Last Sunday, November 8, I was on a panel at Out of the Binders’ second annual BinderCon, a two-day conference for women and gender noncomforming writers and media professionals. This is the video. I had a fantastic time, and I was so incredibly honored to be part of this group of speakers, in particular, which included journalists from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and ProPublica. They were gracious and brilliant and, close to a week later, I still can’t believe I was up there with them. Lots of important points were raised, as each of us discussed at least one piece we’d written that subsequently advanced a social justice cause (whether that was our express purpose for writing or not — and in most cases, it wasn’t).
Many thanks to our moderator, a brilliant, accomplished journalist in her own right, Alizah Salario. Shout-outs to people I follow on Twitter and had the great joy of meeting in person during the weekend, Eva KL Miller and Nyasha Junior (author of the new book, Introduction to Biblical Womanism). Big love to the perpetually fabulous, ethereal Melissa Febos, my friend from grad school, whose panel on personal writing with political themes was amazing (I’m not sure if it’ll be available online but if it ever is, I’ll update with a link). And a warm hug goes out to Aya de Leon, whose children’s book, Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity, I spotted on a bookstore table as I was rushing out to catch my bus back to Baltimore, then bumped into immediately after purchasing and got autographed for Story. She was beautiful and gracious and I’m so glad I got to meet her before I had to hustle out of there. Love out to my Saturday lunch buddies, Jenn Baker, whose Minorities in Publishing podcast you should definitely check out, Monica Odom who was so kind and encouraging about book-writing, and Ashley Lauren Rogers, who was warm and witty. So glad to have met and re-connected with so many wonderful people.
I also had a lot of time to myself, which helped me break some idea-ground for my new radio/podcast project. Overall, it was a great experience.
This is just one of Cooper Union’s buildings, but isn’t it impressive?
This post is in support of Black Lives Matter’s #EveryBlackGirlMattersopen letter to Spring Valley High School students Niya Kenny and Shakara. You can add your signature as a show of support for both girls, as they deal with legal, medical, academic, and emotional fallout from last month’s assault.
When I pick you up from school now, you are either crouching teary-eyed with your back to the other coat-bundled, backpack-saddled children or you are standing next to your favorite teacher’s aide — the one who looks like the all the other women in your life: brown, full-grown, fierce when need be — your tiny hand gift-wrapped in her long fingers and protective palm. You aren’t looking at the door for me anymore, distraught when I don’t arrive before you do when your class is dismissed. But the process still seems to rattle you. All the people, all the noise, the hectic urgency of teachers pulling single-file links of handholding kids toward all the buses that await them outside. The buses have curious names: Lemon, Tangerine, Pineapple. You hear them shouted by teachers. You hear them crackling through intercom speakers. You have never ridden the school bus; all the names mean to you is that children you just played with in your Pre-K classroom are being pulled off in all different directions, taken to places unknown.
I wonder what that’s like for you, as an only child. You’re only with children two hours a day and at the end of those hours, you watch them wrested away. Is learning alongside them the warmest, most thrilling part of your day? Is it lonely to leave? Or are you relieved to be coming home, where you know that, no matter how you express yourself, you will be understood?
When I ask you about your friends, calling each of their names and hoping for something specific and anecdotal, you disclose very little. You were placed in this class with the expectation that you would become a student leader. You’re older than the others and have taken a year of pre-k before. For you, the material and the routines have long been rote. But I wonder if you do lead there. I wonder how often you assert yourself and what you do when you feel disoriented or teased or rushed (if these things happen at all).
There’s so little I can guess about this sliver of life you already live away from me. I have a conference with your teacher this week and I’ll visit your classroom next Wednesday. But I know from our two previous years of experience that those are just wisps of observation, that your interior life and your impressions of your surroundings are largely unknowable.
Right now, it’s just the language. You’re five and everyday, you’re articulating more, but your communication skills are still slow-emerging. Later, in adolescent, the parts of your life you wall off will be intentionally decided. Language won’t be the barrier; your great teenage need for privacy will.
Then, as now, I will need for us to find a way to be an impenetrable team. Too many forces seek to erode black girls’ confidence and school is breeding ground for many of them.
I was sullen and silent and an only child, too. Bright but not necessarily in ways that a public school assessment system could adequately measure. I didn’t exude enough coolness to be emulated or enough confidence to be insulated from bullying or enough aggression to be feared. I relied most on low visibility. If I could blend into a crowd of brown students, I could observe or immerse without being targeted. I could survive.
But nothing is ever failsafe. Back then, student resource officers were just being placed in middle and high schools. Now, they are a mainstay. Back then, I assumed they were there to protect us from outside intrusion. Now, it’s apparent, they’re policing children who look like you, whose parents earn too little to send them elsewhere (like me). Now, black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls. Now, black girls in public schools report experiencing disproportionately high instances of interpersonal violence. And every single day, national news confirms that abuse committed against black women, injustices committed against black women, and assault committed against black women are of little public interest — constant reminders that after you are raised, you are not being released into a world where kindness will be offered easily.
But womanhood is still a star in the middle distance. I have years to prepare you for it, years to deliver you to it. They are years for which we should be prepared. You will need to tell me when something’s wrong. You will need to speak up in class. You will need to defend yourself. You will need me to defend you when that fails. I will need someone more powerful to join us. We will need women. We will need black women. We will need lots of black women.
But in the moment when I am not beside you and you will like war is rushing toward you and no cavalry is coming, you may only need one.
In South Carolina at Spring Valley High, Shakara had Niya. Not her black male teacher. Not any of the other tremulous scared-silent students. When Officer Ben Fields attacked her, one girl cried out on her behalf, a voice raised when Shakara’s own wind had been knocked from her.
When we are fortunate, there is one. May you always have a Niya. May you always have access to a single empathetic staff member. When I can’t be near, may another black woman be my emissary. Look up into the faces of onlookers and find someone willing to flip a table for you. She will probably be black. She will want to keep you safe and see you win.
But for her brave defense of you, she will also face a battle. Niya was manhandled, arrested, and charged with disturbing schools alongside Shakara. We take great risks when we stand between our sisters and the terrors that stalk them. We take those risks, even as we face terrors of our own. Solidarity may be the right choice, but it is never a simple one.
Every black girl deserves to have someone make it. Every black girl who makes it deserves a hedge of support and defense when she does.
You are still so young, but in your own class, you have met your first one. A little girl a bit smaller than yourself with a big, clear voice. She calls out to you from beside her dad, when they’re walking behind us toward the school in the morning. She waits patiently for your timid wave in response. When you are crouching with your back to everyone, she tells you when I’ve come to get you. Yo mommy here! When you’ve had a hard day, she walks up, cranes her neck up the full four feet from her own height to my face. She looks into my eyes to make sure I’m paying attention. Story was sleepy today, she reports.
I thank her. And that night, I tuck you in an hour earlier.
I wonder what I'd choose, given the choice/between silence and noise, words or a voice. -- "Beyond the Sun," Aaron Espe and Claire Guerreso
I may have mentioned this here before — in fact, I’m almost certain I have — but I sing to keep calm. It’s one of the only things I do that pushes my overactive thoughts (and anxieties) to the periphery. Ironically, singing quiets me. Much like fiction-writing, it requires a good deal of my creative focus, especially if I’m harmonizing. I have to be able to hear myself, and in that way, I’m granted the fleeting luxury of ignoring everything else. Everyone should adopt a hobby that affords them that privilege, something that inwardly soothes but has the potential offer something distinct — and free — to the world outside. Historically, writing has satisfied those aims for me, but for the past three years or so, it’s been far more stressful than calming — in no small part because I’ve increasingly relied on it for income, and also because bigger reading audiences mean heightened self-consciousness. Sitting down to a blank screen meant approaching it with a sense of post-writing strategy: How (if at all) would I defend myself in the face of critique? How would I help the publication market the piece so that it had maximum reach within its first 48 hours? How much would I have to make myself available to converse about whatever I’d report or disclose? How fast could I finish it, so that I could quickly invoice it, and after the invoice, would the payment arrive before Bill X was due, if I really rushed the copy?
The lines between silence and noise seem to disappear for writers of certain types of new media content. And on my most cynical days, it becomes hard to determine whether I’ve just written a required number of words, inanimate, flat uninspired, or infused those dry bones of vocabulary with true voice and with life.
I’m hoping that my new professional direction will recalibrate my relationship to writing as something I simply want to do for myself and others, rather than something I have to do to feed my family and help my employees with their bottom line. Joyfulness during the practice of writing is rare. It’s important to protect and reclaim it if and when you can.
I know you're down. When you gon' get up? -- "Get Up," Amel Larrieux
Amel Larrieux’s first solo album, Infinite Possibilities, dropped when I was a junior in college and since then, this song has always been able to straighten my spine and set my feet due north after a period of aimlessness. (This just occurred to me, but this song is simply a much more beautiful way of delivering the exact same message this guy does in that old, classic for-profit college ad. “Get Up” is just as urgent but absent the comical disgust.)
You'd say this is all there is/and every time you blink you'd miss/another piece of this wondrous world. -- "Good Goodbye," Lianne de Havas
I hate letting go of people I love before I’ve made peace with it. I want every relationship that has to end to do so with mutual, bittersweet resignation and resolve. I want the fanfare of a poignant farewell. But how often are any of us granted that (and even when we are, it’s still emptier than we’d hoped, isn’t it?). Sometimes I just have to force myself forward, when I really want to be like Atreyu was with Artax in the Swamp of Sadness:
I’m not sure what Lianne La Havas wants us to take from her gorgeous song, “Good Goodbye,” but what I get from it is validation of how hard it is to accept when people are truly gone, when what you’ve wanted most was for them not to be.
Edited to add a fourth Acapella with zero context:
(How dope is Acapella, though? Really. Even though it’s trendy and millennial and the clever teens and twentysomethings using it will move onto something else by the end of the year, this app, which I just found out about three days ago, is my Patronus and probably will be a long, long while.)
I’ve been waiting awhile to be able to announce this, but today I get to let you all know that for the next nine months (and hopefully beyond!), I’m going to be producing a radio show/podcast with Morgan State University’s radio station, WEAA FM 88.9, as part of AIR/Localore’s Finding America project.
Here’s how that happened, long version:
This month marks one year since I left my last full-time contract job and began to work as a freelance writer. A year was my self-imposed deadline. I knew freelance writing life, and I didn’t want that work to be my primary source of income any longer than was necessary. So I spent the entire year applying to full-time work, fellowships, residencies — anything I felt capable of doing well, anything that might lead to job security (such as that still exists). I went on a lot of interviews — mostly for editing and writing positions — and I enjoyed a great deal of learning opportunity this year. But nothing had resulted in full-time work. As I frequently disclose in my writing, as a parent, having full-time income is paramount — but so is being present for my daughter. I was pressuring myself to get an office job, because I thought that was the only way to feel financially secure and less panicked about the future, but I was also wary about the prospect, as I knew I’d be away from home far more than I wanted to be. I’ve been writing a lot for some incredible publications. But over the course of this gap year, no full-time employment had materialized.
As an artist, as someone who excels at just one art form/medium, making a living can be complex. It’s a lifelong riddle, really. I’m an English major with an MFA in creative writing who has been an online newsletter editor, a freelance writer, a weekly columnist, an adjunct instructor at four colleges, a community engagement fellow, an online community founder, a writing coach, a test curriculum writer, and a few other odds-and-ends position-fillers I can’t quite recall at the moment. I’ve always thought that I was my best self as a writer — and I still think that’s true. For every job I’ve ever done, I’ve drawn on my ability, experience, and intuition as a writer. It’s the only thing that all my positions have in common. I remind myself of this when I feel like a bit of a flake, transitioning from career to career and never finding solid enough footing. The desire either to create narratives or help others create them permeates everything I pursue — and, as through-lines go, I believe that’s a good one.
In June, I applied for AIR’s Localore/Finding America project with that in mind. I had just returned from Thread at Yale, where I’d learned a lot about how to approach precisely this kind of storytelling. One of our lecturers there was Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment. Another was Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth. And my roommate during the conference, by fate, serendipity, and/or unearthly grace, was Nicole Taylor, creator of her own long-running podcast, Hot Grease. At the time, I was awestruck by all the audio storytellers’ origin stories (this kind of work lends itself well to mid-career transition), and Nicole had encouraged me to consider getting into podcasting. But it felt sort of beyond me, even as my interest in it spiked.
About three weeks after Thread, when I got an email encouraging me to apply for Localore/Finding America, it felt fairly auspicious. 2015 has been a year of big leaps for me, so taking one more seemed like a no-brainer.
When I apply for lofty, dreamlike opportunities, I do so without expectation. I tell myself, “I probably won’t get this,” and if/when I do, I worry about how to make it happen afterward. It’s the only way I can bring myself to go after gargantuan things, things that make my heart rate quicken and my knees buckle.
This is one of those things.
I found out I was a finalist in August. I found out I was part of one of the 13 teams selected in September. And now I get to tell you all about it.
Our project is called “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” and it’ll be a biweekly half-hour radio show/podcast, airing on WEAA and available for online download. It’s an intergenerational project: one elder and one young person, or one family with generations steeped in a single Baltimore City neighborhood. We’ll ask them about places they’ve been and things they’ve experienced in this city, in order to draw connections between life in Baltimore decades ago and life here now. Baltimore is a city with a history of rising from ashes. With this show, we want to explore what that looks like on a personal level. And it’s also a place with innumerable charms, often secreted away or lost amid media coverage of its harrowing challenges. The nickname “Charm City” was coined in 1975 by ad execs and creative directors, under the hire of then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, who wanted to rehab Baltimore’s public image. There have been other nicknames and campaigns, The City That Reads and Baltimore: Believe among them. But Charm City is due for a real revival — and the biggest charms Baltimore has to offer are in the stories and personal histories of and relationships between its people.
We hope to capture both concepts: the resilience and the charm.
Our first episode will air in January 2016, so I’ll be promoting it more here and via social media and an as-yet-launched website/blog before the end of the year. Localore/Finding America ends in July, and we should produce 12 episodes between January and then. But “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City” isn’t just about producing a radio show. It’s also about building stronger relationships between the people of Baltimore and the institutions that exist because of them. WEAA’s slogan is, “The Voice of the Community,” and we want this project to reinforce that in as many creative way as possible. So we’ll be visiting community meeting spaces to tell people all about this program and to and to encourage them to interact with us by answering fun storytelling prompts, Vine/Instagram videoing themselves for our website and following us on social media. We’ll also have a few larger-scale live events during the project’s duration.
So that’s the project.
I’m very excited about it, for myriad personal reasons. Chief among them: I’m developing an entirely new skill set. By the end of this, I’ll be able to do something that requires much more of me than a lot of my previous work has, especially in terms of performing introversion and being present for others. But I’ve been building toward it. Brick by brick, but unbeknown, I’ve been becoming someone capable of this.
This project allows me to marry my desire to serve, my ability to write, and my passion for compelling people to give something of themselves to the world through their own stories. In order for it to thrive, I have to expand the borders I’ve set for myself — only so much of me goes out, and only for a set time, and only under specific conditions — and become something… more. I’ll need to believe I’m capable of doing that (and I cannot begin to explain how difficult that will be for me). And I’ll need to accept that this life — one where work isn’t always stable, but art is — is my life. It doesn’t look like other thirtysomethings’ lives. It’s a little (or very, depending on which one of my loved ones is assessing it) unconventional, but I’m so fortunate to be living it, just this way, with so much support from so many people.
There’s nothing that can replace people believing in you and your ability to excel at things you’ve never tried — things that genuinely terrify you. And when we announced this project at noon today, I received so, so many messages of excitement, affirmation and expectation that I feel both pressure to succeed and confidence that I can. I am a person who draws on a great cloud of witnesses for that kind of motivation. If you’ve tweeted, emailed, texted, or messaged me at any point during my professional life, you can claim part of this and my previous successes. You really can, and I cannot thank you all enough.
On Monday, Medium’s Working Parents series published my essay on juggling the demands of parenting and freelance writing. It’s risky to write with candor about things like this when your employment prospects are constantly in flux. I’m never sure, when I’m at my most publicly honest, how it’ll affect any future hiring — and I’m not naive enough to believe that it won’t. But I also don’t know how to bottle anything up without it seeping its way into writing (ask my family or my exes). Whenever I feel especially alienated in a relationship or isolated in a situation, every word at my disposal grows a tentacle. I gather them and push them out toward anyone onto whom they might latch. And when I hear back from someone who says, “Yes, this has also been my experience,” or, “Now I understand your experience of our interaction,” every tensed nerve relaxes. The tentacles retract and words, at least in those moments of peace, simply become words again.
I also just think it benefits people to know what they’re getting when they get you. Sometimes I write to announce myself to strangers. In daily interaction, we don’t reveal even a fraction of what we’re thinking, feeling, fearing, or hoping. And we probably shouldn’t. But I’ve always felt that, when or if anyone ever wishes to know, there should be a manual for them, some shorter way to troubleshoot than the interminable, unaided process of trial and error.
I’ve heard back from several mothers this week about that piece and I’ve appreciated every exchange. We could all stand to have less pressure to hide essential parts of who we are. I’ve also gotten some very thoughtful leads from readers for flex work, remote work, and part-time work, and that’s been very touching. Every lead like that feels like encouragement to keeping finding ways to spend time with my little girl and, in a culture where I’ve seen unmarried black mothers harshly lambasted — and criminalized — for making these kinds of choices at the expense of their highest earning potential, I’m exceedingly grateful for that form of support.
Regardless of what happens, whether I take a full-time office job or continue working from home, I won’t forget those of you who validated my decision to freelance in my daughter’s first five years.
Every week has its own anatomy for the work-from-home single parent. Monday was chill and Tueday started out the same way, until I got an email offering me a labor-intensive project with a quick turnaround that I’m slated to begin this weekend. Wednesday and Thursday also brought new work responsibilities. I’m glad, then, that while my daughter was at school Tuesday morning, I decided to take these photos. I’m glad that when she got home from school, she joined me.
In the Working Parents essay, I focused on how difficult it is to juggle work and mothering. I centered the demands. But I didn’t talk about the lulls, the gaps between assignments, the ways in which the unexpectedly long waits for overdue checks can confine you to home (because you’re afraid to spend the money you have left and every time leaving home, it seems, involves an expenditure), and the ways you have to get inventive to avoid being listless or afraid or frustrated.
We take photos together and separately for countless reasons: to kill time, to bond, to giggle, to record this rare era — one that will draw to a close, for better or worse, before other of us is ready to let it go. Our self-portraits are also another way to shift our narrative. We create our story, add glamour in the places bleakness is poised to fester, add cheer when we’re feeling sort of down, add purpose to a day that is light on duty.
Most parents and their children do this. We fill our cell phones with moments. My family’s are intentionally artsy because we have time to make them that way. If these moments are merely our highlight reels, as so many have observed about what makes its way to social media or blogs, then what we choose to share says everything about who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and how we hope others perceive us.
I hope I’m perceived as thoughtful. Creative. Dramatic. Daring. Whimsical. Optimistic. Protective of my daughter’s wonder. Protective of my own. I hope I appear to be aiming toward an elsewhere, while relishing life right where I stand.
I feel like I’m still very new to winning. I would imagine there are many people who’d disagree with me, but that’s because they’re observing from the other side of the glass. “Winning” is relative; everything is. And, of course, only we can determine the units by which we measure it.
I rarely feel like I’m winning when I’m expecting to reap a material benefit as a result. The rate of pay is never high enough, the terms of a contract never secure enough. And it rarely feels like a legitimate win just to accomplish a new feat. Sure, I was published somewhere. But how prestigious is the publication? Is it digital or print? How difficult is it to be published there? Am I proud of the work that made to print? Did I take pains with the wording or rush it through? Would the publication have taken an essay from anyone who could turn one around, just because they needed quick copy? It’s still not a book. It’s still not The New Yorker. It’s still not a full-time job.
It’s not whatever smoke or mirror I’ve convinced myself I should be chasing.
It’s hard for me to maintain a healthy perspective, is what I’m saying. While I was watching the Emmys Sunday night, I saw a few shining examples of health, examples of women — black women — clearly embracing their wins. And I had no idea how desperately I needed to see that until I was bearing witness to it.
I’ve been watching Regina King on screens since 1985, when I was six and she first appeared on 227. Exactly 30 years later, she’s nominated for and winning her very first Emmy, despite having put in masterful performance after masterful performance for decades. It was never about an Emmy for Regina King. She just worked. From age 14 until now, in her mid-forties, she’s just worked. She’s acted, directed, raised a son post-divorce, kept a pristine reputation among her peers. She’s been winning. So when she accepted the Emmy, it was with pleasant surprise, deep gratitude, and admirable groundedness. She leaned right into that mic and told us all that it was particularly special because her homegirl and colleague, Taraji, presented it to her. She told us it meant more because her son, who escorted her to the awards, was present to witness it. And it was easy to believe her, easy to understand that the Emmy itself was mere icing. She’d long held all the ingredients she’d needed for personal fulfillment.
And then I saw Uzo Aduba hear her name called as a winner. It wasn’t her first time, but she was as shocked and thrilled as if it were. She did not rush to the podium; she didn’t need to. She understood what it meant for her to win. For her, it meant leaning over to her sister, talking to her for a moment, ignoring the audience and the camera and the expectation that she hurry. That bond, that moment of privacy in the one of the most public possible venues in all of Hollywood: that was winning. “I love you mostly because you let me be me,” she said to her professional team during her speech. Maintaining your core identity in a profession where everyone’s job is to change you — role to role, set to set, carpet to carpet — is the truest success of all.
Of course there was Viola, whose relationship with winning has always been public and candid and complex. Viola, who wears her insecurities on her sleeve, who gives voice to every ancient feeling of inadequacy she’s managed to silence, who trusts us all enough somehow to confide that there are still uncertainties she has yet to vanquish. Viola is always winning, because, with every Hollywood validation, she deepens her advocacy for the women who’ve been cast aside, passed over, and ignored. Viola is always winning because a lifetime of feeling loss has taught her to consume accomplishment without an aftertaste of bitterness.
But it was Taraji who exemplified winning best of all last night, Taraji who took home nothing but her joy (and a lead role of one of the hottest series on television these days). It’s one thing to know how to remain fully present in the midst of a win, to understand its magnitude before the moment passes, rather than growing to appreciate it in retrospect. It’s quite another not to win, in the conventional sense, and to fully commit to celebrate everyone else who does, anyway. I’ve been there. And each time, I like to believe I’ve been genuine in my celebration of others. But I don’t think I’ve ever managed to fete someone quite as unabashedly for receiving something I really wanted as Taraji managed to do last night.
There was no shortage of inspiration during these awards, and days later, I’m still thinking of how long it can take to experience a moment, how many years of dues-paying could be necessary before you get your due. I’m still thinking of everyone’s tenderness, of how intrinsic that is to the experience of winning. Kindness, uncomplicated delight for someone else, groundedness, pride in oneself, gratitude, an ability to feel happiness unsurpassed for someone other than yourself: those are the surest gauges of success and contentment.
To win is to understand when to silence your questions and simply accept every good thing that you attract. If we are only in competition with ourselves and not with our peers, if our goal is only to top our last highest peak, we still need to know when to rest and to bask and to cherish. Every good thing must be good enough, even as we look ahead and work toward something more. It could all end here and we would find ourselves the opposite of empty-handed: heavy-laden with moments, relationships, accomplishments, and triumphs over our more despondent, disappointed natures. Each in our own way, we are constantly winning.
I got my first byline at Cosmopolitan.com yesterday. My mission is simply to be pleased with that today.
I’ve had a busy week, juggling multiple deadlines, and as fortune would have it, everything I wrote was published today: the latest of my weekly columns at New Republic and Washington Post Act Four, as well as a quick piece for Rolling Stone.
I honestly don’t know I managed to put out these three pieces this week. Some weeks are just “How I Got Over” weeks; from the other side, you see the chasm between fixed points and marvel that you made it. In addition to those three pieces of writing, I had a few other deadlines, meetings, obligations, trips. And the requisite duties of full-time caregiving for a daughter who’s becoming increasingly expectant of my time and attention, because we’re together roughly 21 hours a day every weekday (and 24 hours a day most weekends). She used to care less whether I was nearby when she was younger; now any distance we have from one another seems to overwhelm her. That makes conducting phone interviews, trying to write coherent sentences in momentary emptiness of the next room, fielding work calls hard, or just finding an uninterrupted stretch of minutes to compose a single, complete, and purely adult thought very challenging.
I don’t know if I’m a good enough writer to convey just how challenging it can be, so I won’t belabor it. Just know that this week, in particular, it all got the best of me. It’s important to admit that — and if there’s anyone around to help when you reach that breaking point, that critical mass of responsibility, tell them immediately and be very specific about what they can do to assist you.
A few days ago, I was looking at Twitter like I do compulsively every day and decided quite extemporaneously to stop tweeting. I took about five days off before I tweeted out my articles today and thanked some folks for sharing them (Thank you, if I didn’t tweet you directly; I saw it and I appreciate it). It was a good decision.
I’m not a cold turkey person; I don’t handle sudden and total abstinence well. It’s just hard for me to make drastic changes and stick to them. So I’ve still been reading my feed, but I’ve been refraining from active participation. My life has gotten really noisy, and I’ve been looking for ways to quiet it. This has proven to be an effective way to do that, at least in the short-term.
That said, there are a few things I just can’t resist sharing:
This local news clip I cannot stop watching, because it’s amazing from start to finish:
This really endearing story about a boy deciding to forgo the use of his prosthetic eye, because of Fetty Wap — and Fetty Wap’s nuanced, self-aware response, which thanks the boy’s mom for being “a fan of him as a person” (if not a fan of his music, because… yeah) and thanks the boy for being a fan of Fetty Wap, the artist:
I definitely would’ve tweeted yesterday about how I spent a few hours traveling by car to an all-Bilal soundtrack. I would’ve shared these two versions of “When Will You Call,” the raw, “She just left me, and I’ve forgotten the purpose of soap and water” original version and the “I’ve had some distance and I can be a bit more mature from a reasonable remove” Terrence Blanchard version. I would’ve noted that this song chronicles a textbook case of ghosting, which didn’t have a name back in 2001 when the track was released. I would’ve mentioned that I used to feel as anguished as he sounded when I listened to this as a 21-year-old. But when I listened yesterday, I wondered what he did that made her decide not just to leave but not to let him know why she was doing it. Age and experience can drastically alter the way we listen to songs. Early Bilal reminds me of when I was a senior in college (His first album dropped that year, and I’d never heard anything like it). In retrospect, he just sounds so impossibly young and petty and angsty — like we all were at that age and still are on occasion, if we’re being honest. I’ve connected with a lot of his later music (and I listened to a ton of it yesterday), but there’s something so nostalgic about First Born Second. Certain albums and artists make you feel like you can reclaim time; as long as you can revisit their past works, your own past — however naive or fraught– is never entirely lost.
This was so good, I just went ahead and tweeted it, break-be-damned:
This made me cry but I'm so grateful to have read it.|She's 10. She has HIV. This is the moment she learns the truth. http://t.co/rw00RYuQZE
Lastly, I *might* have shared this clip from early yesterday evening. It was around dusk and at that time, I was fielding second-round essay edits, stressing over a proposal, considering quitting professional writing, starving myself. So I thought it would be a great time to dance. My daughter, who was dealing with some toddler-level stress of her own, did not agree:
I’m turnin’ into a nigga that thinks about money and women, like, 24/7. That’s where my life took me; that’s just how shit happened to go. — Drake, “Know Yourself”
When I turn 36 in two months, I will cross over the benchmark of this decade where I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, far closer to middle-age than post-adolescence. Subconsciously, during 2015, that must’ve been significant to me. This has been the year that I started chasing. Finally, I stopped waiting for my dreams to find me working, and refocused my work so that it gathered like an arrowhead and flung itself forward.
I still don’t know what else I want to be when I grow up. But I know far better, thanks to 35, who I am right now.
The things we learn about ourselves in our 30s, man. The ugly things. Whew.
A few days ago, I tweeted that the 30s are a revelatory set of years — and not everything you become during them is inspiring or pleasant; not everything you realize about yourself makes you proud. The truth is: the first five years of my 30s taught me just how many of my good traits are decision-based. They’re the result of waking up every day and choosing to be kind or generous or thoughtful or compassionate. None of that is innate. I’m not always tender with my child instinctively, for instance. Sometimes I take a deep breath first and set my intention on a soft word or a gentle touch or a question — “Was that nice?” or Was that the right choice?” — rather than yelling, “What’s gotten into you?!”
And, I mean: I fail.
I can be shallower than I thought I had become, either compelled or unnerved by physical appearance in ways I thought I’d conquered as a child. I still notice how people look before I notice who they are; how they look still impacts how I process who they are. It’s something I intend to continue rejecting, now that I’m aware just how much work I still need to do.
Even when I think I’m operating out of pure human kindness, I can discover, at the end of a day, that I was in fact motivated by the response I’d hoped to receive. The disappointment I feel when I don’t get it is what makes that apparent. Take this, as an example: when I was 33, I fell in love with someone, dated him for four months, and pined for him over the next two years. For him, I would run a gauntlet of errands, under the guise of just-friendship, attempting all the while to convince both him and myself that I was simply good-hearted, willing to accept what would never be — us, a couple, reconciled — yet still present myself to him, whenever he was in a bind. Love, after all, whether or not it’s met with equal or greater force, is kind. It doesn’t seek its own. It meets whatever need it sees, without expectation of repayment. This is what I wanted us both to believe. It’s who I thought I was: purely kind, unconditionally loving.
But I was stealing all kinds of repayment: the sight of him, his touch, the scent of him steeped in the cloth seats of my car, long after he’d left it, his conversation. I used it all as a kind of fossil fuel; I let it burn off my loneliness.
Worse, in my 30s, I’ve been on the receiving end of this very kind of attention, offered as under a label of friendship and undeterred by known disinterest in it. I’ve chosen not to reiterate my disinterest, because these days, having someone familiar near can be far more appealing than resolutely sending him away.
I am embarrassed to admit that. I spent my 20s eschewing all behavior that could be called clingy or needy or desperate or validation-seeking. I prided myself on being able to take a hint. I always left first, even if I didn’t want to. I knew all the adages: Never make time for someone who doesn’t make time for you. Listen the first time. Follow your first mind. If he’s truly interested, you’ll always know it. That I could know those things as true and decide to test them anyway isn’t something I enjoy disclosing about myself. The woman who does that isn’t the woman I believed I was.
My 30s have made me different. My 30s, with a small child I have yet to raise, whose future frightens me, for all its potential and for the possible ways that this potential will carry her far away from me and lead me, in my very old age, back to the silent, less vibrant life I led before her, are the decade where my worst qualities and greatest fears are revealing themselves and it’s too exhausting to keep pretending to the world that I don’t have them.
I am often afraid, especially in my friendships and with lovers. I do not want to let anyone go. I can say this now because I am almost 36 and I think, when a woman is still single at this age, this sort of admission is expected.
I do enjoy the life I’m carving out. I am a writer, which is really all I ever wanted to be in the world, and I am a mother, which I was never certain I wanted to be, but have risen to — with all my heart — just the same. Ten years ago, I would not have dared ask for more. I do not always dare it now.
But increasingly, I am challenging myself to own whatever I am and then to interrogate it. I am, at turns, angry and jealous and petty, short-tempered and selfish, and even, as this most recent failed relationship taught me, unwittingly duplicitous. I have done more than my fair share of compromising what I truly want. Now, I am becoming exacting about it.
I simply want to be good — to myself, to my child, to others, good at my work and at a love as yet unseen. I no longer want to pretend to anyone that I am sweeter or more self-sacrificing than I am. And in the absence of that performance, in the midst of my daily choosing and failing, I want someone beside me making his own, similar decisions. Among them: accepting me just as I am and choosing, each day, not to flinch.
“People who like sweet things are people who want to be happy.” — Kim Mi Young, Fated to Love You, Ep. 2
I like extravagant gifts: costly travel, pricey meals, good wine, undivided attention, genuine laughter at a joke I’ve made, forgiveness. I don’t often get those things and when I do, typically, I give them to myself. This is, in part, because grown-ups told me, when I was small, that it’s impolite to ask for gifts, immodest to carry myself as though I expect or deserve them, imprudent to confess aloud that I desire them.
I come from a line of women unaccustomed to getting what we want, unaccustomed to granting ourselves permission to voice our desires. We have never known what could be asked for without the answer of a scold or denial, without the answer of silence or a promise unfulfilled. My grandmother, a middle child among ten siblings; my mother, the only child of a single teenage mother; me, born to my single mom when she was 19: We weren’t offered much in the way of lavishness.
That history matters.
Some families are run spare and hectic, in households where extravagance, if it ever stopped by, would have nowhere to sit, no uncluttered surface on which to settle.
By the time I was seven, my grandmother was doing fairly well, working as a court stenographer, a career from which she would retire after nearly 30 years of service. I grew up watching her take cruises to Caribbean and South American isles. She came back with textiles and key chains and magnets for me, t-shirts I never wore painted with the colors of toucan plumes.
She went to jazz concerts and stretched out on lawns to hear woodwind trios manically convey whatever they could without words. Sometimes she took me with her.
And other times, she took me to plays and performances. We saw Jelly’s Last Jam with Savion Glover and Maurice Hines. We saw Spunk, a play that adapted three of Zora Neale Hurston’s best short stories. Twice, we saw the Boys Choir of Harlem.
In those halls where choral sound rose to the rafters, where the patter of a dancing legend’s tap shoes echoed offstage during a scene that portrayed his death, where a south Floridian negro dialect was performed just as Hurston wrote it, I came to understand what money could buy– not just a night at the theatre but exposure, not just access to a performance, but the sense that you are sharing emotion and wonder in tandem with whoever sits beside you. Only you, in that great hall on that one night, will ever have seen the show precisely as it was performed in those hours. Tomorrow, someone will recite the line with another inflection or remember, that time, to say a word they often forgot, or, someone with a certain rogue sparkle in eye, will improvise. But tonight, you all bore witness to this incarnation. It will not come again.
Nana, in her extravagance, taught me that happiness does not reside in the moment for me, but in the recollection of it. In the process of recalling what marvels I’ve had, those marvels magnify.
For holidays, she bought me gifts I never requested. I didn’t ask for many things by name, so she had to guess. She bought me a Sega Genesis Game Gear one year, a toy I did not realize she knew existed. I politely played, watching the blue, spiky-haired hedgehog move through a gauntlet of chores toward some goal I was meant to help him reach. When the batteries ran out, I never requested new ones. I did not ask for any other game cartridges.
I was often mistaken for ungrateful or stoic or sullen over those kinds of gifts, played through once and set aside. But I remember receiving them. I remember wanting to share them. I remember that they were given to me because someone wanted to see my eyes widen with surprise and with glee.
In the end, all true gifts are experiences, the material encasing them meant to harbor something far more meaningful. Whether or toy or a theatre ticket, the happiness is in whatever action follows your grateful receipt of it.
How painful it becomes to live lowlier than you ought, to cloak yourself in denial of need or of pleasure, to constantly settle for less than you’d like. Over time, it means forgetting what you like. It results in an uncertainty of what would truly make you happy and, for a time, it seems it seems that you are in a state of perpetual discontent. Nothing is ever quite as pleasant as you’d want it to be.
There are ways to end this. Each one begins with opening your mouth, with saying: I want. and allowing it to be both public and true. Let it breathe I want. and animate I want. and demand undivided attention.
When I got the email, I was afraid to say yes. I waited nearly two weeks to respond. What if there were strings attached to the offer? What if I said yes, admitting just how much I wanted the gift, and it never came? The email, as soon as I acknowledged it, could become a broken promise, a wish unfulfilled. It was possible.
But what if there were no strings and the gift did come on the promised day? What if, like the heroines of myth and of fable I’d long been admonished not to emulate, my wish — once confessed — came true?
In all confession, there resides an element of risk. Courting rejection in exchange for a chance at delight: this is the writer’s only real ambition. This risk is nearly a friend, a long-familiar.
So I said an eventual yes, and the company let me choose any gift it offered. I said yes, though I apologized for what may be viewed as greed: I wanted both the strawberries and the cheesecake trio. I said yes, with a slight blush and a bitten lip, as I always associate gifts like these with the lovers I wish I had asked for them.
In turn, the company waved its magic wand. Three days later, the package arrived: one dozen chocolate covered strawberries and a lovely assortment of miniature cheesecakes. They sent the gift, with simple hope that it would make me happy. I shared it with my daughter and my grandmother, splitting the cheesecakes between us and offering up all the white-chocolate-coated fruit to Story. They were her favorite. I’m smiling even now, remembering how delighted she was biting into them.
Happiness happens at the intersection of courage and confession, risk and recollection. I am never prouder of myself than when I choose to stand at those crossroads.
I wasn’t supposed to be in town this week. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, about 30 minutes from Albuquerque, at a writing retreat. I’d been looking forward to it since April: the desert, the solitude, the productivity. Though I’ve been incredibly fortunate this summer, having traveled to Yale (three days) and to DC (two days, commuting) for training in digital storytelling and media appearances, respectively, neither of those opportunities — as useful as they’ve been — afforded me quiet, unmarked time to write. The writing retreat would’ve given me seven whole days, the longest stretch of time I would’ve spent away from home and away from my daughter not just this summer, but in the five years I’ve been a mother.
I was really ready for it.
I’d envisioned myself writing at least one (but ideal two) nonfiction book proposal(s) and finishing the rough draft of a YA novel, returning home with reams of handwritten notes for new projects, my brain swept clear of its dusty preoccupations. (In all my fantasies about free time, my reach exceeds my grasp.)
The trip didn’t pan out. I thought I’d have childcare for the entire week. I didn’t, and I couldn’t get an alternative solution together in time to attend.
The irony is that this was still the most productive writing week I’ve had in quite some time — distractions, kid in tow, and all.
I wrote two essays on Sunday, one that would run on Monday, the other on Tuesday. I spent the middle of Sunday night, between 1 am and 5 am, turning around edits on the Monday piece, and spent Monday afternoon turning around edits on the Tuesday piece. Then I turned my focus onto a piece that was due on Wednesday, one that required interviewing (and transcribing an interview) and watching a documentary. On Tuesday night, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun’s Insider blog called at 9 pm to interview me for a column called “The 410 in 140,” which focuses on Baltimoreans who use Twitter in noteworthy ways. I managed to file the essay with interviews late Wednesday (after staying up until 4 am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to work on it); the piece ran Thursday. Thursday, I also pitched what I’ll be writing for Monday’s column with The New Republic and Thursday’s contribution to the Washington Post Act Four blog.
Today, I’ll be attempting to schedule and conduct interviews for the Monday column, as well as doing research for it.
You can find all this week’s essays and the Baltimore Sun Insider interview, in order of publication, here:
That level of productivity, when coupled with all the other demands on my time and resources, comes at a cost. And the anxiety I feel about generating ideas, meeting deadlines, and writing well — every time — is compounded by the freelance net 30 (or 40 or 60) payment terms. When I’m writing anywhere new, I’m never quite certain when I’ll be paid (and the onus is, of course, on me to invoice for payment in a timely manner, which I don’t always remember to do, because: other deadlines, responsibilities, invoices, obligations).
I love being this busy with the work of writing. I don’t love what the business of freelance writing does to my heart rate and stress levels. I hope it will always be okay for me to express that here, at my personal blog, without seeming ungrateful for the opportunities I’m being afforded. I wish I’d had access to this level of candor about the business of writing when I was, say, 18 and picking English as a college major, or even 26, when I borrowed thousands in loans for my creative writing MFA. I don’t believe in discouraging anyone who aspires to a career in new media writers, but I do believe they deserve to know what awaits them. I think more of us are being open about the rigors and challenges attendant to this life — and that can only benefit future generations of workers.
I’ve been giving some thought to how much of my life is spent online. One of the questions I fielded for the “410 in 140” piece was about whether or not I feel a pressure to use Twitter constantly. The answer is tricky. The relationship between the freelance writer and social media is an essential one. In much the same way that syllabi and lecture prep, grading, and holding “office*” hours are necessary, unpaid labor for adjunct instructors at colleges, social media use is necessary and unpaid labor for new media writers. It’s a basis for research, a space to solicit interview subjects, a platform for carrying out the kind of intellectual debate I imagine goes on between colleagues in the brick-and-mortar newsrooms to which I don’t have access (only, on social media, that debate is more inclusive, occurring as it does across class lines, regardless of city, state, or country of residence, with far more diversity along race, gender and disability lines).
I can say for certain that, to whatever extent I’m on anyone’s radar as a writer about culture, race, motherhood, or anything else, it’s owed to my online presence. Everyone goes about growing a readership differently. My way has been slow, with an emphasis on quality over quantity (even now, though it’s thrilling to occasionally discover raw numbers of clicks or unique visitors, I try not to linger too long on the size of an essay’s reading audience. I care more about how memorable and affecting a piece is, what — if anything lasting — it contributes to the larger discourse on an issue, and what — if anything — it compels a reader to do). Interacting with people online, thanking them for reading and sharing my work, trying to emphasize to them that we’re in ongoing dialogue and that I’m trying not to write at them, so much as to them, and that I’m not interested in having the last word on any topic, simply because I’ve been fortunate enough to have my word published — these are the cornerstones of approach to writing for new media and for growing an audience in a grossly oversaturated market.
But I do crave a greater sense of balance. I envy my friends who nobly take “social media breaks,” a week here, 30 days there. I covet how refreshed they always seem when they return. I’ve never been good at cutting off any activity or person completely cold turkey. I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of discipline or simply that I’m better at making long-term changes when I do so gradually and moderately. But I probably won’t ever have a long lapse of online silence. A day here or there, where I’m on deadline or actually (gasp) out gallivanting through the tangible, analog world around me, perhaps. But I imagine even then, I’ll tweet once or twice.
This is especially true now that I’m up to two weekly columns — one at The New Republic and one at The Washington Post Act Four. I can assure you that there isn’t enough pre-existing knowledge or opinion or insight in my head for me not to be reading news stories or engaging with other thinkers about the news of the day. The most efficient way for me to engage in that work is via my Twitter feed.
In the last few month of the year, however, I do want to make more of an effort to step away. Quality over quantity is a principle that needs to operating in my personal life, too. I’m quite proud of how much work I put out this week, over a number of publications. But this week was also supposed to be about retreating, getting some physical and emotional distance, and recharging. I’m hoping to make my weekend about that (… while also working on my Monday column).
*Adjuncts don’t typically have brick and mortar offices — and certainly not ones that they don’t share with anywhere from one to 40 other people.