Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, a largely working-class town northeast of Detroit. Her father, Edward Lewis McMillan, a sanitation worker, was an alcoholic. Her mother, Madeline Tillman McMillan, a hardworking, determined woman, finally tired of being physically abused by her husband and divorced him. He died three years later, at the age of thirty-nine.
As the oldest of the five McMillan children, Terry had more than her share of responsibility. One of the jobs she took in order to contribute to the family income, however, brought her more than the meager $1.25 an hour she earned. When, at sixteen, she started shelving books at a local library, McMillan learned to love books. At first, seeing the classic works by writers such as the German novelist Thomas Mann and New England essayists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she assumed that all authors were white. Only when she saw the picture of African American writer James Baldwin on the cover of a novel did she realize that blacks, too, could be writers. Even though she as yet had no idea of becoming a novelist herself, McMillan would come to consider this moment a turning point in her life.
At seventeen, McMillan decided that there was no future for her in Port Huron. Leaving her job as a keypunch operator, she headed for Los Angeles, where she found secretarial work and enrolled at Los Angeles City College. There, in a course on African American classics, she learned for the first time about the richness of her own heritage.
For a writer who was to be preoccupied with relationships, it was appropriate that McMillan’s own first literary effort, a poem, was the result of an unhappy involvement with a man. Soon, she said, words began “turning into sentences.” She decided to major in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and she also began writing fiction. In 1976, thanks to the novelist Ishmael Reed, she saw her first short story in print.
It was to be eight years, however, before McMillan’s writing career would begin in earnest. First, she had to defeat her alcoholism and her drug habit, which had already begun to dominate her existence. After graduating from Berkeley in 1979, McMillan moved to New York City and enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, then dropped out of graduate school and started working as a word processor...
(The entire section is 985 words.)