E. Lynn Harris, R.I.P.

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.

Longhand
Unknowing in 2011
Something I wrote for Amazon.com
Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"

Comments

  1. Amen on your lovely blessing, and may the Lord have mercy on us all.

  2. Yes, you can always tell a writer: the writer is the one who is writing.

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