Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Nonfiction, Race

Postcard from the Inside.

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“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Dear Reader,

Day upon day I awaken both thrilled and exhausted, my nights all beset by the disquiet of ideas and anxiety. As it turns out, I am no better at sleeping soundly when I am fulfilled than when I am frustrated. This is the life I had conditioned myself to avoid, convinced as I was that I couldn’t handle being “busy” — at least not in the typical Western, capitalist tradition of busyness. And if that meant that I wouldn’t earn much — either in money or in accolades — I’d just have to learn to live with less.

To brace for this, I had spent years telling myself that I would be fine earning and living below my true ability because I was not particularly ambitious, nor was I roused each morning by an agitating pressure to impress others and outdo myself. I wanted contentment, not an interminable climb. I was working just enough, in positions that allowed for anonymity and flexibility. Any bouts of real striving were selective and intermittent.

But I suppose I’ve always known that was a lie. The Lie, really. The biggest self-betrayal is the one that persuades you to live unambitiously. I am neither minimalist nor mediocre. I have never been content with less than I’m capable of creating or earning or becoming; I am just averse to that creeping sense of mania I feel when I stretch forth my hand too far, grasping at things that will require unending restlessness and fierce self-competition if I ever hope to reach them.

I have only been producing radio for four and a half months, but it’s already quite clear that this was what I was avoiding. This job has confirmed both what I find terrifying and what I could be capable of. Just as writing — my lifelong calling (and I say that devoid of hyperbole or delusion of grandeur) — had become staid and dead-end for me, a Sisyphean cycle of essays and small checks sliding up and down an ever-mounting debt, I learned that I could do more. I learned that writing isn’t all I can do, that I’m not doomed to it. I learned that pursuing a life as a black woman who was raised lower-middle-class isn’t some sort of lifelong punishment. And I needn’t spend what’s left of my 30s wondering where I went wrong and what I should’ve studied that would’ve left to a less financially, creatively frustrated existence.

I just needed to allow myself full access to the expanse of my imagination. I needed to urge myself closer to its edges and dare to believe — as I had as a child — that invisible opportunities lay beyond it.

Right now I reside in one of those once-unseen provinces, one of those worlds I had yet to dream up a year ago. I go out every day and meet people and want things and make decisions that affect far more people than myself and my daughter. I manage a budget. I manage a project. I will myself to be a less timid, less ingratiating version of myself. I try to remain more kind and more generous than most jobs require us to be in this country where people are so often reduced to their bottomline. I try to be more responsible with long trail of paper, to treat the numbers on it as though they’re decipherable. I pretend until I don’t have to.

The effort is exhausting. But what I can tell you is that I have never been happier in my professional life. With the exception of last year, when I was a freelance essayist, I’ve never felt as creatively uncertain or emotionally depleted. And without exception, I’ve never been prouder of the work I’m doing.

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I never know how I sound when I’m describing a life transition so I hope you’ll forgive me any slips into melodrama. I’ve just always found it difficult and lonely to work temporary, contractual jobs and much of my professional life has been comprised of that work. The older I get, the more isolated I feel leading a life where benefits and retirement planning seem a distant fever-dream, and I know a growing demographic of people, especially creatives, are experiencing this. And to have that compounded by the physical isolation freelancing can foster is especially difficult. I write things like this to commiserate and encourage and to compel those in this position to reconsider the parameters of their skill set. Apply for new sorts of work. Learn an unfamiliar form of storytelling. Deepen your curiosity, if need be, and overcome the prison of your own quickest, reactionary thoughts on the issue of the day. Grant yourself the luxury of time and investigation.

For as long as you can, awaken thrilled and fall asleep depleted.

P.S.

  • As the opening gif may’ve suggested, I’m super-into the Hamilton cast album as of last weekend. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain a modicum of chill about it, but it’s been hard. I’ve been bitten; I am smitten.
  • We’re five episodes into Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City. You can listen to them all here. Please take a moment to rate and review us on iTunes; it really matters.
  • The show was featured and I was interviewed on WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts.
  • I’m recapping WGN’s Underground for Vulture.
  • I’m still a once-a-week contributor to The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.
  • That’s officially all I can handle. My plate is full to overflowing. My cup runneth over.
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Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Uncategorized

Did you hear Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City today?

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Last month, I wrote a post about my new job as an independent radio producer on “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” a new half-hour audio documentary funded by AIR with additional support from the Corporation for Public Broadcast as part of Localore: Finding America, a 15-city hyper-local storytelling project.

Today, our first episode premiered on WEAA 88.9 FM. You can hear it here: http://weaa.org/post/episode-one-keep-shaking-and-baking.

I’m relieved to have gotten one episode done (there will be 12 total), excited by the stories we can tell in the radio medium — and how creative we can be about telling them — and I’m also just really exhausted. lol

I want to share some of the anecdotes about the show, audio clips that didn’t make it to air, and stories about learning how to read narration and writing/editing it on the fly. But I really feel like I’m about to doze off writing this. So all I’m going to say here is: when I went to New Have for Thread at Yale last summer (thank you again to everyone who helped me fund that through Indiegogo), Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment advised us that if we wanted to break into podcasting, having never done it before and with no tech experience, the best advice was: “Surround yourself with geniuses.”

I’ve definitely done that. I’ve got Ali Post, a field producer who’s a quick thinker, a troubleshooter, a fire extinguisher, an astute story collaborator, and a sounding board. I’ve got Mawish Raza, who exudes calm under ridiculous deadlines, makes magic out of photographs and video footage, and has already lost sleep ensuring that we had our show packaged for today’s 11:30am start time. And I have Marsha Jews, who knows Baltimore’s black history and exactly who we need to talk to about it, who is a voice of reason when I’m quietly freaking out, and who gets things done. Period. Fast.

And of course, it must be said: none of us would be able to do any of this important work without our grant from AIR. Funding makes all the difference in the scope of the narrative work you can do. So many people are already telling Baltimore’s important stories in various media on next to no budget. We’re honored to join their ranks — and very fortunate to be doing it with some financial backing.

Strong team, strong show. Well, wait. We’ll let you be the judge of its strength, listeners. Let me know what you think after you’ve heard it!

In the meantime, here’s our video trailer for Episode 1, which I didn’t get to share here in advance of the show, because: mile-long to-do list.

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction

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.

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