I sat in the back of the room, last row as usual, and waited for the seats to fill in front of me. There were fifty students, staff, and a few community members chosen to attend a reading by African American author Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry and an advocate for young authors from all backgrounds.
I showed up much too early and I felt foolish sitting in the last row when there were still so many empty chairs up front. I stared straight ahead and willed my peripheral not to catch anyone’s glance. I didn’t want to recognize anyone. I didn’t want to look over and smile. I didn’t want there to be a chance I’d have to mingle.
At nineteen years old I was not the most natural socialite. I felt very conspicuous amongst this crowd of professors who didn’t just read Brooks- they taught Brooks. I had been selected based on a short story and a poem I had written which had been published the semester prior to her visit. After receiving the letter of invitation, I had spent nearly three weeks trying to find the perfect outfit which said I-am-an-author-I-am-not-19-I-do-not-actually-want-you-to-talk-to-me-I-didn’t-finish-high-school-but-now-I’m-doing-better-dropout-dropout-dropout-but-yes-I-am-an-author-oh-that’s-not-to-say-I’m-an-author-at-Gwendolyn-Brooks’-level-I-just-want-to-sit-in-the-back-please.
It’s safe to say I overthought the outfit I was to wear for this reading by just a tad. And I say a tad with full confidence you know tads in space terms.
Gwendolyn Brooks read three passages and I felt the familiar lump in my throat during the second. I was so moved by hearing an author read her own words- words I loved so much. I completely missed the end of her second reading so focused I was on not crying. While others took notes and nodded their heads in some sort of intelligence commiseration, I just sat there, lip trembling, eyes large, and nose starting to run. There was not a tissue in sight.
At the end of the evening, there was a small reception and everyone got into a smart line, holding their books, and smiling admiringly at her while she signed them. I was humiliated because I didn’t bring a book. It just didn’t occur to me; I had her works memorized.
I took an obligatory cookie and punch and stood there. People pressed past me, talking loudly as they heralded her work, and they’d move on towards the door together, discussing how wonderful they felt from meeting the wonderful Gwendolyn Brooks. I wanted to leave but wondered if it would be rude. I decided to wait until the last person had met her and sneak out behind the crowd.
I don’t recall moving with the line but suddenly I was in front of Mrs. Brooks and a quick look behind me confirmed that I was the only one left. My mouth locked. I was no good at speaking to people and I searched frantically for something intelligent to say. I didn’t have anything for her to sign. All I had was a napkin with a half-eaten cookie on it. I set it down right in front of her. I have no idea why I did that, but there it was: a half-eaten cookie on a white napkin between Gwendolyn Brooks and me. You really can’t take me anywhere.
She looked at it and smiled. I flushed and grabbed the cookie and took a bite. I suppose this was meant to cover my mistake; it was a bad choice. A really bad choice. My mouth was dry, really dry, and the cookie made it worse. So I stood there chewing for an excruciatingly long time with nothing to say and a napkin with a small grease spot between us.
She asked me if I was an author. I nodded. She asked what I planned to write.
I know this sounds crazy but no one had ever asked me what I was going to write. I have memories of writing things in my head before I could talk, but never once did I consider a genre or make a plan or sketch an outline. I swallowed the cookie bits and told her the truth, “I don’t know.”
The next fifteen minutes were a turning point in my life. She took my clammy hand in her fragile one and told me to sit next to her. She asked me lots of questions and I answered them all. She would laugh and get uncomfortably close to me and say she just knew I could do it. She said that the sooner I learned to write what I know, the better off I’d be.
They started to clean up and put away chairs and still she sat with me. She kept saying, “Write what you know… write what you know, girl.” I asked her, “What if I don’t know what I know?” She just smiled and said, “That’s just talk.”
When it was time to go I thanked her and turned to leave. She grabbed the napkin and wrote something on it. She handed it to me and I realized she had given me her home address in Chicago. I looked up, stunned, and she said, “You take that and when you figure out what you know, send it to me because I want to be the first one to read your book.”
I left that night on cloud nine. I kept the napkin, it went with me to university, studied with me in England, saw me through marriage, children, and suburbs… but I never did send her my manuscript.
When my son was born in September of 2000 I decided that I finally knew what I knew… I started to write my book and I was ready to share it with her. For two years I wrote steadily and when I was finished I literally took out the napkin and prepared a letter for her. I decided to double check her address online and that was when I found out that Gwendolyn Brooks had passed away in December of 2000.
If I had only motivated myself a few months earlier that year. If I had only motivated myself a few years or decades earlier. Might it have been different for me?
I still have that napkin and it will remain the only thing Gwendolyn Brooks ever gave to me, unless you count one conversation when she could have stood up from the table, called it quits, gone to bed, closed the door, and fulfilled her contractual duty; but instead, she saw a gift and decided to share hers.
Gwendolyn Brooks is today’s Portrait of Gifted. What she knew growing up was the struggle she and her family experienced as gifted people in a racially-biased society. She spent her whole life mentoring writers and helping to uplift those people whose face did not necessarily and certainly did not immediately garner the title of Gifted.
I still don’t know if I have anything figured out; but that was her point, wasn’t it? If you have a true gift to share, then your soul demands you stick around after closing. Brooks is the face of Gifted. She is the face of every author who ever had trouble finding the right words to say but always had a few to write.
“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.” -Gwendolyn Brooks