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! 😀

 

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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.

“Practical Advice on Writing”

On Saturday, I attended the Barrelhouse Conversations & Connections Conference for the third year in a row, and I gotta tell ya, it was the best time I’ve had at any of them.

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Unlike, say, AWP, Barrelhouse’s conference is extremely practical. In fact, the subtitle is “Practical Advice on Writing.” Panels cover much-needed topics such as how to write dialogue that pushes the plot forward and Instagram for authors. You can easily come away with a ton of notes and just feel your brain make-up changing as you become a better writer. I went to three panels from a list I had a hard time choosing from.

In “What You Show: How to Choose What and When,” we started by watching a clip from the show, Preacher, which I’d never heard of, but looked kind of insane. Anyway, from the clip we learn a lot about the woman featured in her actions (creative and violent), her accent (that she’s sweet and Southern), and her clothes (rugged, then common). The formula the instructor gave was:

Characteristics x Context = Meaning

Context is everything. So “showing” details without context is useless. Context helps us get to motivation, too: everyone drinks coffee because they’re tired, but why are they tired? Because they didn’t get enough sleep. Why didn’t they get enough sleep? Because they have a new baby or because they were fighting crime?

In my next panel, Lilly Dancyger led us through a series of exercises to help us generate in personal essays in “Do I Have Anything New to Say?” Make a list of things you feel define you, she said. I picked out things like Washingtonian, Christian, fatherless, Black, Millennial, gentrifier, and married. Now, choose two or three that seem antithetical, and then go small, Lilly said; don’t try to write the whole swath of that experience, just a tiny sliver. I realized sitting that being a Black gentrifier in DC sounded hella complex. The small moment was when we got a gate in front of our condo building, and I decided that I couldn’t live there anymore (I still do, and I wrestle with these feelings every day.

Lilly also suggested looking for 3 to 5 essays on a particular topic to see what’s being said about it, then coming at it from your own unique angle, being in conversation with the other pieces. This should be easy for me, as I tend to have pretty contrasting views of lots of my generation’s popular opinions.

My last panel of the day was “Crafting Revelation in Fiction One Detail at a Time.” This was the most abstract of the panels, but was still concrete in a way. Basically, how do you let the reader know the mood of the story, or how a character feels about himself? By the way the character looks at the world. If the narrator only notices gloomy things, so things are described as drab, then the mood of the story is probably gonna be a downer. Or, if a character describes himself as plain, ugly, jagged, etc, it’s safe to say he doesn’t like himself very much. See, abstract, but not.

The Barrelhouse conference always closes with a boxed wine happy hour, which, for the past couple of years, I’ve grabbed one drink, then left. But this year, I hung out for a while because I’ve gotten to know so many writers in the area in the past year. It is always good to see them because they are so uplifting. We’re all in this together, and I never feel that more than around a box of Pinot Noir at the end of a long day of learning. Can’t wait for next year’s!

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The line for Speed Dating with the Editors gets so long so fast!

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The awesome featured writers, all of whose books I wanted after their powerful readings.

Truth in a time of lies

One other realization that this Lenten season brought me—other than the fact that I probably rely too heavily on alcohol to tamp down anxiety—was the importance of living in the truth, and what that means for me.

I’ve been seeing a life coach, with the express purpose of getting out of my own way when it comes to re-establishing my business career. The whole process has been a bit woo-woo. The coach started by having me pay attention to my speech, which I realized can be quite negative as I’m hard on myself when I don’t meet my own impossible expectations. Then she moved onto “positive self-talk,” which, given my previous point, was difficult to take seriously, but I tried it anyway and did, strangely, feel better about myself and my capabilities. Then she told focused on changing my view of situations, past, present, and future happenings. Turns out, all that positivity babble works! I’m not totally in the habit of these things yet, but I already feel more confident and hopeful.

During the course of this, I had a conversation with—or rather, a good talking to given to me by—my good friend Lauren during AWP. I can’t remember what I said [something negative], but she replied, “Don’t talk about my friend that way.” She was talking about me, to me, and it got real meta and weird, but I understood. She proceeded to tell me [I’m paraphrasing poorly] that my future includes good things that can’t be taken away from me, I just have to walk in them. Good things are the truth for my life, and I can’t deny the truth.

And that’s when I had what Oprah calls an “Aha! moment.”

The truth for me is what I am called to do and, though things can get challenging on that road, if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, then I’m living in the truth. Woo-woo, but voila.

I took some more time to think on this and came to a conclusion I’d already known, but was afraid to admit, for fear of failure or lack of opportunity: I am a writer and an investor.

I’ve been a writer since I was 12, an investor since I was 14.

They are my truth. I am both of them, and if anyone tells me otherwise, that person is lying. One of those persons was my business school career “coach,” who, when I was having trouble finding an finance internship, told me, “The market is trying to tell you something.” She meant, “The market is telling you you don’t belong in this industry.” Which was a colossal lie that made a huge impact on me, which I’m only just now recognizing for what it was.

So, how do I know they’re my truth? Good question. I just know. I know how I feel when I act out those things: when I’m writing or talking about growing wealth, I feel at peace, I feel energized rather than drained, I feel honest. (None of this is to say that writing doesn’t get hard, or that I never feel impostor syndrome. I’m still working on that, too.)

All of the positive self-talk and changing my outlook and things I couldn’t take seriously but did anyway helped me get out of my way and be honest with myself. Now, I can move forward and *create an opportunity for myself* in these capacities. I don’t have to wait for someone to give a job—I know that something is destined for me, so I just have to move forward in some way and my truth will come to past.

Now that I’ve got a period of some breathing room (I quit my lit mag associate editor position to get some more time, and things with VONA have stabilized), I’m doing some research. I miss private equity, and I loved working with emerging managers (people starting their first or second fund, and most of them are Black, Latinx, and/or women) most, so I’m reaching out to my network to see how best I can serve the market. And I’m finishing the latest draft of my memoir in time for Juniper. Still a lot, but a different kind of a lot.

During my church’s Good Friday service—which is my favorite of the year, the one time when we happy-go-lucky-Christians get to mourn something—I felt something say, “You’re at the start of an upswing.” And I’m claiming that as my truth, too!

Sunday is coming, and so is wine

Easter is this Sunday, and you know what that means? Yes, that Jesus raised from the dead and such, but also that I can drink again soon!

Though I’m not Catholic and it’s not required of me (and am as Protestant as they come), some years I choose to participate in a Lenten sacrifice, for different reasons each time.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in early 2009, I was in a period of transition: I’d gone through a bad relationship, whose breakup lasted longer than the actual relationship, and was mired in anger; been laid off from my job; and gotten a new job in a new industry. I gave up alcohol for Lent because I had too much going on and wanted to give myself the unblocked mental space to get things in order. I wound up meeting my now-husband the week before Palm Sunday, and my job wound up leading me to business school. I’d say it all worked well.

This year, I went into giving up alcohol for Lent for the same reason—transition, reassessment of life, etc.—but this year, I was able to examine what’s important to me and the role the alcohol plays in my life.

I was fine for the first couple of weeks of March. I didn’t even really think about alcohol at all. But around the third week, I realized that I was super anxious. Even physically, my body felt different, almost constantly trembling.

Now, I am not alcoholic, and it’s not my intention to make light of those who struggle with addiction, so I wasn’t going through the tremens or anything like that. What I was going through was a heck of a lot of anxiety, and I was forced to admit to myself that it was there because I couldn’t use my usual coping mechanism: a glass of wine at the end of a long day.

Giving up alcohol for Lent was easier in my twenties because, while I had a lot going on, it wasn’t the magnitude of what I have going on now. Now, my career and I are ten years older, and trying to sort out our relationship. I’m married, and while happily so, marriage takes some work, even if it’s because someone else is sharing my space. My friendships have evolved in a lot of ways I wasn’t expecting. My writing leads me to think about things I hadn’t had to ponder, making me think about my life’s experiences as I experience them. On top of all this, my body is ten years older, and though I exercise kind of a lot (way more than I ever did in my twenties), my body responds differently to anxiety: it’s as if I feel it in my bones now, and that never happened before.

I realize the magnitude of importance of that glass of wine at night, mimosa at brunch, beer before my Sunday Afternoon Golf Nap, in taking the edge off a lot of the sharpness of my life. I told my therapist this, and he assured me that I don’t have a problem and that it’s okay to have a drink to take the edge off sometimes, as long as you’re not reliant upon it. And I think that’s my fear: that as life gets more dynamic and challenging, I’ll run out of ways to cope.

Yesterday, I avoided images on the internet of Notre Dame burning. But when I went to the gym, CNN was on in the locker room TV, so I couldn’t avoid it, really. For some reason, a sentence a friend told her three-year-old daughter came to me: “You can cry if it hurts, sweetie.” And so I did. I cried in the gym locker room about the burning of 850 years of history. And I was embarrassed as all get out, but I had to do something. I couldn’t drink about it.

This Lenten period has taught me that it’s okay to acknowledge my feelings, especially anxiety. Ignoring doesn’t make it go away, and saying it’s not there is lying. I’m encouraged by my faith: I am a Christian, therefore, I have prayer in addition to wine. And I remind myself that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle. I don’t understand why a lot of things happen, but they’re all working together for good, with a glass of wine or without.

 

#AWP2019 Recap and Vacation Scare

AWP 2019 was my third and busiest AWP. Don’t get me wrong—it was fantastic—but it was waaay different from my first AWP in DC and my second in Tampa.

If I had to choose a theme for my AWP, it would be “How do I suddenly know so many people?” I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to walk into the colossal, overwhelming bookfair and coincidentally run into people I’d met at workshops and conferences in the past year and before. I even ran into my good friend Lauren Harrison, who I haven’t seen a year and a half!

At dinner one night, Lauren said, “You remember when we had dinner at AWP in DC? I was only just thinking about MFA programs, and you were still in the first draft of your book, and now look at us!”

I’ve been a bit down on myself the past few months because I haven’t published anything due to my attention being pulled in other directions, but when she said this, I had to stop and think: at AWP 2017, I was still a writing novice, and had a headache for four days straight, so overwhelmed. I felt better at AWP 2018, but Lauren wasn’t able to make it due to some other commitments. But everything seemed to have come together in 2019: by then I’d done to so many prestigious workshops and felt so validated, and Lauren’s now getting her MFA at Indiana University. I was suddenly so proud of us both. Even my spouse noticed that I came out of this AWP more confident.

Some of that confidence came from—honestly—not going to that many panels. I either didn’t have time to go, or wanted to take the time to pace myself, so I only really sat through one panel, Crafting Narrative Identity with Unreliable Memories. I’ve been stuck on Chapter 5 of my memoir rewrite for four months for this very reason: I can’t remember a thing about one of my sisters, the one the chapter focuses on. The panelists offered some great explanations of why we can and can’t remember certain things, and some tips on how to tap into memory. But not going to panels kept me from comparing myself to more accomplished people. Funny how that works to boost confidence.

This AWP was a big night for VONA, when we announced the new board members, including myself, and the retirement of Elmaz Abinader, the longtime program director. The reading went so well, and Elmaz was beside herself with joy at everyone honoring her. The board had also had a long meeting that morning, so most of my Friday was delightfully consumed by VONA. When I told people that I was on the board, their heads exploded with delight and they congratulated me immensely, which I wasn’t expecting, but made me feel good, knowing that my work as a literary citizen is so highly respected.

Friday also included a generative Tin House Intensive Workshop, which I was thrilled to have been selected for. About ten of us worked with the great Melissa Febos, who walked us through some prompts and gave us some great writing tips and strategies. It was such an honor to be in the same room as some of the writers there, people I felt a bit intimidated by, but had to remind myself that I’d been chosen, too.

In conclusion, after three days of people selecting, congratulating, and being happy to see me, it’s no wonder why I felt so good. I know I shouldn’t depend on external validation, but man, does it help.

Quickly, post-AWP, my spouse and I spent another day or so in Portland, seeing friends, then drove out to the Hood River, where we spent a couple of days in a cabin in the woods and it was AMAZING. Then went attempted to drive the scenic route to Seattle, where we spent another day or so with friends, but our good friend Google didn’t tell us that the road wasn’t yet opened for the season.

So after attempting to drive through this, we turned around and used the interstate like normal Americans.

AWP is always an adventure, as is life with my spouse. This summer, I’m going to the Juniper Summer Writing Institute to work with Mitchell S. Jackson, which I am TRHILLED about, so I can’t wait to see who I’ll bump into at AWP 2020 as a result!