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Laymon’s terms: Writer, Rice professor named MacArthur Fellow

Photo courtesy Chi Liang Yu

By Riya Misra     10/18/22 11:28pm

Last week, celebrated author and Rice English professor Kiese Laymon was announced as one of the 2022 winners of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s website, the fellowship provides a five-year grant and a no-strings-attached stipend to a selection of exceptionally creative individuals. A self-described Black Southern writer, Laymon has authored works such as “Heavy: An American Memoir” and “Long Division.”

“The thing about all writers is that we mythologize everything, including our own journeys,” Laymon said when asked about his journey as a writer thus far. “I don’t know many people who started out writing and thinking that they would ever win a MacArthur.”

Of course, the MacArthur Fellowship is commonly hailed as the “genius grant.” Laymon views this label with trepidation, though.

“Whatever you create next, I don’t think it can meet those standards. I don’t want to be a genius. I just want to create really interesting, dope art,” Laymon said.

According to Laymon, the money from the grant will bring a sense of ease to his career, during which he has fought to get his writing into the world.

“I had to work really hard to get my first book out. I had to work really hard to get people to read that book, driving across the country and selling books out of my trunk,” Laymon said. “I’ve had to really fight. And so it’s weird to get this thing. [The grant] doesn’t mean I won’t have to fight anymore, but  it definitely gives me a lot of cushion to not fight for a while.”

As a professional writer, Laymon said he must often attempt to strike a balance between personal and impersonal —between artist and salesperson — while marketing his work. So another reason Laymon said he appreciates the award is because he can focus more on his art.

“To be salespeople of a book, you have to make that person believe you are close to them … Showing up at a bookstore, shaking hands, signing a book, always doing interviews on the radio,” Laymon said. “What this award allows you to do is no longer work that side of your brain and heart, which really does, in some way, take time from the [process of] art-making.”

While Laymon is grateful for this grant, he expresses a degree of worry about his future work. His concerns, he says, center around how his creativity will be impacted by the increased stability brought upon by the MacArthur.

“One of the things I’m worried about is how you create when you’re not up against precarity, or you don’t feel like you’re fighting against anything,” Laymon said. “I feel like the wind is at my back with this award. I think I’m kind of worried about what the work is gonna look like now, but we’ll see.”

Laymon said he has not yet put much thought into the uses for his grant money, but he does hope to find methods of self-care and renewal. 

“I’m going to share a lot [of money] with my family, at least for the first year. I have this [Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative] that I run out of Jackson that I’m going to definitely give a lot of money to,” Laymon said. “I need to think big, [and] I need to think about ways to prioritize my health and my body and my mental health. I can dream big. And that’s scary too. Because sometimes it’s easy to dream just the next step ahead of you. But now I’m like ‘Oh, shit. I can dream a little bigger.’”

As a writer, Laymon said he cherishes the value of different writing forms. To young writers, he stresses the importance of literary experimentation.

“Never stop writing, but don’t be afraid to [...] try a different form for a season. You never really know what your best fit is really until you experiment with it,” Laymon said.

Laymon chases after this experimentation in his own work as well, often playing with different literary forms and techniques.

“I think “Heavy” is a long poem, a long essay, a novel and a memoir,” Laymon said. “The thing about form is that it allows you to seep into different creases [of literature]. You just want to put a lot of different tools in your toolkit ... The fictive tools that we need to use to make fiction and the poetic tools we need to make poetry need to be at our disposal when we’re doing memoir writing.”

Aside from his career as a writer, Laymon is also a teacher who has taught for nearly 25 years. Laymon said, for him, the two careers are inextricably linked.

“I write to become a better teacher. I teach because I love to learn,” Laymon said.

On advice for young writers looking to follow a similar career, Laymon emphasized the importance of habituating revision within one’s writing practices.

“You have to somehow ritualize the act of revising,” Laymon said. “It doesn’t have to look like your teacher says it should look. It doesn’t have to look like your favorite writer says it should look. But you need a practice that you defined for yourself, not just about generating work, but also about revising work.”

For Laymon, his process of both generating and revising his writing stems from a desire to find the idiosyncrasies in everyday life. 

“For every imaginative person, every actual person in my life, I want to find that thing that is absolutely uniquely them. And then I want to be able to tie that thing to something that is absolutely uniquely us,” Laymon said. “That’s the thing about writing. You [have] to find a style, you [have] to find something that distinguishes you from someone else. And that thing is always deep inside of you. But that’s what art is, partially excavating that wholly original thing, and then being willing to perpetually change.”

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