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English Department

Spotlight on Creative Writing Alumnae

Connections: A Teacher & Her Student: Cleage and Jones

Pearl Cleage, C’71, Drama Major 

Author of numerous plays, novels, and works of nonfiction, including "Flyin’ West," "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" (Oprah Book Club), and "Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love Affairs."

AT“I think one of the things that writers and creative artists generally have to deal with is the censors that we have in our heads — the voices that we have that say you better not tell that, and don't tell that, and people will think you're not a good girl, and your grandmother's going to be mad at you, and all of those things. And that's the death of the creative process.

When you sit down to write, you have to be prepared to strip all of those voices away, all of the censors away and talk about what you think the truth is, which I think is really the task of the writer—to get to the truth.”

Tayari Jones, C’91, English Major

Author of "Leaving Atlanta," "The Untelling," "Silver Sparrow," and An American Marriage (Oprah Book Club).

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer…And I have accepted that my niche is this quiet space. I’ve never been one of those writers who says writing is the hardest job in the world. Look at the jobs my grandparents had. Can I really say a job I’m able to do in my pajamas is the hardest job in the world?” 

“I’ve lived a lot of places since I finished college in 1991, but I haven’t lived long enough in those places to feel I have enough authority to write about them. I need to know the layers of a place. Atlanta is my hometown, and I know all its layers. Furthermore, it is important to me as a Southern writer to write about the modern urban South.”

“I write to find some truth, to come to understand something I didn’t already know. I can’t be on anyone’s side, which is hard because at the same time I have to love my characters enough to feel what they feel. The writer has to maintain a kind of compassionate distance. It’s tricky.”

Chantal James, C’2007, Philosophy Major

Editor-in-Chief, Focus Magazine

ChantalJames“When I graduated Spelman with a minor in creative writing, I received a fellowship to live in Morocco for over a year researching and writing my first novel. Since then I've completed two more manuscripts, another novel and a memoir, and I’m actively working to make a debut as an author in traditional publishing.

I've learned the hard way that I must continue writing regardless of how inhospitable the harsh landscape of the publishing world is to me; I die when I don't exercise my creativity. I've always made sure the work I've pursued to support myself also supports my writing, even if it was seemingly unrelated to my identity as a writer. I've worn multiple hats and I’m also passionate about a career as a philosopher, so I've received a master’s degree in philosophy and hope to continue my education in the field through the doctoral level.

Currently, in addition to my freelance work, I work for a nonprofit that teaches STEM to low-income girls. The creative writing minor has prepared me to be where I am now not only by giving me the foundational tools I need to be competent at my craft, but by providing me with a supportive workshop community and allowing me to forge bonds with other black women committed to existing as writers that still exist to this day.”

Kyla Marshell, C’2009, English Major

Founding Editor, Aunt Chloe
2008 Edith A. Hambie Poetry Prize
Alice Walker Award

KylaMarshell“Since graduating from Spelman, a lot in my worldview has changed, but I've remained focused on my goal of becoming an author, and maintaining my life as a writer. This has taken many forms as I've shifted what I write (from poetry to nonfiction), and where I work (both in the arts and not), but when people ask, ‘What do you do?’ I always say that I’m a writer, no matter what’s going on in my writing life. I even said that before I was published. 

I organized my life around writing, because coming up, I heard so many people, particularly women, speak wistfully about the creative pursuits that got swallowed by jobs, kids, or other commitments. It was made clear to me early on that if I wanted to have a career as a writer, I had to make time for it. That commitment has taken the shape of writing before work, or on my lunch break; taking workshops, or attending residencies; and getting an MFA in creative writing.

I’ve also found that there are many professional opportunities in writing outside of teaching, which is not always what was suggested to me. I work regularly as a freelance writer, and often have editors at different publications reach out to me. I’d like to believe that’s because of my skill and my ability to turn things in on time (timeliness is not as common as I once assumed).

I chose to be an English major because I wanted to be more well read in order to become a better writer. The major most certainly helped me with this goal, and exposed me to literature and ideas I wouldn’t have encountered on my own. Additionally, the Spelman community—my peers, instructors, and the literary journal, which I worked on as editor, and also gave me my first publication—helped solidify my identity as a writer, because I and my work were treated seriously, which was the kind of encouragement I needed then (and always).    

Currently, I’m working on a memoir called A SEED IS A STAR, about the meaning of family via relationships with my distant, long-lost, or secreted-away relatives. Even though it’s only the beginning of my career as an author, it feels like all my hard work, determination, doubts, and detours are culminating into this moment, and I’m excited to share it with the world. Also, I recently became a professor! I'm teaching Intro to Poetry Writing at Bloomfield College this spring.”

Tiffany Y. Ates, C’2009, English Major

TiffanyAtes“Currently, I’m working on a collection of short stories. I’m based in the Washington, DC metro area, where I serve as the art services coordinator for Smithsonian magazine where I manage contracts, permissions, and artist relations for both print and digital platforms.” Tiffany’s piece about the artist Mickalene Thomas (whose work was also exhibited at Spelman’s Museum of Fine Art in spring 2017) is in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine:

Taylor A. Lewis, C’18, English Major

TaylorLewis2017 Edith A. Hambie Poetry Prize

Maurice, Louisiana, 1941

I’m too young to know how my soul will fly.
Maurice once a language we trilled with
Our tongues, my parents’ slurring speech sighs
To me, across oceans, across my bits
Of memory—Louisiana is
Both my mother and my father, lover
And friend. Our black hands are our lowest sins.
We are prisoners to the soil of debtors.
One day my hands will grow things my children
Eat and own, we will buy clothes cotton-made.
No child of mine will wear small fingers thin
And scraped with flesh, will dream of their escape
From rows of cash crops, eyes crusted with dirt.
God molded Maurice as my rebirth.

“The poem takes on in a brief and lyrical way an entire family's history of struggle. It made me want to read more by this author, and that's always a good sign.” —  Allison Joseph, 2017 contest judge

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