I’ve never read any books by E. Lynn Harris. Nevertheless, I was saddened to learn of his passing, apparently from a heart attack, at the young age of 54. This is because I can attribute the best piece of writing advice I ever received to Harris — even though I was merely overhearing his conversation with someone else, and he was talking about advice he in turn received from Alice Walker.
It was sometime in the mid-1990s, when I was an employee of the bookstore at Georgia State University (and was working on what would eventually become my first book). Harris appeared at the University, and I sold books at the reception given in his honor. He sat at a table next to me and signed books, with a long line of his fans waiting to get an autograph and have a brief word with him.
At one point, a woman getting a book signed mentioned that she was an aspiring novelist. He warmly encouraged her, and said, “Do you know what the best advice I ever received on how to become a writer? Alice Walker gave it to me, when I was working on my first book. She said, ‘Write something every day. I don’t care if it’s just a sentence. Just write something.’ And that simple advice made all the difference.”
The woman thanked him and left, and he turned his attention to the next person in line. I don’t remember anything else he said all evening long. But that one little bit of advice burned into my awareness. At the time, I was struggling to find the discipline to write. And there it was: as simple as learning to meditate. Just do it every day. Who cares if you only do it for a minute or two: just make sure it’s every day.
And so, both my writing and my spiritual practice blossomed. Because, naturally, out of that daily discipline, writing “only a sentence or two,” just like “meditating only a minute or two” will blossom into a real, meaningful discipline.
To this day, if I struggle with my writing, I get through the “blocked” periods by clinging to the advice Alice Walker gave to E. Lynn Harris (who, in turn, gave it indirectly to me); and I write something — something — every day.
Rest in peace, E. Lynn Harris. Thank you for helping me to live my dream as a writer. May your (and Alice Walker’s) words inspire many more people.