Kiley Reid: "It takes a village to write a book"

Sarah Gelman on February 17, 2020

Kiley Reid - Such a Fun Age

Kiley Reid’s debut Such a Fun Age will make you uncomfortable, enlighten you, and make you laugh—likely all at once. In it, 25-year-old Emira Tucker is living in Philadelphia with two part-time jobs (typist and babysitter) and no health insurance. One night, the mother of the child for whom she babysits calls upon her in an emergency, and Emira—clad in her “going out” clothes—takes the toddler to a yuppie grocery store, only to be accused of kidnapping by a security guard and fellow shopper. You see, Emira’s employers are white, and she’s African American. The mother, Alix, is embarrassed by this situation and immediately takes the babysitter on as a project (unbeknownst to Emira) and becomes slightly smitten with her. Emira, meanwhile, loves her toddler charge but merely tolerates the mother, whose name she can barely remember. She’s busy navigating her somewhat aimless post-graduation life and trying to figure out how to “adult” before she’s off of her parent’s health insurance at the age of 26. Reid’s writing is authentic and seemingly effortless as she navigates subjects as weighty as race, class, and privilege. Here, Kiley Reid writes about the process of writing her novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there’s one hectic day where the fiction and poetry students write down their class preferences for the upcoming semester. Forms are distributed, names are filled out from one to three, as we list our desired teachers and sections for our next workshop. The workshop process originated at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and it’s filtered into nearly every other MFA program in some shape or form. Workshop is a weekly session with 8-14 students where one student’s work has been turned in and read the week prior, and then it is analyzed out loud by all students except for the writer, who must remain quiet. Even when that writer’s classmates have “read it wrong.” Even when the writer had already “planned on changing that line anyway.”

For my second semester, this was a big decision, as this would be the only time in my two years of graduate school that the highly contentious novel workshop would be available to me. One-hundred and fifty pages were required (I had about one-forty) and it came with the premise of reading one novel per week (I’ve always been a painfully slow reader). But the one hundred and forty pages of manuscript did mean something to me, and so I was torn. I put the novel workshop down as my second choice. And I pretended that if I ended up there, that it had chose me and not the other way around.

It did choose me. I saw my name on the list under instructor Paul Harding’s name, and I panicked. He was a writer, professor, and alumnus I’d admired, and I would be showing pages in the third week. But it didn’t take long to realize that Paul, and the class, was both kind and energetic. There were two other women of color present, which I knew by then was a luxury. And with negative temperatures in Iowa City, I didn’t have much choice but to stay home and write. Suddenly seemed like an opportunity to present as much of a manuscript as I could, messy as it was, to ten of my peers, whom I assured myself were as nervous as I was.

There are many writers who stay away from the novel workshop, and I understand why. They won’t want too many eyes on their work before it’s complete. They’d rather focus on the flow of one chapter rather than the piece as a whole. But several sweet things happened in our workshop, not just when my pages were being reviewed. There is a collective “you did it” attitude, just in response to turning a heaping stack of unpolished pages in. The spirit in the room starts off more like a book club rather than a firing ground. Before my own session started, a friend of mine said to me, “Alright, I’ve cast the main characters in your novel. Do you want to know who should play who?” This is one of my favorite games to play with novels I read, and the fact that someone had played it with mine gave me relief and drive to complete it.

There are horror stories at every university of leaving a writing workshop in tears, from harsh words from teachers and scorn from classmates, scrapping an entire manuscript. From my workshop, a three hour period where my hand went numb from taking notes, I ended with ten marked up manuscripts of my work and wonderful criticism (of which, I applied about eighty-five percent). With so much plot to work through, Paul was essential in determining where and when I deployed information to the reader, and how to speak truth to each character’s experience. One classmate told me that Briar, the novel’s three-year-old, seems like the type of child to always be sticky; and I definitely added a line confirming this. And there were many moments I had alluded to, to which my classmates kept pressing, “Why don’t you just let us watch this moment happen?” They were right. Writing can be such a solitary experience of discovery and intense immersion. It doesn’t always happen this way, but my novel workshop, where Such a Fun Age took off, was a place of dreamy academic community, and I kept thinking to myself, “Oh wait. Yes, she’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Suddenly I didn’t have to.

I stand by the belief that the best workshops are where you write down notes when your own work isn’t being critiqued, and this was one of them. Ten novels later, when our workshop ended, my classmates and I created a Google doc and shared the things we’d written down that semester. There are times I go back to it, when I’m writing and when I’m stuck. There’s a line that says, “To know is not to understand,” and I agree wholeheartedly. There’s also a line that just says, “Bodies.” I have no idea where this came from, but I’m so thankful someone wrote it down. Of course I could look to my hardcover, Such a Fun Age, to point at the progress I’ve made since then. But this communal Google doc is special in different ways. For a semester I sat with kind, and smart people, and we talked about finding truth on the page.

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