Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events, women’s perspectives, and artistic freedom. She has been widely published and anthologized in such publications as the Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Colonize This! anthologies, as well as Essence, Utne Reader, and Ms. magazines. She currently has a story up at Interfictions titled “The Taming“. Her short story collection Ancient, Ancient — winner of the 2013 James Tiptree, Jr. award — contains sensual tales of the fantastic, the dark, and the magical. Her micro-essays on writing can be found at www.kiiniibura.com.
Editor’s Note: Kiini Ibura Salaam received the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for her short story collection Ancient, Ancient at Wiscon 37. This guest blog is an extension of her acceptance speech.
Writers are amazing people. They have written books in prison, while parenting two children alone, and without use of hands and speech due to full-body paralysis. And if you’re anything like me, these awesome examples of human resilience don’t inspire you, they piss you off. They leave you acutely aware of how little you’ve been able to achieve and of how others are doing more with less.
We are all, as human beings, so intimately aware of what we can’t do. Litanies of failure cycle around on constant replay in our minds. When we view our lives through the lens of what we have failed to do, we stand in a very small, limited space. There’s no room for creativity, spontaneity, or growth. There is only a relentless obsession with what has gone wrong.
In some odd way failure becomes a space of comfort. You know what you can’t do, but you don’t know what you can do. Putting your failure to the side can be scary because it means you must fly into the unknown.
I spent most of the last decade creatively paralyzed and emotionally disconnected from my writing self. Between bouts of handwringing and self-haranguing, I tried and failed to write a novel and created many more story concepts than completed stories. Sick of my incessant complaining and my narrative of failure, I decided I would put aside what I couldn’t do, I would figure out what I could do.
It did not take long for me to realize that the ten speculative stories I had published in the past could be collected in a book. I had already written a book, but I had allowed my obsession with failure to invalidate my work.
Asking myself what I could do required me to put aside all I had heard about successful writers. I had never been able to write before or after work. Instead of focusing on my inability to commit, I dissected my day for a time that I could write. I found myself editing my stories by hand on the subway during my morning commute. It wasn’t advice I had heard before. It was the writing time I could carve out for me.
After I the stories had been accepted for publication, something incredible happened. Emboldened by the fact that my stories would become a collection, I decided I would complete some new stories. After being unable to generate new work, successfully editing my short story collection generated the confidence, focus, and strategy I needed to complete three new stories. Taking the small step to do what I could, loosened the constrictions of failure I had wrapped tightly around myself. Nothing I had complained about for years had changed. I didn’t have more time or less children, but my mental state had shifted. A freedom that had been lost to me for years had been restored.
I don’t believe that we are here on Earth to beat ourselves up. Nor do I think we are here to fail to reach our goals. I believe we are here to figure out what we can do with our lives; we are here to give ourselves the gift of discovery and journey down a unique path that we unlock by noticing and honoring those spaces of ability rather than obsessing over our failures. Creating the collection brought me two awards: the 2012 James Tiptree, Jr. Award I just accepted at Wiscon 37 and a second draft of a novel I had left untouched for years. Doing what I could turned out to be a gargantuan gift to myself. It has revealed that I can write a novel, I just needed some strategies to do it with the life I have now. We all have talents and desires embedded within us, and we all know how we have failed to satisfy them. But life is not a competition, it is a puzzle. The question isn’t why can’t I do this thing, it’s how can I do this thing? We all know what we can’t do, but there is so much more magic in figuring out what we can do.