3 Lessons from the Incomparable Maya Angelou
Updated: Apr 9
How a poet changed my writing, my world, and my life
Maya Angelou in person
Maya Angelou entered from the back of a big conference room. Well before I could see her, I heard her, a booming, mellifluous, voice with just a bit of gravel in it. She was striding down the aisle, singing, shouting, chanting words that described the color brown: Mocha. Chocolate. Walnut. Seal. Tea. The list went on and on. Word-nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the dozens of words that bounced off the walls, then hovered and hung in the air around us.
Writer, poet, singer, and activist, Angelou marched forward like a queen in a procession. As she walked, hundreds of heads turned toward her, magnetically drawn to this giant personality. It was as if her spirit emanated out into the room and pulled people to her, vibrating the very air around us.
By the time she reached the front and climbed to the speaker’s podium, the crowd of teachers was wild. I don’t remember the speech exactly, but it pricked so many points of my belief system that I was on overdrive, empathizing with every single syllable she uttered. She talked about giving students hope, overcoming difficulties, fighting prejudices, and appreciating the unique qualities of every living person, whether that person was white, black, purple, red, blue, or yellow.
By the end of the speech, tears were streaming down my face and dripping onto the carpet below. While I’m the first to admit that I cry easily, I’m also happy to say that on this occasion, people all around me were reaching for tissues and swiping at the wet tracks on their cheeks. The standing ovation when Angelou finished went on for four full minutes, and even then, people were reluctant to leave.
What an experience!
I was young, somewhere in my twenties, but hearing Maya Angelou impacted my writing and my understanding of the world.
Writing lesson number one
Tell it, true. No matter how much it hurts
Maya Angelou is best known for her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book is the first book of her autobiographical series, and it changed me forever.
I was in high school when I read this, a conservative, Midwestern, sheltered girl with college-educated parents, a comfortable home, and a strong family structure. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was like reading about life on a different planet. And it hurt. How could I not be horrified and saddened by reading about a mere child who was lonely, harassed, abused, raped, and traumatized?
Maya Angelou — who I already had a bond with because she shared my grandmother’s name, Marguerite Johnson — broadened my understanding of the world. The anguish contained in those pages reminded me that my world was tiny. Until that book, I hadn’t really understood the dark and desperate lives that some kids lived, and it had an impact because it was a TRUE story, not make-believe. Angelou proved that there’s more power in honesty than in sugar-coating, hiding, or fictionalizing your message.
Any story is better told than untold, as Angelou’s oft-quoted line says.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
So tell it true, no matter how much it hurts.
Writing lesson number two
Own it. Project it. Send your work out into the world with panache
I learned a valuable lesson when I heard Angelou stride into that conference hall throwing words before her like rose petals.
If you ever get the chance to present your work, do it with power. Offer your work as a vocal gift. Sing out parts of it. Shout what needs to be shouted. Whisper for effect. Deliver your work with gusto, and the audience will respond with equal intensity.
No shyness. No stiff and formal “talk.” Fill your presentation with flair. Own what you think. Claim what you write. Believe what you say. Then deliver it with total confidence using every fiber of your being.
Transcend the realm of average conference speakers by modeling Angelou’s dramatic delivery of her work.
Writing lesson number three and ultimate life lesson
Live life instead of writing about it
I don’t know about you, but I’m focused on my work. I’ve been called a workaholic many times and admit that the “shoe” fits and I have to wear it.
But my old friend Maya leaned down on the page of a book not long ago and reminded me that living is more important than burying my nose in a book. Her poem, “Impeccable Conception” shook me by the shoulders and pointed to the real world waiting for me outside my office.
“I met a lady poet who took for inspiration colored birds and whispered words, a lover’s hesitation.
A falling leaf could stir her. A wilted, dying rose would make her write, both day and night the most rewarding prose.
She’d find a hidden meaning in every pair of pants Then hurry home to be alone And write about romance.”
I hear you, Maya!
I get it. Inspiration comes from living life to its fullest. As you said,
I work very hard, and I play very hard. I’m grateful for life. And I live it — I believe life loves the liver of it. I live it.
I won’t just write, I promise. I’ll live life to its fullest and let experiences be my inspiration.
I’ll work hard but play harder...
Because that’s what you, a great American poet, would want me to do.
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