Death and Maslow

”Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels got too high.”

Cynthia Bond had our attention in the Discover Great New Writers reading room from the first line of her haunting debut novel, Ruby.  Bond’s poetic imagery runs from the beautiful to the brutal, the mundane to the profound – full of portent and a cadence that reminded our readers of folklore – and breathes life into the residents and landscape of East Texas in the 1970s.  There are echoes of Beloved and Sula here, but Bond’s voice is her own, and unforgettable.

Bond has taught writing to at-risk youth in the Los Angeles area for some time now, and we asked her to expand on her experiences for the Barnes & Noble Review. ~ Miwa Messer


 Death and Maslow

There was a problem with the play. The protagonist was vibrant, his purpose as obvious as blood on new snow. He wanted to kill the girl — a minor character, but still, there she was, crouched and weeping in the corner. He was basically an anti-hero, a bit bland and monotonous. But he was loud, and incredibly verbose. He had already convinced the girl to kill herself. They were in grim agreement. The problem? There was no antagonist. There was no push-back. It would be a very, very short play, ending, I imagined, before the first act break.

At least that is what I explained to the playwright, Sarah, a 19-year-old living on the streets of Hollywood. I was working as a facilitator and manager of a writing and arts program for homeless youth, and Sarah had brought her work to me. What I wanted to do was sit her down, catch her eyes and lift them from the worn carpet. I wanted to tell her that I understood how each inhalation could cut like a thousand razors, but that it was still possible to endure, that each day, week, year the pain could hurt less, until breathing in would be like standing on a mountaintop, the light blue air filling her body. Whether I believed it or not, that is what I wanted to tell her. I knew the odds were 50-50 she would die. She had OD’d in a public bathroom a few weeks before. In that moment, I decided not to lie, and not to beg for her life. Instead, I decided to do my job as a writing instructor, and the truth was, her play was lopsided. It did not work. I looked at her page and began to make notes. I told her that there needed to be an antagonist (albeit an anti-villain), a strong one to create conflict and drama.

Sarah was a writer. She had been coming to my workshops for several months. She and her girlfriend, Hudson, had left New England because their parents had discovered they were gay. They had driven until they had no money for gas, and found themselves stranded in Hollywood. Hudson had started working as a prostitute to pay for food. They lived in their car until it was towed away, then they’d slept in the park. They’d started using heroin—it helped to block the reality, made it easier for Hudson to sleep with johns, made it easier for Sarah to bear as she watched her beloved taking strangers to bed. They’d become addicted. In spite of this, Sarah remained a writer. One who filled journal after journal with poetry, stories and essays about her life. This was her first play. The protagonist’s name was Death.

She took my critique quite seriously and came back with a rewrite later that same week. She created a character fighting for her life. Suddenly there was conflict. It was a better story and that is what I told her. Also, the minor character of the girl had grown—perhaps the girl was the protagonist now? Perhaps there was hope.

Whether it was the play, or any other incendiary occurrence that sparks change and pulls people from the precipice, Sarah did not die and is working as a counselor today.

I taught writing in Hollywood for approximately eight years. First, I taught youth how to simply write. How to get into the habit of creating. In the beginning I believed when a moment of revelation happened in my class, about drug abuse, about prostitution, about resolutely denouncing life-threatening behavior, I would beam with accomplishment and joy. But the day after such an epiphany had occurred for a boy named Michael, I saw him high out of his mind, turning tricks on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I realized that my job was not to save anyone. I was a teacher who tried, in the moments, the hour in my class, to present the experience of creation. I knew that the act of writing was a seed. It might never take hold; it might wither or be washed away by a sudden summer flood. But it might take root; it might find water and sustenance. It might grow. Whether the person survived or not, they would know, for that millisecond, that creativity was possible.

So that youth could write, our program gave away journals and pens. Word quickly spread, and youth who had never walked into a social service agency came out of squats and from park benches to retrieve them. They would fill every page and come back for more.

The experience made me think of my mother, an educator, talking about the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The first level being basic needs, including food and shelter. The last level, self-actualization, included creativity. My mother pointed out one day that my work, in many ways, disproved that theory. Youth with nothing sought to write, to express themselves. To create was the first stage, which in turn led, in some cases, to coming in for services—bed, food, warmth. The first of these, however, was creativity.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.