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Playwright Pearl Cleage Opens Up
Originally published on Thu May 1, 2014 12:45 pm
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, so I have a personal question for you - do you keep a journal - or did you - from your wild and crazy 20s? If you did, would you let anybody read it? If your answer is, over my dead body, then you are not Pearl Cleage. The best-selling author playwright and activist recently decided to publish 18 years' worth of entries that cover everything from movies she loved to marriage and other relationships, to getting high with friends, meeting celebrities like Coretta Scott King and Richard Pryor and perhaps most important - finding her voice as a writer. The book is called "Things I Should Have Told My Daughter," and that's because let's just say Pearl Cleage's daughter had a different idea about what she should do with those journals - am I right, Pearl Cleage?
PEARL CLEAGE: Absolutely right. She wanted me to burn them up and be done with it.
MARTIN: Did she - now so did she say it just that way when you mentioned - you say in the book you actually wanted to give them to your granddaughter, and your daughter said - was it gently or not so gently?
CLEAGE: It wasn't so gently, it was very direct. She said absolutely not. But her daughter was 3...
MARTIN: (Laughing) She don't need to hear all that.
CLEAGE: Exactly, she doesn't need to know all that. And then she added she doesn't need to know all that about her grandmother. So it's like I kind of understood that, but it was - I thought it would be helpful when my granddaughter turned 16 - she was 3 when I made this request - but when she was 16, I thought it might be helpful for her to have a chance to look at a life fully lived of a woman trying to grow up, trying to deal with all the outside world things, all the inside yourself things and all of that without any censoring so that she could see the rough edges and see that even though life is messy and the journey is always messy, that you can keep moving forward and figure it out.
But my daughter, I think, thought that that was a little more information than she needed and I also think that - later I realized - that I think she also was protective of me because she knows how personal these journals are, and my daughter is a lot more secretive than I am. So...
MARTIN: So let me go back when you started journaling when you were 11...
CLEAGE: Eleven, yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah, why? Do you remember why?
CLEAGE: I was in the sixth grade and I was just hitting puberty and there were all those things that happen to your body, all those things that happen in terms of your emotional relationships with other people. And I'd had always written, I always wanted to be a writer - so that - I'd felt like writing things down would help me figure it out and understand what was going on and it wouldn't be quite so terrifying to me.
MARTIN: One of the things that I found very moving about the journal entries is where you talk about the writing life. You talk about the boredom, you know, the aloneness, the fear that you sometimes felt when nothing would come when you had, you know, you don't call it writer's block, when you just couldn't figure out what to say. You also say that that's one reason why you think a lot of writers drink, you know, or use drugs as a way to deal with those feelings. And you're not shy about talking about the way you used those things. I wanted to talk to you about that.
CLEAGE: Well, 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. And sometimes people can't do it without drinking, without doing whatever drug they prefer, without doing wild things that kind of take away those censors that keep them from doing the creative work they're trying to do.
MARTIN: One of the other things I got a kick out of, though, was when you talk about - you say several times - why aren't I famous yet?
CLEAGE: I know, right.
MARTIN: (Laughing) You know, you write about like other people who are getting published and you're very generous. I mean, you write about other people's work that you particularly like. I mean, you critique it, but you say - why aren't I famous yet?
CLEAGE: And that's that jealousy thing where you say, God, Alice Walker's is on the cover of Ms. and Michele Wallace is only 26 and she's got a book. But I think that's part of what drives you - if you are looking at other people's work and you say I'm that good, I can do that, why am I not the one who's on the cover of this, why am I not the one who's being talked to as the authority of this or that, especially in your own journals.
It never occurred to me when I was writing these entries that I would ever let anyone else see them. But part of what I had to really talk to myself about when I decided to do it was - are you prepared to really show who you were on the way to being who you are? And the answer either had to be yes, I'm prepared to show myself, warts and all, or no, I'm going to clean it up and make it kind of a fictional character who always knew, who was always generous and kind and compassionate. But that's not my intention...
MARTIN: Or fierce and brave.
CLEAGE: Yeah, what's the point of that?
MARTIN: ...Was never scared.
CLEAGE: That's part of the problem is that when we talk about ourselves that way, we don't allow younger women to understand what it takes to actually go through the periods in your life when you don't know what's going on - you're confused, it's messy - it's a lot of confusion in yourself. And if we always pretend that we always knew, we always were the way we are when we're 50 or 60 years old, it kind of makes them feel like I might as well give up 'cause I'm not that way and I'll never be that way.
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that one of the hesitations you think your daughter had about your publishing these or showing them to even her daughter was that you think she was protective of you. And there are things in the book that you have to know some people are going to find objectionable. I mean, you talk about having an abortion, you talk about the fact that you had affairs with men who were married. Tell me about that - I mean, did you hesitate? I mean, did you think at some point about excising some of those things?
CLEAGE: I really didn't because I think that, you know, those things where we think I did something bad and everybody's going to think I'm terrible if I admit that I did this - I'm old enough to know now that you can't think up a new sin. And the thing that I have found is the exact opposite of people coming to me saying I can't believe you did that, I think less of you.
What I'm getting back is thank you for saying that because I did that too, thank you for saying that because that's part of what my life is. Abortion is legal in this country. I remember when abortion was not legal and people bled to death and died and all of that. So this is a legal abortion. You know, there are states now in the United States where you can actually buy and smoke marijuana. So all those things that seemed to be so shocking, I don't think they really are shocking. And I think most people understand not only are they not shocking but they didn't make me a bad person. When they encounter me...
MARTIN: Well, some people do. I mean, some people would say, with regard to abortion in particular, there are some people who would say, A, it is still bad whether it's legal or not legal and, B, you are a bad person if you...
CLEAGE: Well, those would be people who either wouldn't be reading my book or their opinions are those things that they have a right to. But I don't think they make me a bad person. And I think that the more people who have done these things and had these experiences speak honestly about them, the less we have to fear from the people who are trying to make everyone intimidated.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with best-selling author, playwright Pearl Cleage. We're talking about her latest book. It is a series of journal entries spanning 18 years called "Things I Should Have Told My Daughter." The book recounts a lot of conversations that you had with your mother and father. Your father was a prominent black nationalist leader. And then you went on - in the mid-'70s you were the press secretary for Maynard Jackson, who was the first black mayor of Atlanta. You were actually married to a commissioner at - you know, at one point. You had a public life - kind of unusual for a writer.
CLEAGE: I was raised in a very activist household so that I grew up surrounded by people who were activists. My father formed political parties, ran for office all the time, they founded a newspaper. I mean - so my family was very involved in the civil rights movement in freedom struggles so that it was just a part of our lives. As I grew older, I was going to be a writer, always knew it, but I always knew that that writing was going to be grounded in the kind of activism that had defined my life as a member of this very political family.
The hard thing about that for me was when I became involved in politics at the level that I was working for the mayor because then I couldn't be myself as a writer because I had to be writing for him. I had to write in his voice, I had to be conscious of fulfilling his dream, which was very important. He wanted to be a great first African-American mayor of Atlanta and he was. But that was another kind of life path that really didn't include me.
I didn't have a dream of being a press secretary, I had a dream of being a playwright, I had a dream of being a novelist and a poet. There was a point where I really had to say I can't write a love poem with the mayor's voice in my ear, I have to be able to hear myself talk, I have to be able to hear myself think, which is when I resigned and ran screaming from city hall and never went back.
MARTIN: How do you feel now going back over these pages?
CLEAGE: I felt really protective of my 20-year-old self. I felt really protective of my 25, 26, you know, 30-year-old self because I was very innocent about a lot of things - didn't have as much access as I thought I had. So that I felt, you know, reading sometimes over these entries when I'm 20, 22 years old, I would shake my head and say who let this little girl out in the world by herself?
You know, she's stumbling around, she's making all kinds of mistakes. But I never felt like I wasn't moving ahead. I felt good about that, that I was always trying to figure it out, trying to do what I had conceived of as the right thing. And I think overall, the whole thing made me really realize that my search has always been to try to figure out how to tell the truth. I did a lot of lying to people and I think part of that is because as a woman I was trained to do that. I think part of that was...
MARTIN: Lying about what?
CLEAGE: Oh, everything - about what I wanted, about what I was, about what my ambition was. I talked about it a lot in my journals, but when I talked to people, it was kind of unseemly to say I am devoted to this writing, I know y'all have other plans...
MARTIN: I want to win an Academy Award.
CLEAGE: ...But I want to do this.
MARTIN: I want to be famous.
MARTIN: I want to be successful.
CLEAGE: I want to talk. I want to have a platform from which to talk. It wasn't even so much being famous as I want to talk and have people listen to me. I think I have something to say, I think that I am a person who can push through to the truth and I want to be able to tell it to people once I figure it out. So I saw that in my life though all those years of craziness and I think that's kind of a through-line that has continued until now, I'm still doing that work.
MARTIN: Is there something you wish you could tell that 22-year-old self?
CLEAGE: (Laughing) Relax. Relax, it's going to be fine. Keep working hard but relax, don't be so hard on yourself. I'm very conscious about how hard on myself I was during many of those times - you're never doing enough, you're not doing enough for your husband, you're not doing enough for your child, you're not doing enough for your boss and you're definitely not doing enough for your writing. And I think if I could just tell her one thing it would be relax, you're doing as much as you can do and you're going to be fine.
MARTIN: Pearl Cleage is a novelist and playwright. Her latest book is called "Things I Should Have Told My Daughter." And now she's told the rest of us. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Pearl Cleage, thanks so much for joining us.
CLEAGE: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.