Sunday, August 16, 2009

Steven Barnes is my Sensei

August 15, 2009
Steven Barnes is my Sensei

This entry will launch my series on Writing Mentors. I will rant and rave about other stuff naturally, but this topic makes an excellent start.

First, let me define the word Sensei.

Keep in mind that I have never been on a mat, never taken a stance, never sparred with a bokken, never drawn a bow, nor have I trained in any dojo of any kind. I am far more likely to sit on my generous butt watching a martial art flick. Yet, the same discipline needed in martial art connects to writing. I equate Sensei with a high level of discipline. Her Tangh-i-ness will get there. Baby steps. Baby steps.

The Japanese word, Sensei, is commonly known to refer to a judo or karate teacher, it can also respectfully refer to a teacher or a mentor. It so happens that Steven Barnes actually practices several forms of martial art along with writing his screenplays, teleplays, short stories, and novels. He has New York Times Bestseller status and Hugo and Nebula awards to his street cred. So I'm sure ya'll understand why someone like him would find a place on my wall of honor.

I have displayed there a time-worn collage of writers both living and dead. Steven Barnes shares the same plane at the top as Samuel Delany and Mark Twain. Octavia Butler inhabits the center (for those who must know).

Mind you, Steven Barnes never directly answers to this title: Sensei. It's just something I chose to call him. I've a bad habit. If I like a person, they get a nickname. Which is how they're stuck being addressed when I talk to them. Steven Barnes didn't ask for this. It's all me. What can I say? Her Tangh-i-ness has issues. My father was not thrilled with my being an artist instead of following in his footsteps and applying myself to science. So I got into into my head that I needed a literary Father-Figure of some kind. I thought I'd pin that dubious distinction on Steven Barnes. He, wisely, avoids that responsibility.

I'd started emailing Steven Barnes when I had to make a tough decision. In 2001, Octavia Butler was at Clarion West. That year, Sensei would teach at Clarion East. I was rabid about the Aubry Knight books. So I hoped when I was in the Seattle area I could actually meet their author. Didn't happen. I went off to Clarion West and studied with Ms. Butler. Steven Barnes wowed Clarion East. That could have been the end of the story.

But, I emailed Sensei, post-Clarion, whenever I read a book of his that really sent me into orbit or to ask his blessing for an idea from his books that I wanted to explore in my own writing. Steven Barnes always graciously responded. I'm not gonna to tell you what he said either. Nyah.

In 2003, I was accepted into the Mojo Conjure Stories anthology. Steven Barnes' name appeared in the same volume. I emailed again. We had a nice chat. In 2006, Octavia Butler passed and I signed up for Steven Barnes' Lifewrite newsletter. Every few days, I'd get free teachings straight from Sensei without having to fly to the West Coast. Sweeeeet.

2008, I eventually invested in the Lifewriting for Writers program. I absorbed it for a whole year before taking him up on his offer of a short story or outline analysis. In May 2009, I spoke with Steven Barnes on the phone for the first time in nine years of emails. I felt like I'd won the the literary lottery. I was talking to my hero!

I adore Steven Barnes unconditionally. He did, however, say I could share with ya'll some of his words of wisdom. I am presently searching through my collection to see what gem from Sensei that I will pull out to feature here. In the meantime, you could always go straight for the source. Type with me,

The best teachers know the student really doesn't need them. It's all about the hand, the arrow, the bokken, the shinai and the target. Her Tangh-i-ness will get over herself.


No comments:

Post a Comment