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If time is currency, we’re all going broke. The path to completed work projects, fully read books, cooked meals, clean homes and other to-dos is paved with all manner of distractions, contingencies and commitments.
I always feel the presence of time, constantly counting how much I’ve frittered and the amount I can spare, ever budgeting how to give people and tasks their due.
We at The Lily asked Kim to write a monthly column for us. She’ll touch on topics as varied as friendship, midlife, race, parenting, injustice, kindness and the messiness of our shared humanity. You can find her columns the third Monday of each month.
Below, you’ll meet Kim. She gives us a glimpse into her life, from her childhood in Memphis to the forces that prompted her to flee journalism and write novels. She helps us understand why she cares so deeply about the subjects she’ll explore in her columns.
Wherever Kim’s words take me, I’ll go. I hope you’ll join us on the journey.
— Nneka McGuire, Lily multiplatform editor
I was born in Memphis 55 years ago. I began making up stories almost as soon as I learned to read: The first that I can remember involved a mouse I found splayed in a trap in my aunt’s basement. My childhood was neither particularly bleak nor particularly cheerful: We were poor but not the poorest. My mother hustled and struggled and managed mostly to keep the bottom from falling out, though not by much. To our condition I was at first oblivious, and then less so, and then not at all, at which point I retreated, like most writers, into books. The summer I was 9 I read my way through my mother’s shiny collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, delighted. Then I got up and went to the library.
In second or third grade I was placed into a special pull-out program called CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) where we toyed with brainteasers and did problem-solving and wrote our own plays. What all this meant for the other kids in school, the ones left behind without a CLUE, I sometimes wondered but no one ever explained. I kept making up stories. In seventh grade I won a citywide writing contest, the first (and last) poetry I ever inflicted upon the public.
A few years later, when I found myself at one of the nation’s top prep schools, unwilling (my mother made me go) and, despite all those brainteasers, decidedly unprepared, it was writing that saved me. Biology bewildered me, math made cry and Latin was Greek to me, but in history and, especially, English, I soared. The teachers told me so, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes with kindness. Whatever else, I could write.
I became a journalist because I wanted to be a reporter, failing to realize these things are not always the same. I had (and have) great respect for journalism, believed (and believe) that a free and fearless press is vital to a functioning democracy. That message came clear to me the first day of a journalism class in college, when the visiting professor, a grizzled newsman straight out of central casting, stood up and bellowed, “The role of the journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That delighted me. It sounded like just the thing. Except, in practice, too often it was not.
The equivocations of journalism, the pretense of objectivity, the dangerous two-sides-to-every-story insistence were not for me. They felt wrong and I hated them, though for a long time I assumed the discomfort was the result of my failings and not the practice of journalism. By the time I couldn’t take it anymore I had reached the pinnacle, the holy temple, the New York Times. I had to flee. My final week at the paper, I interviewed a City Hall official, a member of then-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration, a man who had made clear his disdain and contempt for the press in general and who had, for whatever reasons, been particularly snide, dismissive and unhelpful to me. When he evaded a request for information by saying he would get back to me in a few days, I said a few days would be too late. I was quitting.
He hit the roof. Huffed and puffed and hung up to call my editor. Within minutes my editor was towering over my desk, demanding I call the jerk and apologize. Because I didn’t want to damage the next person’s ability to work with this obstructionist — and because I was hedging my bets by taking a one-year leave instead of quitting outright — I did. (There are, in fact, some bridges one should burn but I didn’t know that at the time.) The moment confirmed a few things for me, not the least of which was this: The only thing I really had in life was my voice. If I allowed anyone else but me to direct it, I was sunk.
During the year that followed I wrote and sold my first novel. There was no going back after that, not because I became a successful novelist (reader, I did not) but because, away from the daily push for deadlines and headlines, I realized the kind of reporting I wanted to do came not from the statehouse, not from the Capitol, not even from a war zone (one trip to beautiful, broken Liberia had gutted my taste for war reporting) but from someplace much more dangerous and closer to home: the human heart.
That sounds schmaltzy. It certainly would be, were I sentimental. I am not sentimental. (First line of my wedding vows: “I am not a romantic, and I never was.”) Sentimentality is dangerous. James Baldwin, my hero, damned sentimentality as “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion … the mark of dishonesty.” He was right, as usual.
The human heart is not a pretty place. Beautiful, yes. Terrible, definitely. Perplexing, always. The job of the person reporting from deep inside the jungle is to tell the truth about what she finds, as clearly and cleanly as possible. People have often called me brave after reading my writing (which usually means “I can’t believe you wrote that because I would never!”) but in truth it’s not so much bravery as impatience. We are here on Earth and the clock is ticking: Who has time for lies or evasions or self-delusions? Who has time for messing around?
Plenty of time, though, for joy. Some sources: my children, now transitioning, with integrity and determination, to adulthood in a poisoned, fractured world. My partner, precisely my opposite in many ways and the hard-fought, late-found love of my life. My far-flung siblings and aging mother. My brilliant and compassionate and hilarious friends. Gardening. Teaching in prisons and teaching in the academy. Baking bread and hosting dinner parties. Protesting injustice. My complicated faith. Also my aging dog, about whom I am not sentimental but who I love. All of these things and more (movies, kindness, the psychic cost of living in a fend-for-yourself society) I want to write about, as keenly as possible. Reports from the human heart.
Which leads me back to Baldwin, after whose early essay, “Autobiographical Notes,” this piece is modeled and to whom my work pays a kind of constant homage. Baldwin was the ultimate reporter: relentless, clear-eyed, humane. Baldwin knew that most people live in almost-total darkness, stumbling blindly through their lives. The role of the artist, Baldwin said, was first to claw her way out of her own self-created darkness. And after that, to go back in and turn on a light.
True story: As I wrote this column, I received an email. A woman found an essay I wrote about depression, shared it with her family so they would understand what she is going through, realized she did not want to spend her life denying her depression and suffering, then made an appointment to get some help.
I want to be a good writer and an honest woman. Most days, I think I hit the mark.
Read more from Kim:
A letter to Toni Morrison, written after her death
The low road, thoughts on revenge
Moving stars, an essay on the Obamas leaving the White House