No Need to Hide

I’ve eluded to starting a business, and I can now give some specifics about it since I’ve more or less formally launched (if updating my LinkedIn and Facebook jobs counts as having ‘more or less formally launched’). My business is called Vonetta Young Advisors LLC—my brand is me!

Since I was a little girl, I’ve woken up every day with the desire to help people like me—women and people of color—our fair share of the pie. I’m living that out in my business, as I advise women and people of color who are starting their own investment funds in private equity, venture capital, and real estate. I help them articulate what they’ve done in the past, what they do now, and what they want to do in the future.

This couldn’t be any farther from writing, in a way; so much so, that I was concerned about potential clients googling me and finding my writing website before my business one. I admit that I felt that I had to hide my creative self. Financial services is not an industry always kind to creative types. In business school, I was told to focus on the “clear communication skills” I acquired from being an English major and to remove from my resume that I studied abroad for Creative Writing, and I became afraid of people knowing this aspect of who I am outside of what it could do for my corporate career.

In talking with my life coach, I’ve come to embrace both sides of myself. I am not ashamed to have a creative talent, so I don’t have to hide it. Hiding it would participate in someone else’s fear—this fear that creatives will bring diversity of thought to an industry well-known for groupthink.

I think about Carla Harris, a Vice Chairperson at Morgan Stanley (so really high up and important at an important entity) and board member of Wal-Mart. She is ludicrously smart and tough and inspiring. AND she is a singer who has made several gospel and Christmas albums, and has performed sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. BECAUSE SHE DOES OWNS HER CREATIVE ABILITY (yelling at myself, not you, reader).

And I have to be my own brand of this. I’m the woman who is an investor, who advises investors, and writes darn good literary nonfiction and fiction under her own name. If someone has a question about it, I have an answer: it’s who I am.

As I embark on this journey of entrepreneurship—a journey I never thought I would be on because I wasn’t all that attracted to it—it’s allowed for a lot of personal and spiritual growth already. I was supposed to go to a symposium in Chicago last Friday, but my flight was cancelled, so I missed it. I was disappointed, as I thought it would be a great chance to network and get some clients in the door, but it didn’t work out. When I walked back into my house with my luggage, my spouse was waiting with open arms then said, “Oh, you’re not as upset as I thought you would be.” And that was because I have this sense that my authenticity and God’s love for me are colliding in the best ways, and if a door doesn’t open, it wasn’t for me. If someone doesn’t want a published author helping with them with their communications, I cannot help them. But God is honoring my being true to myself. All the more reason not to hide who I am.

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Farewell to a dear friend

I’m blogging a week and a day late because I’ve had quite a lot going on, some good and some unfortunate.

The good is that my business is taking shape. I’m in talks to sign my second client already and I’m attending a conference in Chicago on Friday that I hope will open some more doors for me. I’m breathless and excited about all of it, even if I’m a little afraid because this is uncharted territory for me.

The unfortunate is that one of my spouse’s best friends, Suzannah Jones, passed away over the weekend. She texted my spouse two weekends ago to tell him she was going into hospice care, and we were absolutely devastated. Then the week went by and I was anxious about when we would get to see her. We did on Saturday, around noon; she passed away that night. She was 36.

Suzannah was, perhaps, the most joyful person I’ve ever met in my life. She’d had her ups and downs, but she came out of everything laughing. Two years ago, her husband noticed a mole on her arm that looked weird and encouraged her to go to the doctor. She did, but by then, the melanoma had metastasized to her lungs.

She spent two years in treatment and if she ever had a down moment (and I’m sure she did), I never saw it. She called the cancer Frank, mostly, “F*cking Frank.” The times we met her for dinner, she was joyful as ever, laughing that loud, unabashed laugh whose sound I pray never leaves my auditory memory. A “ha-ha-haaaaa” that swung up into the air and stayed there.

Suzannah and my spouse worked together at his first job out of college, a healthcare consultancy in DC. She was his cube-mate and quickly became his first work wife. She even hemmed his pants and replaced buttons, for the love of God. She was selfless and so damn funny. She sidehustled at the DC Improv because she loved to laugh so much.

I’m cautious to say that I have regrets in life; sure, there are things that I wish I’d done differently, but I try not to regret anything because I believe everything happens as it should (not “for a reason,” per se, just, as it should). But I get so close to saying I regret not going to coffee with her because she was so pleasant to be around. My answer to that feeling is that, if I’d gotten closer to her, I’d feel even worse about her absence. That’s probably a terrible way to think about it, but it works for the state that I’m in now.

Her family will be sitting shiva for her for a couple of days. No, they’re not Jewish, but she liked the idea of loved ones getting together to laugh (and do Fireball shots). When her brother said this, I immediately thought of that awful Associated Press misquote:

“I’ve been to their homes where they sit and shiver,” the AP quoted the sheriff as saying.

But what he actually said was “I’ve been to their homes where they’re sitting shiva.”

So, we’re gonna sit and shiver for an amazing woman who was taken away entirely too soon. And I can hear her laughing now.

(The PSA portion: Please get annual or semi-annual skin checks at a local dermatologist. Wear sunscreen and avoid excessive sun exposure. Cancer is no one’s fault, but please be vigilant about your body.)

My reading at Writer’s Center LIVE!

Friends, I write this post to you from the comfort of a lounge chair on Bethany Beach in Delaware! I should confess that I’ve never used a laptop on the beach, and it’s a little odd, but I look really relaxed in the reflection of this screen, so it’s not all bad.

Anyway, last week, I gave my third public reading! I was a featured reader at Writer’s Center LIVE!, a literary variety show held at, well, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. I’ve taken a couple of classes at the Writer’s Center and have gotten to know some of the staff. One of them attended my last reading and asked if I would like to read at this one, and I said yes.

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Though, when I saw who else would be reading, I had to laugh. Tyrese Coleman, Philip Dean Walker, Stephanie Allen, and Kayla Rae Whitaker have all published at least one book; Kayla was the truly featured reader of the night as the winner of the center’s first novel prize. On the Facebook invitation, it called us, “nationally renowned authors,” and I actually wondered if they’d made a mistake by inviting me.

And then I realized that impostor syndrome is a son of a gun.

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They hadn’t made any mistakes. They knew I haven’t published a book. They asked me to read because they wanted me to, because they believed that I’m a good enough writer to read with folks who have published books because they know I will one day. I sometimes wonder why I can’t have as much faith in myself as other people have in me.

The reading went wonderfully. I read my flash piece, “To Be a Real Teenager,” my most recently published piece in DASH journal. It’s hard to describe the way it felt holding a book (well, journal) that included my work. It was weighty and substantial and felt important in my hands. This must be what it feels like to read from a book in front of people, I thought. And that was exciting, impostor syndrome be damned.

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Photos by Josh Powers

My Time at Juniper Summer Writing Institute

You didn’t miss a post from me last week! I was in Amherst, Massachusetts at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and it was rather interesting, especially in comparison to all of the other workshops I’ve done.

I applied to Juniper because I desperately wanted to work with Mitchell S. Jackson, whose voice is one of the strongest in modern prose, if you ask me. I applied to Tin House Summer to work with him and didn’t get in, so I’m glad Juniper worked out.

Q&A with Khadijah Queen and Mitchell S. Jackson, moderated by Gabriel Bump (left)

Working with him was as outstanding as I thought it would be. He gave me really great feedback on the first 15 pages of my memoir; I’ve known that I have another draft or two to go, but he really helped me see how to take it to the next level by being intentional at the sentence level. What I mean by that is, he stressed that each sentence should be there for a reason and serve a purpose in the piece, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t need to be there.

This idea of intentionality isn’t new to me, but it boggles my mind, and I find it extremely intimidating. It basically means that writing isn’t the kind of art that is exclusively intuitive; it’s not just something you do that comes out well or takes only a few tweaks—it’s more like woodworking, where you have to carve and turn and work the wood to create something. Which is insane. And scary.

I’ve called myself an artist a number of times in the past three years that I’ve been writing full-time. But calling myself an artist and actually doing the really artist parts—the craft, if you will—are two completely different things. Impostor syndrome likes to pop in tell me that I’m not capable of doing the latter, but I know that isn’t true. That’s been the point of my going to all of the workshops and doing all of these classes: to learn craft that I can implement no matter what I’m writing.

In addition to intentionality, Mitchell (and my manuscript consultant Khadijah Queen) gave me some ideas on how to take my book to the next level thematically. I’ll admit that I’ve been cautious of talking explicitly about race or class; they’re not things that I talk about in my daily life as it is, so infusing it in my work feels odd, disingenuous. But exploring it in reflection is a part of that craft that I find so daunting. It’s necessary and I’m capable, so I’ll see how I can make it work in a way that only I can do.

Ocean Vuong reading from On Earth We Are Briefly Goregous

 

A rather grainy Ross Gay reading from The Book of Delights

The rest of the workshop was good. UMass Amherst’s campus is huge, so the events were pretty spread out (the dining hall was over a mile away from my on-campus housing, for example). It made for a lot of walking (5.5 miles a day on average, according to my phone) but wasn’t great for building community, in my opinion. But the other participants were nice, the faculty is really strong, and I won the bookstore gift certificate raffle twice, so it was good, overall. I will say that folks seem more anti-capitalist than usual, but I think artists have always been that way. Shrugs. The readings were outstanding, with Ocean Vuong’s being rightfully so the “featured” one. Incredible.

My next workshop is in Alberta, Canada (!) in August. Can’t wait to see how it goes!

Always Wanted to See My Name in Print

My most recent essay is published! And it’s in print—my first print publication!

It was quite a journey with this little piece, “To Be a Real Teenager.” It started as a blog post, which I modified to read at Bread Loaf last year, then modified again to submit to publications. It’s 750 words, so technically flash nonfiction, and only so many outlets take those. But this piece broke my submission record—25 submissions before it was accepted by DASH Journal, out of California State University, Fullerton.

All of my previous essays and stories have been published online, and that’s been great; it’s the way to get the maximum number of eyeballs on your work. But there’s something about seeing my name in print: it makes it easier to dream about finally, actually finishing my memoir, then my collection of short stories, then beyond.

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My name in the table of contents!

Even though DASH is small and isn’t even sold in stores, I’m honored my little piece was chosen and that I have this copy forever.

Here’s to seeing my name in print thousands of times in the future!

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My name on the first page of my flash essay! 😀

 

My Very Literary Friday Night

I got to spend a very literary Friday night with one of my favorite authors! Nafissa Thompson-Spires came to DC to read and discuss her book, Heads of the Colored People, which is now out in paperback.

I read Heads last year and absolutely loved it. It went on to be nominated for a National Book Award and several PEN Awards, and it won the Whiting Award and the PEN Open Award, the one for the best new book in any category, among a bunch of others. I’m sure it’s not done winning things, either, as it just came out in paperback.

I’ve been working on a short story about an upper-class Black woman who invites her lower-class family to her fancypants coastal New England home, for about two years. Knowing Nafissa nails this demographic in Heads, I was thrilled to have been selected to work with her at the Tin House Winter Workshop in January in Oregon. She and my workshop-mates gave me some great insights into how to make the story better; so much so, I’ve had to let it brew for a while, and I’m only just now ready to dive back into it.

At the reading Friday night, Nafissa read the collection’s title story as well as Belles Lettres, which was even funnier aloud.

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Nafissa Thompson-Spires reading from the title story of Heads of the Colored People at THEARC in DC

During the Q&A, the audience asked some great questions—which, once I realized the event was in conjunction with Howard University as well as the DC Public Library, was no surprise. People asked questions about what role Nafissa sees social media playing in the development of literature in the future, and how she presented Black people as both the oppressed and the oppressor in Heads.

I asked, “When did you know you were a writer?” I know it’s possible to go years writing without ever identifying as a writer, so I’m curious to know when the moment struck people. Nafissa said she was an early reader—started at age three—and writing seemed to come naturally after that. She wrote some terrible poems that won contests in elementary school, but really became a writer when she realized that she loved doing it whether someone read her work or not.

That resonated with me. I’ve called myself a writer since I was 12, when that seventh grade free-writing period began. I wasn’t writing for an assignment, I was writing for me, to shape the world I wanted to see, to get things off my chest, to make someone love me. That free-writing period seems to never have ended and I pray it never does.

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Nafissa and me at the Petworth Citizen, where mixologist Chantal Tseng crafts cocktails inspired by books. I’m holding a Raina, inspired by her her story Whisper to a Scream.

How I’m Spending My Summer Vacation

Happy unofficial start of summer, everyone! This Memorial Day, I didn’t do the usual barbeque or family time—I took some down time to not do much of anything but be productive, work on a to-do list, and start thinking about what intend to accomplish this summer.

In terms of writing, I’ll be attending the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, working with Mitchell S. Jackson on nonfiction in June, then in August, I’ll be attending the Banff-Electric Literature Workshop in Nonfiction, all the way in Alberta, Canada—I got a merit scholarship for it, too! I’m so thrilled to have my potential recognized, and I’m stoked to go to Canada for the first time, especially to Banff, which is apparently a really nice ski resort area.

Between these two workshops, I’d like to be equipped to write another draft of my memoir, hopefully by the end of the year. I’ve been telling myself I want to be done-done by the balldrop to 2020, but I have to be realistic with myself—I had a call with someone last week and said, “I went to Georgetown and I’m an overachiever, so I can’t just write a book, I have to write the best book I can write.” Which means that, if it takes me longer that I thought it would to write the best book I can write, then oh well.

In terms of other things, I’d like to get more research done for my business idea, then have something to show to my “investors” by September, after Banff. I’m planning to travel a bit to industry conferences to glean information and get clients. I’m excited just thinking about it!

On a personal level, I’d like to be able to do three unassisted pull-ups by the end of the year, so I want to get through at least one and a half by the end of summer.

Last summer was one of the best of my life. Being in the thick of being a writer was both gratifying and anxiety-producing. The anxiety came from not knowing what was next. And now that I have an idea of that, the times in which I’m a writer this summer will be all the better.

A Fortuitous [sort of] Annoucement

You probably heard the news yesterday that, on Sunday, billionaire Robert Smith gave the newest class of Morehouse College a gift summing some $40 million, paying off their student loans.

I heard two types of noise around this: first, that it was an amazingly generous gift, that Robert Smith must be a great man (along with, “Who is Robert Smith?”); second, that student loans should not amount to that much.

What I didn’t hear was very much talk about how Robert Smith became a billionaire.

I’ve known of Robert Smith for years, as he is the founder of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software and tech companies. He founded the firm in 2000, and they have done some crazy deals since then, most of them in companies you probably never heard of, unless you have (like Marketo).

Smith made his money the same way a lot of old white men made theirs: buying companies, pumping them with funds to make them better, then selling them for far more than they paid for it. On Marketo alone, Vista made about $3 billion, not all of which went to Smith, of course. Private equity professionals generally get 20% of the investment returns they generate, and they divvy up that 20% depending on tenure and how involved the person was with the business. Even if Smith got only 10% of the 20%, as a hands-off founder, he still would have made $60 million. (He’s worth about $5 billion, according to Forbes.)

What I’m saying is, Smith was able to make this very generous gift by excelling at the most capitalist of capitalist institutions. And I’m baffled that no one pointed that out since so many people seem to be enamored with the idea of socialism these days. But here you have this capitalist coming in and using his money for good; now what? It’s hard to hate a generous rich person.

I think this news is fortuitous for me. I’ve been toiling with what I’d like to do now that my DIY-MFA is coming to a self-imposed end, as my three-year quitterversary approaches, and I’ve been investigating what I feel my purpose outside of writing is. I’ve said on this blog before that I miss private equity. I miss being an investor and I miss working with people who are improving businesses and creating jobs. I miss being a person of color blazing a trail; I’m doing that in a way by writing, but it’s not really the same.

So, I’m starting a new venture. I’m doing some research now, reaching out to people in the industry who know how I can best help people of color excel in private investments. I’m getting my ducks in a row and will do a formal launch later this year.

I know I’m being vague, but that’s because I want to keep some of this a surprise. But I’m excited about what’s ahead and can’t wait to charge forward in a slice of the world so different from the one I’ve resided in for nearly three years. Who knows—maybe I’ll help make the next Robert Smith.

But don’t worry, I’m still a writer. I always will be.

That’s what they meant by reflection?

For the past week and a half, I’ve been going hard core on my memoir.

I’m honored to have been selected to go to the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass Amherst next month, and aside from having Mitchell S. Jackson as my workshop facilitator, I’m thrilled to be getting a manuscript consultation. Someone will read 35 pages of my manuscript and meet with me for an hour about it. I admit I initially thought they would read the whole book, so I’ve basically rewritten the whole thing, which I’d planned to do, anyway.

I sent the previous draft—draft #5—to an agent who’d requested it last spring. She took a little over two months to read it (which is great timing for an agent), and said it wouldn’t be a good fit for her because of the voice. She complimented my talent, for which I was grateful, but I was a little bit stung by her comment. I kept it in mind as I went to the three summer workshops I did last year.

I’ve taken a lot of writing classes since I started writing full-time, and one comment I kept consistently getting was, “I’d like more adult reflection. What do these things mean to you now?” It came easiest to me to tell the stories in the way I remembered them, and this often resulted in a voice that sounded younger than my present self.

But at Bread Loaf, something clicked for me. I had my workshop group read the chapter about the last time I saw my father alive. They asked me some great questions that put me on the brink of tears, then at some point I was like, “Oh—that’s what the agent meant by voice.”

And as I’ve rewritten my book over the past week and a half, I’ve realized that’s what everyone else meant by “reflection.” I’d understood “reflection” to mean “pontificate on why this is important to you now, as an adult,” and every time, I would think, “This moment does not matter to me as an adult.” But what they wanted was the exact same story told in a more Vonetta-like fashion.

I’m approaching this draft as if I were reading the book aloud, which is handy, since that’s how authors sell books, they go to bookstores and read their words aloud. And the way I would read it is much more engaging and dynamic. I get it now.

I spent time with some of my extended family this weekend for my cousin’s wedding. I haven’t seen my mother’s family since late summer 2016, a month after I quit my job to write my memoir. Which means that this July, it will be three years since I have been working on my memoir, and that is crazy.

But I finally feel that everything I’ve learned since Blaise Kearsley’s Memoir I class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop is all coming together. Getting the voice together is one thing on my list; I’d like to attack some structural issues next.

 

“What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About”

Michele Filgate (far right) reading her essay in her anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, with fellow essayees Leslie Jamison (middle right) and Melissa Febos (middle left), and moderator/author Dani Shapiro (far left).

Last Tuesday, I went up to New York City for the launch of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, an essay anthology edited by Michele Filgate, my first essay instructor.

This event meant so much to me because it meant so much to Michele—her Longreads essay of the same title went viral in October 2017. It’s a powerful one that took her over a decade to write. She said she thought it was going to be about her abusive stepfather, but it wound up being about her mother, who she still has a checkered relationship with (and is still with that abusive stepfather).

Great turnout at McNally Jackson in SoHo for Michele’s book launch

Really great turnout (I had to stand in an awkward place)

When I took Michele’s Creative Nonfiction class online at Sackett Street, it was my first foray into personal essay. It was February 2017, I was still getting used to “New DC” after having been back for only a couple of months, and I was still really bruised from my horrible work experience. Michele was a lifesaver—taking her class at the moment I did was truly divine providence.

She encouraged us to write what we were afraid of. Now, I like to tell myself that I am fearless, something I’ve purported since I watched a car go up in flames outside of a burger joint in rural Virginia when I was in fifth grade. But when it came to my career, I was crippled. I felt I couldn’t write about my job because I would be blackballed and “never work in this town again” if I told the world what had happened to me and how I felt about it.

Writing from that place of fear not only helped me overcome it—I no longer care what my old employer thinks of me; they have no power over me, not even in the form of references—it also helped the thousands of people who read that essay. Think about that: one woman telling another to write into her fears helped heal thousands of people. DIVINE PROVIDENCE.

A few of us from Michele’s Catapult class at AWP 2018

I believe What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About will do the same thing. I have a great mother, but I know not everyone does, and even those who do have complexities and secrets in our relationships. Telling our stories helps us feel like we’re not alone. And when we feel like we’re not alone, we don’t feel shame. And when we don’t feel shame, we can move freely throughout the world as ourselves, authentically.

All I can say is an incredibly huge thanks to Michele, who knocked down the first domino in a powerful chain in my life.