100 Dallas Creatives: No. 1 Shay Youngblood, Writer About Town
Courtesy Shay Youngblood
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Shay Youngblood is an artist of several varieties. An author and playwright with numerous publications to her name, Youngblood began to write by reflecting on her tumultuous childhood and the women who raised her, or her "Big Mamas," as she calls them. Throughout her adult life, she has traveled on fellowships everywhere from Saratoga Springs, New York to Toyko.
But Youngblood has the drive to see life from all perspectives. She's also a painter, and is interested in collaborating on an opera, a graphic novel, and animation. She's an innovator. When she wanted to see Dallas as a visitor, she became the Dallas Museum of Art's first Writer in Residence. She's figured out how to keep her craft alive, and balance it with life. In her current day job, she works as a career advisor for creatives. We can hardly think of anyone else more qualified to offer that kind of advice.
What was the impulse for you to "write what you know"? After my birth mother died I was raised by a community of mostly women, some related, some not. Most of them had less than a 5th grade education. They each gave me an incredibly rich range of world views and encouraged me to be an independent thinker. My initial impulse was to write stories to give my "Big Mamas" a voice. I started writing seriously during my time in the Peace Corps. After traveling to Paris with $200 and speaking little French, inspired by James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and many others, I met a number of black girls just like me. We were all hoping that breathing the air and drinking the water would transform us and we would be writing novels, making films and having the expatriate experience we had read about in books like Langston Hughes, Big Sea. We were a bit naive, but we survived and we had our own adventures. I wanted to tell some of our stories and I did in my novel Black Girl in Paris. Drawing on my own experience I wanted to encourage boldness in others.
What made you give up the idea of acting? From the time I could read I was always chosen to be in the school play or recite the Easter speech in church. When I was about 13 I transferred to a newly integrated high school where I was bused from an all black housing project into an all white neighborhood where many of the houses had tennis courts and swimming pools. I wanted to be in the school play, but was discouraged by my parents who were afraid to come pick me up after dark in the neighborhood because they were likely to be stopped by the police or harassed. I started to entertain my classmates in math class by reading them my serial drama stories not unlike the soap operas I watched with my grandmother on TV. Much later when I was in my 20s, after reading from my collection of short stories a theater producer mentioned that I had a good ear for dialogue and encouraged me to write a play. A few years later, Lisa Adler at Horizon Theatre in Atlanta produced my first play, Shaking the Mess Out of Misery based on my collection of Big Mama Stories and suddenly I was a playwright. The play was a success and toured the country and I followed it. I used money from a film option by Sidney Poiter to go to graduate school where I worked with Paula Vogel and Anna Deveare Smith among others, to learn the craft of play-writing. I wrote a few plays and started a novel which became Soul Kiss and that was a success and suddenly I was a novelist. Now I've come full circle. I'm working on a multimedia solo performance piece, Add Architecture, Stir Memory, inspired by a US Japan Friendship Fellowship to Japan. I was in Tokyo 4 years ago during the huge earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster. I survived that too.
You've traveled a lot, how has that influenced your experience of life? I have lived on the East Coast, in the Deep South, Hawaii, France, Spain and the Caribbean, traveled to Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Denmark and once took a three month road trip across the United States. As a child I grew up in several households in the same community. Moving from house to house almost daily was fluid in many ways. There were physical and invisible boundaries. The transient nature of home allowed me to adapt to different lifestyles. I was very portable. My few possessions could be moved quickly. Today when I enter a new home, the guest room of a friend, a hotel room or an artist colony residence, any temporary home, I am transformed. The rooms of my memory are imprinted on me and each room I enter becomes a space filled with possibility.
How have you built a sustainable life as a professional writer? An artist needs money, time and support to do their work and support comes in many forms. Sometimes you have to be inventive to get all three to do your work. Most important is getting the work done. I am always creating, developing my work and experimenting with different genres. In a brief conversation with Edward Albee early in my career he told me to diversify, don't just write plays, he said, "try your hand at novels, poetry, non fiction, screenplays, make paintings." He had written a novel that didn't do well. I took him literally. That was the beginning of redefining my idea of success. For years I worked painting and cleaning houses to pay the rent but I was always writing. I'd work a day job for a year or two then I'd travel or go to an artist residency. I've been going to Yaddo for many years and can get more done in a month there than I can in a year at home. I've learned to create opportunities for myself as well. In 2013 I wanted to explore the DFW area like I was visiting a new country and learning a new language and that's how I became the first Writer in Residence at the Dallas Museum of Art. My current day job is a Career Advisor to Creatives. It's one of the best positions I've ever had. Everyday I help artists, writers and musicians plan their careers and help them transition from student to professional and prepare creatives to navigate the job market and learn the art of connecting (aka networking). I also have an international community of creatives and supporters I couldn't function without.
If you had the chance to do something, or all things, over again would you? Je ne regrette pas. I have no regrets. When I didn't die at an early age from youthful risky behavoir, I became bolder in my personal life and in my work. Each misstep or mistake I've learned from. There are thousands of choices I could have made and paths I could have taken from the fatal to the fantastic. Sometimes I wish I had been kinder or more generous, not made certain decisions so quickly, but I don't dwell on the past, I live in the present and try not to plan too far into the future. I've rarely been safe or practical and I've had a lot of fantastic. My mantra is "Be Bold."
What is the biggest trial of being a writer in DFW? I am the work and the work is me. The biggest challenge for me in general is balancing a day job and finding time to work on my own projects or work on the grants/opportunities that would give me time. Many mornings I get up at 4 or 5am and work before going to my job and work on my lunch breaks and after work. I miss a lot of great events. It may sound crazy, but I don't drive. I've mostly lived in cities with great public transportation or had jobs where I could afford to hire a driver. Another challenge living in the DFW area is navigating the segregated arts community. That has been the most disappointing and the biggest surprise.
DFW has a vibrant and thriving arts community. I wish I could be in many places at once. I have found several circles of writers, artists, musicians and deep thinkers to keep me inspired and stimulated. In addition to where I live, I've got northside Art Book Club, Southlake salon, South Dallas Cultural Center and Oak Cliff and the museum districts in Dallas and Ft. Worth. It's quite rich.
Are there books you return to? My name is Shay Youngblood, I'm a book junkie and a library groupie. I could reel off a dozen books but my all time favorite go to every year is Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison. I also re read James Baldwin, Balzac, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, How to Be Your Own Best Friend and Your Money or Your Life. I'm voracious. I also read cookbooks, Instruction Manuals, Pablo Neruda's Love poems, Graphic novels, Rilke.... So many books....
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray 20. Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words 19. Filmmaker and Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner 18. Gallerist Jordan Roth, the Art Scene Cheerleader 17. Artful Advocate Vicki Meek 16. Ballet Queen Katie Puder 15. Carlos Alejandro Guajardo-Molina, the Book Guy 14. Janeil Engelstad, an Artist with Purpose 13. Will Power, Playwright and Mentor 12. Gallerists Gina & Dustin Orlando, Boundary Pushers 11. Moody Fuqua, Music Community Organizer 10. Joshua Peugh, Choreographer to Watch 9. Allison Davidson, Advocate for Art Accessibility 8. Ben Fountain, Man of Letters 7. Fashion Maven Julie McCullough 6. Contemporary Curator and Artist Danielle Avram Morgan 5. Irreverent Art World Organizer Kevin Ruben Jacobs 4. Dwell with Dignity's Lisa Robison 3. Artists/Curators Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett 2. Rodney Dobbs, Man Behind the Scenes
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