What I’m Thankful For

Thanksgiving is on Thursday, so there’s no better time to contemplate the things we’re grateful for. Here’s my list. (Be sure to take some time out to thank your family and friends for supporting you and wishing you well this week!)

I’m thankful for Jesus, without whom I would be much more lost and anxious than I am.

I’m thankful for my mom, without whom I would have no life.

I’m thankful for Georgetown, without which I would have no spouse. Jk. I’m thankful for Georgetown because it proved to me that the world is larger than I ever thought it could be, then showed me that it was smaller than I thought it was.

I’m thankful for my spouse, who is loving and supportive, even when I’m not.

I’m thankful for my home, which has given me plenty of headaches in the past 3 months, but has made me feel comfortable.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the thing I always dreamed of doing, which is writing whatever I want as my job.

I’m thankful for nonfiction essays, which challenge me to think outside of myself and consider the world and people around me.

I’m thankful for Blaise Kearsley and Michele Filgate, who changed my life by encouraging me to submit my first essay and by teaching me to make them better, respectively.

I’m thankful for my family, who is letting me tell some of our business in a book.

I’m thankful for my friends, who entertain me and remind me of who I am when I doubt my abilities.

I’m thankful for Washington, DC, the city where I have felt the strongest sense of belonging since I first stepped on its ground at age 16.

I’m thankful for my terrible work experience in New York, without which I would not have the low tolerance for gaslighting and workplace bullying that I have now.

I’m thankful for my dad, without whom I would have no life and no stories of resilience and perseverance to tell.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Advertisements

That one time I thought about an MFA

If you know me well, the title of this post elicited a gasp and a subsequent jaw drop.

I have an MBA from Georgetown University and daily I consider going back into the business world full-time. Why on earth would I think about getting an MFA?

Basically, I need the feedback on my writing.

I’m still on the third round of edits of my memoir, and I’ve gotten to that place where I need more feedback than “Great dialogue!” and some clarification questions. I have a decent handle on the craft elements of creative writing, but I don’t feel that I have quite enough for how good I want to make my book.

If I wanted to self-publish, I probably wouldn’t think about it. If I wanted to write this in more of a self-help fashion about how to forgive and forget a delinquent parent, then I probably wouldn’t think about it.

But I want to write a damn good literary memoir and I need more support.

Hence, the thoughts of an MFA.

Now, I wouldn’t do it full-time because I don’t think I can handle another immersive academic experience as an adult. My MBA was rough sailing, not just because of quantitative classes and fellow type-A classmates, but because I was in a bubble again, sort of like college, but I had actual adult responsibilities, too, such as paying my rent and ensuring that I was going to land a job at the end of all of that madness. I’m also not interested in teaching, which some MFA programs let you do in lieu of paying tuition.

So, I’ve considered low-residency MFA programs. Usually in low-res programs, the students and faculty meet for a week or two a few times a year, and the rest of the learning is done online or, more likely, you’re working on your project at your own pace. My understanding is that low-res programs tend to be cheaper, and you still get the community of writers who are going to give what I call masters-level feedback on your work. So, that’s what attracted me: folks who are passionate about their projects and want to put more juice into them than the workshops one typically signs up for.

So, will I do it?

Probably not.

I’m still itching to get back to work, and my spouse and I might try to start a family next year, so there’s a lot of balls in the air. Introducing another ball would likely send the whole deal crashing down.

For now, I’m going to stick with my current online classes, give them my all, and take in all the feedback I can get. I’ll also be more focused on beefing up my community of writers here in DC. I should also reach out to the other amazing writers I’ve met through my previous classes (I don’t know why I haven’t done that yet!) I want this book finished strong, darn it!

New website!

Hello all! Pardon the short post today, since I’m just back from vacation, but I wanted to officially launch my new website! It’s very creatively addressed www.vonettayoung.com.

Many thanks to Michele Filgate, who encouraged her students to get a website and for giving me the idea for the layout. And thanks to Squarespace for making the page so easy to create.

Happy Tuesday!

Empathy is the worst

This has been a tough memoir week. I’ve been editing my book head-on and full-time for about two weeks, ignoring all other essays and works-in-progress that I’ve got going on. It’s October, and I want to be done with the third draft in a really short order, so I’ve plowing along like crazy.

Last week was really tough because I’d gotten back to the meat of the crazy of my story: all of my siblings living in the same house, my dad being really possessive, and feeling like my home was actually divided between two teams. It was hard to write out the memories a year ago, but this time, I’m reflecting on them, which is a lot worse.

Reflection means that I’ve had to look a certain circumstances—such as my father throwing my sister across the room—and analyze what I think was going on there—he wanted her to follow his rules because maybe he felt she was being ungrateful, or at least not as grateful as she should have been.

Reflection feels sort of like justifying crazy behavior, like what I just did in the previous paragraph. But it’s not condoning what happened, just trying to understand what the “what the hell” about it.

In this exercise, I’ve empathized with my half-sisters and their mother, who, as best I know, despise the fact that I exist. All of my life I wondered why they felt this way, and then I reflected on their character and was amazed at how it felt to put myself in their shoes (kinda like what I did here). It was exhausting, almost as if I was feeling too much at one time. But it made my sisters and their mother human to me, not just people who hate me.

I’ve made some semblance of sense of my mother, thinking about her upbringing and the responsibility she bore for her siblings, and what might have attracted her to my father. I’ve thought about my father and the catalysts of his insecurities, the things that drove him into the pulpit seeking the admiration of others. I’ve thought about how my brother was my only ally in my house growing up and that his moving away when I was 9 actually kinda hurt, but how he served as a bridge between me and the “other team” in our dad’s last days.

I don’t know if I’m right about any of these things, but it definitely feels better to try to understand rather than just feel like a victim to whom all of these things and people just happened to. It’s a way of playing a role in own my narrative because, as a child, there wasn’t anything I could do. Reflection has given me the agency that I didn’t have as an eight-year-old. And that is both empowering and, quite frankly, exhausting.

That being said, I’m off on vacation to the West Coast with my spouse for a couple of weeks, so you’ll likely get no post from me next week. Have a lovely fortnight!

All the Feels

Lately, my goal for my writing—especially my essay writing—is to achieve a high level of emotional resonance.

Emotions not focused on happiness/joy are tough for me sometimes. My default setting is to avoid them because that’s just how I was raised: don’t focus on the negative of the situation you’re in; survival requires focusing on the positive.

But being able to dive into dark places and then articulate those feelings are precisely what I should be able to do if I want to be a good memoir writer.

I read with envy pieces by Ashley C. Ford (especially this one), or this piece by T. Kira Madden. I thank God that nothing that traumatic has happened to me and that these women are survivors, but the point I’m making is that these women are just that good at their craft that they make me *feel* what they felt, even if it was just a sliver of their emotion.

This involves going into to really scary places in one’s mind and talking about really scary things.

For me, one of those scary places was my career. When I was treated poorly in my last job, I internalized some of those things and felt like a huge failure all the time, while I was in the job and after I left and started writing. Doing creative nonfiction classes at Sackett Street and Catapult with the same instructor, Michele Filgate, helped me break out of this a little. Michele told us to go where we were scared because that’s where the story is. (One of her own hard stories was recently published by Longreads, please read it!)

So, I wrote about some of the microaggressions I experienced in my job, how my bosses tried to make me feel like I was crazy when they were the ones doing the abusing. I didn’t know how to convey how I felt except to just be honest.

It took months and multiple workshops, but I finished the piece. It was published last week by Levo League, a career website targeting Millennial women.

I was blown away by the responses I got from my essay. Woman after woman commented on the post or sent me messages saying that they had been through similar situations. One even said she was wondering if she was crazy, questioning whether she was in an abusive environment or not, but my essay helped her confirm that she was.

With over 2,000 views, I am so overwhelmed and blessed that so many people have read my work and that it resonated with them.

This should be a lesson to me to keep going where it’s scary: the places where people need light and know that they are not alone.

Expressing my feelings doesn’t come easily to me, but I can see how it helps. It’s helped other people, and it has helped me regain my confidence in myself. I’m still finding my voice, still getting comfortable with the idea of going into these places where I don’t want to go because they don’t feel good. My craft needs for me to, and the good Lord is calling me to, to help people know that they are not alone.

My Goals for 32

I skipped writing a post last week because last Monday was my birthday, so I took the week off to think a little bit less about what I’m doing right now and a bit more about what I’d like to do in the near future.

For starters, I turned 32! That’s a huge deal for someone who knows their fair share of people who didn’t make it past 27. Not to be morbid, I just thank God for every day I get.

That being said, I’m a planner like nobody’s business. I like to figure out where I’m going before I get there, in addition to how and when I’m getting there.

I decided that, this year—my 33rd on the planet—I want to finish my memoir. No surprises there, you might be thinking, and you’re correct. I started my third round of edits, including rewriting the first chapter, last week, and that helped me see that I have a lot more to do. Editing isn’t just moving things around—it’s full-scale making what I have sound a lot more compelling. (No, I’m not embellishing anything, I’m just moving beyond the step of “get it all down,” and actually turning my memories into a cohesive narrative.)

I also decided that I’d like to go back to work full-time.

I know, I know.

If you’ve read enough of my work (including the essay that will soon be posted to Levo.com), you know that my career history has not been to my satisfaction, to say the least, especially my last job (#nightmare). I’ve been going to therapy to move past the abusive elements of that job, and writing has definitely made me feel more confident about going back into Corporate America. Writing has been a part of my life for my whole life (was just thinking today that it all started with Ghostwriter in 1992), and that will not change. But the part of me that needs to solve concrete problems and be around people also will not change, and I can’t ignore that part of me, either.

Last, since my spouse and I are in our early 30s and have been married for five years, we’re starting to figure out when we want to start having kids. (Ack, I’ve gotten to that place in my life that that’s a real conversation and real planning.) We’re not starting soon, but it’s definitely a more real possibility to us now than it was five, or even two, years ago.

So, I have a lot of goals: book (that’s well-written and compelling), job (that I enjoy doing because it’ll take me away from writing), and prepping for a kid. Looks like my Jesus year (next year) is going to be a busy one!

2nd draft done!

Last week, I completed the first round of edits of my memoir.

I did a very high-level edit, cutting out everything that didn’t have to do with the themes of me searching for belonging and stability.

I cut the book down by more than half.

208,230 words is now 99,960.

I have more work to do, obviously, but I can’t really move on.

Because I am exhausted.

Every time I read my manuscript, it’s like living my life over again.

Living 30 years in a week took a lot out of me.

I slept for hours this weekend, and even now I still feel tuckered just thinking about it.

I sent an essay to an editor of a literary magazine I really respect, and she asked me to flesh out some scenes of the relatively short piece. I agreed to do it, but then I wondered if I shouldn’t.

Because I am beat.

I realized that I took about a month-long break between finishing the first draft of my manuscript in May and attending my first summer workshop in June.

I feel like I’ll need a least a month of rest to get over this last set of edits.

Which is a problem, since I’d like to finish this book sooner rather than later.

On the bright side, I realized that I’d actually written multiple books in my first draft.

The first has the themes of stability/belonging, like I mentioned earlier. The second is about all of the romantic love I sought and was denied. The third is about my faith journey because it doesn’t make a ton of sense that I’m still a Christian in light of the events of the first book.

But those are different narratives for different times.

Right now, I’m just trying to shore up my focus to finish the first one.

If I can ever get enough rest to move on.

A Special Anniversary, Part II

Happy bloggingversary to me! I started this blog one year ago today to build my author platform and keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I wrote my memoir. I called it “Tales of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. I realize that I should rename it “Diary of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I’ve gotten way more personal here than I ever expected to. Thank you to everyone who’s read me here and supported my work elsewhere online. I hope to have many more things to say as I continue editing my book!

I called my first post last year “A Special Anniversary,” since it was one year after my father passed away. I wrote a positive reflection on some of the laughs we shared, in truth, because I couldn’t think of any other reflection. (I took the post down when my awesome Gotham memoir instructor, Blaise Kearsely, encouraged me to submit it, and it was published on Thought Catalog, my first published piece!) I couldn’t write a moving tribute because I felt sort of numb about his being dead. I felt bad about it, feeling like I should be broken up thinking about my father being no longer with us.

Well, unfortunately, I still feel that way. I still feel largely nothing about my dad being gone.

I wish I could say, upon typing previous sentence, I felt a well up in my chest and tears misted at my eyes. But, nope.

I say this in contrast to, for example, when I think about my friend Jessica. When she died three days after my wedding, I could hardly get out of bed. Five years later, I still can’t quite talk about her without crying at some point, as my therapist learned a few weeks ago.

But nothing ever happens in me when I think about the fact that my father is in eternity.

I feel less bad about feeling this way now. After writing down my whole life story, I don’t feel guilty about not feeling bad because I see the parts in my life when my connection to my father fissured and fissured until there was nothing left. I wondered if the exercise of writing a memoir would make me feel closer to him, but it didn’t; in a way, it made me feel more distant because I was reminded of all of the terrible things he did.

But one thing I feel differently about after writing this book? I feel a bout of empathy—oddly enough—for my father’s first wife and his kids from his first marriage. Once I put myself in their shoes, I could clearly see that it would suck for my husband (even if I didn’t treat him well) to conceive a child with someone else before we were even divorced. It would super suck for my dad to move out of our house to live with someone he had a child with. I see how that is really awful, and I hate that it ever happened to them. But my empathy ends at the point of holding onto a grudge not worth clinging to. Even when I put myself in their shoes, I always come to the conclusion that I would have had to get over all of it at some point, and recognize that the child didn’t ask to be born, and not hold any animosity toward her. But that’s just me.

I am blessed that my life has chugged along over the past two years. I’ve had some weird challenges, like my job going south and having to re-adjust to a changing city, but overall, I’ve still had the good end of the bargain. I’m just going to be grateful for every breath, tell my story, and march on, continuing to accept myself and my flaws for all that I am, even when my feelings aren’t what I think they should be.

Thank God for Well-Read Black Girls

This past Saturday, I took an early train to NYC for the Well-Read Black Girl Writers’ Conference and Festival. How was it, you ask?

AMAZING.

I missed the conference portion of the day in which one could go through some generative exercises and meet with agents, but I was there for the festival bit, which had all the panels. There were just so many highlights of the day! Here’s a list, in no particular order (except for the order of events because I’m a spazz like that):

  • Opening remarks from Naomi Jackson, whose debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, was the first novel I read in 2017. I liked it, but I more so found myself jealous of Jackson’s talent (of course). But seeing her speak reminded me that she’s not some god, she’s a person—a Black woman like me. Sure, she has an MFA and lots of education and experience with craft, but at the end of the day, she told a story, and guess who can do that, too? MOI.

  • The fireside chat between Rebecca Carroll and novelist Tayari Jones was incredible, mostly because the women had such great chemistry and Tayari is hilarious! (For example, growing up in Atlanta, she was surrounded by Black people, thought HBCUs were the only types of universities, and was surprised to find out that white people also go to college. GOLD!) It was great to hear a literary storyteller who was so down-to-earth and reachable, for lack of a better term. Usually, when you think literary authors, you think Toni Morrison—again, a god-like creature whose talent I will never possess. But then you see people like Tayari who are also talented and also so real, and it makes you okay with being you.

  • The writing as self-care panel—OH! All I could think during this panel (in which 5 writers talked about their writing processes, their ways of keeping sane and healthy) was “MY TWITTER IDOLS ARE REAL PEOPLE!” and “I feel so nourished right now.” It was so inspiring to hear Black women talk about how they take care of their souls because so few of us do. I was most moved to action by their reminders to keep negativity out of your mind by watching out much social media exposure you have; admittedly, it’s difficult because social media plays such a huge role in building a platform these days, but they were right: it’s easy to go nuts looking at everything everyone says out there, and you have to take care of yourself in that regard just as well. Afterwards, I got to meet Jenn Baker and Ashley C. Ford, two prolific writers who bring me joy as I follow them on the Twitter!

  • The last panel, Writing as Political Resistance (shown in featured photo), was also moving because when you’re a Black woman and you write your ABCs, you are resisting. I felt so encouraged as the panelists told us that our stories mattered and that they should be heard. I felt so confident!
  • Speaking of confidence, I had a chuckle to myself because I was one of the few women with relaxed hair at this conference and that took me by surprise. I don’t know why: I would venture to say that most Black women artists wear their hair natural to be true to themselves. At first I wondered if people would look at me funny since my hair is still straight, but then I quickly corrected myself: no one gives a flip what my hair looks like, and if they do, they’re probably not a writer because Black women writers have entirely too much to think about to ponder someone else’s hair. So, yeah.
  • Seeing great women writers who I hadn’t seen in the longest time, including Obehi Janice, with whom I went to Georgetown, and Kristen Jeffers, with whom I shared a DC co-working space, but hadn’t actually met until this weekend. Small world.
  • I met some great women readers and writers, and got exposed to authors I didn’t know before. For someone to have my English degree and my vocabulary, I haven’t actually read all that many books, especially by Black women writers, unfortunately. So I bought a bunch at the expo (ack!) and wrote down a whole bunch more. I have a lot of catching up to do.

So, I had a spectacular weekend being encouraged to know that I’m doing the right thing with my life right now. It is clear to me that people need to hear my stories. My voice needs to be heard. God is using me and my words to bless people and help them become who he’s called them to be. I’m accomplishing my mission and purpose, and, God, it feels good. Many, many thanks to Well-Read Black Girl for the encouraging and inspiring day!

The State of My Tribe

I wasn’t going to do a blog post on this because it’s a pretty sensitive topic for me, but as a memoir and personal essay writer, isn’t everything I write sensitive?

This weekend, my spouse and I went to North Carolina to visit my family since we hadn’t been home all year, not since Thanksgiving last year.

On Saturday, we went with my mom to Cherokee, up in the mountains in western NC. I’d never been to the mountains, even though I grew up in NC. We went to the Cherokee museum and took in all this history about the various Native American (although everyone there said, “Indian,” and I was like, How much of a liberal bubble do I live in that I’m uncomfortable with people saying “Indian” instead of “Native American”?) tribes. My mom was disgusted at how the white people came and “civilized” the tribes: “They weren’t civil before the white people got here?” She said. “They were just barbarians?”

Then went to Harrah’s, the casino up the road, and won no money. I swear, no one was winning at all. Just a bunch of elderly people smoking cigarettes in their Hover-Rounds with oxygen tanks attached, pulling at the one-armed men. So, more depressing than the Cherokee museum. We lost $15 and didn’t even get free drinks.

Otherwise, our trip was fine. Everyone in my family is doing okay in their own way, but all in ways that make me worry.

My mom is pursuing another master’s degree (she already has a law degree; yes, a law degree). When I asked her if the student loans she’d have to take out would be worth it for the income boost she’d get as a result, she said, “It should. Otherwise I’ll just pay them off til I die like everybody else.” Oy. Mommy has also started a home church with a guy from work. She wanted me to meet the guy, so I did. I know she wanted me to like him, but I didn’t. I found him a self-important pseudo-intellectual who enjoyed hearing himself talk, but I was polite and kept my face off my sleeve, so to speak, as best I could.

Otherwise in my relative group, my sister is getting divorced, and I feel terrible for her and her children since all I’ve ever wanted for them is stability, and my brother has cancer, but is in great spirits.

My life isn’t perfect, but it’s good: I’m physically healthy, all of my bills are paid, my marriage is strong, my prayer life is improving. On the whole, I’m doing pretty well. I want my family to do well, too, and thinking about this, I cried on the plane back to DC last night.

I’ve always been a little different from my family members, which my mom and sister will readily admit. “She was a strange child,” my sister told my spouse at breakfast on Sunday. But these differences are starting to break my heart a bit. While I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made over the past 15 years to get me where I am today, I do wish I were closer to my tribe.

God has funny ways of working things out. He’s allowed us all to be where we are right now for some reason or another. I know my tribe will be fine, but for now, I’m praying for all of us.