I almost want to whisper this because I feel it’s Black girl sacrilege to say that- at first, I was not in love with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Now, part of this is that I had not found the book on my own. I was like many high-school freshman, assigned the book as part of my list of required reading. And so on a list that included Steinbeck and Salinger, I grouped into that cannon Maya Angelou, a Black woman who was more compelling than our introduction would suggest.
As the years passed, I learned to cherish her by reading her work on my own. When I was given a collection of her poems as a gift is when I truly felt I could hear her voice and process it uninterrupted. Her poems told stories. They were about her life, but also her outlook and her faith in what was to come. There was something reassuring in her poetry that struck me. It was the wisdom and poise she developed through a life that would make believing in anything higher a hard sell.
I have always wondered how writers, how women, how black women get to that place. Where we can express our truest selves past all the walls put in front of us, or worse the ones we’ve built on our own. I used to think it required some kind of spiritual enlightening that I just hadn’t received yet. But flipping through O Magazine while scanning the grocery store for cilantro, I came across an interview where Maya Angelou explained her writing process:
I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don’t allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday. About once a month, the management slips a note under my door and they ask, ‘Please, Dr. Angelou, may we change the sheets? We know they must be moldy.’ But I’ve never slept there. I just go in and sit down and work.
For some reason, I had pictured Maya at home producing works of genius from the moment she rolled out of bed. I figured that ability to express came naturally and was unencumbered by place or time. But while she is a literary force, Maya is also very much admittedly human. And really what set her process apart was that she was cognizant enough of herself to know where she worked best.
Like most women in their twenties, I am still working on finding the hotel room in my town. The place where I can feel tuned in and able to channel the best of me. I do not have down my exact requirements, but I understand enough of myself to know that being removed- sometimes even from the things I love- is sometimes necessary for me to find a place where I am at my best.
You don’t have to dwell in the isolation- after all, the author never sleeps in the hotel room near in her town. But after giving your days to others, being alone with your thoughts can feel like breathing. Though she may have to miss me with the sherry, Maya’s words remind me to take time for my soul to exhale.
As the week comes to a close and the blur is all you can see, find the place you can retreat to. There is no guilt in spending some time alone- with or without a room key.