Chitoka Webb is the owner of several businesses and the writer of her memoir Something Inside of Me: How To Hang On To Heaven When You’re Going Through Hell. She’s also my classmate this semester at the University of Iowa. Something Inside of Me details her journey through life, from growing up in poverty to enduring a horrible eye disease, and all the wisdom that she has gained from it. Most interviews will tell you about that. My interview with her focuses on her writing craft, her future plans, and some of the things you’ll miss if you only read her memoir. Below is a conversation we had a week ago…
NICK EDINGER (NE): Welcome to the first interview feature of Word Salad Spinner! I am pleased to announce that my guest is Chitoka Webb. I knew her first as a thoughtful and energetic classmate at the University of Iowa, but then found out that she had quite an amazing backstory. But not everyone reading this would know about that. To start this interview off, Chitoka, I’ll ask that you distill for the reader who you are, what you do, your general philosophy, and why someone who knows nothing about you should read this interview.
CHITOKA WEBB (CW): Oh, excellent. Well, first of all, thank you for having me, thank you for this opportunity. Who I am… I am a writer and an entrepreneur, and my philosophy on life is to treat people the way that you want to be treated. And for the readers who have not read the book, basically, the book is about, really, in a general sense, how to get through tough times, and my philosophy on that is to think about, you know, when the times were better, and basically just using the resources that you have, whether they be internal or external. To help you move forward past whatever particular situation it is you are currently facing.
NE: As the owner of several businesses, what are your never-fail rules for getting the word out and attracting customers?
CW: The number one thing is to treat people the way that you want to be treated. Advertising, I’ve done that before, billboards, commercials… worked with several different marketing companies and so forth, but at the end of the day, it’s really all about how you treat your customer, and I believe that you treat your customer the same way you would treat a family member or a friend. And basically you just treat them the way that you want to be treated. So that is my motto, that is my number 1 rule I always try to follow, is to treat people the way they want to be treated.
NE: What brings you to the University of Iowa at this point of your life?
CW: The University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop is the reason I am here. I came here in 2012 after finishing a very successful book tour—I went to 47 states… Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, ummm… is it Borders? I think it was…
NE: Yeah, Borders. They went out of business a while ago.
CW: Yeah, yeah…
NE: My village was very disappointed because that used to be a local hangout for a lot of us.
CW: So I came here to the University of Iowa after I finished the book tour for the Writer’s Workshop, and before I came, I was under the impression (after doing my research) that you did not have to have a college degree, that it was basically based on your writing abilities. And so I came here, but once I got here, I realized that even though it says [you don’t need a college degree] on the website… that it’s not most suitable (laughs). So that’s when I enrolled at the University of Iowa, to get an undergraduate degree in English.
NE: Do you have any other writing projects in the works, or any future plans to publish something?
CW: Oh, absolutely. Last year, I went on a 40-day silence fest, so I went to class every day, went to church… on Tuesdays, I go by Mercy Hospital to check on individuals who are there who are part of our church, which is First Presbyterian Church on Rochester Ave. You know, I’ve done my walking, I— you know, everything that I’d normally do on a day-to-day basis, I did. So that is what I’m currently writing a book about now. About being silent. Once before, I’ve done a 40-day fast without food. But I’d certainly have to say that doing a 40-day fast of silence and still living like a normal person; like class, work, school, business, church, you know, family life; it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. So I’m writing a book about that now.
NE: I remember doing a 1-day-of-silence thing back in high school, and I couldn’t make it through a day without scribbling things on pieces of paper and showing it to people…
CW: (laughs) Yeah! So I had lots of sticky notes and just a lot of paper.
NE: Were there any memoirs that inspired certain aspects of telling your own story? What is your favorite memoir of all time?
CW: Oh geez, that’s a tough one, especially as a writer. I would have to say… (thinks about it for a bit) Well, I’ll just go with this one. It’s by Iyanla Vanzant, and the name of the book is One Day My Soul Just Opened Up. That one was really good. Often times the seasoned writers, like Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, they have like several, they don’t have just one memoir. Joan Didion has one, and I think it’s called Where I Was From, I think that’s what it’s called. She has that one, and then she has another one, I can’t think of the name of it, but it’s about when her husband died. Well, her daughter died first, and then her husband died. So that one was really good— I apologize, I can’t think of the name of it right off the bat.
NE: It’s ok.
CW: But I would definitely say… speaking of authors who’ve written memoirs, Iyanla Vanzant, Joan Didion, and Maya Angelou.
NE: Other interviews have pointed out how strange it is to see someone publish a memoir at 30. Aspiring writers like myself find it inspiring just to have a book out there. What was the process like, in detail, for getting a memoir from your notebook into store shelves?
CW: It was painful (laughs). Writing a book is… I’ve never had a child, but I have been in pain before because I have this rare autoimmune disease. So writing a book is similar to giving birth. You know, I’ve never thought about suicide or anything like that, but I can certainly see how some authors can succumb to that. Because you have, you know, Sylvia Plath, which was the writer who committed suicide by getting in the oven; you have David Foster Wallace, who hung himself; and then you have, you know, Virginia Woolf, who put the stones in her pocket and walked off into the ocean and drowned herself. But it’s a very… it’s a very grueling process to write a book. You know, because with each word, in a sense, you’re giving up something. You’re like… it’s like sharing a personal fault. So I would say for aspiring writers: you just have to make the conscious decision to, you know, decide whether you want to do it or not and just kind of let it go, because it can certainly… it’s going to take a lot out of you, I’m not going to say that it can, it will take a lot out of you, and you have to have a lot to give, so to speak. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe Ernest Hemmingway committed suicide…
NE: Ahh, yes. Him, Hunter S. Thompson, the list really goes on. And probably also a bunch of authors you’ve never heard about too, those are the more tragic ones I find.
CW: Yeah. So the list goes on and on and on… like I said, I’ve never thought of anything like that, but I can see how some authors succumb to that, because it is a very very grueling process. So I would say for aspiring writers: the goal is, you know, first make the decision, this is something that I want to do. And you have to be disciplined enough to put it down, go back to it, put it down, go back to it… and then, once you finish, you know, you have to let it go. Because once you get a book deal, you basically get a project deal from the publisher. So it’s usually 12 months. It’s the same way if you’re gonna do a movie, you know, if you get a movie deal. So the first month you do this, the second two months you may to this, and so forth and so forth and so forth, until the final project is done. And there was one instance where I had to go back… I was working with a copy editor at this particular point on the project. And I had to go back and rewrite Chapter 4 and Chapter 6. So of course, if you have to rewrite Chapter 4, you have to rewrite Chapter 3, and then you have to rewrite Chapter 5, and you have to rewrite 6, you have to rewrite 7.
NE: Yeah, I feel like a lot of people who give constructive criticism, as well-meaning as they can be, often don’t realize how much, like, removing a piece or adding another piece can cause the whole structure to fall apart sometimes.
CW: Yeah. So you have to… as the publisher, you know, they’re into selling books, so you just have to be prepared for that once you get a deal, but I had to do all that in about two weeks. And literally, I did not, I’ve never been the kind of person that stayed in the house, but literally for two weeks straight I did not come out of the house, because I had to rewrite all that. So you just have to be willing to make some sacrifices.
NE: All writers harbor fantasies of writing memoirs someday. I’m no different. If you knew when you were young that you were going to write a memoir thirty years down the line, what would you have done to prepare for the moment you set pen to paper?
CW: You know, to be honest, I don’t know. Because I don’t live a life of regrets, and I had no idea that, when I wrote the memoir that I would write a memoir (laughs). So I can’t necessarily say that I would’ve done anything different, or I would do something different… because I think that’s what makes us all so unique, is like what happens or what you encounter along the way. And I think that is a good thing that, you know, life is not a foreshadowed piece. So, like, when you finish this interview, you don’t know if you’re gonna trip and fall, or run into a long lost love, or whatever. So I don’t know the answer to that question.
NE: That’s ok. The reason that I brought that up is that I’m working with a theater group called No Shame Theatre. And I find that my struggles and my joys from that— my work as both an entertainer and somewhat of an entrepreneur for it— I’ve started thinking, you know, this might make a good memoir someday, not my entire life but just this one particular section. Some of the things I’m doing to prepare for that include after each show, I write down some of the more memorable things that happened so that years down the line, when I look back at it, I’ll be like “Ok, I want to write about this and this and this.”
CW: Ok. And then too, I think the other thing that is important to know is that the same way that cars are not the way that they used to be, like how a car in 2016 is not the same as a car in, like, 1970. So it’s the same with memoir. Like, way back when, a memoir was just one book you wrote when you were 80 years old. Well, at this day and time, a memoir can be a fragmented piece, or it can be… I think it was Maya Angelou who wrote her memoir… I forgot what the name of it is, it’ll come to me, but she wrote one in 1970, then she wrote more of a lither piece of her first memoir in ’80, then she wrote another one in 1990 and so forth. So you don’t have to… it’s not a one-trip deal, so to speak. So if you write something now at 25, you can go back at 45 and write something else in addition to that. So a memoir today is not what a memoir was 30-40 years ago.
NE: It’s clear to anyone who reads “Something Inside Of Me” that you cherish wise sayings, especially ones that you associate with your elders. What is your favorite maxim of all time, and what is your least favorite?
CW: Well my number 1 is to treat people the way that you want to be treated. That’s number 1. That’s the motto that I live by.
I don’t have a least favorite one, but I do have… there are several that, two of that I can think of immediately, that I don’t agree with. I wouldn’t say they’re my least favorite, but one, like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I don’t agree with that (laughs). Because words, they do hurt, and they last… you know, the mean things that people say to you, or things that, you know, you can easily, or you will remember 20-30 years down the road. The other one is “Blood is thicker than water.” I don’t agree with that either. Because some of the nicest people, who have been the kindest to me, has not always been my family members. Some of them have been strangers. Some of them have been people that I went to school with, people that I’ve worked with. So those are certainly two. I wouldn’t say they’re my least favorite, but they are two I don’t necessarily agree with.
NE: You know, I remember reading an interesting bit of trivia a while ago that the origin of “blood is thicker than water” comes from the bible. Where the full saying is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” So it’s interesting how we’ve taken the original saying and turned it on its head. Where the original one is saying, “Family is not as important as bonds you make through religion or otherwise.”
CW: (laughs) Yeah.
NE: I’ll ask the same question, but for writing: of all the advice you’ve been given, which is your favorite writing maxim, and which is your least favorite writing maxim?
CW: Well my favorite, or rule of thumb that I stick by, is “In order to write well, you’re going to have to read well.” So, you know, if you want to be a conscious and effective writer, you’re gonna have to read. The one thing… again, I don’t necessarily consider it my least or my worst piece of advice as it pertains to writing, but the whole… how most writers… the advice that they are given is very structured. You know, you wake up at 7 o’clock, you write something every day, you put it down, you go back at night, and you have to do this every day. And that is not true. That, I have found, is not true amongst most successful writers. And… because writing is really not something you do. It’s really something that happens to you along the way. Often times something will strike me at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ll get up and write about it. Writers of that sort don’t battle or deal with writer’s block. Like, writer’s block, that I’ve found, it happens when you are forcing yourself to write something at 7 o’clock in the morning when really you’re thinking, “Ok, I have to be at class at 8…” you know, you have other things that you’re thinking about. But… I don’t know whether to say real writers? Most successful writers write when it’s time to write. So they’ll have a notebook in their car, sticky notes on the side of the bed, so when a thought comes to your mind, you write it down. And as a writer, that can happen at any time at any moment, you just have to be prepared to write it down. So certainly my least favorite advice would be how the advice is always given, you know, to be structured, to get up at this time, and do this, write this every day… it doesn’t work.
NE: “Something Inside of Me” was published almost five years ago. That’s a lot of time to learn more about your craft. If you had a chance to rewrite the book, would you approach things differently? That is, would you write in a different style, or put more focus on different events, or rearrange the order in which events are told? Regrets don’t seem to be a part of your life philosophy, but I imagine there are lessons here you can take forward in your writing.
CW: Sure. No, I would not do anything different. Some of the lessons that I’ve learned… the one thing that I learned after writing the book… like if you go online and go to Amazon, most of the reviews are four stars, five stars. But there were some negative reviews. They’re not on Amazon, they’re just critical reviews people wrote in form of an essay, so to speak. But the one thing that I learned with my first book that I would do differently as I write the second book is… you can’t expect everyone to understand what it is that you’re talking about. I had this one lady… she wrote a review… oh it was, it was painful, it was painful to read because her interpretation of the book was absolutely wrong. And you cannot, as a professional artist, you do not respond to reviews. You don’t do that. So you have to suck it up and just move forward. But her interpretation… she called me a fake… she said that you cannot be a person who has faith and have doubt, you cannot be someone who is optimistic but then you have these areas in your life where things are dark and you don’t understand where things are going… and I don’t think that can be further from the truth. Because, to me, that’s called being human. So I would say that’s the one lesson that I’ve learned, is that you cannot expect everyone to understand what it is that you’re writing about.
NE: Thank you for mentioning that, ‘cause that’s really important to me, because one of the things I struggle with as a writer is clarity, and a lot of my revisions come from trying to make things understandable to a lot of people. So that’s good to hear, that although that’s a good goal to reach for, at some point you just gotta be like, “the problem is no longer with me with this stuff.”
What event or insight did not make it into “Something Inside of Me,” that you think is worth mentioning now?
CW: That’s a great question. One of the things that I though about… well, of course, it was three or four years later (laughs)… but the things that I experienced that like, literally almost took my life… you know, as I thought about it, I couldn’t even remember why it is I didn’t put that in there. And I think that when you’re writing a memoir about your life, it just contains so much, you know. But when I was six months old, I lived in an apartment complex. We lived on the third floor, and my cousin, who was probably about 5 at the time, she set me on the ledge of the patio, and I fell off. So I went down three flights, three floors. And I remember my mother telling me this story once I got older and she says that “I was running down the stairs,” she says, “I just knew you were dead,” because I lay there on the concrete. But when she got there, you know, I was laughing. So of course she said she called the ambulance and all that. So I made it through that.
And then when I was… (thinks for a moment) I wanna say… somewhere between 8, 9, and 10, I can’t remember. But we used to have this two-door Monte Carlo. And my sisters and I used to play this bingo game to determine who would sit in front, everyone always wanted to sit in front because it was a 2-door car. Well that day I lost, so I had to sit in back. And any time I had to sit in the back of the car, I would always sit behind my mother on the driver’s side, and just like, lean over and hug her and talk to her in her ear, you know, as she was driving or whatever. So we were going up a hill and I was leaning on the backseat, saying something to my mother in her ear, and then I leaned on the door and I fell out of the car—
NE: (sharp intake of breath)
CW: And because we were going at a certain speed, my mother ran over me. And, so I rolled, you know, back down the hill. And so my mother got out of the car, and she was telling me these stories way back and she said again, “I thought you were dead!” And she said, “When I got to you, you know, as I was running towards you, you were not moving. And then when I got to you, you just shook your head and opened your eyes, so I went to the hospital again…” So I would just say it was those moments, those childhood moments where I could’ve easily died. So those were things I did not write about.
NE: Yeah, yeah. Quite harrowing, I must say.
NE: Some writers are the type to keep a strict schedule when it comes to their craft. Others write when the muse commands them to. You’ve already answered this question in a sense…
NE: But on the scale between “completely strict writing schedule” and “completely loose writing schedule,” where do you stand, and do you have any advice for people at the other end of the spectrum?
CW: Well I would be at a 10. So I write when I feel like writing. And for the people, I guess, at the other end of the spectrum, with the people who have the more rigid schedule, more structured schedule… I mean the only advice I can give is, “If that works for you do that. Do what works best for you.”
NE: Which part of “Something Inside of Me” was the easiest to write? Why?
CW: I would say Chapter 12, which is, the title of Chapter 12 is “We Have All Benefited From Someone Else’s Labor.” So I talk about Princess Diana and Martin Luther King Jr., myself, my mother, my friends… to me, that was the easiest chapter to write because it’s not hard to figure out. I mean, the shirt you have on you didn’t make it, the pants you have on you didn’t make it, the socks you have on you didn’t make it—
NE: I did, actually.
CW: You made the socks?
NE: I’m kidding, I’m kidding! I’m just wondering how many people will respond to that.
NE: It’s like “My father worked in a sock factory, I’ll have you know!”
CW: (laughs) So, you know, we all have benefited from someone else’s labor, toil, someone else’s kindness. So I would certainly say that was the easiest chapter to write, the last one.
NE: Which part of “Something Inside of Me” was the most difficult to write? Why?
CW: The most difficult part was writing about my eye disease.
NE: And for the benefit of the reader, could you mention, exactly, the name of it and some of the characteristics?
CW: Yeah, sure. I have a rare autoimmune disease called Behcet’s Disease, which is (spells out “Behcet’s), which is extremely rare in the United States. It’s so rare that it’s not even in our medical coding system. So when I go to the doctor I have to, I have to take medications that a cancer patient would take or someone or someone who has arthritis, because that is in our medical coding system. So Behcet’s disease is an autoimmune disease, it’s when your body attacks itself. So for whatever reason, my autoimmune disease, it attacks my eyes. So I have an eye disease called panuveitis… uveitis is when the outside of your eye is the disease, and panuveitis is when the outside and the inside of your eye is diseased. So that’s how I ended up losing my vision. And some of the characteristics of panuveitis, #1 is pain, inflammation, blindness, your eyes swell, any or everything that can happen to your eyes… you can, you will certainly experience that with panuveitis. That was the most difficult part to write… because the things that happened as a child, the different life experiences that I had along the way, you know, those things come and they go. But when you have an illness, it’s something you have to learn to live with for the rest of your life. And that’s what makes it difficult, because it’s almost like having something else with you that you did not know was going to be with you (laughs). So you have to make room in your life for it, because you never know when it’s going to show up, and then when it does happen, you never know to what extent it’s going to happen, you don’t know how long it’s gonna last, you don’t know how… you know, you just don’t know. And then it was, having to go and see so many doctors and… it’s just a different lifestyle when you have an illness. So I would say that was the most difficult part.
NE: With your question over there, did you mean mostly about “it was most difficult living through that illness” or transcribing what that illness feels like to you down on paper? Because one of the reasons I’ve talked about my own interest in writing memoir someday, and I remember the advice of Chuck Palahniuk where he says, “You need to make sure you’re, like, super good at writing when you do that because you don’t want anyone to laugh at your pain (paraphrased of course).” Which is very real, but if you’re an amateur writer trying to write your memoirs, you’re probably not going to be as skilled expressing it. In your book, I found you were skilled at expressing it, what it felt like, how your life changed and stuff like that. Would you say that was harder than living through it, in a sense, trying to articulate it?
CW: I don’t necessarily believe that one is harder than the other. They’re both hard, but it’s a different kind of hard. It’s equivalent to… falling down on the ground and busting your knee versus someone punching you in the face. Both of those things are painful, it’s just that the different kind of pain, so to speak. Ummm, yeah, they are both very painful, because they’re both still with me, but it’s a different kind of pain and you have to learn… like some things… what’s a good way to put it… as you get older, some things you are not going to be able to get rid of, so therefore there are some things you have to learn how to live with it. It’s not going away. You know, like, when you’re a kid, if someone at school is bullying you around, I mean eventually you grow up, that person moves away, you move away— you know, it’s over. But if you have a crappy car, eventually you’ll go, you’ll get another car. But as you get older, you can’t get rid of some things. Some things, you have to learn how to live with it. And there’s just no way around it. So I would say having an illness, especially one that is visible, I’ll always think about Patrick Swayze, in a sense. I remember when he was diagnosed with, it was cancer, right?
NE: I don’t recall.
CW: Yeah, I think it was cancer. And I remember him and his wife were, about a year after he was diagnosed, him and his wife was at, I think it was a Lakers, it was a NBA, a basketball game. And his face, I mean literally, you could see every bone in his face and his neck. And, you know, I remember thinking that how courageous a person has to be in order to be seen in public, with everyone knowing that you have this illness, and I think he actually died a couple months after that, not too long after that. So when I have a flare-up in my eyes, I have an eye patch, I have sunglasses, everything and anything you can think of to have done to your eyes… I mean, I’ve had my eyes dyed so they could take eye exams, I’ve had needles in my eyes, eye injections, I’ve had eye surgery… like where they do ultrasound on a woman’s belly when she’s pregnant, they put the hot gel on your belly, well they put that in my eye and took the ball and rolled, you know, like anything you could have done to your body, I’ve had done to my eyes. And… it’s, ummm… it just takes a courageous person to talk about something that is wrong with you that you didn’t ask to be wrong with you. Like, you didn’t… it just happened to you.
NE: One of the pillars of your philosophy is to treat others the way you want to be treated. Can you think of a moment when this adage was most challenged, and did you stick to your wisdom in that moment?
CW: When it was most challenged… I can’t think of a particular incident when it was most challenged, but I can say that it is most challenging when you, like when you’re nice to someone, or you give someone a helping hand, or you go the extra mile for someone, and they are the ones who betray you, or they are the ones who cause you harm. I would say that is probably when that philosophy or that philosophical thought is most difficult to adhere to. But that’s the purpose of it, I mean, that is what makes you wiser, when you do what it is that is not easy. That’s how you get ahead. That’s how you get ahead in your thinking. That’s how you get ahead in your life. That’s how you get ahead in your mind. So yeah, I would say that is when it’s the most difficult, when people betray you who you know, or who you would’ve never thought would ever have betrayed you.
NE: And, to end this interview, a fun question. Who would you like to play you in the movie version of “Something Inside of Me”?
CW: Well thank you for a fun question (laughs).
NE: (laughs) Yeah… I really wanted to get at the soul of who you really are, but…
CW: Yeah… let’s see… this is going… no no no. Oh, what is her name… she played the maid in The Help, and it’s Olivia something, I can’t think of her, I’m terrible with names.
NE: I know, I thinking of… for some reason, I want to say “Butler,” but I think I’m confusing her with the author (Octavia Butler) in that case.
CW: Yes. But she played… I can get back to you—
NE: I can get look this up when I’m—
CW: Yeah, but she’s a very very very popular African-American actress, she’s #1 hands down.
NE: All right. Thank you very much for your time.
CW: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
Be sure to purchase Chitoka’s book here!