Land of Literary Opportunity: A conversation with Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, established author best known for his work for young readers, served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2012 to 2014. His experiences as a writer and promoter of literature, as well as his 30-year tenure as Jersey City resident provide unique insight into what makes Jersey City fertile ground for a growing writing community.

Writers need a community

Writers might be rich in talent, dreams, and hope, but these assets can’t pay the rent. As Manhattan’s East Village and Brooklyn exceeded the financial reach of emerging creative types, more affordable rents and proximity to Manhattan drew writers to Jersey City.

“It matters that people come together because then they can discover each other,” Myers tells JCI in an exclusive interview. The connections create a community, which does more than just help individuals battle the solitude of writing: members share information that can make a huge difference in their writing lives.

“Things [in publishing] are changing so much. Some contracts are as thick as books. It is valuable to get inside insights, to hear about what people are doing, how much they get paid.”

Myers admires the increasing local options for writers to connect and create community. Independent book stores such as Word and Tachair, both on Newark Avenue, provide writers with work and meeting space, the ever-necessary combination of caffeine-and-carbohydrates, and a showcase for local talent on their shelves and through live reading events. Myers also applauds the development of writing groups and emerging publications that support community building.

Talent needs opportunity

Changes such as ebooks, self-publishing, and online publications increase outlets for writers, but also challenge writers with a dizzying array of ever-changing options. And, as Myers pointed out, the number of traditional outlets has dwindled.

“There used to be a number of publications that writers could aim for when I was coming up.” Myers recounted his work had appeared in print in magazines such as Black World, Black Scholar, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Some of these are gone. Myers noted there seemed to be more magazines in the past that debuted emerging writers and would take on fiction. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

Myers hopes to add to the mix by establishing a literary quarterly. He acknowledged the financial and organizational challenges of publishing a print journal, but believes a collaboration with New Jersey City University and other local partners would provide a showcase for young writers and further support the area’s writing community.

“A nicely produced magazine is something young writers can send out and say ‘I’ve had my work published here and it was well received.’”

[Editor’s note: Already existing in the community is Instigatorzine, a quarterly art-and-literary magazine started by Keith Chiappone and Narcisco Espiritu in 2010 (instigatorzine.com.) And JCI itself is committed to frequently featuring the work of new writers, artists, and photographers from the local community.)

Community support keeps hope alive

Myers’ tenure as national ambassador for young people’s literature reinforced his belief that literacy and writing talent need to be nurtured early. He was impressed by initiatives around the country that encourage reading to children as young as six months, providing them with a larger language base that will benefit their educational and personal development. Myers is working to establish a similar initiative in Manhattan, and believes nurturing early love of language is an effort that deserves attention in growing writing communities.

Much of Myers’ work on and off the page focuses on young people. When asked what role he sees for young people in the development of Jersey City’s writing community, Myers sees them as key contributors. “Young people are not discouraged. They haven’t given up yet,” he said. “Give young people opportunities to write, to publish. When I was coming up, people reached out to me when they saw I was a decent writer. That made a difference.” He encourages young writers to share their work with someone they admire, and gain a mentor and champion.

Writers who are not-so-young should not think their time is past, though. A vibrant writing community provides support and opportunities, and sustains the enthusiasm and drive of writers of any age. “You need some encouragement, a pat on the back,” Myers said. And Jersey City is increasingly becoming the place where writers receive that much-needed boost.

Myers also shared a memory of a time he encountered a reader of his first published story. He was about 20 years old and playing basketball; one of the young men also playing mentioned a story he’d read in a magazine. As the young man described the story and how much he’d enjoyed it, Myers realized it was his story. When asked about his reaction, Myers admitted he played it cool on the court, but “that excitement kept me going for years after that.”

Talent, community, support, and opportunity gave Myers that moment to cherish and drive his work for years afterward. All those elements exist right here in Jersey City, to the benefit of writers of all ages.

Walter Dean Myers passed away on July 1, 2014. This article was republish with a new intro in the 2014 Fall/Winter issue of JCI MagazineIn Memoriam: Jersey City’s Walter Dean MyersFor more information on Walter Dean Myers, visit walterdeanmyers.net.

Photo provided by Walter Dean Myers

Nancy Mendez-Booth

is a writer and professor. Her work has appeared in print and online, including KGB Bar Lit Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, Poets & Writers, Mamapedia, and Real Simple. More of her writing can be found on her blog Nancy Mendez-Booth.