Writing In The Balance, Part 2: Finding Clarity and Direction in Your Writing Career with Kelly Rae Williams, Poet and Spoken Word Artist

Kelly Rae Williams is electric. In college, she became one of the forces that created Poet.she, a non-profit poetry organization that focuses on women and girls. She has traveled around the country as an award-winning spoken word artist. She has published a collection of poetry titled Real Girls Have Real Problems and has completed a second collection entitled Poetry as Protest.

She's a dynamic writer, poet, performer, activist, and teacher. She's also a writer with a full-time day job. In the first interview in the Writing In The Balance series, I talked with her about how she discovered her love of poetry, how she gained clarity about the direction of her writing career, and how she balances all of it with her position as a Community Outreach Coordinator and Program Director at the YWCA in Wilmington, NC.

Nichole Nichols: What is your story about how you got into poetry? I know that you first started out pursuing an acting career. Is that correct?

Kelly Rae: Well, not really, I've been writing since I was a very little girl. So my writing and my acting have gone hand in hand since I was little.  I don't really realize or I don't remember when I started writing. I think I was about six or seven, and I just used to have stories in my head. I would literally write whole novels when I was like six or seven. And my mom would keep them in these bins, and she would just be amazed because I was so little. And I was an avid reader, but I just had all these different made up scenarios and hundreds of pages of stories and ideas for books. So, I think the writing intensely came first although I was probably making out or creating little scenarios and doing acting skits and stuff around the same time too.

I came from a very artistic family, and so my mom used to train us how to sing and how to act when we were little. I was put into an acting academy, and I used to go to acting summer camps and musical theater summer camps when I was really little, like six or seven.  I was in the church plays and in the church choir, so I kind of was just raised to perform and trained to perform and do music. I was never trained to write when I was younger. That's just something that just kind of came naturally, and stuck with me, whereas I was always in formal training to do music and acting.

NN: What role did growing up in the arts play in creating  Poet.she, and how did  creating that organization develop you as a writer or help you to find clarity or direction with your creative pursuits?

KR: Well it played a major role honestly, because I think that when you give a child those outlets when they are so young, it creates confidence in them and it gives them a sense of purpose. So you know, everybody asks what you want to be when you grow up, and that really makes you feel like oh okay, this is the thing that I'm good at, or this is the thing that gives me purpose. So when you become an adult or when you start being forced to make those decisions in high school or in college, you are more apt to say okay, this is what I should pursue or follow, because that's the thing I was trained to do or the thing that I'm good at. I don't think that if I wasn't shown what my true talent was, or if my true talent wasn't cultivated when I was young, I don't think that I would have been confident enough to start something like Poet.she.

I come from siblings whose art was cultivated too. My sister (was cultivated) so much that she (became) so interested in photography and film that she went to boarding school, went to film school, and is now a producer in Hollywood. She was the first African American woman to do what she's done, and she worked with Debbie Allen, and she worked for Steven Spielberg. These are things I had never heard of before. I had never seen a black woman from Gary, Indiana do those things, but my sister did it and does it now. So, actually wanting to follow in her footsteps and being around art and being encouraged to follow my dreams when I was young is what really made me say when I was in college, something's not right here. I was at UNCW, and I just was like, this isn't it. This isn't going to work. I'm majoring in what I'm majoring in, and just settling.

That's why I transferred to North Carolina A&T State University, and when I entered into a poetry class, it was that light bulb that went off. Something snapped, that was like, this is it.

I entered into Dr. Anjail Ahmad's spoken word poetry class, and that's how I met Paula and my soon to be husband, which is crazy. I met all of the people that were supposed to be aligned in my life for me to start Poet.she because I recognized that feeling like my parents showed me. That my sister showed me. I felt it inside of me, it was like whoa. That was the feeling that you got when you were little, that your parents helped you cultivate. That's the feeling you should have when you step into what you're supposed to do for the rest of your life.

So yeah girl. My childhood was essential to the start of Poet.she. When I walked into that class, that spoken word class at A&T, it was fate. It was fate because that's where Paula was, the co-founder of Poet.she, that's where Tree was, the third co-founder of Poet.she, and that's where the original members of Poet.she were. We were all in one class. And had I not been dissatisfied with my situation at the previous college I was at, and had I not recognized what my talents were and recognized what it feels like to truly be passionate about something, and to feel like you have purpose, then I would have been like oh no, I'm not going to pursue this.

When Dr. Ahmad walked up to me and heard me say poetry, and was like "You need to do this for the rest of your life" I would not have been confident enough had I not been raised by a powerhouse woman that was like, you can follow your dreams, you can do whatever you want to do.

It means everything that they raised me the way they did and they put me in all those art trainings and showed me how to follow my dreams. That was the key to where I am now.

NN: There's a lot of people out there who want to write or they want to do something creative, but they may have not had the type of upbringing that you've had, or they're just kind of confused or don't know where to start, and don't have a lot of clarity about where they want their writing career to go. Do you have any tips for them on how they can get to that place where they realize their purpose in the creative world?

KR: I've had this conversation with a lot of my writing colleagues. And when I say colleagues, I just mean literally a lot of those friends that I have, because a lot of them write. I'm going to be honest, I meet random people like the other day with my hairdresser, or the guy bagging groceries at the store, that says, when I was growing up, I used to write poetry as an outlet.

And I said to them yeah, that's what I used to write, because my parents used to fight, and that was like one of the ways that I got all my emotions out. And so I said all that to say that anybody can write. Writing is a cathartic exercise. It's a healing exercise. So I would ask that person first to sit down and really do some introspection about what is the purpose of writing in their lives. Anybody can write. You don't have to be a “writer” to write.

That's the cool thing about writing, but also if you want it to be your life career, it's the bad thing about writing as well. It's one of those leisure activities and one of those things that doesn't have to be a career. I mean, you don't have to be serious about it unless you make it number one in your life.

And so I would say for people to first think about why you want to do this, what is its purpose in your life. Is it for therapy, catharsis, healing through something? Is it just a fun leisure activity?  Or is it kind of level three, where for you, you see writing as a career and it's moving out of the hobby stage for you and transitioning to something that could be your life's work. I would first sit down with that. That's the first thing you need to ask yourself.

And then I would say, if you say you're in the third level, are you willing to put in the amount of time that it takes to be a great writer? Again, the misconception is that because anybody can write, people think anybody can write well. I would say, if you're ready for that next step, that next level in your writing, then really think about the tools that it takes to get to that next level.

Being an avid reader is an intricate part of being a great writer as well as being a diligent daily writer. When you move to the next step, you have to be diligent about working on your craft every day, or at least have a schedule (for writing) every other day or once a week or whatever you do. You have to work at it like it's a sport almost for you to go to the next level.

Study other writers, read other writers, listen to other writers. My medium is poetry, so that means listening to other poets on YouTube, reading poets, going to see them live, and not because you want to sound like anybody else or because you want to be like anybody else, but again, if you say you want to take basketball from just something that you do outside in the summertime to you want to join a team or you want to be in the NBA, you have to study other basketball players. It's the same thing with writing, and it's the same thing with poetry.

I guess my short answer to them is that it's intricate, and it's work, but that's the first couple of steps that I would take to discover what is writing for you. And that also I would play around with different options and different mediums. Try your hand at all. You don't know which direction you want to go in, you don't know which medium you want to work in. You might not know if you want to be a literary artist or a poet or a non-fiction writer or write novels or essays. I would play around. Read sample poems or essays or non-fiction books, and see which one speaks to you and then try your hand at them and see which one you can develop the strongest. Yeah, those are some first tips that I would give somebody who doesn't really know how to go to the next level or where to take their writing right now.

NN: That's good advice. I know that you also have a position with the YWCA in Wilmington. I wanted to know if you had any tips about balancing a nine to five job or another job outside of writing.

KR: It's funny you ask that, because that is a challenge, and it has proven to be challenging for me.  I was just selected to sit on a AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) panel to talk about this subject, because I've been doing that for a long time, juggling my writing and a full-time job. I'm not an expert, I just think that at this point, I've been doing it to the point where I've got some pretty good insight. I would say that the biggest thing is selecting a position that feeds the other side of yourself or the other love or loves that you have.

The first thing that I would say is, it depends on the type of writing you're doing. This kind of blends into your other question. It really depends on the genre of writing because you can be a poet and you can try to pursue a semi-professional poetry career and have another skill or talent that you can be working in by day. The only thing that interrupts that is the taking off work to travel to do those poetry slams.

But if your desire is to work in non-fiction books or you want to do fiction books or write novels or self-help books, maybe self-help is the only other thing that you could definitely do pretty easily alongside of you doing another job. If you're writing novels, that is a long process. There are several steps in order for you to get your writing published. We're not talking about spoken word, we're just talking about writing, getting an agent. Or if you're not going to get an agent, self-publishing and finding an editor and doing the design for your book, and all of that. That is a job in itself.

You need to work a job that links to your artistic side or that bleeds into your writing in some way for you to really be successful. There are people that do it, but for you to really be successful, you've got to find something that bleeds into your writing, because eventually, that balance? You're going to see your nine to five go from a 50-50 balance to more of a 60-40 and then more 70-30.

I got out pretty easy, because poetry allows you to really be able to, I think, work any other medium that you're passionate about. Spoken word is for a lot of people, less about writing and more about performance and about the stage element. In the poetry writing genre, it actually assists you when you're working in non-profit. Being a poet has helped me get a lot of jobs.

I have learned that if you market the skills that you learned when writing poetry or getting the poetry degree or creative writing degree the right way, you can get whatever job you'd like. I can teach a whole class about that because I literally have gotten amazing positions just with my creative writing and my English degree.

That's what's cool about poetry; you can really tweak it so you can get whatever job you want. Then it's on you to have those key skills, like time management, and prioritizing and stress management.

Trying to figure out a schedule, being on a rigid schedule when you come home, to sit down and write, even though you're dog tired and have to cook and clean or whatever (is the way) I've been able to really balance my poetry life. My employer has seen the value and I have done the necessary work to do excellent time management and prioritizing.

And of course, when you're in a Master's program, that's the other thing that helps you balance. I was in a Master's program that was catered to working adults. Not everybody goes to a Master's program like that, but mine specialized in people that worked a full-time job and didn't have the time to be in school physically, so we did half of our time from home and then half of our time on campus at Charlotte. So that's what I would say about that. You know, I could talk forever about that. But that's what I would say about juggling and finding employers that value those skills that you have.

I'm currently actually struggling with trying to get my employer to see the value in the skills that an MFA brings to a non-profit. And I would say the minute your employer stops valuing your skills in writing, you need to either move on to a different employer that is more closely related to your writing or to your art, or start looking at how you can become self-employed.

NN: Those are great tips. I know you just graduated from your MFA program, so congratulations on your graduation!

KR: Thank you.

NN: I know sometimes there's a debate about whether or not writers really need an MFA.  What is your view of that now that you're on both sides?

KR: I'm going to tell you that I stole the info that I'm going to give you from somebody who actually is on Facebook and we're in a group together called “Is the PhD For Me”.  What he said was, getting an MFA and getting a PhD in writing or in art, period, is all about what type of money you want to make. This sounds shallow or simple, but it really is. It's about what type of money you want to make and what kind of job you want. I'm going to be honest when I say that I'm currently struggling with trying to get my employer to see the value of my MFA. I really am.

And so I would say to somebody who is trying to figure out whether it's worth it, I would say ask yourself a set of questions. What position do you ultimately want to apply for? Is it non-profit or community or social justice work? Is it being a teacher? If you want to teach or be in education or work with youth or publish on a major level, and when I say major, like a major publisher is going to publish your work, I would say you need to get an MFA for those reasons. There are specific jobs that when you go to apply for them, they say the minimum requirement is that you either have a Master's or a doctorate in writing or non-fiction, poetry, or an art genre. Literary arts, literature, whatever.

I found that that's the benefit, and that honestly, the only other major benefit is my writing has significantly increased, improved, and changed, to the point where at this point, anything that I submit is strong enough for me to get published. I got through a stream of just sending stuff out and never getting denied. People were picking up my work, picking up my work, picking up my work. And that's because my skill level from the time I was at A&T and I was a 20-something back in 2009, to now, my writing has gone leaps and bounds because of my MFA and because of the people that I was working under, like Claudia Rankine, who was my teacher and my thesis advisor. I mean, you're basically paying to have famous authors teach you how to write. When you're an undergrad or you're in high school, nobody's really teaching you how to write well, unless you have a natural born talent to write.

But also, you know what? We have seen poets, specifically, be highly successful with no formal training. If you're not going to go back and get an MFA, and this would be the last little tip I'll give about this, you have to be the teacher. You have to put yourself in class every day. Reading, writing, working on your craft, studying other people, finding new techniques, Googling things, learning new words, reading the dictionary.

You have to put yourself in class, or we've seen people that have gone more of the commercial route, which is self-publishing, putting it out there on all of the websites and doing your own branding and getting an agent, it's kind of one or the other. Either you do all that work yourself, or you go to school and let your schooling do some of that work for you. That's what I've found over the years and after talking to a lot of people that have been successful either way.

NN: Another question, I think you may have already answered this, but just wanted to touch on the demands of your nine to five. Did they ever cause you to lose focus with the clarity of your writing, and how do you deal with that? I think you already kind of talked about that in terms of, sometimes if you do have that kind of conflict, it might mean you need to move to another career. Have you experienced that with what you're doing?

KR: Yeah, and I would say demands are a little different than your supervisor not seeing the value in your art or in your degree or your writing. I would say the day to day demands are something that's normal, that everybody who is an artist and has a nine to five has struggled with, no matter what your art medium is. Painting, music, dance.  I would definitely advise anyone who applies for a nine to five but wants to also continue doing their art form, to really sit down and say, if I want to be great at this, I'm going to lose a lot of sleep, I'm going have to become an excellent time manager, or I'm going have to sacrifice some of the extracurricular fun, the clubs, the parties, the whatever that I really want to do as a young person. There has to be a sacrifice on some level. You either have to sacrifice the productivity at work, so your boss might not see you work as hard or you might not meet some of those deadlines and demands, or you're going to have to sacrifice on the art end.

You're going to have to say, as soon as I get home, no TV, no extra activities during the week. That after work, during the week for me is writing time. Promising to do some type of sacrificing is what you have to do in order to meet the demands of both lives because if nothing is sacrificed, you're not going to meet the rigorous demands of the nine to five. And I mean, pay your bills. If you want to live a pretty comfortable life and pay your bills and make your supervisor happy, something has to give. Something's got to be cut back. And that sounds like damn, that's the kind of life you live? But I'm going to be honest, both me and my significant other do that, and we have gotten pretty far just accepting that. That's what it's going be.

NN: I just wanted you to talk a minute about things that you're currently working on. Could just talk a little about that?

KR: Sure, sure. I am getting ready to transition kind of out of a full time nine to five schedule to focus more on my teaching and my art. That's the biggest thing I've got in the works. I've got my book Outside the Cannon, Poetry in Protest, which is my full length poetry book and it was my Master's thesis. That is being submitted for publication, so I'm just waiting to hear back from a lot of the major publishers that I've submitted that to.

The second thing relates to youth, mental health, therapy and art. Myself and one of the program coordinators that works under me at the Y created a spinoff program for youth that deals with trauma and issues because that's something that we both dealt. She works in aromatherapy, and I grew up around therapy because my mom was a therapist and we're both artists. The program is for African American and Latino youth in our community that will be for black girls, Latino girls, that are dealing with personal and traumatic issues and mental health issues. That'll be an after school program that starts next school year.

I originally wanted to create a body of work about that, but what I want to do instead is start creating different art projects centered around the work we're doing with the kids. I have an opportunity to write more essays and so that is my new adventure. I'm going to really listen to the kids and listen to some of my peers and colleagues as it relates to mental health and health in general. Then I’ll write essays and submit those essays for publication as a response to that work that we've been doing.

As it relates to the chapbook, that is kind of on the back burner. I have so much new work, because when you're in an MFA program, you are creating so many poems that you have like, 12 books that you could put together, but it's not always beneficial to necessarily take all those poems and make them into a book. I'm still deciding what I want to do with all these poems that I've written because of my MFA program. I'm in the midst of applying to major art fellowships and major art grants and some arts positions, so I think I'm going to put my energy more into this new stage of wanting to pursue a major art project.

I'm really, I'm more interested in moving towards being a full time artist, so I am slowly headed in that direction, not fully, but I'm headed in that direction, where soon I may not be able to talk about having a nine to five and juggling my art career, because hopefully in a couple of years I'll be a full time artist.

Connect with Kelly Rae on Instagram (@liberatedkw). Her book, Real Girls Have Real Problems, is available at Amazon and through Sable Publications.

Next Week: Systems and Routines for Writing Life Productivity with Nailah Harvey, author of How To Write Your First Book + Writing In The Balance Worksheets!