What Women Hear.

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Suppose she awakens at dawn beside a partner with whom she is still in passionate love. What might a woman hear? A subtle symphony of breaths, a nearly imperceptible whimper seeping from the gallows of her beloved’s subconscious. She would know by the pitch of that whimper the nature of her lover’s dream.

Her legs may scissor the rustling cotton sheets until she is out of bed and, in the shower, the towering bricks of her day’s to-dos crash down and drown the noise of pelting water on tile.

She hears herself: No way I can get through this. She hears herself: You can and you’d better.

On her commute, she hears men, erecting themselves and squaring their shoulders, hoping to appear formidable, psyching themselves up with trap tunes through earbuds, with menacing admonitions to anyone who bumps them or scuffs their shoe or dares to change lanes, despite their speeding up to prevent it. She can hear the menace in the blare of a horn.

The woman hears a man’s lewd stare, whether his mouth gives it voice or leaves the work to his bellowing eyes. And she hears herself, shouting it down, whether she uses words gritted aloud or leaves the Back. Up. to her glowering eyes. And at her job, praise sounds faint, or else as cacophonous as critique. Unequivocal praise is the only thing she cannot quite hear.

A no, when delivered to her, will often sound like a door sealing shut. A no, when delivered by her, is often the soft sweep of a door revolving.

She can hear her body, can hear what it longs to house, how it longs to heal. She hearkens to its shifts and its sloughs.

She can hear her uterus thicken and swell as it molds and gathers the cells that make a body. And she, perhaps remembering the ancient, infant sounds inside another woman’s womb, can recognize each knot and gurgle in her own.

It is fitting, then, for women who hear so keenly to congregate in summer and unscrew the lids of their jars, where they’ve collected of thin air all those flittering sounds. And it is powerful beyond measure for us to gather on a single porch, holding each other’s jars to our ears, sharing these secret frequencies that only we can hear.

Werk It! is one such porch, an annual two-day communion in June where women feel less sequestered in solo silos of sound, where we listen to each other distill our processes and confide our uncertainties, where we celebrate the wondrous outcomes of our ever-sharpening skill, the breathtaking innovation that comes of learning to trust our hearts and ideas and our ears.

There, in a room of 150 women, we are told that at least 600 more audio-makers could’ve joined us, that the applications submitted for attendance were endless, that ingenious women are embedded in this work all over the world. And it’s a comfort, not a competition, knowing how many of us are capable of creating works of aural brilliance. For we know acutely what women are forced to listen to as we try to translate for others all the sound only we can hear: the undermining criticism of men; the insidious doubts of bad colleagues; the ultimatums our families or bosses or lovers deliver; crude epithets passed off as sidewalk compliments.

It’s tiresome beyond the porch, and there is no place else where we feel so free to admit it. In that freedom, we replenish each other. With that freedom, we recommend to the women beside us what should be done when we depart. We do not abide tones of apology. We whisper what certainty should sound like. Our ears hustle so, so hard. We hear and we hear and we hear.

Quick Updates.

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Laura Mvula’s second studio album, The Dreaming Room, dropped yesterday, and you must have it. Go get it. Trust.

It’s been months. I know. And I can’t even spend too much time writing this right now. But I wanted to do a quick round-up of things I’ve been writing and doing lately, in advance of what I hope I’ll have time to write soon: a longer reflective piece.

Here goes:

1. I’ve still been writing. I guess the most notable recent pieces would be the one about the Lifetime series UnREAL at Cosmopolitan.com and the one about Chance the Rapper and co-parenting at The Washington Post (where I write every week still).

2. Black Girls Talking invited me to a Writer’s Roundtable episode of their show, to discuss the ups and downs of cultivating a career in writing.

3. I attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference in Denver last week, where I gave a two-hour presentation with my coworker Ali and also participated in a panel. Both gave me rich opportunities to share Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City‘s work and to figure out how to extend its life (something I was already contemplating). NFCB felt philosophical and sort of wonky while I was here. And I left grappling with a huge question: How can we contemporize, revolutionize, and financially sustain radio at the intersection of community service and activism?

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3. I was featured in Baltimore’s alt-weekly City Paper (but I waited too long to get a print copy, so if you live in town and happen to have one, do me a solid and screenshot it for me?). Props to the reporter, Lisa Snowden McCray, whose work you should definitely check out and whose voice you can hear in Episode 2 of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City.

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4. I just got back late last night from Werk It! A Women’s Podcasting Festival, which was pretty glamorous — especially in comparison to the NFCB conference. I was on a panel there, too, (you can listen here, beginning around the 31:00 mark. I only spoke twice, I think, and one of those times was pre-empted by a fire alarm system drill, and I definitely dropped my notecards in the fray, so if you’re into that kind of thing — or into great, insightful discussions about women in radio and innovation, give it a whirl…). There are powerful women quietly producing incredible audio work everywhere, every day, and it’s astounding that that isn’t more widely known, reported, and celebrated. Props to Werk It! for fighting that fight and looking fly while doing it.

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I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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This post is titled after a Laura Mvula song of the same name, because she’s my current musical obsession (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But it’s also apt because the year’s end is nigh and, though I am starting every day bursting with anticipation and ending each day, full — of anxiety or accomplishment or some amalgam of the two — I really don’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t scare me in the way it did for most of this year because, now, I am always certain that something is coming. As a freelance writer, things were typically more precarious and largely left to my sense of ambition on any given day. The weight and panic of trying to secure work left completely immobile some days.

Now, at least over the next seven months, I have a long-term project to execute. No day is fruitless. I’m never frozen. It’s refreshing, but shifting professional gears again is frightening, too.

Producing an audio program is different than the work I’ve done as a freelancer for print/written media. As a writer and a borderline agoraphobic, I’ve tended to write things that required the least amount of interaction with others. I didn’t leave home when I didn’t have to. And I was loath to consider myself a reporter of any kind. With Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, the radio show/podcast I’m developing with AIR and WEAA, I have to go out — a lot — and when I’m not actually going out, I have to be making plans to go out. Not only do I have to talk to people, but I have to learn something I’ve spent years — decades, really — avoiding: leadership.

There’s no place to hide, especially not in towers of lofty ideas or behind hanging tapestries of language. As a radio producer, there are always directives to create and to give — and even when every instinct inside me signals that I should defer to someone else or to take instruction rather than to give it (I still do this whenever I can; you can ask my collaborators about that), I have to force myself to the fore (and then challenge myself to stay there).

I have help with that. We’ve built a small production team that includes two civic-minded young women I hired with audio and video documentary experience and one radio vet and organizer with a passion for the city of Baltimore. The general manager at the radio station has been supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for or imagined, despite how busy she is. And whenever I work in their offices, everyone seems excited about our project.

My production team is a mix of assertiveness, confidence, knowledge and emerging skills. Where I’m timid, someone else is not. When I have a firm idea/show concept, someone does whatever they can to help me execute (and improve upon) it. When I’m unsure about how to proceed, someone offers a ton of great leads.

It’s a good time to be starting at square one on something. I’ve been 36 for one month. It’s the first year I’m spending on the backside of my 30s; I’m officially closer to 40 now — and there are so many underdeveloped social and professional skills I still need to strengthen. This project will help. At its end, I hope to know how to record and edit my own segments, to be able to better gauge which direction an interview needs to take (in the moment I’m conducting it rather than in retrospect), and to develop a project management style that’s at once collaborative and confident. I also just want to overcome my anxieties about meeting new people, being around a lot of people at once, and asking any number of those people a lot of probing questions.

I’m hopeful.

Our ideas are only as good as our ability to execute them. Our execution is only as good as our ability to pivot, adapt, accept feedback, delegate, and recognize our own limitations and our collaborators’ strengths.

Last Thursday night, three members of our team went out on our first big night of recording for the show’s first episode (about the history and future of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center), slated to air in mid-January. I was scared going in and my heart raced the whole way home, but it was worth it to hear people talk about things they cherish: their faith, their childhood hobbies, their memories of Baltimore’s thriving black businesses and safe, open communities up until the late ’60s, their $400 skates, their ability to teach their children or grandchildren to skate, just as they learned to as kids. There’s something magical about good memories and how they animate a face, how recounting them makes the years that have etched themselves into forehead and cheek fall away. I get to watch that happen nearly every week for for the next seven months.

I’ll probably be as surprised as any listener will about how each episode turns out. That’s part of the thrill of it: the discovery, the surprise, the trial and the error, the vanquishing of fear. But I can’t wait to make it all come together. I can’t wait to remind myself that my abilities aren’t as narrow as I’ve defined them for myself and that my potential can still press beyond its long-set perimeter.

I’m also hoping to approach writing differently in the new year. It’s already nice not to have to rely on essay-writing as primary income. And it’s refreshing to be able to call myself something else for awhile. Being a “professional” writer is a realized dream and the goals I had for a career in writing and/or editing have needed adjusting for awhile now. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to make those adjustments now.

For those keeping track, I’m still a weekly contributor at Washington Post’s Act Four blog. I’m no longer a weekly contributor at New Republic (though I do still hope to write there from time to time in the future; it’s a very cool publication, both in print and online). And though I don’t anticipate pitching much in the first half of 2016, while the radio show is in production, I’m always open to it.

In the meantime, the upcoming launch of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City was written up in Baltimore magazine. It was the first time I’d had a professional photo taken to run with an article.

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Back to Laura Mvula: she’s incredible and I can’t believe I just found her albums two weeks ago. But I immediately started making up for lost time by learning and Acapella-ing her songs. This is probably the best of my efforts, taken from the chorus of “Diamonds“:


Runner-up, this from “Father, Father“:

For fun, here’s a longer attempt at that one, with a cameo from my daughter, who really doesn’t respect singing-with-bathroom-acoustics alone time.

Stacia at BinderCon NYC 2015: Journalism and Social Justice.


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).

Here are links to some of the pieces discussed:

Sarah Maslin Nir’s “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Before the Law (or “Three Years on Rikers Without Trial.”)

Ginger Thompson’s “Reaping What Was Sown on the Old Plantation.”

Mine: “Dispatch from Baltimore” and “The Luxury of Hope.”

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.

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Stacia the Radio Producer (or the Cumulative, Collaborative Nature of Success).

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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.

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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.

With great humility and gratitude, we proceed.

Toward a Life Worthy of its Art Direction.

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. 

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Three in a Day (and Other Feats).

I managed to catch this before the story rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on the homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.

I managed to catch this before it rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on a homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.

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.

Here are links to those:

The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” – New Republic

The Perfect Guy and the Drawbacks of Colorblind Filmmaking” – Act Four

10 Things We Learned from Cosby: The Women Speak Special” – 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:

  1. This local news clip I cannot stop watching, because it’s amazing from start to finish:

  2. 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: 

  3. 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.
  4. This was so good, I just went ahead and tweeted it, break-be-damned: 

    Please read that. It’s so important.

  5. 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:

Dispatch from Freelancia.

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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.

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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.

Life with a Five-Year-Old Coworker.

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In the past ten days, I’ve started three different potential blog posts, but I’ve been overcome with ennui somewhere between the opening paragraph and the halfway point of each. If I’m bored with the work, I know that you’ll be twice as bored. So I’m not going to publish any of that.

Since my last entry here, I’ve been published at RollingStone.com twice, once about Bill Cosby and more recently about Black Twitter (I spoke about the latter — among other things — on L.A.’s KCRW Press Play on Friday).

I’ve also written more weekly contributions for The Washington Post’s Act Four, about my friend Daniel’s fantastic young adult novel, Shadowshaper (and about the state of YA lit for black and brown kids generally), about “The Astronaut Wives Club” and its dogged insistence on Disneyesque racial commentary, despite being set in the early 1960s; and most recently on the news that the Obamas’ first date is being made into a Before Sunrise/Medicine for Melancholy-type romantic dramedy.

Last weekend, I spent two days in D.C. at Women’s Media Center, where I was part of Progressive Women’s Voices Class of 2015.

When I couldn’t find anyone to watch my daughter for 10 hours per day (eight in training and two in round-trip Baltimore-DC driving commute), the Center kindly provided two amazing caregivers for my daughter. The first day, she timidly crept up to me as I sat in U formation at a table, trying to focus on the work ahead. I scooped her into my lap and rested my chin in the downy crown of her head. I felt so empowered in that moment, so supported. It was one of few moments in my parenting life when I felt like Having It All might not be the myth we’re convinced it is, that if work and life can never be quite balanced, they might at least have sweet, small clearings like this one at some of their intersections.

I breathed in the scent of my daughter’s hair, an admixture of cremes and jojoba, proud of myself for my tentative strides toward caring for it myself, ever since my mother — who’d lived with us since I gave birth and who, aside from being my first-string childcare back-up, was also my kid’s only hope for fashionable, healthy hairstyles — had moved away a month before.

My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. ... Maybe.

My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. … Maybe.

I was starting to get the hang of this, I thought. Finally. A full five years in. I’d worried that, with one less person to fall back on, the plates I’d already been struggling to spin would definitely topple. But here I was, managing a rigorous training program, surrounded by wildly accomplished women — chiefs of staff, directors of government agencies, nonprofit founders, news analysts, people who’d confidently testified before Congress, all of them the kinds of change agents I hope my own child will grow up to become. And here she was in my lap, being so serene and well-behaved. Here we were — miraculously — making it.

Then she lifted her head from my chest, and for a second, her face clouded. So did mine. “Are you o—?” I started and she answered by vomiting. Oatmeal, an orange wedge, a single bite of a chocolate muffin. There it all was in my lap.

So much for uncomplicated triumphs. Motherhood is a sustained effort at maintaining professional competence while struggling to mask the faint waft of toddler vomit lingering in the fabric of your smart little rayon-blend, business-professional romper. It’s practicing how to sound like an “expert” in an interview while rushing into the lobby between takes to rub your kid’s belly, make empathetic cooing noises, and apologize in advance to the sitter for any repeat-hurling performances (Mercifully, there were none). Because my attention was so divided, I didn’t entirely understand the assignment we were supposed to complete toward the end of Saturday’s session.

I ended the day flustered and deeply unsure of what I was even doing there. Had I experienced something like that at a training session before becoming a mother, I certainly would’ve excused myself from the table to cry. I was close this time.

But the thing that forced the tears back into their ducts was that I knew how hard I’d fought even to get to the building that morning. To load my child up and drive her here, to find our way out of a poorly designed underground parking garage without freaking out, to recover my calmness after getting lost in D.C. as I so often do, to keep telling myself that my acceptance to this program wasn’t a fluke and that someone more deserving without so many self-perceived obstacles should not, in fact, be here instead of me. Those things were as difficult as managing the heartstring-tugs of a nauseous child and the eight hours of new material that needed to be synthesized and practiced immediately. But I’d done them. Here we were. I’d do this, too.

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Binder full of women(‘s media training material).


By Sunday, I knew that no matter how I performed in the day’s exercises, the training had already given me invaluable experience in managing my life. It helped me refocus on Beyond Baby Mamas, an undertaking I’d ironically convinced myself I was too busy simply trying to survive as a mom to devote the necessary attention to. It taught me not to be afraid to articulate my needs as a parent entering a professional space and, more importantly, to seek out spaces that are welcoming of and accommodating to me as a parent. Those spaces do exist and, when possible, I am entitled to enter them. Where they don’t yet exist, I now have a precedent for what such spaces should look and feel like. And above all, attending PWV media training boosted my confidence in my ability to juggle the unexpected with the anticipated, with my daughter in tow.

I’ve had few greater moments as a mother than the one I felt last weekend, when it became clear that my daughter understood what I was doing at Women’s Media Center as work — that even at almost-five-years-old, she is capable of comprehending that our world’s responsibilities are broader than the work we do at her school and in our apartment. As a (mostly) work-from-home mom, that felt momentous.

She was thrilled to return to the offices on Sunday. “Are we going back to work?” she asked and I knew then that she’d approached the weekend with her own sense of duty and viewed it with her own sort of seriousness.

Her voice and, often, her laughter filled the corridor outside the conference room, and some of the deeply gracious women there were calling her “Dr. Story” because she was wearing and wielding her Melissa and Doug lab coat and check-up tools. It should be said that, no fewer than ten times over the course of those two days, trainers and trainees asked after her recovery from the upset-tummy episode, and/or offered their own commiserating, encouraging anecdotes about their own kids’ projectile vomit.

I’m happy to report, our second day onsite was completely bile-free.

Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.

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Last week, I spent four evenings at a local United Methodist Church where my daughter was attending Vacation Bible School. My grandmother suggested I sign her up. She’ll be five on the first day of August and she’s reached a tipping point as it relates to social interaction.

When I moved back to Baltimore from Grand Rapids when she was one, I did it in part because my mother, my grandmother and her father’s parents were here. (The other major factor in moving had to do with the a greater breadth of career opportunity on the East Coast, as opposed to the Midwest.) But I didn’t take into account that by moving here, she wouldn’t have access to a single cousin. I’m an only child. My mom was raised as an only child. Her dad’s closest brother lives four hours away (and all three of his daughters are just about grown). She has zero extended family, beside grandparents, here.

I’d forgotten how big a deal that is. I wasn’t raised near cousins, either. And without siblings, I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Most of my social interaction occurred at church. I still keep in touch with my church friends because of that; they kept me from complete childhood and adolescent isolation in ways they’ll never be able to imagine.

Most of the kids at VBS knew each other; they were a part of that church’s family. Many of them also had siblings and were attending with them. Only two girls were around my daughter’s age and they weren’t really playing with her because they had big sisters to shadow. Instead, my kid found herself surrounded by protective, older boys. They took her hand to lead her to the next station or small group activity. They gave her bear hugs. They looked down at her to make sure she was mouthing the right words and making the right gestures during song time.

It wasn’t lost on me that we were gathering in a church at night, that we were mostly black congregants, that predominantly black church gatherings at night have become sites where we have to worry over our safety in ways we haven’t had to in over 40 years.

I was introducing my daughter to church not just as a place for Sunday worship but a space where one’s sense of family is expanded. I’ve never seen as much joy on her face as I did on those nights.

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

I watched her beam and I thought of those girls, Eliana and Malana. I thought of how one of them was there that night, at bible study, waiting on her Daddy to be done for the night. I thought about the trauma etched onto their faces as they were photographed following his casket to the statehouse (under the shadow of a scornful flag). I thought about the bright white bows in their hair as they sat on either side of their mother in the front pew at his funeral.

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral

Church is family to them, too. I hope the other children there help them smile again, deeply smile, even if it may take years for them to see the edifice itself as a site of pure and guileless joy.

I wrote about the enduring importance of the black church now, in my first piece for Vox. You can read it here. (Many thanks to Dylan Matthews and Lauren Williams for the opportunity and editing, respectively!)

I also wrote about Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s new novel, Balm, at the Washington Post and how eerily resonant it is right now, set as it is on the cusp of the Civil War’s end.

It took me about a week after the massacre to submit anything to a publication about it. I blogged here first, as I often do when I’m trying to process something horrible, unsettling or difficult. I don’t have to be as coherent, precise, or formal in this space. And I feel more confident that the people who read me here are patient, nurturing, and supportive, as I try to work through tough emotions within a safe online community context. That’s important for people like me, who don’t have as many people to touch, soothe, or talk to in person as others.

Community matters. To the extent that any of us have a public voice, we owe its credibility and impact to the people who allow us to vet our first instincts and initial thoughts without condemnation.

Thanks to you all.