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.

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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.

Home, Stable Home

I didn’t post last week because I was up to my neck in boxes as my spouse and I moved into our condo!

It was a long week of unpacking, organizing, and de-pesting (UGH!), but everything is more or less in order. We still have a few weekend warrior things to accomplish, like hanging paintings and fixing the loose faucet on the kitchen sink, and this makes us feel more like it’s our home. Since it’s a condo, we both feel like we’ve just moved to another apartment, but it’s definitely different—this time, we painted the walls, which is a big freaking deal! (Okay, we didn’t paint them ourselves, we paid someone who knew what they were doing to do it for us because we’re not handy like that.)

As I arranged our books on the rustic built-in shelves in the living room, a thought crossed my mind: My father never owned a home.

I racked my brain, going through all of the houses I remembered my dad living in, and I couldn’t recall one that he’d actually bought. I called my brother Al, who has an elephant-like memory, to see if I might have missed something.

“Nope, you’re right,” Al said. “He never owned anything. Except for some cars.”

My dad loved his cars, especially the light peach Cadillac he drove for most of my growing up. It was always his dream to own a Caddie because it held a measure of status. Imagine how thrilled he was when his new theme song, “It’s My Cadillac (Got That Bass),” came out in 1992.

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But I was struck by the fact that my dad never owned a home. He went from house to house—never living in one for longer than three years—and from wife to wife—never staying married for longer than 10 years—never actually settling down. It made me sad for him because it reminded me that he never made anything of his life. I’m not saying that owning material things is the marker for well-being. But for my dad, it showed that he never cared to commit to building a life for anyone, not even himself.

The thing we love about cars is that they allow us to go one from point to another with minimal physical exertion. There’s so much freedom in hopping in a Cadillac and driving around winding country roads. But after a while, I wanted to go home, to sit down and rest a while in my own unmoving space.

Our condo means that I have jumped one more rung in the accomplishments ladder higher than my father ever did. Not just in the material sense of what home equity will do for my net worth (in the name of Jesus), but in the sense of stability, something that was always out of reach with my dad. Even if 2007 is repeated and DC’s housing bubble bursts (as it inevitably will), I will still have comfort knowing that I created a home for my spouse, my future children, and myself.

Be Grateful, You Are Enough

When I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville on Saturday, first, I rolled my eyes. I felt no element of surprise because, well, I’m Black and a woman, so I’m well acquainted with discrimination (I left a job because of it!). But, for some reason, a tiny sliver of me wanted to understand what the hell drives people to that level of hatred, in which they feel that their progress is threatened by the progress of others. I normally attribute it to “sin,” which is really anything that drives us to feel more important than new really are, but I’d never really taken the time to really think about it in almost 32 years, so I figured I’d take the moment to reflect.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a park for a family fun day with my in-laws. My BIL had set up cornhole in case the family wanted play, and he left the beanbags next to the wooden hole box things. A few little white boys whose family was also picnicking came by, picked up the beanbags, and started playing. They were no older than 5, so I figured their mother would tell them to put the beanbags down because they didn’t belong to them. Instead she laughed and said, “Did you ask to play with that?” The kids didn’t answer her, and she didn’t bother to ask again. My BIL smiled politely and told her it was fine for them to continue playing.

But it wasn’t fine. The beanbags weren’t theirs and they didn’t ask to play with them. There was no acknowledgement that they were infringing on someone else’s property and that they were not supposed to do that. Instead, they were allowed to do it by both their mother and my BIL, who understandably didn’t want to be a jerk to some little kids over something as trivial as beanbags. On the surface, it wasn’t a big deal, but it annoyed me so badly that I had to walk away and get myself another beer.

That moment showed me how clear the path is from playing with beanbags without asking as a 5-year-old, to marching in the streets to declare your unhappiness with your race’s seeming digression later in life.

It starts with entitlement. And when that entitlement comes into question, it automatically leads to feelings of inadequacy. When you’re used to getting your way and you suddenly can’t, of course you’d wonder what’s wrong with you. As we saw this weekend (and over the course of U.S. history), when entitlement and inadequacy collide, the result is a massive cloud of shit.

I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not enough. I constantly battle thoughts that I’m not a good enough writer and that’s why I haven’t published more; I wasn’t good enough at investment analysis and that’s why my bosses shat on my performance; I’m not a good enough family member and that’s why my loved ones don’t bother trying to understand me. I can understand how badly it feels when one feels like they’re not enough.

But I’ve never felt low enough to need to take to the streets to inform the world of how badly I feel about myself. That is a low that I pray I never reach (and, thanks to racial double standards, I would not be successfully able to do).

I assumed everyone gets told at some point that they have to find those feelings of adequacy within themselves, that they can’t look to external validation, including the words and actions of others, to make them feel like they are enough. And then I realized that no, not everyone gets told this. They get laughingly asked, “Did you ask if you could play with that?” with zero consequences.

If the world is going to change, we have to start with our kids. Tell them that they are enough no matter what happens, and that someone else’s success does not equal their failure. Tell them that they don’t deserve a damn thing but that which they work for. Tell them to be grateful for every breath they take.

In his NY Times column, David Brooks called for “modesty” as a way to tamp down white people’s anxiety. But modesty isn’t the right word; gratitude is. There is no room for inadequacy when gratitude is firmly in residence. Instead of expecting to receive what others have, be thankful for what you have, even if it’s nominally less than that of others.

Frankly, I feel that this is an impossible ask. The irony that America celebrates an autumn holiday called “Thanksgiving” is not lost on me. It highlights that our sense of gratitude has always been warped, that from our founding we thanked God for providing us food while subjugating the people who grew it.

I pray that a glimmer of hope will remain lit, that those of us who want peace won’t give up altogether. I’ll do what I can, by telling my kids to be grateful and by reaching out to my neighbor, giving no room for hate.

Relax, Relate, Release!

Relaxation.

Relaxing.

Relax.

These words do not come easily for me to say and are even more difficult for me to do. But I’ve actually managed to achieve them in the past two weeks, and I am proud of myself!

I never really gave myself time to recover from my traumatic work experience in New York. I took all of two days off just to clean up my apartment before I dove into writing my memoir (in which I re-lived my traumatic childhood). After a year, I was wiped out. Even my therapist said that I should take some time to relax.

The idea of relaxing has made me nervous since I was a little kid. When my mom told me to take time to relax, I inevitably wound up being bored, mostly because I associated relaxing with sleeping, which my mother did excessively because of depression. In my adult life, I sought to make my reality the exact opposite of what I grew up seeing, and part of that meant being really busy. In my early 20s, I worked two jobs, which amounted to regular 13-hour days. Despite said two jobs, I never had enough money to go on vacation. (I’d also not grown up taking family vacations since we couldn’t afford to, so it was par for the course.) My husband and I take a vacation together at least once a year, so that’s helped me learn to unwind, but only for that time. I didn’t feel that I deserved a break. Until I went through one trauma after another.

Now, with no employer-based full-time job and a self-mandated break from serious writing, I have allowed myself to sleep in, to read (follow me on Goodreads to see what), to treat myself to lunch at the museum café, to write fiction and drink a beer by the pool in the middle of the afternoon.

My mind feels smooth and clear, not lumpy and restless. My body doesn’t feel as tense. I feel better able to focus and more capable of figuring out what I want out of life. In a nutshell, I feel more confident.

I don’t believe in regrets, but if I did, I would regret not taking the time to recharge earlier in my career. Maybe that would have helped me make less fraught decisions. Now, I can use the energy that I’ve restored to charge into my next challenge, whatever that may be.

He Said, She Said, I Said: Point of View

Last week, I attempted an exercise I have not tried in years: I wrote a short story in the third person point of view.

Woopideedoo, you might be thinking while rolling your eyes and threatening to your browser. But hear me out.

When I started writing, when I was 12, all I could write was in the first person POV. Meaning, all of my stories were told from the perspective of the main character, who used “I” to refer to themselves. I read a lot of YA novels back then, and in the late 90s, almost all of the YA books (or at least the ones I read) were in the first person. I got the constant “I” experience: seeing the world the way someone else sees it.

As I started reading more adult literature in high school and college, I gravitated more toward those “I” stories, which were primarily stories about twentysomething women who lived in New York and worked in fashion and/or publishing (also known as “chicklit”). But when I read more literary fiction – the kind that’s considered good “art” as far as literature goes – I saw that it was primarily in the third person, probably because it’s mostly written by men who may or may not lack introspective insight. (Just sayin’.)

To me, the third person is the view that God takes of our lives. You see everything going on from the perspective of someone outside of the main characters. The narrator might home in on one particular character so you follow them around closely without being in the other characters’ heads, but the narrator still isn’t that person. There’s no “I,” only “he,” “she,” “they.”

During this time that I’m taking between writers’ conferences and moving, I decided to take up fiction again because I love fiction waaaaay more than memoir and essays. There’s just something about pretending to be someone else, going somewhere else in my mind. In the class I’m taking, we get two workshopping sessions for our writing. So I had to hurry up and write some fiction because I haven’t in forever. I decided to challenge myself: what if I wrote something that was semi-autobiographical, but told it in the third person, as that sort of God-like narrator who can see everything and everyone?

Reader, it turned out disastrous. The characters aren’t visibly clear to me, their dialogue feels forced, and the plot feels even more forced. (I have my workshop tonight, and I’m bracing myself for all of the comments I’m going to get.) In a word, I’m not happy with the way it turned out, and I could only keep asking myself, why I can’t seem to write outside of “I”?

I’m an observant person. I always have been. My eyes are big on purpose, I say: the better to see the whole bleeding world. When I tell my husband about something I saw on the Metro, I tell him what I saw, the way I saw it. Stepping outside of myself when telling a story is extremely difficult because I don’t know another way of seeing the world. I’ve never seen anything from God’s perspective, only my own, out of my very small, very judgmental lens.

The real reason why I wanted to try writing in the third person is because I write memoir and essays now: everything I write is about me, not “I.” When I write from the perspective of “I,” I don’t want readers to get confused. “I” isn’t always me; in fiction, it never is. See? Confusing already.

So, I decided that, since I’m having fun with this fiction class, I’m going back to write stories in first person. I’m setting aside this pseudo-fear of people getting my story and my stories confused. And this isn’t to say that I’m not going to challenge myself in the future; I totally will. I just want to have a good time, making things up, and the only way to do that is to tell “I” tell us what went down. Stay tuned for new fiction writing!