Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Celebrating National Poetry Month with Morgan Harper Nichols

I'm a *bit* excited about National Poetry Month.  After all, I authored a book with my daughters that's written in poems (along with some gorgeous illustrations from Sharee Miller).

And when I first read Morgan's poetry, I fell head-over-heels.   (And by the way, so did my baby, as you probably saw on IG.  She keeps sneaking off with Morgan's book!  I don't know if it's the golden cover or what, but my baby is obsessed!)

Encouraging.  Mind-opening.  Heart-talking.   

Every word she writes inspires me.  Seriously, friends.  I'm underlining every single word of every single poem she writes.  

Which is why I knew I had to interview her.  Because those of us in the adoption community are often vulnerable, scared, and broken.  We are waiting.  We are mourning.  We are hoping.  

And we NEED what Morgan can offer us.  Our hearts beg for hope.   And Morgan?  She does.  not.  hold.  back.  from giving.   

Rachel:  Morgan, tell me about yourself!  

I’m a writer, artist, and musician from Atlanta, Georgia, and I am now living in Los Angeles, California. As a child, I began writing poems, stories and teaching myself to play instruments, as a result of just being curious about them. I was on the quieter side as a child, never, ever dreamed of sharing anything I made being shared with others. As an introvert, I love to write and create because I simply enjoyed the act of sitting alone in my room, just making things. However, to make a long story short, the music I made was eventually heard through the walls by parents. When I was a teenager, they encouraged me to share what I was making in our local community just outside of Atlanta. I was a homeschooled preacher’s kid, and this was before young artists were using social media like they are today, so I never really had a community of other young people who were making music to share this experience with. So instead, I became accustomed to sharing the songs I was writing with people at the age of 14.

I often played in small coffee shops, smoothie shops, parks, restaurants, churches, and even flea market parking lots. I learned how to “read the room” and “know the audience” really quickly! Even though performing for others did not come easily or naturally to me, I’m so grateful I was encouraged to do it. It nurtured within me the importance of connecting with others through art in this in-the-moment way that has greatly impact the work I make today.

If I stayed in the comfort zone of my room writing songs, stories, and poetry, I do not think I would have been able to learn all that I have learned about writing and creating since then.

Years later, I still perform, but I have also began to focus more on writing, namely poetry and prose, and how to connect with others in this in-the-moment way that I learned in my early days of performing with just a voice and a guitar.

Rachel:  Your new book Storyteller: 100 Poem Letters was inspired by your song “Storyteller.”  What is the significance of the word storyteller- both as a book and song title?  Why did you write the book? 

I am so grateful for my childhood, namely because of my mother and father. They nurtured and encouraged me and my younger sister’s gifts, and I truly believe that is a huge part of who I am and why I am able to share and encourage others today. I thank God for them daily!

Outside of the home however, was a different story. Everywhere we went, my sister and I were total outsiders. My parents led a small church, so the budget was right and we didn’t have a lot of the same designer clothes or gadgets that are peers had. Our clothes and toys came from the thrift store, we didn’t have a lot of technology like TV cable or video games, and we were mostly interested in creating and reading books. We loved it, but other kids? Not so much. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were always the kids getting picked on.

Additionally, my sister was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at a young age which led to relentless bullying from elementary through high school. I was the older sister who wanted to protect her from that, and as a result of being treated as outsiders, we found our way inside, spending most of our teen years learning to play instruments and write songs, and for me, writing poetry at home.

During my teen years, I knew I wanted to write as a career in some way, and even though my parents encouraged me, I was reminded by my peers of just how much I did not fit in.

I struggled to meet peers who had a story similar to mine, and I began to believe the lie that my story didn’t matter. So instead, I would write about other people’s stories because I didn’t believe that anything that had happened in my own story was anything someone outside my home would care about. This was the start of a decade-long creative journey of always writing with other people in mind, while secretly feeling that my story meant nothing.

In 2014, I started something on Facebook called “Storyteller Sunday.” It was a Sunday evening Facebook event where people could come and share their stories. I had a very small social media following at the time but the project quickly spiraled into something bigger than me. I was beginning to see names of people in the comments that I didn’t know, and I was deeply moved and encouraged by these stories.

After a few months of doing this every Sunday, I was walking into the kitchen one morning to make some coffee and out of nowhere, a song came to my mind—melody, lyrics, and all—called “Storyteller.”

The song was nearly entirely complete. That had never happened to me before and I truly believe it was a download from God Himself. I rushed upstairs, wrote it down, and a few months later, the song was being recorded and in 2015, it released to radio.

Now everyone in the world may not know this song and it may not have been a chart topper, but it changed my life forever. The stories that people began to share with me and how that song connected with them and had changed their lives was so incredibly humbling and eye opening.

One of the things that really stood out to me in this experience was that, “Storyteller” was the first song, and the only song to this day that came to be without someone’s story in mind. I began to realize...maybe, just maybe, this song was about my story too.

Of the many things the release of “Storyteller” taught me, it completely shook up the belief about myself that I didn’t have a story to tell. When this happened, it forced me to see that even though I thought my story wasn’t interesting, I could not have written that song without the mountains and the valleys that I had climbed in my life.

I began to gain the courage to finally allow myself to believe that my story mattered. And not because my story was more interesting or valuable than anyone else’s, but it was mine, and even through the trials, it was a blessing. A blessing worth telling. And as I began to hear the stories of others, I began to see that in sharing our stories, meaningful connections were being made between people who may have never believed they shared anything in common prior to that moment. Together, sharing our stories, we were all being reminded that we are not alone.

I titled the book Storyteller in hopes to encourage others with that message. My hope for these poems is that at least one person will see that no matter the mountains and valleys they have climbed, they have a story to tell. It does not matter your age, where you are from, the color of your skin, how many times you've been overlooked or undervalued, and it does not matter what you have or have not done, there is a way that you live, and a way that you tell your story that no one can else in this world can tell it. Telling your story also gives other people hope in telling their own. So tell the story of the mountains you’ve climbed. Your words come become a page in someone else’s survival guide. 

This is what I believe and why I wrote this book. Each poem was written with one person’s story in mind, and above the poems, I share who they were written for. I did this in hopes to encourage readers to see that even though our stories may all be different, we can still connect and have empathy for one another, which can cause a ripple effect for everyone to begin sharing and connecting around stories. 

Rachel:  So many women are struggling.  Struggling with addictions and losses and mental illness.  Struggling in marriages and in parenting.  Struggling at work and at home.  Real,difficult challenges.  In the case of my readers, infertility and adoption are major struggles.   How does Storyteller encourage women on their darkest days?  

Most of the poems that I write, including the ones in this book, are typically written in real time, via a social media message I am sending to someone. I typically start writing as a short, encouraging note, and once I get to the of that note, I typically have an idea for a poem.

Sometimes someone has messaged me the story of what they are currently struggling with, and sometimes I do not know their story at all.  But in both scenarios, I often say a variation the following, “ I am not really one to give a lot of advice, but I do love stories. And I love to think about how stories end. And even though I do not know how your story ends, I just want to encourage you with these words to continue to take deep breaths and to have great hope, for even here there is still more to your story.”

I think everything I write is some variation of this. Because the truth is, the painful valleys of infertility or losing a child is something I have not lived or experienced, but I do know that it is just too heavy a burden. And even though I have not experienced that, I can still say, “I see you. I hear you. There is grace for this.”

Sometimes when I receive a message from a woman who is struggling with something I cannot even comprehend, I literally get up from my desk and go take a walk. I know in that moment I cannot feel her pain, but sometimes, you just need to hold that space for someone. 

It’s like holding a door for someone. You may not be walking through the door with them, but you can hold the door. I like to think of the poem as the door because this is something you can do for a stranger. Even if you do not know someone in real life, their struggles are still real and in that moment, you can still think of them and pray for them in a very real way. I just hope the poems I write can be a reflection of that, because those struggles are very painful and very real.

Rachel:  You wear many hats, including now being a book author!   What has the writing and publishing experience meant to you and to your readers?   

Oh wow, it has been an experience! I am a self-published author who just knew that I had to get this book out there. It took about two years to actually put it all together, and I still dream of someday being able to work with a traditional publisher if that were to ever happen, but if not, I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience. I was also overwhelmed with the positive feedback and was pleasantly surprised when the book became a #1 Amazon Bestseller in my category (Inspirational Poetry) the day it debuted!

I try to respond to every post and every message on social media where someone has mentioned the book. It never gets old to me that there are people around the world holding my book in their hands. My mind often travels back to the imagery of sitting in my childhood bedroom at my little desk, carving out words in composition books before bedtime. I never would have dreamed where the words I wrote would go.

Rachel:  What’s next for you?   Will you write another book?  More music?   How will you keep uplifting women? 

Yes to all of the above! I have been collaborating with my sister Jamie Grace to turn many of the poems in this book into songs. I have also been mapping out a trip around the U.S. to do a few writing workshops, poetry readings, and acoustic shows. I’m so excited about it! I spend a good amount of time each day responding to messages and emails I receive so I am looking forward to bringing this online community that is being built into real life. I love social media, but there’s nothing like being able to connect with others and share stories face to face. Even as an introvert (and Myers Brigg INTJ and Enneagram 5) I’m looking forward to it! I can’t wait to see what lies up head.

Follow Morgan on Instagram (it's the best!), and listen to my podcast with her sister Jamie-Grace here (where I talk about adoption, breast cancer, type 1 diabetes, and my This Is Us infatuation).

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