On days like this, meaning a notable artist like Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday, the custom is to suggest enjoying his or her work and to “support” others like them in their names. However, something tells me this is not what Zora would want. I think most writers take their birthdays off for things like cake, people, wine and gluttony over discipline. So today Zora wants us to party in her name. And for you to write your own novel, put elbow grease on your big dream and take her as example somebody somewhere will love your work someday.
It’s been nearly 61 years since Zora Neale Hurston went home. Just last year Harper Collins/Amistad published her early 20th Century stories Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, edited by Genevieve West with a foreword by Tayari Jones. To this day, I am still so fascinated by this woman; study of her life took away my abilities to fail. She is example unparalleled in literary history of how failure is just a feeling, never a fact. Every artist must learn, read and study Zora because her life proves the work and art can matter more than ever at any time. It can sort out its greatest gifts on its own. No other American writer delivers a more believable message about the meaning of the act than Zora.
When I talk to other writers or leave home in a writer capacity, it feels hideous to complain or project anything other than two illustrious facts: My first still-unpublished novel manuscript conjured an Illinois Arts Council fellowship and big literary agent representation while my next manuscript conferred my M.F.A. and a publishing auction for my thesis to become my first novel, at ages 23 and 26 respectively. So I stick to that mostly and then I go home. I always know I made people feel good. I always doubt I made them truly believe.
Arts and entertainment, even politics and sports, inflict ongoing disassociation from everything else before, after and between people’s mostly rare high points. We all are cheated out of the gifts the more frequent failures give. Some failures nearly threatened me to run back to my safe, tiny hometown or run into an unmarked grave. Zora’s biography includes both events. Yet, these were moments unto her next achievements I think are still coming and to be found.
But I’ve known more than most about Zora’s life since I first left my safe, tiny hometown of early memories forming in windows to the backyards bordering the graveyard I heard my father always say he wanted more than working to get to. By knowing her life, and how she was still just a library book or sexy film adaptation or classic edition away, I knew I was just having moments– not ends. These moments and ends are what I’ve grown to respect and need more. They make me better for the high points.
Imagine if we focused on creative failure more than success? What if we hauled out the messes, showed the drawer novels, celebrated the thrown paintings and crushed sculptures, watched pieces of abandoned films, saw the rejected screen tests, documented the sweat and crying of dress rehearsals, pieced together the torn poetry? What if we didn’t blind author book advance amounts into clever euphemisms capable of wide range? How many more- of all backgrounds and colors and genders- would see Zora as their sister in spirit?
Ms. Hurston is the appropriate start to reverse the dangerous fairy tale even the most successful creatives fall prey to. Its danger manifests in widespread insecurity and low self-esteem among the most accomplished artists, drinking and drug and relationship problems among the most tragic, obscurity and poverty among the most talented, and unfinished works among the most secretive or unsupported. When success is in demand, there’s never chance to feel normal. While I highly recommend any of Zora’s works and my own and all writers she influenced or formed, save us for another day. On her premonitory birthday at the start of a new year, Queen Zora would want you to celebrate her and her work with renewed commitment to your own.