Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891-January 28,1960)


One writer who definitely exemplifies what it means to have the gift of writing is Zora Neale Hurston. Writers can learn from the opening lines of Hurston’s widely celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. On many occasions, our eyes have glanced at the image she pens: ships cruising, racing, moving on the waters. If we slow down the movement and focus our mental lens on specific vessels, we see distinctions in these crafts. Some are made with utilitarian design for practical use; some are made to project power and art; others are made for the enjoyment of the occupant. Whatever the purpose, they have all been constructed to defy one of the largest barriers on earth—the sea—in pursuit of a larger goal—living out a plan for someone’s life, pursuing a dream.

In these few lines that follow, Hurston has taken a snapshot from life and told not just the story of her book, but the history of mankind. In life, there are winners and losers. 

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

What is compelling about these opening lines is the simplicity they reflect, a scene from everyday life that Zora, no doubt, has seen endless times. She took that image of ships and connected it to all mankind and clearly states how she connects it. Those ships have everyone’s dream on board.

She extends the ship image by reflecting on additional topics associated with ships such as tide, horizon, and landing. She concludes with a a philosophic statement about life.

Hurston achieved her goal of establishing the theme of her book and engaging the reader with her focus on a single image. Now a reader wants to know not only the details about this journey, but whether details about those who succeed at it and those who don’t. Of course, the opening lines also force readers to reflect on the path their own lives have taken. We are forced to consider whether we’re sailing with a purpose or just meandering around down here.

Writers can learn so much from this woman who was born on January 7, 1891 and who died January 28, 1960. She had been in the news in the last few years because Alice Walker discovered that in the for thirteen years her grave was unmarked.

She left her family to pursue her dreams in life and met with opposition and despair. She was the eighth daughter of a preacher father and school teacher mother. One of eight children. In keeping with her interest in anthropology, she traveled to the deep south to study the dialect and incorporated her findings in this novel. Much of what she chose to include in the novel she farmed from the harvest of her own life: the harbor, the town of Eatonville (which her father ran as Mayor).

As a writer, you can follow Zora Neale Hurston’s lead when developing your ideas by

  • Looking around and finding an image from your environment
  • Brainstorming two or three words associated with that image
  • Creating a sentence or two which connects that image to the bigger issues of life such as (aspirations, love, hope, empathy, understanding, etc.)

Through these opening words and her life, Hurston provides a advice for writers to remember:

  • Pursue your dream
  • Study topics that will enhance your writing, sometimes study may involve visiting a particular location
  • Strive to make your writing authentic
  • Incorporate scenes from your own life into your writing.

Make it your goal to be a better writer –and that will take study and practice. Some people have the gift of gab, like Hurston, you have the gift of letters. Let’s work it; you’re worth it.

Take The Gift of Letters Writing Studio Exercise.

Take a walk down the street, look out your window, if you had a camera on which image would you focus your lens. Which words are associated with that object? Finally, what does that object/image reveal about the human condition? Take a look at the chart below. One through three are completed for you. Four and five are partially completed. For six through eight, complete the chart with three images you have observed from your environment.

Learning from Zora Neal Hurston

Image Words Associated with Image Theme Connection to the human experience
Wind drifts, cold Alienation in relationships Years of turmoil can take relationships to artic zones layered with snowdrifts. One or both parties would need to be fully equipped with the proper physical and emotional gear to travel frozen terrain and lure the other to warmer climate.
Leaking water, no parking Squandering earth’s resources Fire hydrants on every street 400 to 600 feet apart and no parking within fifteen feet. Civilization exacting details to protect its people and products. Unable or unwilling to plug a leaky hydrant day after day, squanders earth’s resources.
empty, folded abundance, wealth, hope, blessings A navy-blue folded shopping cart leaned against the wall in the apartment basement waiting for use optimistic that one day its owner would fill it with groceries in abundance. Sometimes blessings are just too heavy to carry.


How would you describe the writing strategy Hurston employs in the opening lines of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?

How would you rate your success duplicating this strategy in the exercise above? Why?

Email Margo McKenzie to discuss MMcKenzie(@)GiftofLetters.com