Writer Breaks Through at O

Roaring around New York City on her Harley Davidson, she’s a chopper-riding poet with a high-octane philosophy: “I want to live every second!”

She’s also an aspiring dramatist who writes “gangsta comedy” in which “some pretty bad-ass characters” sing, dance, fight and make love — while also barking dialogue that she hopes will strike audiences as “funky and crazy and full of life.”

At the tender age of 26, writer-editor Chineesa “Chee” Gates, BA’03 (M), says she’s “having a blast” as she works to make her mark on the New York literary scene. And why not? Gates scored a remarkable coup for a writer just 18 months out of FDU’s creative writing program — a full-time job as an editorial assistant at Oprah Winfrey’s blockbuster magazine, O. After joining the popular monthly in late 2003, Gates has cranked out several vivid articles marked by her unique style.

“Getting this job wasn’t easy, lemme tell ya,” says Gates, who nabbed her coveted post after a semester-long internship at the magazine. “For one thing, I started out at O on crutches, after breaking my leg when I was car-jacked.

“I was in a lot of pain during my first few months here, but I dragged myself into the office anyway. I wasn’t about to let this opportunity get away. I wanted to work at this magazine so badly I could taste it … and I think the editors noticed that.”

Indeed, they did. In recent months, the brass at O has awarded Gates one assignment after another. Among her recent stories: a think piece on “alternative medical remedies” and a zinger on how to fend off the kinds of “fat attacks” that can wreck a diet that allowed Gates to display her take-no-prisoners style:

“While en route to your weekly kickboxing class, you pass by a Mrs. Fields and get a whiff of her fresh-out-of-the-oven white chunk macadamia cookies. The aroma bull-rushes your senses. Your willpower crumbles. Within nanoseconds you’ve swallowed a dozen, [and] gained two pounds. … Somewhere along the line, did Eve’s apple get swapped for a greasy spoon?”

And, the wild ride is only beginning: This spring, Gates is scheduled to author a 2,000-word “Reminiscence” for O in which she’ll describe her roller-coaster odyssey from the public housing projects of East Orange (where she spent part of her early childhood) to her current status as Oprah Winfrey’s in-house enfant terrible.

“Many nights, I’ll sit up writing until very late. And then, when I finally drop off to sleep, I’m still writing im my dreams.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve already lived several lives,” says the indefatigable Gates, while describing a turbulent adolescence in which she was booted from two high schools for disciplinary infractions. Running with a rough crowd, she dropped out of Towson University in Maryland and lived with a boyfriend in a fiery relationship that eventually crashed and burned. Finally, she pulled it together and discovered her gift for poetry and drama at FDU.

“Something brought me back to the classroom at FDU [in 2001]. And that turned out to be a real break for me — because I met René Steinke, [associate professor of English and editor-in-chief of FDU’s The Literary Review], who literally changed my life.

“René nursed my writing talent very patiently and put a lot of time and energy into working with me. It’s amazing what can happen when a teacher is there for you. You know, I still have a writing assignment from those days — one of the other writing teachers graded a story of mine and wrote on it: ‘You, girl, can write!’

“That kind of teaching really helped my confidence. By the time I left FDU, I felt like I was ready to conquer the world!”

Steinke remembers Gates as a “very dedicated student who worked very hard for everything she accomplished. Chee was not somebody who’s had a lot of things handed to her,” she said. “But she has a lot of natural talent and the determination to get the most out of it.”

And the future? Gates talks excitedly about writing knockout journalism in which she hopes to tell “urgent stories of how people connect to each other” — along with “nonlinear film scripts, like the great stuff you see coming from [director] Quentin Tarantino. “I’m having a ball,” says the Harley-powered poet of O, “and sometimes it seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

“Many nights, I’ll sit up writing until very late. And then, when I finally drop off to sleep, I’m still writing in my dreams!”


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