Reading Allowed with Terry McMillan
Friday, April 14, 2017
Speaking on Empowering Women, McMillan discussed the power of expression through writing and the impact it can have on our daily lives. An avid reader, she also stressed the importance of reading “anything and everything” for students looking to develop their writing skills.
Credited for her honest portrayal of the contemporary African-American women, McMillan brings her signature humor, wisdom and warmth to her writing. McMillan’s novels have inspired the box office hit movies Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Her breakout novel, Mama, was published in 1985, when she was thirty-six years old. Prior to that, McMillan never considered that she would get published, or even that she was a writer. Writing was simply an outlet for her to respond to the things happening around her.
At the presentation, McMillan assured students that it’s okay to be unsure about their future, and encouraged them to follow their instincts in finding what they love. “If you don’t know what you want to do, you have to excavate. Dig, dig, dig and dig deeper and you might find it. Some of you write, take pictures, play music or are interested in science. Do not listen to anyone who tries to discourage you. Find your own place, and do everything you can until you hit that part of the soil that you want.”
At a lunch gathering prepared by the College’s Culinary Arts’ students, McMillan described her process for developing the characters in her work. “As far as characters, I have a list of traits that I draw from, and I do my research,” she said. “For me, I want to care more about the people on the page than the actual words on the page. I think I’m drawn to people unlike myself, and I am more interested in those who are struggling with something, than those who have already arrived.”
Prior to the afternoon presentation, McMillan spoke to students studying the history African-American literature, from slave narratives to classic twentieth century novels to contemporary poetry and short stories. There, she got to know students, many of whom young writers, on a personal level, asking them “What do you read for pleasure?” and “Why did you take this course?”, and sharing details from her past that inspired her to write.
“The one thing I know about myself and a lot of people who write,” said McMillan, “is that we are curious, and in that curiosity, there is also discontent.” Born and raised in Port Huron, MI, just north of Detroit, McMillan was the oldest of five children. “All I knew was this is not what I see on TV,” she said. “Why is it that for the most part we were suffering, we were poor and we were the ones who were uneducated?”
The first in her family to attend college, McMillan refused a local scholarship, and instead, moved to Los Angeles, enrolling in community college. She later transferred to UC Berkeley where she majored in Journalism, “accidentally” she says. She reminded students of the incredible opportunities available to students at Bunker Hill Community College.“This is an opportunity where it’s not costing you a million a year, a place where you can discover your interests,” McMillan said. “Any class that piques your interest, take it. Anything you think you might be good at, take a class in it.”
At UC Berkeley, McMillan considered majoring in Sociology. She was interested in the human condition, and understanding the effects of what we do and why we do the things that we do. At the suggestion of an advisor, McMillan majored in Journalism, which didn’t necessarily appeal to her because as a journalist, one has to tell the truth.
As a writer, “you can lie and tell the truth at the same time – to me that’s what fiction is,” she said. “Writing is not an attempt to analyze your situation, but a way to document it, and reenact it, so you can see the truth in it.”
During the discussion, she asked each individual student what they enjoy reading for pleasure, and stressed its impact on one’s writing, and their ability to grow as a person. “There are a lot of things that you can do as a young person that can change your life forever,” she said, “But your whole life can change just by reading one book. Some of it you can learn from experience, but other things, you’ll learn from a book. You can learn about others by watching people, but also by reading about other people’s lives. The more you read, the smarter you get, and the more informed you become. You cannot evolve as a human in this country if you don’t learn to read about and understand people other than yourselves.”
View additional photos from the event on our Facebook page.
For more than a decade, the Compelling Conversations Speaker Series has brought high-profile speakers to Bunker Hill Community College to discuss their professional experience and provide inspiration form students – from activist Gloria Steinem to boxer Laila Ali, filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Tavis Smiley and former president of Ireland Mary Robinsons. For more information, visit: bhcc.edu/cc.