Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Writing is a Brawl: Thoughts on Another Week at WaPo.

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I am not especially tough. I think most people who know me would be able to confirm this. My skin is gold-leaf thin, and this is especially true after I’ve written. You will find me at my most vulnerable on the day that something I’ve penned has been published. It doesn’t matter where; this is true whether I’m in control of the posting and it’s seen by a few hundred people, or if an editor at a national publication is involved and the post is seen by several thousands.

I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, when writing was far more romantic to me than it is now and when writers had a few insular hours or days or even months before reviews of their work began to trickle in. A letter to the editor or an op-ed or a missive to the author would travel through a postal cycle or onto the desks of various news staffers before it reached the eyes (and the ego) of the writer herself. Those were pleasant times — or they seemed to be, anyway. Some would argue that the time between publication and response, pre-internet, felt tortuously interminable. I think I would’ve appreciated the breathing room. Immediacy has obliterated the insulation of the writer’s ego, and I’m still mourning that loss. But the more frequently my work sees the light of day, the closer I get to accepting things as they are.

For the second time this year, Alyssa Rosenberg has generously shared her space at her Washington Post blog, Act Four, with me. This go-round, she did so while she traveled to Toronto for the city’s International Film Festival (TIFF). (Be sure to check out her coverage, now that she’s returned!) I wrote six posts in total: Thursday and Friday of last week, Monday through Wednesday of this one. Writing daily for a Washington Post blog was as exhilarating now as it was back in May.

But if I told you that I approached each day with confidence, if I claimed that I didn’t feel anxiety at dusk every day worrying over what to write and how to frame it and how it would be received and how frighteningly possible it was that I was on the absolute wrong side of an issue, I’d be telling you the boldest-face lie there is. I’d be talking about someone other than my quietly neurotic self.

amelie puddle

no crying

For writers like me, who struggle with the cultural disintegration of a feedback buffer, there are side effects to writing at a breakneck pace for a broad audience. The first among them is, of course, the comments section paranoia. I learned a few years ago to fastidiously avoid those unless I’m asked not to and then, only to spend as much time on them as I comfortably can without crying. The second is staggering self-doubt, which — I assure you — will annoy everyone within a mile radius when you’re on daily assignment. The third is an inability to sleep. The fourth is an uncanny aptitude for focusing on the three critical statements, rather than the 30 favorable ones. This last also manifests as talking myself out of great comments by convincing myself that 2/3 of that feedback is from people I know, people who love me, people who know just how little it takes for me to wither or chafe.

If you regularly experience any of these effects, I’ll let you in on a little life-hack. At 1 am, when you’ve reached delirium and you’re still pounding keys on what seems to be incoherent, remember: there is no time. The only minutes you have to spare are for sentences, not self-questioning. And when you wake up again at 5:30 am to re-read what you wrote at 1, you’ll realize you’ve developed an immunity to iocane powder. (Word to the Dread Pirate Westley.) Honor the absence of idle time and all that clutter casts itself aside. Head down, keep typing. That sound of your fingers flying across the keyboard amplifies, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Eventually, you surrender to it.

Is that enough? Will you be cured? Are your insecurities behind you? Man, nah. Your insecurities will always be nipping. Sometimes, they will clamp down and rip themselves a good chunk of flesh. I have yet to learn how to play off that limp, to walk a straight line when I’m wounded. This is what terrifies me: the more I’m read, the more often I’m wounded — and if I want this life, this daily-published life, I better learn quick how to self-suture.

There is nothing as exhilarating for me as writing. A close second is being widely read and well-received. I am trying to reconcile that some people will always think my purple prose sucks and that others still will almost always disagree with my central claims. Not everyone thinks that I’m good at this. I am working hard to become that most feared kind of woman: the one who does not require validation. But this, I suspect, will take as many years as I have left — and I do not know, having tasted validation, if it is a thing I could ever learn to eschew.

Here is another thing I’ve learned: publication is petrifying for the conflict-averse, but to write is to kick up dust and to beg for a brawl. To write is to wait for the big kid after school, with eggers-on encircling. You will want someone to root for you. You will want someone’s help with the wounds.

friend kind of

During this guest-blogging run, I think I gave as good as I got. I took more risks, made more leaps, tried to make interesting intellectual connections. I tried, as is the wont of Rebecca Traister, by way of Amy Poehler, not to f—ing care if you liked it. I’m enclosing all the links, in case you want to read them to see for yourself if you’d declare me this round’s winner or consider the whole thing a draw:

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

A Musing on Misogyny and a Guest-Blogging Stint.

Follow your own hand gestures, dude.

Follow your own hand gestures, dude.

As promised, here’s another quick update with another writing-related announcement. Before I get to that, I wanted to point to this piece I published this morning at Medium about CeeLo Green and whatever terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad mess is going on with him right now. There are a few reasons I didn’t publish or cross-post it here, but I’d love it if you went there and read it. If you do, please feel free to leave a comment here, letting me know what you think. Here’s an excerpt:

The truth is: all the music men will disappoint us. They’ll make exceedingly wack albums or be rude and dismissive in person. They’ll abandon art for commerce or go into hiding. They’ll catch the most absurd, unsettling cases. You’ll live. Sometimes, if you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll give them the widest berth, remembering the good album, the great guest verse, all that as-yet-unrealized promise.

But a time may come, as that artist approaches midlife, when you realize he has let the ugliest parts of himself go unchecked. He has shirked rehab, reason, or the idea of reckoning. And if he’s anything like CeeLo, nothing he’s ever done will disgust you and chill you clear to the bone like knowing that despite your patience, despite his vast exposure to the extravagance and cruelty in each corner of the world, despite the eventual responsibilities to the next generation that come with advancing age, your favorite music men could hit 40 still believing and imposing as rule of law that respect, tenderness, decency and even acknowledgment of women’s humanness is some sort of meritocracy, individually earned, publicly debatable.

The other news is a little bigger. If you’ve been visiting this blog for a while, you may recall that I guest-blogged for Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washington Post page, ‘Act Four,’ for a week back in May. (It was big. I’m talking major milestone.) Well, I’m back on tomorrow for another week, as Alyssa screens films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Since this is my personal blog, I’m going to let you all in on a not-so-secret truth: this work — this incredible, high-profile, quickly turned-around work — is no less scary for me this time than it was the first time I did it. Part of that is that Alyssa is pretty brilliant and she makes the most interesting connections between histories, events, and media — and she does it daily. I don’t want to bore or disappoint her loyal readers. Part of it is that I don’t often know what I’m going to write from day to day — and the better part of a day may go by without an idea coming to me. The third part is that my daughter’s embarking on her full days of pre-K (9-11:45am), starting tomorrow, and I’m her drop-off/pick-up person. And I also have another work-from-home job, so you know. Life’s hectic. The fourth part is just your run-of-the-mill writerly nerves and doubt.

To calm myself, I am thinking of Langston Hughes and his poem, “Theme for English B.” When I was in high school, it was one of my favorite things to revisit — and I’m coming back to it now, like a student timidly knocks on the door of her mentor, days before her thesis is due. I won’t reproduce the entire poem here, only the part that I love most (made all the more relevant by the lone comment left on Alyssa’s kind re-introduction post):

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.

Word, Langston. Word.

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Levels to This: One Week at WaPo.

The dream is work.

The dream is work.

In the moment that a dream is being realized, reckoning is not immediate. You will not necessarily feel capsized by awe and appreciation. You may barely be moved. More people should tell us this. Success isn’t often cinematic. It does not rain down like Publishers Clearinghouse confetti, does not announce itself with an oversized check. Success is merely more work. You may feel distinctly alone in it, may pretend to be surprised by it, for in truth, it is a bit surprising to find yourself, after year upon year of head-down toil, interrupted by recognition and requests. And it’s genuinely exciting, isn’t it, to be a person working among the people whose work — and comportment, post-success — you’ve been studying the whole time?

But you aren’t bowled over by dreams made manifest. Not all hard work is rewarded in the same ways. Some hard work isn’t rewarded at all. No one knows this better than those of us who have waited — and are still waiting — for their Moment. Still, it’s the law of averages. When you’re consistent long enough, it stands to reason someone will remember having glimpsed you in the eaves and crannies. You were always here. You just weren’t where they’ve asked you to stand now.

My week writing at Alyssa Rosenberg’s Act Four at The Washington Post wrapped Friday and I’m still on cloud nine about the opportunity. It taught me things about myself and stretched me pretty far beyond any realm where I’m comfortable. But I was also struck by how calm it all felt — even the panicky moments when, at 11pm on the night before a post was due, I still hadn’t settled on a topic.

I thought I’d be more afraid or soaked in euphoria or unable to function at anything other than writing for a property branded by one of the country’s foremost papers.

And then I remembered: I’ve been vetted for this.

I had my first heart palpitations, shortness of breath and crying jags six years ago when I started teaching college composition. Anxiety intensified two semesters later when I found myself teaching six college courses on three campuses. And it did not go away when I learned to scale back, learned that “drive” at the expense of physical or mental health is empty at best and perilous at worst.

There is nothing wrong with the slow rise, the circuitous, meandering exploration of many paths. We are not all meant to be meteors. Some of us are satellites: we hover, capture, study. We wait. There is no shame in it.

In waiting and working, you learn what you’ll need for the next level. Writing well on next to no time is a necessary skill, but so is turning offers down or skipping the pitch when you’re feeling that familiar chest-tightening angst that will prevent you from executing the full article well or with timeliness. And you should exercise, which I don’t. And you should eat, which I do too infrequently. And you should sleep in ways that are unbroken, and I fail at this as well. But all of it is work. Keep at it and the pebbles and boulders and weeds get familiar. You will know where you’re going.

I am telling you all this because nobody told me. This is not a lament; some things are better discovered alone — and I’ve been fortunate to have the benefit of company more successful than I for most of my adult life. But maybe something I’ve said here will help you. Enjoy yourself when you win; just don’t look to the heavens for fireworks when what you should be hoping to find there is greater revelation.

Here are links to what I wrote last week. I’m not too humble to admit I liked all of it and not too proud to concede I could’ve written some pieces better.

Fun fact: when you write for an online component of a daily paper, people don’t just leave comments on the post; some write to your personal email account. That freaked me out at first. It renders null any “don’t read the comments” policy you have. Mercifully, everyone who took time to write me last week was kind.

Monday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/05/where-are-the-black-ballerinas/

Tuesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/06/can-we-avoid-mistakes-in-responding-to-the-nigeria-kidnappings/

Wednesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/07/why-we-should-worry-about-a-resurrected-shes-gotta-have-it/

Thursday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/08/will-the-remake-of-private-benjamin-miss-the-originals-point/

Friday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/09/kim-kardashian-admits-she-is-only-now-aware-that-racism-exists/?tid=pm_opinions_pop

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I’m Guest-Blogging at The Washington Post This Week!

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I’ll be here all week!

I didn’t want to say anything here until I had an official first link to share. Now that I have one, here’s this week’s big news: I’m filling in for the incomparable Alyssa Rosenberg this week at her WaPo blog, Act Four. If you’re not already reading Act Four, you totally should be; it’s incredible. There’s no one like Alyssa. I’ve been following her for years, beginning with her work at ThinkProgress, and I’ve never ceased to be impressed by how much insight she can infuse into TV, film, and culture. I was first astounded then honored that she invited me to do this. It’s not every day that someone you admire is gracious enough to share such an illustrious platform with you. When it happens, there’s little else to be but awestruck and deeply grateful.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be pinching myself all week long. I even went big and showed my first byline there to my nana (who is kind of hard to impress). This did the trick; she gave me the eyebrow-raise and head-nod of approval. Woot! Hopefully some of this week’s readers will do the same. 🙂

Oh! Also: if you have any topic suggestions for me to cover — related to pop culture or politics (I’m great at the former, not nearly as well-versed at the latter) — leave them in the comments section here. I’m writing one post a day till Friday. I can’t guarantee I’ll get to any topic you may suggest, but it’d be really nice to hear from you.

In the meantime, watch the breathtaking Michaela DePrince perform this spot on impression of the way my heart feels right now:

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