Will I write a sentence that will just float off the page? Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader. — Maya Angelou, The Daily Beast interview, April 10, 2013
News of the death of Dr. Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson) resounds throughout the world, because one of the great ones is gone. There are few who are unfamiliar with her writing, because the first book in an autobiographical series, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is required reading in high schools and colleges.
Angelou did more than write autobiographies, which would have been enough, as they chronicled not only her life but the African American experience. But she was also an actress, poet, civil rights activist, singer, dancer, professor and the list goes on – a true Renaissance woman. And she emanated love and wisdom, a beautiful combination.
Her story of childhood abuse and rise to inaugural poet, literary icon and legendary human being reminds me of the King James Bible which Angelou loved and always had with her when she wrote; this scripture is fitting:
A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men (Proverbs 18:16, KJV).
Countless writers were inspired by the gifted Angelou, and I have my own story; although it didn’t end as I had hoped, thoughts of the prolific writer permeated my psyche and ultimately, propelled me to write.
It was around 1983, and Angelou was going to grace my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. Channel 5 new reported she would be interviewed at the local ABC station. I knew the location, as I passed it daily.
Somehow, I had to get one of my poems to Angelou and ask if she thought my budding skills were worth honing. I had read all of her then published work.
Before my urgent desire to meet Angelou, I had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer, specifically a poet, but I had released the dream, dropped out of college and by the time of Angelou’s Cleveland visitation, I was working at the Veterans Administration as a clerk. But the year before, I had revisited writing poetry, as my passion had been revived.
On the day of Angelou’s interview, I had to go to work. I rose early and wrote a note, attaching what I now know was a horribly written poem; at the time, it was my best. I also included my contact information.
Apprehension and fear gripped me, and I talked myself out of trying to finagle my way into the ABC studio under false pretenses and hide out until I thought the interview was done. I pictured myself approaching Angelou, handing her the envelope, then hightailing it out of there.
Finally, I decided I would slip the envelope under the glass door of the studio, and I prayed that whoever found it would give it to Angelou. It is unlikely she received the handwritten letter, and more likely that thousands of would-be writers contacted her for advice.
Yet, because of my former depression and erroneous thinking, I imagined she read the poem, decided I couldn’t write, and didn’t respond to spare my feelings. “What a fool you were,” I chided myself.
However, I continued reading her books which inspired me, and years later, I discovered her advice for writers. Here’s a short paraphrase: Writers write. Well, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I, once again, took pen to paper.
I’m grateful that Angelou became a writer, a wonder and an inspiration.