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Writing Flow: Let the Characters Take Over

When I deleted my Twitter account on April 27, 2022, I woke up later that morning with a clear mind and the intention to write a book based on my dissertation research. With my study on the Go-Go music-cultural community, I had developed a framework called Being of the Community that provides an alternative way to conceptualize community itself. As a community psychologist, I use this framework to facilitate new approaches to community partnerships and community-based work.

Most of this work is done with universities and their community partners, but I know that this work can have broader applications and implications within many different communities. I had already accomplished a podcast episode on the topic back in 2020, but I was always looking for more ways to spread the word.

The epiphany hit: With the framework’s center being culture, love, and support, a work of fiction could successfully illustrate these ideas.

To get my story flowing, I dug into my own paradoxical memories of depression and exhilaration in the summer of 2010, when I was unemployed after graduating from college at age 32 and had to live with my mom in the neighborhood where I grew up. Even though I felt rejected from the academic community when I didn’t get into any PhD programs, my hood community didn’t treat me as if that mattered at all. I wasn’t the only person who had to live at home with parents. I wasn’t the only person who was unemployed. I wasn’t even the only college graduate. I was of the community, and all I had to do was show up and bring myself. If I had five on it, cool. If not, my peoples simply shared whatever they had, the same way they did when anybody else was short on funds but long on need.

Anyway, being that I was writing a novel, I had to birth a character. I gave Roshawn the depression I felt when I was in her situation, but within the very first chapter, I also gave her the promise and hope of community. After writing the first chapter, I did a brief outline of the whole book because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I think.

And then, in Chapter 2, other characters insisted upon themselves. People like Silas and Kai were not in the outline but ended up playing major roles in Roshawn’s telling of her story. Even with continual updating of the outline, I figured this would be another very short book (my first book God Laughs, Too is only 130 pages) because I knew how I wanted it to end. My husband, who was my sounding board from beginning to end, suggested that I give Roshawn a backstory if I wanted to make the book longer. The backstory is where Roshawn’s mother Marshawn demanded that she speak to the reader too. And what an explosion! We wouldn’t have the same rollercoaster ride without her wisdom and secrets. The backstory is also where I discovered Bradford. I don’t know where the hell he came from, but love him or hate him, that dude had an impact.

If you are starting a writing journey with characters, consider letting characters take over the story and be willing to let them have their way. This book is titled This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Go because I had different plans for this whole thing. The characters steered me so far out of my outline that I scrapped it altogether after Chapter 7, the pool party that took me three days to write. I fussed so much about my unruly characters that my husband decided I was channeling real people from another dimension. (He’s not a weirdo, just a nerd.) Roshawn’s story is such a fun, wild ride because I put my ideas aside and listened to their voices—even the collective voice of their community.

I didn’t even realize until the book was published that I had accomplished the goal I set for myself in the beginning. Amid all of the cussing, drama, sexy times, and smoke clouds in this story, there is the triumph of community. This story illustrates how we can, and often do, belong to several communities at once and experience a different sense of community in each. There is a difference between having membership in a community, like Roshawn and I in academic spaces—and being of the community, like Roshawn and I in our respective hoods. If I have it, it can be taken away. If I am it, I am merely and powerfully recognized as such. This is different than earning the right to belong, which membership necessitates. To put it simply: We know who we are.

The type of community spotlighted in This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Go is hood and may even be labeled “urban,” but it’s certainly not gritty. Its Blackness is not trying to educate you about a social issue through tragedy. Even in accomplishing what started out as an academic goal, there is nothing academic about it. This story represents one of our chillin’ spaces, thanks to my characters’ insistence on being themselves. They done turned up the music, lit one, sipped one, and affirmed, “We out’chea! And don’t bit more care.”


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Tahira Chloe Mahdi is an author, screenwriter, independent arts & culture journalist, and community psychologist. Her latest novel This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Go is a wild, explosive adventure into the dynamics of adult children living with their parents, young women’s sexual agency, and close-knit suburban hood communities.

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