Learning from the greats: James Baldwin

Icess Fernandez Rojas
3 min readDec 4, 2022
Photo by Europeana on Unsplash

One thing about returning to the page after a very long absence is the stark reminder that I know exactly nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. I know enough that I know 1 percent of the stuff out there and that I could live three lifetimes and will only gain two more percent.

To expedite my learning, I rely on craft essays, and my latest reading came from one James Baldwin.

“The Creative Process” published in 1962 was one that I didn’t know existed until there was a line in another thing I was researching. This thing that I was researching (which I have forgotten) led me to this amazing missive and a reminder of why we craft, and why we spend time reading, writing, and thinking.

This essay starts with a punch to the obvious: “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”

This is some Virginia Woolf “Room of One’s Own” type of vibe. But so is this:

“He (the artist) is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all or doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

This line, underlined and highlighted in my copy, is what I’ve annotated as the writer’s purpose. We examine the human existence, the ups and downs and the truths and the lies, and expose them. We tell what it is like to be human, what the truth of that is, even if it’s ugly. And it is ugly but it can be beautiful too.

This makes us mirrors, reflecting what we see. It’s what my grad school advisor may have called dedication to the craft — to sit in the stink of the truth in order to make sense of it and throw it against a blank page to see if it sticks. Because humans are complicated and reckless and forgiving and giving and selfish and selfless. And all this must be recorded; it must somehow be the blueprint to our humanity.

Baldwin continues this idea with this thought:

“The artist is present to correct the delusion to which we fall prey in our attempt to avoid this knowledge.”

It’s as if artists should walk around with capes. Not only is our missive to expose but it is also to correct, or more accurately, to picture the possibilities when there is lack of imagination or vision.

Our charge is to go deeper beyond surface level stories and half truths. Our charge is to find the truth in action. The truth in diction. To find the hidden question of the work and expose the answer and even a deeper question if it exists.

This almost sounds like journalism. The real stuff. Not the stuff that is happening now.

The real journalism, the career I married so long ago, believed in the mirror idea. Hold up a mirror to reflect the truth so that change happens.

Journalism for the public good. For the good of the public to make it better, to make society better. This is what I dedicated a large part of my life and mental health to.

Now, that same purpose should go into fiction. While it may or may not have the same reach that journalism does, it makes my heart feel good to know that this part of my old life, the part I love and missed the most, translates.

This particular line in Baldwin’s essay hit it home for me:

“I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.”

What a missive! What a goal and a direction to take! As I try to get back to writing and finding my place in it, this is something I will definitely keep in mind and mediate on. Having a purpose and a why is the direction I want to take my writing into in the new year.

I’ll keep reading and discovering!



Icess Fernandez Rojas

Writer, Daughter of immigrants. Caregiver. Writing teacher. Afro-Latina. “The Opposite of Breathing” is out now from Four Palaces Press