Some insights into the motivations and idiosyncracies of three writers whose works are examined in the new book, Black Women Writers (1950-1980):
Maya Angelou, 56, author of, among other works, the autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Also an actress and director. Born in St. Louis, Mo.
"I write because I am a black woman, listening attentively to her talking people.
"When I turn my conscious mind to writing (my unconscious or subconscious is always busy recording images, phrases, sound, colors and scents), I follow a fairly rigid habit. I rise early, around 5:30 or 6 a.m., wash, pray, put on coffee and arrange my mind in writing order. That is, tell myself how lucky I am that the day is new, a day never seen before.
"I have coffee and allow the work of the day before to flood my mind. The characters and situations take over the chambers of my existence until they are all I see and hear. Then I go into my writing room, most times a little cubicle I have rented in a cheap but clean hotel; rarely but sometimes it is a room in my own home.
"I keep in my writing room a Bible, a dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, a bottle of sherry, cigarettes, an ashtray and three or four decks of playing cards. During the five hours I spend there I use every object, but I play solitaire more than I actually write.
"It seems to me that when my hands and small mind (a Southern black phrase) are engaged in placing the reds on the blacks and the blacks on the reds, my working mind arranges and rearranges the characters and the plot. Finally, when they are in a plausible order, I simply have to write down where they are and what they say.
" . . . I also wear a hat or a very tightly pulled head tie when I write. I suppose I hope by doing that I will keep my brains from seeping out of my scalp and running in great gray blobs down my neck, into my ears and over my face."
Nikki Giovanni, 41, a poet whose works include "Black Feeling, Black Talk," "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day" and "Those Who Ride the Night Winds." Born in Knoxville, Tenn., grew up in Cincinnati.
"Every time I sit down with my typewriter I am beginning to write. The 'beginning' cannot be told until I know the ending.
"I am, however, a writer very much grounded in my sense of place. I need my own coffee cup, my own chair, but most especially, my own typewriter. I had a steam pipe burst in my apartment and my typewriter was uncovered and thereby ruined by the steam. I had had that typewriter since college. It was almost a year before I could even begin to touch this one.
" . . . Like all people who pry, I resist questions about my own work. I like to think that if truth has any bearing on art, my poetry and prose is art because it is truthful . . . We who are human have a great opportunity to grow up, and perhaps beyond that. Our grasp is not limited to our reach.
"We who are writers live always in the three time zones: past, present and future. We pay respect to them all as we share an idea . . . And we encourage others. We write because we believe the human spirit cannot be tamed and should not be trained."
Alice Walker, 40, born in Eatonton, Ga. She moved from New York to a small house in a remote part of northern California to write The Color Purple.
"There were days and weeks and even months when nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever. I worked on my quilt, took long walks with my lover, lay on an island we discovered in the middle of the river and dabbled my fingers in the water. I swam, explored the redwood forests all around us, lay out in the meadow, picked apples, talked (yes) to trees.
"My quilt began to grow. And, of course, everything was happening. Celie and Shug and Albert characters in the book were getting to know each other, coming to trust my determination to serve their entry (sometimes I felt reentry) into the world to the best of my ability, and what is more -- and felt so wonderful -- we began to love one another. And what is even more, to feel immense thankfulness for our mutual good luck.
"Just as summer was ending, one or more of my characters -- Celie, Shug, Albert, Sofia or Harpo -- would come for a visit. We would sit wherever I was sitting and talk. They were very obliging, engaging and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but they were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad often made me laugh . . .
"I had planned to give myself five years to write The Color Purple (teaching, speaking or selling apples as I ran out of money). But on the very day my daughter left for camp, less than a year after I started writing, I wrote the last page.
" . . . It was like losing everybody I loved all at once . . . Mercifully my quilt and my lover remained.
"I threw myself in his arms and cried."
From Black Women Writers (1950-1980), by Mari Evans. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Press/Doubleday. Alice Walker segment, 1982 by Alice Walker. Excerpted and reprinted from "Writing The Color Purple," in her volume In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. By permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.