By: REYNA IWAMOTO / MANAGING EDITOR
In the second of the 2021 season’s Polk Professional Series, “How Do I Become You?” bestselling author and essayist Carvell Wallace discussed various aspects of his career, while giving creative writing and journalism advice to LIU students.
In the webinar held on Thursday, October 6, 2021, Wallace joined Robin Hemley, Director of the Polk School, and Co-Director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Rita Banjeree, for a conversation on various topics including Wallace’s role as a cultural critic, writing about the Black experience, and advocacy in a writers’ room.
While Wallace came to writing later in his life, he gained much experience learning about the world, going to theater school, working for a non-profit, spending time as a musician, working in tech, and becoming a parent — such life experience that would help him in the writing and journalism industry later.
Wallace saw his experience as an artist aid his writing career in real time: “I grew up seeing how art is made and as an artist and avid reader — always reading about books on musicians, I could offer a point of view that was different,” Wallace said.
Wallace not only brought a unique perspective to these reviews, but he also added a prominent Black voice to a lacking area.
“There was a problem with how white writers wrote hip hop reviews,” Wallace said.
As seen in his piece for Pitchfork in 2015, Wallace reviewed Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, speaking of the rapper’s raw honesty about the Black experience in America.
“It is about the humanity of every other black person whose face is painted on the mural of this wall of sound,” Wallace wrote. As this piece did great numbers, from there, Wallace was then asked to write more pieces for other publications.
Wallace’s devotion to starting a conversation around inequity continued with his Peabody nominated podcast, “Finding Fred,” as it explored the underlying political and moral questions behind the teachings of Fred Rogers.
“The big question for me was: What can be said about this content that hasn’t been said before?” Wallace said. “You can make content that talks about what we all love about Fred Rogers — sometimes people want to revel in information they're comfortable with, but I wanted to push it a bit.”
Wallace took the idea from Rogers’ teaching, “I like you just the way you are,” and pushed the driving question of how it overlaps with the evil committed in the world.
“As a member of a race that has been in this country for hundreds of years, seeing people do bad things for the entirety of it, do we love bad people just the way they are?” Wallace asked. “My goal was to engage every guest in that question and bring everyone to the table to talk about how they saw that.”
As the host and co-writer of this podcast, Wallace had creative freedom and agency for the show; however, he recalled some moments of pushback with producers regarding certain aspects of the show.
While these moments of pushback are expected in any writers’ room, Wallace shared his experience with advocacy in these situations, especially when determining who he is writing for.
Throughout his career, Wallace found that when he would write something Black people would understand and non-Black people would not, editors would tell him to explain this aspect to his audience — making it clear that he was writing for a non-Black audience.
“As I have gained an ability to advocate in a writers’ room I find I push the idea of: What if we write this not for white people? I think that is a path I want to continue as a writer — to explore things we don't normally explore,” Wallace said.
Following this long-headed discussion, Wallace read two of his pieces, one about love called “When Love is Impossible,” and ‘You Can’t Stop,” a piece about Los Angeles in collaboration with film director Miranda July for Departures Magazine.
At the end of Wallace’s readings, Dr. Banjeree and Dr. Hemley opened the forum to questions from the audience, receiving many from LIU students working toward an MFA in Creative Writing.
One question asked Wallace about how he works past writing about Black pain.
While Wallace discussed his reservations on writing about Black suffering, a painful topic that has become “emotional clickbait” for other people, he ultimately answered this question saying, “You have to write what is true.”
“I don't like to have anyone outside of me move me off my truth. I’m going to do what is real and true for me,” Wallace said.
As the webinar ended, Wallace answered a final question through the chat feature on Zoom: “What advice do you have for young writers, especially of color, who want to continue to make the writing and journalism industry a more equitable place where all voices can be heard?”
“Keep going,” Wallace typed. “Keep bringing up other writers [of color] and learn what it takes to be in the decision makers’ seat.”