In this interview, author Clyde E. Fant describes his work with Writers.com instructor Sandra Novack on his recently-published memoir, The World in Black and White. We discuss Clyde’s experience of the memoir writing process, and how Sandra’s memoir writing help affected every aspect of the manuscript, from the sentence level to the overall narrative structure.
What are the inspiration for and topic of your new memoir, The World in Black and White?
The book is a memoir of my early years, and more specifically about the time in the 1950s and 1960s that I spent in north Louisiana, part of that time as a pastor, and the racial conflicts that erupted during that time.
I tried to express all the conflicts, and also the bravery of a number of individuals who came to the forefront when the pressure was really on, during a time when being positive about anything black was tantamount to being ostracized, and even—as happened to one or two of them—to losing their jobs.
I wanted that on paper, and my only writing experience in the past was considerable, but was all academic. I knew I couldn’t do this kind of writing as a memoir.
My daughter went to Queens University and took her MFA at the same time that Sandy Novack was there. My daughter had talked to me on two or three occasions about Sandy, and how impressed she and others were with her. So my daughter was how I really got in touch with Sandy, and I can tell you that without Sandy, this book would never have existed.
Had you begun writing the memoir before you found Sandy?
Yes, I had some parts of chapters written, and at one point quite a bit. But Sandy worked with being able to translate it from ivory tower transmissions into the ether: to get it into the vernacular, and to be able to cut the dead stuff, work on my wording, and so forth. My approach to the overall structure of the book was pretty solid, but we spent a lot of time working with the specifics of crafting sentences for more popular consumption. And we worked like that for quite a long time. Anybody that’s worked with Sandy knows how thorough she is.
She also helped with the order of chapters, sometimes, for the memoir to flow and progress toward its conclusion—neither burying the headline nor jumping so that there’s no order in which the “plot” unfolds.
There was one chapter in particular where I talk about Louisiana and what makes it distinctive. When I first submitted the chapter to Sandy, she said, “Well, this doesn’t fit the book at all, so you’re going to have to do something with it.” As a matter of fact, the more I worked with it the more frustrated I got. I didn’t see how I could get it from the more historical structure that I had used. We went back and forth on it, and finally she said, “If you really can’t change this to fit what you’d done previously, you’re just going to have to cut it out of the book.”
I spent a summer rewriting and rewriting and rewriting that chapter. And when I sent it to her the final time, she sent me back one line: “You’ve got it.” I was pleased with it, she was pleased with it, and I’ve had some very nice comments on it once it was published.
How did Sandra work with your writing at the sentence and paragraph level?
So many different ways. First of all, to shorten my sentences. I had a bad habit of extending sentences, and I learned how to stop at a point and start again, and still make it read smoothly. That was definitely important.
Some of my sentences were strung together with too many prepositions. She coached me to be able to recognize when the prepositions had reached the boiling point, and it was time to cut the sentence off, change it, revise it, or something, so that it didn’t just hop along from one little phrase to the other.
She worked with me on using adverbs, and on being able to use visual imagery descriptively enough so that it really came through and wasn’t just sketched at or briefly touched.
I said at the end of this that I wouldn’t write another memoir unless I was a famous person. It’s very difficult to do this kind of work. Sandy helped me to bring out some difficult things. I talk about my father. He and I had many conflicts, and at one point Sandy told me, “You’ve got to dig down deep. You cannot deal with this superficially.” That can be painful and difficult, and certainly no one tells all in a memoir, but if you can’t do that legitimately, then you can’t write a memoir. It was a mental and emotional discipline for me to be able to put it in a form that said what I wanted to and not more than I wanted to.
Sandra seems to have touched you into some deeper truths about writing as well.
Exactly. And one thing I want to make clear—and anyone who’s taken a class with Sandy knows this—she was the most supportive person in the world. You never have the feeling that she doesn’t empathize with what you’re doing. She always begins in an affirming way. And don’t think she’s going to pull any punches: she will tell you the way it is, and you need to be able to accept that, hear it, and respond to it.
I was willing to do that, and I think that’s one way that we developed a strong rapport, and she was able to help me get into a deeper understanding of the function of memoir and writing. I had never done any type of fiction writing, and I’m now doing some, and I couldn’t possibly have done anything like that until I worked with her.
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How long did the overall process of writing The World in Black and White take, and what were the parts of that process?
If anyone saw my files on the book, I’d be afraid to show them the number of revisions. I had worked on this quite a bit—really, for three or four years—before I got with Sandy, as well as for a year and a half afterwards, revising and resubmitting material to her. This book is 356 pages long, and that in itself makes it very difficult to work with and revise.
Once Sandy and I concluded that it was at the point to be able to move forward, I tried to get an agent. I did all the recommended steps, but I had great difficulty with that, I think because memoirs don’t exactly fly off the shelves. Most agents don’t handle them; a few perhaps do. Sandy was very helpful here as well, recommending all kinds of names to me, but at some point I decided to go with publishing on Amazon Kindle, and that’s the route I took.
I don’t regret it; I’m glad it’s available. It’s quite a process in itself, but I was able to navigate it. Kindle has a lot of suggested resources if a writer chooses to go that route. I did use an outside person for cover design, which wasn’t expensive at all, and I used outside people for the interior book styling. They really did a turnkey job, although I was very busy with all that and with getting everything ready. At that point, I uploaded it to Kindle.
If you an get an agent interested in your work and go to a major publisher, certainly that will be more profitable, but I’m not sure that any of that would be any more satisfying. I want to be read; I want people to hear what I’m trying to say. If what I’m writing is worthwhile, I think it’ll be helpful to them. I get great satisfaction out of having written, but I think you have to love writing, also. Writing is arduous, disciplined, sometimes motivationally difficult work. But if you stick with it and get something published, I’ve had great satisfaction to have wonderful responses from individuals. If I don’t make the top lists, I’ve made the top lists for the people who’ve written to me. It doesn’t take a lot, I think, if you have any humility at all, to be able to appreciate that.
I’m 85 years old, and I intend to publish more. I started writing when I was 30, and I wish I’d done fiction and creative writing earlier. I would say that if you use some of the instructors available to you through Writers.com, it will make a big, big difference in your ability to write and your ability to publish. At least it did for me.
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