hope chest, Writing Craft

Go with the guilt. Go with the fear. Go anyway.

Some of us are fearless. I am not fearless. I’ve never been fearless. My mother knew this when I was a young girl. She’d ask me to recite 2 Timothy 1:7 aloud to her, in the morning before school or at night, just before bed:

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I said it often enough to memorize it. I said, but my heart still stuttered in the dark. I said it but still trembled at unexpected sounds. It helped me through my fear of monsters and demons and all many of imagined or invisible perils when I was a kid. But I didn’t repeat it as often when I grew up. And it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve always had to bite back the palpable terror I feel over any success I perceive as undeserved or any failure I think is inevitable.

I used to be better at this — or it seems that way with the benefit of hindsight. I used to find it slightly easier to brave the unknown, to court an unconventional life, to find opportunities that suited my “How are you going to get a good job with that?” degrees. Oh, I felt fear chasing dreams when I was younger and childfree. But not guilt.  I felt conflicted about wanting extravagant experiences when there are so many people out here struggling to afford basic needs — when I’m often struggling to afford basic needs, precisely because my dreams are extravagant — but I never reached a point, in my teens and 20s, when I felt like it was inherently selfish to want big, personally-enriching things, before I’d mastered small, workaday obligations.

In my 30s, which will be ending later this year, fear has marked most of my experiences. I had my daughter about four months before turning 31 and this entire decade, I’ve been making decisions I thought were safe. Decisions I’d hope would result in better income or more stability or, at the very least, less panic or bewilderment or debt. But as it turns out, my idea of safe is small and dispiriting. As it turns out, my idea of safe doesn’t result in greater stability, just a different kind of debt, a different kind of discomfort. And though my decisions have, thus far, managed to result in a safe and nurturing home life for her, they haven’t taught her much about how to go hard after what fills you with enough joy and peace to provide joy and peace to others.  Though I’ve navigated all the heartache I felt, over failed love or under-realized potential and whatever else, without it spilling too much into her experience of childhood, I haven’t modeled for her often enough what it is to want and to chase the things you can’t see, instead of running away from them.

I haven’t completely cowered. I’ve accomplished a lot in our first 9 years together (She’ll be 9 in August, which astounds me), and I’ve been able to take her with me for some of it. She’s seen me studying, trying to grow professionally, teaching college courses, reading, writing, recording, field-producing, participating in an entrepreneurial accelerator. She’s seen me seeking.

But rarely has she seen me unafraid. Rarely has she known the woman I was before I became responsible for her and convinced myself that my desires should become incremental, that they shouldn’t disrupt whatever chrysalis I could weave her, that they needed to be an under-earning woman’s desires, that they should strive to transform themselves into more reasonable wants. She doesn’t know me at the height of my power, guided by my most courageous love, governed by a total soundness of mind.

She’s old enough now to have lapped me, when it comes to courage. I’ve watched her navigate her own fears and push past the soft, but firm boundaries those fears imposed on her. While I was making my body and mind and aspirations a kind of sentient bubble-wrap, trying to insulate her from everything I or anyone else might do that would cause her distress, she finally grew exasperated enough with me to begin asserting herself as the independent person she’d be even closer to becoming if the weight of my worry weren’t slowing her down.

I’ve been fighting myself so fiercely in the past two years. I’ve been shoving myself aside to clear my way. It’s a battle that’s made me far less available to others. I haven’t advocated or assisted or been nearly as present for anyone as I’ve wanted to. If you’ve ever had to do that work, if you’ve ever woken up and realized you’re still so much further from who you know you could be than you are, then you know how difficult a fight it is, how noisy and all-encompassing.

If you’ve ever been here, you know there’s nowhere to go — after you’ve tried everywhere except where you believe you’re meant to be — but toward your dreams. You know you have to let the guilt come with you, if it must, but you can’t let it anchor you. You know how tiring it is, talking yourself out of the life you really want.

I’m trying for a big thing again. I’ve been accepted to a summer writing program in Paris (Longtime readers of this blog or, perhaps, listeners to my podcast Hope Chest know how I feel about Paris). I’m afraid of trying to go back, because I’ve tried before. Quite a few times. And they all fell through. I couldn’t muster enough courage to risk the travel. Maybe it’s easier this time, because I have a concrete purpose for going. There’s something waiting for me, something that may make me a better writer, a more expansive woman, a dreamier parent. Maybe it’s just easier because more than a few people told me I should try this time; it wasn’t just me trying to talk over myself.

As always, everyone I’ve asked to help, all those people I was scared I’d be inconveniencing or annoying or disappointing, have been gracious and encouraging and, as far as I can tell, utterly nonjudgmental.

It’s an affirmation. It’s a reminder. Go with guilt. Go with fear and trepidation. Just go. Go with faith. Go, amplifying the voices that wish you well. Raise their volume above the sound of your own reasons-why-not. Those reasons will be ever with you. But opportunities won’t. Opportunities come and they go and the ones that you deeply desire and don’t at least try to attain will absolutely haunt you.

Soooo many thanks to all the friends, both known and unknown, who always come to my aid when I’m adrift and wandering and doubtful that I should want what I want. Thank you for your patience with me and for your generosity. My family is better for it. I’m better for it. Know that no matter how quiet it is here — how quiet I am –I am wishing you an overabundance of what you’ve given me, tenfold the bravery, one-hundred-fold the dream-realization.

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Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Writing Craft

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.

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Nonfiction, Writing Craft

The Labor of Happiness: A Thread at Yale Reflection.

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We hear it all the time: don’t look to outside stimuli for happiness. The onus is on us. Only we can define the textures and scents and flavors of contentment in our own lives. Happiness is too subjective, too knotted in the personal experiences that have disappointed, injured, and traumatized us, for anyone else to be able to perform it in ways that will please us, long-term. And of course, happiness isn’t designed as a longterm thing; it’s temporal. Contentment — that general, resting state of emotional neutrality, or, even better, vague, uncomplicated pleasantness — is the longterm thing. Happiness is usually felt at the height of a moment or in the recollection of it:

“I wish this feeling would never end.”
“I was happy then.” That kind of thing.

We know now what our parents and grandparents may not have: “X makes me happy” isn’t the healthiest requirement of a person, place, or experience. “I can be happy with X” is.

But old social demands die hard. And no one wants to bear the burdens of their own angst and anguish alone. No one thinks happiness (or contentment) should require much work. It’s more comforting to believe that the external can be blamed when we are unhappy and some un-bottle-able kismet is responsible when we are happy. That absolves us.

I discovered at Yale earlier this week, that happiness isn’t just work for me. It’s hard labor. But I also learned that I’m fit for the rigors of it.

I needed Thread at Yale, the 3-day, 3-night conference on multimedia storytelling I attended June 7-10, to be transformative for private reasons. (I’m pretty forthcoming here about my personal and professional challenges, so those reasons may not be difficult to guess.) But I also needed to enjoy it. The use of “needed” is deliberate here; this wasn’t a wan desire. Enjoyment wasn’t optional. I needed to leave New Haven feeling like I’d wrung its most pristine higher ed institution dry. I’ve no idea if I’ll ever get to return. And I needed to feel stretched and twisted and pulled taut, too; happiness lasts longer when your muscles ache at its memory.

But the happiness, the enjoyment, those weren’t things I needed for just for myself. I was thinking of the people who helped me get there. There were so many of them, some identified, some anonymous, none who I will ever be able to thank enough. I knew that the closest I could get to adequately expressing my gratitude would be to maximize the experience, to let every minute I spent there make the full ride through each cell and tendon and synapse.

To do that, I had to introduce myself to more people than I would normally feel comfortable meeting in a day. I had to be an active listener and a keen observer. I had to participate fully in workshop, to spend lunches and dinners among new folks, to bond with the people I instinctively knew would become real friends.

And I had to make it look easy. Because no one should ever be made to feel like paying attention to them is a laborious act.

I hope I succeeded. I think I did — and if there’s any picture that reassures me that I did my absolute best, it’s this one:

Me with my storytelling workshop peers at THREAD. Our mentor, Mark Oppenheimer, is pictured center. [Photo credit: Pearly Tan]

Me with my storytelling workshop peers at THREAD. Our mentor, Mark Oppenheimer, is pictured center. [Photo credit: Pearly Tan]

I look at this and I know. I was happy. I think we all were. We worked for it. Workshops were held Monday through Wednesday for three afternoon hours. We discussed 4-5 projects a day, offering feedback on stories told either in print, video, or audio formats. And we also just learned about how writers live. I’d assumed before showing up that I was drifting on an ice floe out here in Baltimore, floating further and further away from the epicenter of a successful writing life. But I realized most of us feel that way, no matter our money and privilege (or lack thereof), no matter our residential address, no matter our age. And most of us worry constantly about whether or not we’re on the right track as we struggle to balance ourselves on that floe and to keep creating, as all around us, professional leads and private loves go cold.

That may sound depressing, but I found it so incredibly affirming. I don’t know. Maybe you had to be there.

But I promised I’d try to take you with me. Especially those of you who helped me finance this trip. So here’s a multimedia story, told I spent most of yesterday creating. It’s at VoiceThread.com, a basic slideshow-with-audio capacity app I found by Googling. I flattened my inflections in the narration because I’m mimicking Gillian Laub, who showed us her own narrated slideshow, during her talk on our third night in town. I’m talking fast because I wanted to convey how time flew. And I’m also channeling my Ira Glass NPR voice (which is something we were frequently warned not to do. lol).

I didn’t really get to cover everything meaningful thing I felt or saw or heard in this blog post or in that Voice Thread. But I’ll leave you with three videos Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment screened for us from his live shows:

Artistic director of The Moth, Catherine Burns, brought writer, Matthew Dicks, to tell us a Moth story in person. It was devastatingly beautiful, but I can’t find a recording online. She also showed us lots of clips.

This was one of them, from the late Mike DeStefano, who describes one of his last, best memories of his wife, who died of AIDS (Trigger warning: grief and work-viewing warning: this includes profanity):

We also heard from Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist John Branch, who explained to us the process of how this story became a book and how this story became a 17,000-word multimedia project. Also recommended: his piece, “Lady Jaguars.”

Illustrator and political cartoonist Steve Brodner told us so many things, but the most significant for me was an off-the-cuff comment he made about his life. He said (and this is a paraphrase), “I ate breakfast this morning. There are things I created that are out there for people to buy. I do work I love.” I turned to my roommate, seated beside me, and whispered, “That’s really what I want my own life to be, too.” She smiled and reassured me, “You’re on your way.”

Final things:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is right. We all have to let go of our preoccupation with being liked by one and all, at some point. It’s not an attainable goal, and it’s the absolute wrong one to chase.
  • Intuition and self-awareness are great time-savers. Both help you know right away how much time to invest in a conversation.
  • You definitely want to check out fellow Thread attendee Naima Green‘s gorgeous photography website.
  • You definitely want to subscribe to my Thread roommate Nicole Taylor‘s podcast, “Hot Grease.”
  • Innovative digital storytelling involves a great deal of risk — and, like most other kinds of writing, good luck making money at it.
  • Many of my self-confessions (“I’m not social,” “I don’t perform extroversion well,” “I never go out, now that I’m a mom,” and “I’m more passive than I’d like to be.”) are terribly outdated.
  • Whatever your field is, it’s always going to be an enriching experience to regularly gather with others committed to that field. There are so many concerns and questions specific to our vocations and we forget that when we spend too much time away from others who’ve dedicated themselves to them.
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Faith, Nonfiction, Writing Craft

Wild Swings at Opportunity and What It’s Like to Land One.

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“Every now and then, you should land one of those.”

When I was expecting my daughter, I wrote prolifically — mostly about the experience of first-time pregnancy and how alone I felt while I was carrying her. I posted a lot of that writing here, then pulled some of it because I thought I might shop a memoir about it (What’s left of the published posts can be found here. If you choose to read any of that, it works best to read chronologically, which means starting at the bottom, with this post).

I continued to write as much as I could after her birth and, for a number of reasons, ranging from my part-time job as an adjunct instructor, which took me away from home for a few hours a day, to my quickly-acquired proficiency at composing drafts exclusively on my cell phone, I was able to maintain decent output.

She’ll be five in a few months and I definitely feel like I’m hitting a wall. I decided last spring to take first a semester, then a year away from teaching. I’d scored a fellowship with Colorlines.com, where I was responsible for managing their social media and engaging their rapidly growing readership. It was basically a one-year position with the company and it paid much more than I would’ve made teaching and allowed me to stay home with my daughter more, so the teaching hiatus was a no-brainer.

When that job ended last November, I interviewed either by phone or in person with several impressive publications (sometimes for more than one position) and figured my odds of being hired full-time with one of them were pretty high. Five months later, however, and I’m still without a full-time job as a writer or editor — a circumstance, I’ve learned, is fairly common, even among much stronger writing and editing candidates than I. My only income at this point is as a freelance writer — which wouldn’t be a problem at all, if I were writing at the output I used to be able to and if any of the writing I’m able to do paid more.

Something happens when you’re home all the time with a four-year-old who only attends school two hours a day and you don’t have the freedom to leave her in someone else’s care nearly as often as you’d need to, in order to attain the kind of silence you require to generate ideas worth pitching, to actually pitch them, and then to write the piece as quickly as you’d have to in order to win the assignment and keep current with the news cycle.

The mind dulls — and you have to be increasingly inventive about sharpening it. Now that I have no job to escape to (Trust: a job is definitely an escape for a parent-writer.), and home is full of preoccupations, I’m physically tenser and less agile, creatively.

My daughter has special needs and, often, I vacillate between the temptation to homeschool her (which would result in even less writing time and, by extension, even less income) and finding more extracurricular programs for her to attend that will aid in her development in the many hours she spends outside of school. The latter option would also mean less dedicated writing time, but at least I could steal the moments she’d spend in a class or in a social group to try thumbing out a few essays on my phone.

It’s difficult to explain this sort of life to people with traditional jobs, pristine time management skills, and the luxury of undivided work attention. But the short of it is that life with a small child and without a full- or even part-time, out-of-home job is a trial-error, hook-crook, catch-as-catch-can existence. I’m rarely able to get away and the less time I spend in a childfree, silent environment, the harder it is for me to sharpen my writing — or even to maintain its current quality.

A few months ago, I did something I always do when I feel trapped. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who feels backed into a corner. Indeed, it’s the only way I’ve ever gotten out of a corner — and I’ve been pressed into many.

Here’s what I did: I swung wildly at opportunity, giving no thought to the cost or logistics. I launched myself toward anything that looked remotely like a life raft, reasoning: This could turn out to be sinking flotsam or it could be the very thing that will bear me up and carry me toward a new shore, the right shore, a more permanent solution. 

I got into grad school that way. I was living back home in Baltimore, working a job that barely supported me and my mother, who was living with me. I began to feel trapped by the burden of rent on a two-bedroom apartment and all the other costs associated with living and supporting two people. And then, Sarah Lawrence accepted me. It was the only school of the three to which I applied — all outside of Maryland — that did. That made my decision for me. I needed move to New York. This was 2004. I tried hard — so hard, in fact, that when I didn’t find off-campus housing (SLC doesn’t offer graduate housing), I resolved to take Amtrak from Baltimore to Penn Station in New York, then Metro-North from Grand Central two times a week for classes.

I was so desperate for a big, life-changing leap toward relief that I’d convinced myself this was doable. Then, the first day of classes, it rained. The storm waylaid my train somewhere between Delaware and Philadelphia, and I got to the Bronxville Metro-North Station, a mile or so away from campus, just as my second-ever class as a grad student was beginning in one of the many Tudor cottages on the school’s rolling greens. I’d missed my first class entirely. I walked the mile in the rain with a flimsy hooded windbreaker bearing the college’s name as my only shield from the downpour. I got to class completely drenched and introduced myself in a small voice, shaky with tears.

I knew then — and not a moment before — that it wasn’t going to work. I’d been so tenacious. I had leapt. A door had opened. I had run toward it. I’d followed the prescription of every easy aphorism we hear in life. And I’d gotten my feet on dry ground. Sarah Lawrence was everything I knew I needed then: an escape from years of compound responsibility, a chance to qualify myself for better work, a life of independence and solitude.

But the timing was off. That first day, with its rain delays and its mile-long foot trek at the end of a five-hour commute, let me know in no uncertain terms that this was the dream I was meant to realize, but not under such treacherous conditions. If I moved at that level of haste and desperation, I’d rob myself of the respite I was seeking. I’d merely be trading one type of nerve-fraying stress for another.

The next day, I talked to admissions about deferring enrollment for a year and they granted my request. Those were dark days; I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at my job (where my coworkers had already thrown me a going-away party and my supervisor had granted my request to telecommute while I studied out of state). Returning to the office was humiliating and demoralizing, even though everyone there was supportive and polite and patient with my daily, nonstop moping.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

For the next 12 months, I focused on getting out of that apartment, getting out of Baltimore, moving to lower Westchester, and attending the classes I’d dreamed about, with the people I’d met at orientation the year before (who’d all be second-years by the time I returned, graduating during the spring of my first year).

It happened for me — and it was much easier the second time around, in some respects, but it was still difficult to leave my mother without the apartment I’d been providing for us both. That was the thing I couldn’t allow myself consider if I wanted, at last, to escape.

Single motherhood, over time, has backed me into the same kind of corner. I’m financially supporting a child and my mother again. I don’t have enough income to adequately do so. It often feels like I’ve only qualified myself for the kind of work that doesn’t pay regularly, quickly, or sufficiently. I’ve enough credentials to adjunct, but after six years at that, I’m not a competitive candidate for a full-time professorship. I’m good enough to write short essays for part-time income, but not quite desirable enough a candidate for full-time hire at a major publication.

And I still haven’t written the right manuscript — the one I want to send out into the world, the one some generous reviewer will dub, “a promising work from an important new voice.” Doing that often feels fairly far away while I’m parenting, stressing over money, trying to be thoughtful and incisive in all my for-hire writing about the news and trends of the day.

So I did something I’ve been putting off in all the eight years since I graduated from Sarah Lawrence and certainly in the nearly six years between pregnancy and now: I started applying for bigger, broader things. I applied for Code for Progress’ minorities in code fellowship, in hopes that I might acquire a new skill and the chance at earning a livable wage from a single company. I applied for several summer fellowships and retreats. And I applied for a program at Yale that would teach me how to be a better journalistic storyteller.

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Me, before I realized I’d messed up my donation-funds-collection timeline. (And me now — because I’m still hysterically, burstingly grateful to all of you. :))

Some of you know that I got into the Yale program, because you helped me fund it via Indiegogo*. I also just learned that I received a single mother’s fellowship to the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s summer retreat in New Mexico, which covers the costs of registration and housing, but not travel. Do I know how I’ll get there yet? No. No, I do not. But that’s my process. Swing. Miss. Connect. Cross every bridge I possibly can — even the most rickety and unstable among them — just as I approach it. Sometimes, a foot falls through a rotted slat, other times, an entire leg. But I’ve always made it across — or I’ve veered toward a stabler bridge.

Dreams are never neatly wrapped. They don’t arrive already assembled. But you do not achieve them by wringing your hands. You can only lay hold to them by reaching. And your reach must always, always exceed your grasp. Your dreams should leave you storm-drenched and weary. They should make you sob over their seeming impossibility. They should render you sleepless. You should want to throw all the disparate boards and cogs that you thought might interlock and simply don’t. And, if you’re a person of faith, you will always find yourself begging and bargaining with the God you serve. You’ll fling yourself at His feet in surrender.

That way, when you hold the finished thing in your hand, when you arrive at the end result — the brighter shore, the other side of the canyon, you will never be able to say that you got there alone. You’ll understand acutely the limits of your own imagination, your own tenacity, your own income, your own insight. Something a little extra, a little beyond your pale, a little miraculous transpired while you railed and while you rallied.

By God, by jove, by the myriad wonders of risk itself, here you are.

* I can’t thank everyone enough for funding my trip to Yale in June! Everyone who contributed did so so quickly, it humbled, awed, and staggered me. I appreciate it so much and hope I’m able to continue maintaining whatever quality it is that inspired you all to help me. I hope I’m able to continue being, not only the kind of writer you want to read, but the kind of writer who encourages you to write for yourself. If you’ve noticed, that campaign, though fully funded, is still open. That’s because — in true messy-dream-delivery fashion — Indiegogo won’t let me close the account or withdraw funds until after June 13. I selected a 60-day campaign, completely underestimating the generosity of friends and strangers. And now I’m being forced to keep the campaign live and the money in a holding pattern until that 60 days are up.

I haven’t submitted my deposit for Thread at Yale yet, because it will need to come out of my very limited bill-paying money, until I can reimburse myself at the end of June. But I will before the first of May. (Don’t worry, givers! I’m going — and I’m frequently updating you via social media while I’m gone.)

In the meantime, I’m placing the link here, in case anyone who hasn’t yet contributed might feel compelled to make my life slightly easier by giving through Paypal and not via Indiegogo’s credit card form. Apparently funds contributed through Paypal can be immediately disbursed (yet another fact I wish I’d known beforehand).

I’ve already asked a lot and you’ve given beyond my wildest dreams, simply because I worked up the boldness to ask. So I hope it doesn’t hurt or wear on anyone’s patience or kindness if I ask again.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Writing Craft

New Gig, Old Ghosts.

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I discourage easily. This will come as no surprise to people who regularly read my work here. And I’m just coming to terms with the fact that all my days are marked with either a vague or an acute melancholia. I’ve always known that, but I’ve never been comfortable publicly, directly owning it. I can’t say that I’m depressive; I’ve never seen a therapist, never been diagnosed with anything. I do bear some of symptoms of depression, but I’m never quite incapacitated by these symptoms. They just sit with me, like familiars. And I function. Sometimes, in fact, they help me function, as it relates to writing.

I try not to talk about this too often, for two reasons. The first is that, when I’m sad or suffering from a fairly intense crisis of confidence or a bout of ongoing disappointments or genuine panic about the possibility that things may not actually work out in the end, people tend to think I’m fishing for affirmation and reassurance. I can assure you I’m not above fishing for affirmation — words of affirmation are my love language — but if I’m expressing an insecurity here at my blog or even on social media somewhere, I’m not trying to make others feel obligated to cheerlead for me. In truth, I have enough wonderful friends and family who do that without any prompting. They’re exceedingly patient about it and they never scold me for ingratitude or seem put-upon for their efforts. They’re just good to me, for whatever reasons, and I’m more grateful for them than I can say — even when I’m too down to see the goodness aligning all around me.

The other reason is less general, tied to the culture within which I was raised. I grew up in church in the ’80s and was reared at the height of the Word of Faith Movement. Positive thought and language was central to that approach to belief, and if you said that you were sad, you’d be chastened not to “confess that over your life.” It made God — who was a granter of declared desires, a supplier of needs and of supernatural self-confidence — look really bad. A lot of times, I heard in sermons that my personality, my reticence to hide my sadness, was an indictment against biblical truths like, “We are more than conquerors through him that loved us” or “Be anxious for nothing but in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your request made known unto God” and “Do not be sorrowful, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

There was an emphasis on renouncing negativity — and sometimes, the labeling of things as “negative” — like certain moods, emotions, or creative expressions — felt untenable to me. “Don’t claim that” and “don’t confess that” were oft-repeated admonitions, especially during adolescence. So, in conversation, I learned not to express sadness. Or insecurity. Or jealousy. Or malaise. Or discouragement. Or feelings of inadequacy. Or fear that I wouldn’t find someone I loved enough to marry. Or fear of marriage, period. Fear of attracting (and re-attracting again and again) a certain kind of man, a certain kind of career outcome, a certain kind of fate. Those currents continue to pulse under my skin. Sometimes, they still show on my face. But I manage them by writing. Putting my “negative” experiences on paper comes with its own chastisement, but I’m better able to handle that than someone coming up to me and accusing me of not trusting God.

I am talented and I work hard at writing — or at least I work consistently at it. I read a lot. I try to develop informed opinions and challenge myself to articulate them well. And I also just want to move people. Especially the melancholy people. And even more specifically, the people who have internalized opinions of themselves that are hypercritical, unflattering, or ugly. I write for the self-conscious and for the people who cry over words, both good and bad ones. I write for those who feel compelled to hide — and for those who take tentative steps into spotlights. I write for the people who shrink at center stage, because they aren’t sure how they got there or if they want to stay.

And I don’t know. It’s hard to find homes for that writing sometimes. Welcoming homes, homes that pay, homes that don’t discourage lyricism or honesty. But I can also attest that, when you write — even when you feel most transient — so, so many outlets will open their doors. You will entrust something of yourself to them, and in turn, they will entrust something of themselves to you. And it will be okay that none of these spaces become permanent homes.

You are not always down and out, when you are discouraged. You are not inadequate when you aren’t working where you want, at the pace you want. And your real feelings are more useful to others than any you may feign for those who are uncomfortable with candor. You aren’t “making a liar out of God” by being honest with yourself. For me, at least, “confessing” my actual, fraught, deficient, uncertain, doubting, terrified thoughts before God and man are an expression of how much I trust God not to condemn or abandon me. Honesty about how often I sit with sadness or how close discouragement often feels, that is the true measure of my faith.

In many ways, I think it also accounts for the opportunities I’m afforded. They are many. I am at once overcome and relieved and intimidated by them. I’ve no need to apologize for that. My joy has never been invalidated by my sadness.

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Starting next week, I’ll be writing for my friend Alyssa’s blog, Act Four, at The Washington Post. I’ve guest-blogged there before. Though I’ve blogged about both of those experiences, here’s something I didn’t share: the first time Alyssa invited me, she said that maybe it would turn into something more frequent. As is usually the case when I hear that, I didn’t hold the maybe in my palm. I didn’t turn it over or envision it or name-it-and-claim-it. I simply thought: if it will be, it will be. I put both the bridge and the crossing of it out of mind, until… well, now. May my measure of faith and my melancholic heart carry me over.

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Nonfiction, Writing Craft

My Writing Process: Living Better.

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I have no idea why I included this photo. I don’t really make this face before or during my writing process. Honest. lol

Oh, man. I really forgot I was supposed to do this by today. Nicole D. Collier graciously, generously, thoughtfully asked me to participate in the blog tour almost two weeks ago, and had I not seen my good friend Joshunda’s insightful response this morning, I would’ve likely gone on forgetting. Nicole is a really lovely writer and a singularly insightful thinker. She writes about things I wouldn’t readily consider. And sometimes when I’m reading Joshunda, I feel like she’s been reading my mind. I’m honored to be in their writerly company.

Apologies, y’all. I’ll try to be both brief and interesting.

1. What are you working on?

Becoming a better, more experienced, more observant, more interesting person. I’m 34 and inward to a real fault. I think my writing tends to suffer because of it. Social media, where I’m very active both for work and leisure, hasn’t always helped; my networks give me more reason to tune out of the world around me and to neglect the very necessary craft-observation of the people I encounter. I’m earbuds-in, head-down a lot of the time and I’m working most on being less invested in what’s going on in the palm of my hand and more invested in what lies without.

Writing people and places and experiences is only as authentic or credible as your witness. Imagination relies on what we can already access; no matter how little the worlds you build in your work resemble the one where we live, those worlds will be populated with ideas and people and experiences that draw on what you’ve seen and done and survived. Sometimes I feel like I’ve exhausted all my observation/experience and need to go out and acquire more… life. But every day is rife with potential, if you’re paying attention. I’m really working on that.

The less abstract answer is: I’m working on a collection of essays, having abandoned a novel manuscript. 🙂

2. How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Like a ton of writers/artists have already said: I don’t know that it does. I try to infuse a bit of the voice I use here at my blog — which is poetic and purple, at times — in the film, TV, culture commentary I write. These days, I feel like a lot of people are leaning more on a distinct personal creative nonfiction voice for commentary. It breaks up the “think-piece” monotony.

3. Why do you write what you do?

It’s all I’ve got. For whatever reason, I can’t access fiction, despite the fact that my MFA is in fiction writing. It’s just not something I can do quickly or well. It’s one of the most mysterious, elusive genres in which I’ve tried to write, second only to playwriting in my difficulty with it.

So I write what I can do fast and fairly well because I have a toddler and I’m her primary caregiver — which is to say I no longer have the luxury of struggling for months and years with no finished product to show for it. I can turn around an essay in four hours or less a lot of the time. It’s far more gratifying.

4. How does your writing process work?

These days I just write when, where and what I can. If it requires research, I open Google and do a cursory search. I go down the rabbit hole of long and short-form reporting both on the issue at hand and any tertiary issues that should also be considered. In the reading, I wait for the angle to become clear to me. It usually does after I’ve read between 4-6 strong, investigative pieces.

For blog entries, which I consider to be short personal essays that usually don’t require reporting, I just try to find quiet space to reflect or recollect details. Voice is very important to me here so silence, if I can swing it, is pretty important, as I need to hear the voice I’ll be using. I read aloud for flow (or try to) before hitting send or publish. If I don’t like the flow, I reword until I do.

Up until about a year ago, I was composing almost entirely on my iPhone and pen/paper. I have a particular brand of pen I prefer to use and I favor spiral notebooks. Now I have a Chromebook, and I’m using that to type this. But I still find that my iPhone-writing habit is a bit hard to break. It’s with me everywhere; this Chromebook isn’t.

That’s pretty much it for me.

I’ve asked my good friends Syreeta McFadden and Terryn aka DopeReads to do this next, but since I’m so late asking, I can’t guarantee it’ll be them. If it is, though, expect their installments on June 11.

 

 

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