Story. I have this face. It attracts stories.
I work with a woman who met Maya Angelou.
She was an English major in college, in North Carolina. She wrote a self-described “cheesy” novella about a girl with a fatal illness, a girl who’d been cooped up all her life and never really lived until she ran away, got herself a boyfriend, and stayed up to watch the dawn. She’d written the novella deliberately, in protest of an assignment she disagreed with. One day in class, she’s called to the library. The newspapers were there. The TV stations were there. Without her knowledge, her professor had submitted the story to a contest, and it’d won first place.
She still has pictures. She doesn’t look happy.
Later, Maya Angelou came to speak at their school. Again, this woman was called out of class–this time to the professor’s office. Sitting in one of the chairs was Maya Angelou. “This is the girl I told you about,” said the professor. Maya Angelou (“What do you call her?” this woman asked me. “Miz?”) looked this woman up and down, literally stared at her starting from her feet, to her head, to her feet again, and said, “I shall call you…Joy.”
This woman’s name isn’t Joy. “But if Maya Angelou decides to call you Joy….” she said.
So “Joy” spent the entire day with Maya Angelou. There was a receiving line at one point, and all the town and college notables filed past Maya Angelou, telling her what a wonderful influence she’d been on their lives, how they admired her…and then they’d pass “Joy.” She felt embarrassed and out of place, so she tried to edge her way out the door. Maya Angelou reached out, dropped her hand in “Joy’s” lap, and said, “You stay right there.” So she stayed.
At the end of the day, while she was about to get in a long, white limosine and be driven away, Maya Angelou said, “I want to see that story. We shall drive you to your room and you will get it for me.” “Joy” ran across the quad to her dorm (rather than force the limosine to try to park in the parking lot, which was under repair, grabbed her story, and ran back to the limosine. She delivered the story. Maya Angelou said, “We will return this story post-haste.”
This woman stopped to stress that Maya Angelou did, indeed speak like that.
Two months later, this woman was pulled out of her classes again, this time to the Dean’s office. “It’s here, it’s here!” he said. It was a manilla envelope from Maya Angelou, containing the manuscript–which was covered by a sea of red.
On top of the manuscript, also in red ink: “Joy. You need to stop working on this story. You have talent. You shouldn’t be wasting your time on this.” This woman said that every compromise she’d made, every time she’d let someone else tell her what to write or how to write it, Maya Angelou had pointed out.
But it made this woman stop writing for two years.
She’s halfway through her second novel now.
I asked her how she would have felt if Maya Angelou had gushed over her story. “Rotten,” she said.