collective, which teaches creative writing in Langston Hughes’s Harlem brownstone. I met Renée at her home, not far from that historic site. It was a cold, but clear, January day in New York City. Perfect conditions for two women from the Pacific Northwest to wonder about East and West. Where you come from, and where you’re going. And the loopy wayward paths some of us take to find home.
Renée is a woman who writes out loud. By that I mean, her thoughtful poetry is not limited to her artistic output. She’s an educator, and an advocate, constantly shaping, and being shaped, by helping others find their voices too. It really was an honor to spend time on her couch, soaking up a lot of wisdom, and even more inspiration. So, grab a hot mug of tea, and maybe put on some early twentieth century jazz, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: So, how are you?
Renée WATSON: I’m good.
ENNI: Good. Thank you so much for having me over to your place.
WATSON: Of course.
ENNI: I’m so excited to get to meet you, and talk to you. As you know, I like to start at the very beginning, which is, where were you born and raised?
WATSON: I was born in Patterson, New Jersey. But, when I was three years old, my family moved to Portland, Oregon. I was raised in Portland.
ENNI: Why did you move?
WATSON: My parents divorced, and my mother’s family had moved to Portland by then. They were originally from West Virginia. My grandfather’s job moved him, and the rest of the family migrated there over the years.
ENNI: Everyone’s out in the West Coast.
WATSON: My mom is one of twelve [chuckles].
ENNI: Really? Oh, my gosh.
WATSON: Yes. So, after her divorce, she moved us to where her family was. So, Portland is really home for me.
ENNI: I’m from Seattle too, so the Northwest has a big place in my heart.
WATSON: Oh, I didn’t know that. “Hey!”
ENNI: I have a bunch of questions about Portland. The Northwest is not the most diverse place in the world. So, what was it like growing up in Portland?
WATSON: Right. I grew up in northeast Portland, which was the predominantly Black community. A lot of people in Portland, who are in the Black community, are from the South. So, in a lot of ways, it felt like growing up in a southern town. Neighbors would speak to you. The whole neighborhood is raising each other’s children, and looking out for each other. We grew up going to church, and had a really tight-knit community. But when we stepped outside of northeast Portland, I could definitely feel like, “Oh. I’m different.” People would want to touch my hair, or, ask questions about our neighborhood. I grew up in a neighborhood that, for Portland, was considered dangerous. And the part of town you don’t want to go to. So, when I was in other neighborhoods, with other young people, they were scared of my home. And I was like: “What? No, it’s fine. I have never seen anything bad happen.” It was a very normal childhood.
I think I was in the fifth grade, when I really started to realize, “Oh. It’s not always safe for people of color here.” There was a lot of skinhead activity in the late eighties, early nineties in Portland. Skinheads killed an Ethiopian man. Mulugeta Seraw was his name. I will never forget that day when our teacher told us there had been a hate crime in the community. They literally, just killed him. There was no altercation. They just were like, “The next Black person we see, we’re gonna kill.” They killed him [by] beating him with a baseball bat. And so, I’m in the fifth grade, and was just stunned, like, “Wait. What?” That was the beginning of me realizing like, “Oh. Racism exists.” The way that it was talked about in school, we learned about the Civil Rights Movement, was such a long, long, time ago, and now, everything is so much better.
I learned, pretty early, that everything wasn’t finished. The work was still on-going. I would say my relationship with Portland is bitter and sweet. [There is] so much I love about Portland, Oregon. I lived in the city, but nature is so close by. You have Multnomah Falls. You have Mt. Hood in your rearview mirror when you’re driving. So, it’s a beautiful city. My family is there, so that’s so many reasons to love it. But, there were a lot of things that happened in Portland, that went under the radar. It happened, and then no one would talk about it. It was very strange. You could feel, “Something’s not right.” But no one was talking about it, really, not explicitly.
ENNI: This is really interesting to me because, I feel like that’s a very Northwest thing. I tell people that the Northwest people are very polite. But it can sometimes be surface level. People don’t talk about upsetting [things]. It can be a tough place to get an honest answer, sometimes.
WATSON: Yeah, and when you’re a kid, it’s very confusing. Because, I’m feeling things, and seeing things. But when it’s not acknowledged, and no one is validating my experience, as a child, I was very confused about what is happening. So, it really wasn’t until high school that, my English teacher, Linda Christianson – and there were many others, Pam Wooten (?), and Mr. Adams, who was my theater teacher - they were really explicit about talking about race and what you can do to use your voice to stand up, and get some justice. It was one of the first times, in my earlier years, where I realized I didn’t just have to silently watch what was going on. Or, have things happen to me. But, that I could get involved and do something. It was such a gift to learn that in high school.
ENNI: That’s pretty early for people to be giving you a window. I think, for a lot of artists, it takes a long time to realize that art can be powerful. That’s really amazing.
WATSON: Right. I’m so thankful. I’m so grateful for that.
ENNI: I want to come back to it, but it seems like it was really foundational for you… theater. Because I think you studied drama therapy? Is that right?
WATSON: Mm-hmm, I did, yeah.
ENNI: Okay, well let’s get to that but first, I do want to ask about when you were younger. How reading and writing played into your childhood?
WATSON: Oh, my goodness. So, my earliest memories of writing, I was seven. And I wrote a twenty-one-page story.
ENNI: Oh, my god!
WATSON: And my teacher was like, “Um. I think you’re gonna be a writer one day!” I look back at that, and I just laugh. The handwriting and the spelling must have been atrocious. But…
ENNI: Twenty-one pages!
WATSON: Yeah, twenty-one pages. It was a mystery, which is hilarious to me. So, I’ve been writing my whole life. This teacher saw this gift in me, and told my mom, “Get her journals, and let’s nurture this gift.” And, thank goodness, my mother did. I took myself so serious as a writer. I would staple the papers together, and title my stories, and read them for my family. By middle school, I wrote the play that was put on by the school. The spring production.
WATSON: Yeah, I was very active as a writer. And identified as a writer. Partly because my family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. And so, for gifts outside of the family - for holidays, or my friend’s birthdays - I would write them poems and give them as gifts. The first few times I did that, I was really embarrassed. I wanted to be able to buy them something really nice. But, sometimes people would come back to me, and say that they framed it, or that this was the best gift they ever had. Or, they felt so touched by it. And I was like, “Oh!” I don’t know that I said it this way as a kid, but I was learning that my words had power, and could move people. That I had a gift. That was how I expressed myself all through growing up.
Reading… we read a lot as a family. We read a lot in church, memorizing scriptures, memorizing poems. When I would tell my mother I was bored, she would tell me to go read a book.
ENNI: I love that.
WATSON: So, I did a lot of reading as a child, either from school assignments, or from my mother on the weekends. We had to have quiet time, and some of that was reading.
ENNI: I love that. That’s what my family [did] too. Like: “Everyone… shut up! Let’s just have a moment of quiet.” [laughing] What kind of books do you remember devouring when you were a kid?
WATSON: Oh, when I was very small – I think I have it still here somewhere. Yeah, Richard Scarry’s the nursery one? RICHARD SCARRY’S BEDTIME STORIES. That book was everything. My mother was also very giving, and we would have to donate. And every year, kind of clean out. “You’re not using this anymore? You’re not wearing this anymore? You don’t play with this?” But that book, I was like, “No. We cannot give this book away.”
ENNI: I’m always using this!
WATSON: So, I gave away a bunch of books, but not that one. When I got a little bit older, I read a ton of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary who, you know, wrote about Portland. Ramona and that whole series. So, those books I devoured.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh, I forgot those were in Portland.
WATSON: Yeah, and it was so amazing, as a child, to see streets that I knew. And my aunt lived around the corner from Ramona, you know? [laughing] It was a big deal to read her books. When I was younger, I didn’t realize I was looking for myself in literature. But I do think that, even that little glimpse of something I could identify with, knowing the neighborhoods and the streets. And knowing a girl, who was maybe not the most popular. Or, who had some self-doubt, you know? Everyday normal issues. She’s a very relatable character to me.
And then poetry, I actually grew up reading a lot of poems. More so than books. I think poetry is my first love in that way. Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, when I think about reading as a kid, most of it was poetry.
ENNI: That’s kind of amazing! And unusual, I think. You mentioned coinciding with Bible study, that there were, obviously, a ton of poems that are related to scripture. But did it grow from that, do you think?
ENNI: Who handed you these books of poems?
WATSON: I think it was my teachers. I can’t remember. So, in the church, for Easter and Christmas time, we would have special programs. And you could memorize an Easter speech, or a Christmas speech. And it was like a poem, you know? And you had to memorize, and recite it, in front of the whole congregation. So, I grew up loving words. And how words come together to tell a story. And then sharing those words in front of an audience. I didn’t know anything about spoken word poetry, or anything like that. But I think, from early on, I was being groomed in that way. Of sharing your words in front of people. I know in high school, it was definitely my English teacher [who] loved poetry. And we would have units of study that were like, “How do poets speak back to injustice?”, and “How can you write a poem in someone else’s voice, to learn empathy and to get into that character’s shoes?” Even though we would be doing a study on a novel. A lot of the assignments would be to write a poem.
WATSON: Yeah, she was fantastic! [laughing]
ENNI: You had amazing teachers! It’s also striking to me, the way you’re talking about poems. You writing them and giving them. Or, reading them aloud to your family. It’s like, the line between poetry and performance seems to always have been joined for you.
WATSON: Yeah, something about art and sharing in general. That it’s not just for me, meant to live on display, but to actually engage with people. I’m more interested in that kind of art.
ENNI: That’s neat! I think sometimes people, when they’re young, turn to books, and it then becomes this interior only. And it can be hard then, to share or grow. I think that is common with people who don’t realize they’re a writer until later in life. So, it seems you were like, “I want to engage in the world in this way.” And it was like a microphone for you.
WATSON: Yeah, but the interesting thing is, I never said I wanted to be a writer.
WATSON: No. I don’t know if I just didn’t think that that could happen. Or if, because I identified as a writer, it wasn’t a thing I aspired to. As far as wanting to have published books in the world. It was just something I did. I was a writer, and this is what writers do. We write plays. I would write a play for the community and we’d put it on. I’d grab a few friends, and: “You bring a lamp for the prop. And do you have any dishes we can use for that kitchen scene?” It was grass-roots for real [laughing]. I didn’t necessarily think, “Oh. I want to be a full-time writer one day.” I just felt like, whatever I was gonna be doing, career-wise, I would also be writing. It really wasn’t until college that I was like, “Oh. I could do this for a living.” I was so much in that world, but I wasn’t trying to go to college for writing.
ENNI: I’d love to hear about when you were in high school, and you do get involved in theater and drama. How did you decide where to go to school?
WATSON: I was interested in Psychology and how the arts can help young people cope with trauma, and drama therapy. So, that’s what I went to school for.
ENNI: What was the root of that? Were people around you dealing with trauma? Were you dealing with trauma?
WATSON: [pauses and then chuckles] Yes. I don’t know that I had the language to say that traumatic things are happening to me. But I think, when you grow up in under resourced communities, if you’re a part of a marginalized group, there’s all kinds of trauma that’s happening on a daily basis that we just don’t process. We just say, “Well, that’s just life.” Or, “That’s just how it is.” Especially growing up in the church. Growing up as a Black woman with the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, and the struggle passed down to me. There was just this, like: “This is what we do. We get by. We pray through it. We march. We fight.” And we do! And that’s important. But, it’s also important to talk about what is hurting you, and to try to get some coping skills for all of that.
I think, speaking for me and the young people that I, at the time, was working with. I was working as a mentor at a local group in Portland. And time after time, a lot of the kids on my caseload, I was like: “We need to do more for them than just an after-school class. Or, this program.” You know? Like, “Yes, this is great.” But, I felt like they needed more. And there’s a stigma sometimes in our community with going to therapy, or going to counseling. So, I thought, and I’m not making this up, but just knowing that like: “Okay, well the arts can help you heal. And communicate, and talk, and process. So, there’s something here. With me doing art and wanting to work with young people, how do I bring these two worlds together?” Was my thought process.
In working with young people, sometimes as a guest writer going into classrooms, students would write really personal stories. And sometimes cry when they shared. We’d have these powerful moments, and then the bell would ring and they’d have to go to math. I was just so nervous about, “Am I doing more damage?” I just wanted to get some skill behind teaching. What to do, and how to manage that kind of emotion in the classroom.
ENNI: Were you working as a mentor in high school? Did you go right to college?
WATSON: I did. [chuckles] It’s so… again, that wonderful English teacher. Her name was Linda Christianson. I was a junior, I think, and she would have me come to her freshman class and coach some of her students in writing. And then, through church, I volunteered and worked with younger, younger kids. My first few years out of high school, I was working with middle school aged young people. So, yeah, whatever grade I was in, I was mentoring and working with students who were a little younger than me.
ENNI: Was your writing also always… I mean, at that point you are still a young adult, but was your writing always focused on kids and teens?
WATSON: Yes, and I didn’t know that either [chuckles]. I never intentionally said, “I want to write YA. Or, picture books.” I was just writing stories about the people I knew. When I decided, in college, that I wanted to take some writing classes, I got guidance from my professors, who were like, “Oh, well, you really have a voice for young adult.” And that’s when I started to learn like, “This is a thing.” But in high school, I don’t remember any of my teachers saying to me, “This is a YA book.” We just read. And we read widely. We also read a lot of books that were for adults. Like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. We were reading that also. So, I thought writing was just writing.
WATSON: When I look back on my stories, yes, the protagonist is almost always a teenager. Or, a tween.
ENNI: So, guide me through this. You go to college, and you’re focusing on theater and the therapy?
WATSON: Drama therapy with a focus also on art therapy too. And then I took courses in creative writing. Eventually, really narrowed my focus on writing for children. I took a leave from school, and then came back to school and went to THE NEW SCHOOL and finished my degree there. That is really when I was honing the craft of writing. Thinking about: “Yes, I want to be published. And how do I do this?” And making connections that way.
ENNI: Did you have a moment? Or was there something that made the switch flip to say, “I think this is my calling?”
WATSON: Hm. [pauses] I don’t know.
ENNI: Or, the moment where publishing, that goal of being published, [which] is different.
WATSON: I had the goal that I wanted to be published. I’m not sure where and when that happened. But it was there. I kept saying, “When I’m out of school.” Like, “One day, I’m gonna get published.” And again, I had come back to school, so I’m in my late twenties now, at this point. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina happened. I went down to do creative arts therapy with young people, who were processing everything that happened. And when I came back to New York, one of my assignments, in a picture book class, was to write a manuscript that had a serious topic. Or, a child has to overcome loss, or something like that. So, I wrote about the children that I met. I fictionalized their stories. Wrote this for a class assignment. This was probably the third, or fourth, assignment of the semester that I had turned in. So, we were critiquing each other’s work, and it was my night to read. And my professor says, “I would like you to stay after class.” And I was like, “Really? This is college!” I felt like, “This is strange. What, am I in trouble?”
So, I stay after class, and someone is casually putting their books away, so I think they’re being nosey [laughs]. And my professor says to me: “I really think you should send that out. What’s going on with your writing? Do you have an agent? Where are you at with that?” And I was like: “No! I’m so far from getting an agent. When I graduate, I’ll do that.” She was like, “No. I really think you should send this out.” And then the woman, who was putting her stuff away, says, “Yeah. Um, excuse me.” She said: “I didn’t want anyone to know this, so I didn’t say anything, but I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I was gonna wait until the end of the semester. I’m an editor at Random House.”
WATSON: [laughing] “And I really like your work. And I think you should…”
ENNI: And she was in the class?
WATSON: She was in the class. She was taking this writing class for her own personal growth. She couldn’t take me on, she worked on Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer type books. But, she knew editors who did realistic fiction, and who might be interested. And so, she introduced me, and then dot, dot, dot. And now I have an offer from Random House on the table. That is the official, “How I got published” story.
I talk to young people, when I do author visits, and they ask me, “How did I get published?” And I tell this story. And then I say: “So that could seem like, ‘Oh, you were just lucky.’” Or, “It is about who you know, and it doesn’t matter…” And I’m like, “No. That assignment, I wrote at least seven or ten times before even submitting it just for my homework assignment.” I had really taken time, all these years, building up to this moment of perfecting my craft, and taking myself serious as a writer. Taking classes, even when I wasn’t a full-time student. And putting my work out there. Before thinking about a big contract. Just pushing myself to get my work out into the world.
So, I think it was just all these things lining up in this moment. And that is when I had the decision of like: “Okay, yeah, I do. I want to be published. I want this to be my first book. A picture book.” A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. And from there is when I decided that I was really gonna pursue a publishing career. And had to think about what types of stories I wanted to tell. And I have stories, that I write in my journal, that probably will never see the light of day. But then there are stories that I’m like, “I really want to get this out into the world.”
ENNI: I’m really interested that you had the ability to take stock a little bit: “Okay, I’m gonna start this phase of my life. Really, what are my intentions with this?” That’s amazing. And also, though, what formed the stories. It seems like you’re a born poet. But picture books are kind of poetry, and then you’re writing novels. There are a lot of different ways to go about it. So, how did you think about format and intention?
WATSON: Format, for me, I think about how much space the story needs. And if I feel like I can tell it in a short amount of words, that feels like a picture book. Or, even a poem. If I need space, and I really want to be with characters for a long time. And go deeply into what they are thinking, and backstory and all of that, then I’m like, “Okay. This is a novel.” And I need to figure out the outline, and all of that.
Intention, I just, from my own experience of not seeing myself, and my experience, accurately or balanced, reflected in the world. I just want to make books where young Black girls see themselves. And see a range of being. Because I think that’s really important. So, that’s one thing I’m always thinking of, as I write, is just, “Am I being true to the type of kids that I grew up with, and that I know in real life?” For me, that means showing both the pain and the joy. Let me also say, I think that’s just good writing. You don’t ever want to tell this one-layered story, right? But I feel, oftentimes, when the character is a person of color, and especially a Black girl, it’s a sad story. Or, it’s so much struggle.
And yes, that is true for some of us, and some of our communities. But there is also joy and overcoming, and everything isn’t always so heavy. So, I try to have both of those things at play in my work. And, I’m passionate about, like we were saying earlier - because I grew up in this city that a lot was really happening but no one was talking about it - I’m hoping that my books can be used as tools for educators. To help spark conversations with young people about race, and class, and things that are hard to talk about.
So, I’m thinking of all that, mostly at the end. I try to write a good story. And just be a writer and focus on the craft of writing. But, when I go back at the end and I’m really thinking about, “What is this book gonna do in the world?” That’s when I’m asking those questions, and thinking about [it].
ENNI: Yeah, which I really like. I’m responding to it a lot, because I had this moment, after the election, when I woke up the next day, and was like, “Oh. Everything has to change.” Like: “I have to think completely differently about writing for kids. And for what kids are going to be dealing with now. And what they’re seeing reflected all around them, all the time now.” It was a very powerful thing, for me, but then, it was also me being like: “Oh. I’m catching up to everyone else in the world, who has been thinking about this for so long. And they’ve been having these conversations. And doing a lot of hard work and thinking about what stories are important.”
Okay, before we go too much farther though, I want ask… you took a break from school. What were you doing in that time? You were in New Orleans?
WATSON: In 2005 I came back to school, which is when Katrina happened. When I took a break from school, it was because my mother was ill, and I went back to help out, and take care of her. And then stayed in Portland longer than I thought I would. I ran a non-profit there. I worked with young people, got some real-life experience, and then, came back to New York to finish school. And that was one those… when I was talking about working with kids, and they were bringing up so much emotion in the classroom? That’s when I was like, “I want to get more training.” So, those years off, I was working.
ENNI: I love stories about people who take a break, or even a gap year before they start college. And then, whenever people go back to school, it’s with so much more focus, and you’re like: “Now I know a thing or two. And what I need to focus on.”
WATSON: Absolutely! Yeah, for sure.
ENNI: I’d love to talk about that, going a little bit back-and-forth with Portland, with THIS SIDE OF HOME. Because, it’s striking to me that you set out on your own from Portland to New York, then went back. And then when you were able to take that next step to go back to school, you came back to New York. It seems like New York is the city where you are like: “This is my goal. This is where I’m doing my work.” So, Portland gets caught up being home, and these feelings of… I don’t know. I’m trying to tell you. You tell me. How does that feel? The dichotomy between those cities.
WATSON: [laughing] So, I was born in New Jersey. And when we moved to Portland, I think growing up, I always longed to come back to the East Coast. I felt like I would have had a different… well, obviously, I would have had a different childhood had I grown up on the East Coast. So, I felt there was something that was always drawing me back to a place that, in my mind – especially as a kid – I idolized. Harlem, Harlem Renaissance, Black poets, diversity, you know? I’m a Black girl growing up in Portland. I want to go live in a place where there’s diversity, and culture, and all of that.
So, I think I’ve always been drawn to that part of New York. And of course, when I got here, I realized like, “Oh, it’s kind of segregated, actually.” [laughing] You can be in a bubble in New York, and never really have to engage. You may see people who are different than you, but it actually takes effort to have meaningful relationships with people. So, I definitely grew up by moving here and realizing that. But I think that’s part of the attraction to New York. I have been able to be inspired, in a different way, then when I’m in Portland. But Portland is home, because it made me. That’s where I grew up. And, like I said, my family is there. So, I love both places. Whenever I’m in one for a long time, I’m always itching to go to the other. I wish I could combine the two. Especially, Harlem and Portland. They’re my two favorite places.
ENNI: Yeah, if there was just a little river separating them, it would be so wonderful! [Both laugh] Sarah McCarry lives in New York too, and she’s from Seattle. And we were talking about that feeling of loving living in a huge city, and then wanting to be really close to the forest. It struck me, reading THIS SIDE OF HOME, twins, Nikki and Maya, are really dealing with a changing city. And when I was reading about it, and hearing a couple of interviews of you talking about that book, I was like, “Oh, I hear this.” This is using twins as a way to talk about the dichotomy within each of us. Especially when we’re people who left home, and are dealing with the feelings of that city, and how it changes without us. I was like, “Oh, she’s one person writing about the two people inside of her.” Do you think that’s true?
WATSON: Yeah. So, Nikki and Maya are on the opposing sides of gentrification. Portland started changing in, let’s see, 1996 was my senior year in high school, and I remember the neighborhood starting to change. And I did not know the word gentrification, but you could feel that, this is not for the people who live here. I wrote this really short story about it, of these twin sisters arguing. One is happy, and the other one is really frustrated. And I turned it in. It was an assignment. And then, all these years later, I was like, “Wait, that’s still happening?” Now, the neighborhood I grew up in, you can’t even afford to rent there, let alone buy. It has become a completely different city. And, Brooklyn, and Harlem, and, and, and.
I wanted to go back to that story and unpack it some more. So, yes, there is a part of me that is Nikki. I tell people this all the time: “I’m a writer. We love coffee shops. We love to sit, and camp out, and be around people. But still be in our little isolated bubble, and get work done.” I like being able to get fresh produce, and feeling safe in my neighborhood. All of that is important, and should be in every neighborhood in the United States of America. Where people can have access to art, and good quality, healthy food. So, in that way, I’m like Nikki. Where I’m always going out to the new thing that’s just opened. But I am like Maya, in that, the push-out is frustrating, and sad to me. And I don’t want to lose the culture, and the heritage, and the legacy, that is in these communities.
And so, sometimes the newness comes at a cost. And at an erasure of the people who were there. And the people who were fighting for some of these things. It’s very strange to know that some of the women who are writing letters about fixing the sidewalk, and making it accessible for wheelchairs, or, getting the stop sign. Those practical things that gentrification also brings. Then those people, who had it first, [and] started the call for that, are being pushed out and can’t even live in the community that they were fighting for. It’s so frustrating. So, I am Maya and Nikki in many ways, and wanted to explore the complexity of it. And not just for, or against. Right or wrong. But thinking about the nuances. And Maya falls in love with a neighbor who moves in. Who she feels she’s not supposed to love, because he’s White, and he represents everything she’s angry about. So, I just wanted to mess with all of that [laughs]. And get young people talking. Because they, I believe, are feeling it. And maybe don’t have the language for it.
ENNI: And there’s one thing that every teen, I think, struggles with… the feeling of like, “Where do I belong in this world?” And then, when this world is constantly changing, that’s a whole other level of… you can’t keep up. And it doesn’t get easier.
WATSON: And when the world is telling you that you belong, but you can feel it showing you otherwise. So, their best friend, Essence (?) who lives across the street, she’s been living in this house that has not been kept up by the landlord all this time. And when he’s ready to sell it to make money, to flip it, he comes in and does all of these renovations, and then tells them, “But you can’t stay.” We tell young people so much, that: “The world is yours. And you just gotta work hard, and try. And you can do anything. And, it’s equal footing, and all of that.” And it’s not. And it’s not easy. And I wanted to show that part of it too. I’m trying to paint an honest picture of what it is. But also, that yes, sometimes it’s messy, and complicated and it’s not fair… ever. But you can still do something. I don’t know, I wanted to have young people talk, and process that.
ENNI: And it sounds like you’re getting at the sense of, it’s difficult, but there’s an inherent optimism in your voice when you write.
WATSON: Oh, really? That’s good.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s worth trying to figure it out.
WATSON: I do believe that. I do.
ENNI: That’s what drew me to writing for young people, also. Even when you’re writing the intense, space war battle story, there’s an inherent optimism because my character is seventeen. She has something to live for. There’s a lot in there, that this isn’t a middle-aged professor story, like we grew up in high school reading. This is a young person, and they’re shaping the world around them. That drives so much, that you can’t underestimate.
WATSON: And that’s with anything. You want to get them, right? We are so extreme in our teens. We’re really, really, angry. Or, really, sad. Or, really [in] love. And so, to get a young person that is really, really, coming to terms with their own power, and that they can do something in the world. That is a great time, I think, to have a person explore that, so that it can, hopefully, stay with them. And not be this new discovery. Not that, if you come to that at thirty-eight, that’s great! But I just feel, teenagers have less walls around taking risk, and speaking up. And if they’re given the opportunity, they will do that. And rise to the occasion. A lot more than adults, I’ve found.
ENNI: Yeah, I agree. So… I jumped around a little bit, but I do want to go from, A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. You get this opportunity. First book deal. You’re thinking about this new career. Where did you go from there?
WATSON: So, from there, I was graduated. That was my last year finishing my degree. And that was when I decided, I’m gonna stay in New York and give it a try [laughs], and see what happens. That summer, I worked on WHAT MAMMA LEFT ME, which is a middle grade novel. And that was sold to Bloomsbury. That started my relationship there, which I’m still with them. I started piecing together a way to have time to write, but also, make money. Because, as you know, children’s lit is not the most lucrative profession. So, I was a teaching artist for many years, for the last ten years. But in New York, I taught through two organizations, Community Word Project and DreamYard. Do you know what a teaching artist is?
WATSON: Okay, so both organizations hire professional writers, visual artists, dancers, theater folks – a range of artists – and places us in schools to do residencies for the school year. And really do in depth – for me it was writing – workshops with young people. The best work of my life, has been working in the Bronx, and having young people discover their voice. Or, they already knew that they were really great, but now they have this program that is shining a light on that. It was really awesome. The schedule was like, I’m in schools three days a week, and then the other two, I’m writing. And that was how I was able to sustain myself, financially, but then also have time to create. And you’re on a teacher’s schedule, so I would have summers off and all of the holiday breaks. So, it was great. It was the perfect career for me, as an artist, because I felt like I was engaged and involved with the audience that I’m writing for. So, it was non-stop material!
But, it kept me teaching writing [which] makes me a better writer. When I have to explain the practical stuff of writing, and not the magic part of it, it really helped me hone my craft, too. It was a great experience. And that’s what I did, up until, maybe a year-and-a-half ago. I had to leave. I’ve just gotten at a point, now, where my writing life can sustain me. And I was becoming a little too torn. Too busy. Always having to counsel. The schedule was too much, with book touring, and writing time, and teaching. So, I don’t teach, that way, anymore. But, through author visits, I’m still pretty hands-on with young people. But it’s not that in-and-out every week type of thing.
ENNI: I feel like you’ll probably never stop.
WATSON: Yeah, I hope not. I don’t want to. I feel like I need that.
ENNI: So, right after school ends, you jump in with WHAT MAMMA LEFT ME. Did that start as an assignment in school too? Did you have the idea laying around?
WATSON: No, well actually, that’s funny. It was a play before it was a novel. A short one-act. Which goes to your question about thinking about what format do things take with me. I felt like I wanted to go back to those characters and find out more about them. Because it was a really short, one-act play that really focused on the brother and the sister – Serenity and Danny. I wanted to build a world around them. I wrote that in a summer. That’s when I didn’t have as many distractions. I was still also so fresh, and new to the writing world. Reviews, and bloggers, and sales, and all that, wasn’t a factor in my head when I was creating. So, I could write much faster back then, I feel. And it wasn’t as personal. There was a lot of distance there because I didn’t have many of those situations that Serenity finds herself in. [They] were not my personal situations. But writing THIS SIDE OF HOME, and PIECING ME TOGETHER, took so much longer. So many more drafts. Because I was nervous. I’m making a name for myself now, and I’m writing a little closer to reality. But, needing to still make it fiction, and have it stand on its own as just a story. It was more challenging for me.
ENNI: That’s really interesting. The books, when you’re writing them, you’re thinking more about what you want them to ultimately achieve. That is a good amount of pressure you’re putting on yourself. How did you end up figuring out how to just write, and get through it?
WATSON: Just [chuckles] journal writing. I force myself to journal, so that when I’m writing, I can be creative. It’s not an essay. It’s not a, “I’m really trying to have a moral of the story, here, folks.” And, “This is really the writer trying to tell you something.” I’ve got to get all of that out of the way, so that I can have a plot, and actually have a story happening, and not just rehashing things. So, part of it, in a very practical way, is getting myself out of the way. Which, for me, is writing in a journal, or, going on a walk. Or then, just talking to friends who I trust, and who really know me. And I can be very honest about my fears and: “This is not gonna be any good! No one’s gonna read this!” And all of that. You have to have that person. And then readers. I have two or three really trusted readers, who are reading for different reasons. I give them these questions, or things, I want them to be thinking about as they read this draft. But usually, it’s also a way for me to get some distance, and ask someone: “Is this a story? Or, am I in the way of it? What are you thinking? Is it balanced enough?”
Sometimes I might have a character that would be more stereotypical, so I want to make sure that there’s someone else in the story that is not that. I’m kind of checking to make sure that I haven’t missed those things. Because you can be so in it, that, it’s so easy to not see some of those blind spots.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh. The blind spots are huge. The forest through the trees.
WATSON: Yeah, they are, and they happen for all of us. Sometimes, when one of my readers… and they’re so kind. They start with everything that’s working, and then you get the, like, “Oh!” And I’m like, “I can’t believe I did that!” Or, “Yes, I need to fix that. How in the world did I put this in the story?” You know? “I’d be so critical of someone else if they wrote a character like [that].” It’s interesting to me, all of that. When you’re in it, and it’s your story, it can be challenging to see what’s not working. Or to fall into tropes. Sometimes we take the easy way out of a plot point, or a character just goes along… a stereotype, because it’s the easier thing to do. I’m always trying to push myself to not do that. Or, if I am going there, then why? And is there another character who can show another side to that.
ENNI: So then, WHAT MAMMA LEFT ME was your next book, middle grade. And then how did you decide to…
WATSON: HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACK BIRD was after WHAT MAMMA LEFT ME.
ENNI: Is that considered a picture book?
WATSON: Mm-hmm. It’s a picture book. My editor was like, “What’s your next picture book?” And I was like, “I don’t think I’ll write another picture book.” I just never thought that I would write picture books, ever. A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN is longer. It’s told from four kid’s perspective. It’s not really the traditional picture book. So, I just didn’t know that I had a voice for the younger, younger ones. And she was like: “No, no, no, no. You do. Let’s talk. What are some ideas?” So, I told her, “Well, I would love for there to be more picture books, that are biographies about women that we don’t really get to hear about in history.” Because, you know? [laughs] So, she was like: “Oh, my goodness. I’m reading this book on Florence Mills. You have to read it.”
It’s like a text book. A very thick, long, book. And I didn’t even know who Florence Mills was. So, that alone, I was like, “Oh, I want to read this.” I didn’t know that there was this Harlem renaissance woman who started when she was tiny, a little kid, singing and performing. So, I read that book and was like, “Yeah. I want to pull some of this stuff out, and turn it into a picture book.” That’s how that came about. I did a lot of research at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and I spent months there researching Florence Mills. And I got to work with Christian Robinson who I love, and adore, and respect. And loved his illustrations. That book was really fun, and different for me. I have never done a biography. And I felt a different kind of pressure, because there are descendants of Florence Mills, who are alive, who gonna be reading this. And I wanted to do right by them, for their family members. So, I had a different kind of pressure on myself to make sure I was gonna create something that they would be proud of.
ENNI: So, talk to me about PIECING ME TOGETHER. How did this book come about? Give me the breakdown of it.
WATSON: So, PIECING ME TOGETHER is about Jade, who is going to a private school. She leaves her neighborhood every morning, and goes across town to an all-White private school. And her counselor is concerned about her. She gets a lot of opportunities, and one of them is being in this mentorship program. And she doesn’t like it at first. But she’s in it, because you get a scholarship if you stay in it, and are successful. So, she’s in it for that reason, at first. One of her close friends is White, and in the beginning of their friendship, she’s not really sure if she can trust her. Most of the White kids in that school don’t really bond with her. But her friend is also economically poor. And so, they bond, and they have a lot in common, but when it comes to the types of opportunities that the White girl is offered, like, “You get to go to the study abroad program.” Jade gets a free SAT Prep Program. People are trying to help Jade, in this way that feels like fixing her, and the White girl gets help in the way of like: “You have something to give people. So, go volunteer. You get this opportunity to go do something good in the world.” And so, Jade is really frustrated about that. That’s kind of the heart of the story. Their friendship and then this mentor that is flawed, but loves her. And they’re trying to figure out their relationship. There’s all kinds of subplots and back stories going on at the same time. But, that’s kind of the gist of the story.
I think I started writing it, because I wanted to explore the relationship between mentor and mentee. And really, in the beginning, it has taken many different forms. When I first wrote it, it was a novel told in alternating voices. From the mentor’s perspective, and Jade, the student. Because I wanted to show the reality of, just because I’m an adult, I don’t have all my stuff together. And I’ve been on both sides of that. I’ve been a mentor for many years. And I have also been a student in a program where folks have come in. Some were great, and others you felt like, “What?” You know? Like they were coming to save you, or rescue us from the hood, and all that foolishness. So, I wanted to just explore all of that.
For many reasons, writing it that way wasn’t working, so the format changed. But the heart of the story was still this relationship between women, really. It started to blossom from mentor/mentee, to them thinking about mother/daughter, friend/friend, and all the ways that women love each other, and take care of each other. And where there’s sometimes strife, and competition, and misunderstanding. So, the book doesn’t have a love interest. She’s not talking about the guy she wants to date. It’s really about girlhood in that way. And I wanted to… if THIS SIDE OF HOME was more about race, I wanted to talk about class. Her mentor is Black, but she is wealthy, and has stereotypes about poor people. And she comes in, and she’s chosen because she’s a Black woman. And they’re like, “Well, great! You two will be perfect together.” That’s not the only thing. There’s all this intersectionality in our lives. And so, they don’t really connect at first.
ENNI: What’s the name of Jade’s mentor?
ENNI: Maxine. So, to me, I’m wondering, if this was also part of you teasing out the difference between a mentor, and an educator. To me, that seems like there’s a real big difference. It’s a subtle difference, but when you get into it, thinking about trying to be a mentor versus being an educator, they’re really different requirements. What do you think about that?
WATSON: I agree with you that they’re very different. I don’t know that that was on my mind, at all.
But I love though, when people read my work, and then they come with other ideas, and I’m like, “Oh, yes! That’s happening there.” In the book, this program, they go on field trips. They have a monthly outing, and they’re taking the girls to the symphony, or a fancy dinner. And it starts to feel like, for Jade, like: “Something must be wrong with my neighborhood. Because everything we do is far away.” Nothing that she would be exposed to. And, of course, that’s one of the reasons why they’re doing it, because they want to expose her to the world, and she’s like: “I live in the world. I live in the real world. And, I want some real, practical advice if you’re gonna mentor me. About how to balance my checkbook, so I’m not struggling like my mom.” Like: “Give me some tools, instead of boy talks, and let’s go get our nails done.” She’s wanting more from this group, and pushes to get more. She’s learning how to advocate for herself, and find her voice. And the backdrop is Portland, again. A city that is constantly changing, and how does race play out on the larger scale of the city. All of that is going on too. So, she’s trying to find her place, and speaking up for herself and speaking up for her friend who can’t go to this private school. But, in a lot of ways, may be smarter than she is. So, she knows that it’s not just about working hard, or wanting it, or dreaming big, like we tell young people. That it’s also about who gets what kind of opportunity, and what school district gets what kind of resources. All of that stuff is at play too. And the idea that, yeah, you can come into a community, and maybe there are things that need to change, but what is working? And how do you highlight that, and celebrate and honor people’s lives? Instead of making them feel like something’s wrong with them.
ENNI: To me, it’s tricky, because the concept of being a mentor is preparing someone for life emotionally. An educator has these pretty clear cut goals, and there’s a system you’re working within. And [with] a mentor, it would be so easy to bring all of your own stuff to it, and put that on this young person. I think it takes a gifted person to be able to meet the young person where they’re at. And try to avoid putting all of their own baggage [on them]. That’s a tricky thing. And it seems rife for these kinds of relationships, where it’s give-and-take. You’re finding out more about yourself, almost even.
WATSON: Mm-hm. Maxine definitely grows a lot, and comes to terms with some of the issues that’s she’s carrying over from high school. She went to the same high school that Jade is at, and is the opposite, right? She’s a woman of color, and was very wealthy. In some ways, she was accepted, but then in other ways, not. And so, they both end up having that conversation of where they meet, and then where they differ. They kind of work through that. And there’s some things about Maxine that she needs to speak up about in her personal life with this guy she’s dating, that Jade is like: “How are you gonna tell me anything, when clearly your life has some issues!” Which I think is the thing, right? We all have our “stuff”.
I remember being young, and those first realizations that adults are flawed. And how painful that can be, and surprising. And then being the adult, and wanting to come into a young person’s life, and not show that part of myself because I want to be a good example. So, it’s exploring the complexities of like: “How can we be flawed, and still care? And hope, and support?” And, “How can we be forgiving of people who are not perfect, but that love us?” And then, there’s the jealousy with the mom. The mother is very committed to her child. But, she has to work, and she’s not always home. And she can’t always come to a meeting. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her baby girl. The kind of assumption that, “Well, you’re not a good mom, because…”
ENNI: If you’re not present.
WATSON: Right. So, there’s a little bit of Jade feeling like: “I want to be very clear, that my mom loves me. We have a good relationship, and I don’t need you to come replace my mother. If you want to be my mentor, that’s fine. But I don’t need a second mom.”
ENNI: You have some amazing blurbs for this book. I read a couple of them, and Meg Medina’s quote about the book, saying, “Girls navigating the landmines of others’ good intentions.” That really hit home for me. A friend of a friend, last night, said something really smart. She said, “Other peoples’ expectations of me, are not commitments that I have made.” We’re sitting there having drinks, and I was like: “Hang on. I need to write this down.” Because that is what we do to ourselves, a lot, I think. And so, reading about this this morning, I was like: “Oh, my gosh. That’s so fascinating.” And something that not only young women, but for the whole rest of our lives, we’re dealing with. The best intentions of our network of women, that we’ve built to support ourselves, can also become pressure.
WATSON: Yeah, good intentions can be very costly for an individual. I say, a lot of times, that it doesn’t necessarily matter what your intentions were, if you’ve hurt someone. Or, if they’re expressing to you like, “This is not what I need, or I want.” I think the excuse sometimes… and I’m talking about anything from micro-aggressions, or, “I didn’t mean to offend you.” Or, from a non-profit sector coming into a community with programs, that the classrooms are empty! And they’re not getting registration like they thought. Well: “Maybe you need to ask what the people actually want. And not just assume this is what they need.” I think a lot of times, intentions are in the right place, but the impact of those intentions sometimes, are hurtful. And it is not the responsibility of the person who has been hurt by your good intentions, to fix that. You have to own, when you’ve hurt someone. Or, when you’ve made things more complicated than they needed to be.
I feel like, time-and-time again, we leave it to the people who’ve been hurt, who’ve been neglected, overlooked, not listened to, to fix this broken system. When, like, “But… you broke the system.” The people who messed up the system, also need to figure out some things, and not just leave it up to the people to do the work.
ENNI: Taking responsibility.
ENNI: Not everyone gets there. Yeah. And, Jason Reynold’s quote, “The toxicity of sympathy.” I was like, “Uh, that’s so real.” I had someone in my family die, and then it was like, you’re at the funeral and you’re the one giving other people comfort, because they don’t know how to interact with that. It’s like: “This isn’t helping me, right now. This isn’t what we’re here to do.” But it’s very human to get messy around these kinds of feelings. And tricky.
WATSON: It is. And, again, I think people also just want to relate, right? Like: “I’m with you in this. And, I understand how you feel.” Sometimes that is more hurtful, because it’s also okay for my pain to just be my pain. And you may know how it feels to hurt, but you don’t know how it feels to hurt like this. Because we are different! And that that’s okay. To just offer support to someone can just be listening, and not always having to say something. And I don’t think our culture is comfortable with silence. You’ve always got to have something to say. To be talking. So, yeah, it’s really frustrating. Yes. Those situations, when you’re going through something, or you’re expressing that something happened to you. Death of a loved one. A racist incident. A sexist moment. And then, someone says, “Yeah. And I also…” And they tell a story. And you’re like, “Hold on!” Now I gotta tell you, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And now, we’re talking about your thing? What is that?
ENNI: It’s an attempt at empathy that ends up being wrong-headed. And I think that’s a really good point. We’re not comfortable with silence. And I think, also, not comfortable with just saying, “That really sucks.” End. I think there’s so much pressure on being like, “But, silver lining!” And it’s like: “We don’t have to go there right now. We can just be in this moment of… things aren’t right, right now.”
WATSON: That’s so true.
ENNI: It’s hard.
WATSON: It is hard. And it’s not something that we, as a society – individual groups, I think sometimes are more likely to do that – but, as a whole, our culture is not about silence. We’re about having answers and who can speak the loudest. And who can be the smartest in the room. Sometimes, I also feel, in those moments, it becomes not even about the person any more, but just you want to save the day. Or, give some good advice. So then, it’s about you. And that’s really a selfish thing, to feel like you want to be the one to fix them. Or, to be the solution. Instead of them being their own solution, or, giving them time to figure things out.
ENNI: I think that’s probably a goal that people who work with children learn pretty quick. I have had limited experience with that. But, helping kids write essays, and it’s like: “I could write this essay. But that is not what we’re here to do now. What do you think?” And sitting back and being like, “My goal is to be here, if they need me.” But, I want them to be able to do it on their own. All that complicated stuff that comes as an adult, where you’re like, “Oh, I’m learning right now.”
ENNI: This is important! The other thing that struck me about PIECING ME TOGETHER is that [for] Jade, there’s a lot going on. The intersectionality is off the charts with her. She’s learning in class, like you’re saying. And I think there’s some body positivity elements in there. And also, her learning to be an artist. I think that’s a really challenging thing when you’re a kid, and you’re like, “I think I want to be a creative professional.” There’s not a lot of people who are gonna be like, “That’s a great idea!”
WATSON: You got that right!
ENNI: How did you explore that?
WATSON: I just wanted to have a real character. I know people like Jade. I didn’t have a list of like, “How am I gonna make all of these intersections?” I wasn’t like that. But, I definitely wrote her as a dark skinned, overweight, girl. And I wasn’t setting out to do that, it just came out of me writing. And then I was like, “Yes! Yes.” And, she’s not gonna have low self-esteem about that. She’s not gonna get bullied because of her weight. This is not gonna be that story. She’s just going to be able to exist, and also be big. And that that’s okay. I didn’t necessarily intend for that, and I didn’t say, “I want to make her an artist.” She was processing her day, and this metaphor of taking ordinary things and making beauty out of them. She does a lot of collage work. So, really, in the beginning, in the first drafts, it was just a way for me to show her. And how she processes the day. Taking the scraps of her life and making something.
And then, over time, I went back and was like: “Oh. Well, huh. Does she want to be an artist? Does she know other artists?” And so, through the mentorship, she is exposed to art, going to galleries, and seeing that this doesn’t have to be a hobby. “It can live outside of my journal, my notebook.” And then she starts to dream a little bit bigger. But in the first drafts, it wasn’t a fully thought out plot. It was just kind of happening. And then, I later went back, and like: “Oh, I need to really pull this through the whole novel. And have it be a satisfying end to that journey.” And trying to get her to find her voice, and use it. She found it, but for most of the novel, it’s so inward. So, I wanted to have some moment, where she’s speaking, and doing something, and using art was a good way for her. For that character.
ENNI: Why Portland again?
WATSON: I’ve heard both pieces of advice, “Write what you know.” And, “Write where you’re curious about.” And so, Portland is the answer to both of those questions. I know Portland. I know the streets. I know the vibe, and how people are, and pacing. And I have a lot of questions about Portland. Through PIECING ME TOGETHER and THIS SIDE OF HOME there were questions that I wanted to know. For PIECING ME TOGETHER, I grew up walking past markers that would mark The Lewis and Clark Expedition. But there’s no context to who York was, this Black slave that was with them. And what did it mean to have these explorers come to the West. We’re celebrating that, but there were people who were displaced. We never talk about that. So, I was asking those kinds of questions in the novel too. There are moments when Jade is coming to terms with the history of how the West was discovered.
I want to put stories out about African-American people who live in the Pacific Northwest because, to this day, when I say I’m from Portland, people literally say to me, “Wow. I didn’t know Black people lived there.” And I’m like, “We’re everywhere, but, okay!” I want to write for them and for me. For looking in a book - and I have so much respect for, Beverly Cleary again, I love the RAMONA series - but, the neighborhood she’s writing about, was a diverse neighborhood, but none of the characters were Black. It’s important to me to put stories in the world, that reflect reality. And that means, writing about Black people in places like Oregon. Not just as a setting, but what does it mean? What does it feel like to be a Black person in Oregon?
ENNI: We wrap up with advice, but before that, do you want to talk about the non-profit? I’d love to hear about it. And, how you decided to start this?
WATSON: Oh, sure. It’s so interesting to me, when I moved to New York, which has been about eleven years ago now, the first place I wanted to go to was Harlem. I knew that Langston Hughes’s brownstone was there, and walked past it, and just was in awe. And over the years, have been sad that it wasn’t a museum, or wasn’t being used for anything to preserve his legacy. In the back of my mind, I was like: “Someone should do something. And, maybe one day, I’ll start a non-profit, and do work with kids, and writing, and all of that.” But when I say far, far, far in the back of my head, it wasn’t a goal, like, “In 2016 I’m gonna launch a non-profit.” But, I was on a book tour, for about a year, for THIS SIDE OF HOME, and the conversations about gentrification, and holding onto legacy, and what does it mean to have a people erased. Those were conversations I was having all over the nation. And about, then, doing something about it, and not just being silent. Kind of taking on Maya’s attitude in saying: “Okay, so this is what’s happening. How can I be a part of changing my neighborhood?”
So, when I came back to New York, after being gone for so long, and I didn’t recognize some of the streets by my house, because there were so many new coffee shops, and construction happening. And I was like, “What is going on?” And, I walked past his brownstone again, which is only ten blocks from where I actually live. So, I walked past it a lot. I just felt, in that moment, like: “I have to do something. I can’t go around having all of these talks, and readings with young people, and motivating them to go out and change the world, and I’m not doing that.” So, I started to look into who owns it, and how can we talk to that person, and see if we can get something going there? So, this summer, we launched a non-profit. It’s a collective of us. Other authors are involved, and really close friends. And we are trying to purchase the brownstone of Langston Hughes. Right now, we’re leasing it. We open next month.
ENNI: And what is it called?
WATSON: It’s called I, TOO ARTS COLLECTIVE. It’s taken from his poem, I TOO, which is about I, too am America. We’re opening on his birthday, which is February 1st. We’re having a community gathering there. And then from there, we will have readings, and poetry workshops, and programming for young people to come in and write their stories, and continue his legacy. And think about, where’s the joy? Where’s the pain? And what do you have to say about it?
ENNI: That is so amazing.
WATSON: Thank you.
ENNI: I think that’s so impressive and also, I’m stunned that nothing was happening, I’m so glad that you get the chance to do this in that really special place. That’s really cool. So, we wrap up with advice. I would love to hear maybe both as a writer yourself, personally, and also as someone who talks to young people all the time. What is your advice for people who are just generally writing, and then what about young people who are thinking that they might want to be writers?
WATSON: For people who are writers, and are creating work, I think my advice is, to write the story you want to tell. Not the story you think will sell, or what you think is marketable right now, and is the new trend. But, to really put work out there that you are gonna be proud of at the end of the day. And, that matters to you. I think, once we do that, then all those other kinds of success and awards and things like that can come, but if they don’t, it still will be okay. Because you did the thing you really wanted to do. But when you’re chasing after something, for awards or recognition, I think that’s the wrong motive to have. So that’s my advice. Stay true to the types of stories you want to tell.
For young people, I always say to young people… there’s the advice of, like: “To be a good writer, you need to read a lot. Read it first to get the story in you. And then if you liked it, or not, read it again, and figure out why.” And like, “What did this writer do to make you really love this, or not love it?” So, that kind of practical advice is just true. And you need to read a lot, in order to be a good writer. But, I also tell young people, to choose your friends wisely. I think it’s important. What saved me, and keeps me, even now, is that I’ve always had a core group of people who, one, believed in me. They were pushing me to be my best self. Meaning, they’re not trying to get me to skip class, or get caught up in a relationship that’s not good for me. All of that. They were just good friends, who cared about me. And weren’t jealous either of my success, or anything that was happening.
And then two, they had goals, and dreams. They didn’t all want to be writers, but they wanted to be something. So, hanging around people who are dreamers, and are about something, has been motivating for me. We kind of rub off on each other, and keep each other accountable. And I think that’s really important. Whether you want to be a writer, or not. But especially if you want to do something creative. It’s important to have people around you who are going to understand that you can’t always be out, and going places, because you have to be home creating. And that they’ll still love you, and be there when you can kick it!
ENNI: I think that is such a good way to say it, “People who are about something.” I like that. People who are about something, yeah, got something going on. Bring something to the table. We can all help each other, and that makes a really constructive, and really powerful friendship. I love it. It’s powerful.
WATSON: Yeah. Find your people, and hold on to them.
ENNI: Thank you so much. This was the best.
WATSON: Thank you, it was so good talking with you.
ENNI: Thank you so much to Renée. Follow her @reneewauthor and follow me @sarahenni and the show @firstdraftpod. You can also check out the show on Instagram and Facebook, but for show notes with links to everything Renée and I talked about, as well as a searchable archive of the more than 90 previous episodes of this here show, and to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, check out Firstdraftpod.com. Did you enjoy this episode? Are you a kind, and generous soul? Then, please do consider leaving a rating or review for the show on iTunes. Every five-star review is like a Mango Tango from Voodoo’s Donuts. Mmm.
Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks so much to super intern Sarah DuMont, and to transcriptionist-at-large Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to you too, who are America, for listening.