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Roxane Gay: On Ambition and Keeping Your Day Job

Roxane Gay with a group from the Anaphora Writing Residency at Otis College
Keynote Presentation for the Anaphora Summer Residency at Otis College
Halley Sutton

Dozens of writers, artists, and Angelenos crowded into The Forum at Otis College of Art and Design to hear Roxane Gay, celebrated writer of both fiction and non-fiction, give a lecture that would kick off the Anaphora Writing Residency at Otis College. She answered questions from the audience about how to sustain a writing life, how to navigate spaces such as academia and publishing as a person of color, and about her own personal writing process, which has turned out several bestsellers and book deals for more upcoming titles.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Harper’s Bazaar, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, the nationally bestselling Difficult Women and New York Times bestselling Hunger: A Memoir of My Body, and edited and authored a newly released collection of essays titled Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel.

Ambition can pave the road to achievement but might never be satisfied

Gay spoke to her own ambition in light of the narrative of personal responsibility: that ambition only grows hungrier and only demands more, rather than ever being sated. She cited the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, specifically his essay on the idea of "The Talented Tenth," that 1 out of 10 black men are destined to become leaders and exceptional. It has had lasting repercussions, Gay argued, in entrenching the idea of personal exceptionalism for people of color as the route to overcoming challenges.

Speaking of her own experiences as one of a few faculty members of color in her department—and sometimes institution-wide—Gay said that this is the price of the narrative of exceptionalism: You’ll be the only person of color, or only one of a few people of color, in your field. “Who does this [the narrative of personal responsibility] leave behind?” Gay asked.

Writer Roxane Gay at Otis College

Advice for writers, particularly, writers of color

Gay was a model of grace and wisdom while answering questions from the audience, some of her insights included:

  • Outline your own set of internal rules and don’t compromise those. It’s important to find your own internal line you won’t cross, Gay said, in response to a question about how to navigate spaces that ask people of color to commodify their otherness. For example, Gay discussed her own rule to not let her institution use her likeness for campus advertising, speaking of not wanting to potentially mislead students of color who might see it and believe that the campus is a more diverse space than it actually is.
  • You can’t say yes to everything and do everything well. Gay spoke of her own experiences at institutions where she was asked to be on every committee, leading to burnout. She advocated saying yes strategically, to those commitments you really care about.
  • It’s okay to be the first in your field, as long as you’re not the last. When Gay was asked to write the World of Wakanda issue for Marvel, she was the first black woman to do so. But she wasn’t the last. Gay submitted names of female writers of color to Marvel to “provide a ladder” to move more writers into the space.
  • Keep your day job. Gay called the day job “the greatest gift to writers,” freeing writers from having to compromise personal or creative integrity in order to pay the rent. Eventually, writers can hope to make enough from their own writing to get rid of the day job, Gay said, but in the meantime, the day job allows for creative freedom free of financial constraints.
  • Find a mentor. Gay suggested that finding a mentor can be particularly helpful for navigating the world of publishing. “A mentor doesn’t have to be a big fancy writer, just someone who has done what you want to do,” Gay said. This should be someone a writer could go to with questions about the querying agent and publishing process.
  • An online presence isn’t necessarily for publication, but it can help sell books. Dispelling myths of the publishing world, Gay knocked the idea that writers need to have a huge social media presence before they can expect to get published. (Gay herself is an active presence on Twitter.) But Gay did say that she finds a correlation between her online presence and the sales of her books, estimating that she can attribute approximately 10 percent of book sales to her presence online.

Audience member asking a question during the lecture.

Join Otis College this summer for thought-provoking lectures and residencies

Anaphora Writing Residency is a ten-day program, designed exclusively for writers of color. The residency provides genre-specific workshops in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. The residency features lectures by faculty, visiting writers, and other guests; roundtable discussions on topics about the literary and publishing industry; a keynote address; pitch madness sessions; and different networking opportunities with fellow writers and professionals from the publishing industry. Learn more.

Summer Residencies and Programs at Otis College offer artists and designers the opportunity to explore and create work in the unique and culturally diverse arts community of Los Angeles. Our programs engage participants in challenging work alongside peers and colleagues who share the same creative goals and passion. Summer 2018 programs include traditional residencies in art, design and writing; youth and adult intensive classes and camps; theory and practice-based courses; curatorial tracks; and professional development retreats. For more information on upcoming retreats, and lectures open to the public, please visit

Halley Sutton is a graduate of the Otis College of Art and Design MFA Writing program. 

Images: Roxane Gay speaking at Otis College of Art and Design on June 2, 2018. Photos: Allison Knight