Likewise, my longtime friend and mentor Marion Dane Bauer taught me the emotional power of story. You can read our interview here.
But another inspired my writing, one whom I wish I had met and hope we might have been friends. Publishing over forty books, Virginia Hamilton (1936 – 2002) won every national and international honor in children’s literature. By the end of the life, she was “the most highly honored American author of children’s books.”
Reading biographies are a means by which we can become “mentored” by writers and other innovators of culture. We can gain insight into life’s challenges, learn from other perspectives, and become inspired by their victories.
Reading “Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays & Conversations” (edited by Arnold Adoff & Kacy Cook, Blue Sky Press 2010), is like having an afternoon tea – or a barbecue! – with Virginia. And wow! What a conversation we are having!
“Every fiction has its own basic reality…through which the life of characters and their illusions are revealed, and from which past meaning often creeps into the setting. The task for any writer is to discover the “reality tone” of each work – the basis of truth upon which all variations on the whole language system is set. For reality may be the greatest of all illusions.” (Illusions and Reality, 1980).
Of course, Hamilton’s body of work are central to the canon of African American literature, and much has been written about her determination to tell the “black people’s journey across the American hopescape.” As Hamilton states, “I see my writings and the language of them as a way to illuminate a human condition.”
I offer that her work, and her wisdom, goes beyond the singular “a”, or one, to encompass “the” human condition as a whole. She coined the phrase “parallel culture” to extinguish the hierarchy reflected in the terms minority and majority, and “their connection to less and more.”
“I write books of strong plots and opinions. They are books for survival. They teach youngsters how best to live in their worlds of limits. Always in writing I must test those limits through the story lines. I believe that the wall of limits moves back when the reader reads something, she is changed by what she reads. I know I am changed by what I write.” (A Storyteller’s Story, 1993).
Every writer always faces the unknown, says Hamilton. It begins with the blank page and goes from there.
“Every pause, every exclamation point in the writing of a book has to be imagined. It’s not easy because one can’t see what’s coming; one has no idea how it sounds and what it will do…That’s the writer’s hope, at least, to create something new and original.” (Frances Clarke Sayers Lecture, 1999).
Virginia Hamilton taught me that writing serves a very important purpose, one that goes beyond the individual. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the corporate side of the writing business and the blockbuster mindset that tends to run it. We succumb to the downheartedness of constant rejection, and all our insecurities are magnified. We forget the higher calling. Why we write our stories in the first place. Having this conversation with Virginia Hamilton reminded me of the importance of Story in our lives.
Virgina Hamilton’s legacy resonates through the cosmos.
If you could share tea -- or attend a barbecue -- with anyone, past or present, who would it be?