I Wanna Go Deeper

This weekend, I submitted an essay to be included—if selected—in an anthology about the role of writers in our current political environment. And then I tossed and turned all night in between nightmares about spelling and formatting errors. Suffice it to say, I was a little anxious about submitting my work.

The normal thing to say here is that I was nervous about my work being judged or that I wouldn’t win the contest, so to speak. But, if there’s anything you’ve learned about me over the past few months, dear reader, is that I’m not *that* normal. I was anxious because I knew in my writer’s brain that the authors of the chosen essays went into the cavernous pits of their subjects and that I had not gone deep enough.

I’d asked for feedback on my essay from one of my memoir instructors at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York (and I cannot thank this instructor enough for taking the time to give me feedback, and while she had been sick, to boot!). One of her suggestions was to tie my personal story with the universal theme of the essay more closely. I’d upended the entire draft, accomplishing to the best of my ability what she’d explained, and I’d felt great about it…for about 12 hours, and many of those were spent sleeping.

As I re-read my work, I could feel my author self floating on the surface of the topic. I’d chosen to write about the trauma of one of my best friends dying, so I attribute some of the shallowness to that; I don’t particularly like re-living hurtful events, so my mind must have gone into a protective stance to allow me some distance as I discussed the trauma in writing. (I’m not going into detail about the piece because I just submitted it and don’t want to give anything away to the editor in a Google search.)

“Come on, Vonetta, you can go deeper,” I told—no, scolded—myself.

Why couldn’t I delve further into events that are eternally burned on my brain? Why couldn’t I remember some of the things my friend said to me that would have broadened the essay to a truly universal point? What was I afraid of?

I searched my mind for answers. It told me: The topic is painful and I don’t want to do that right now, and also, I feel inadequate. Do I really have the talent—yes, talent is necessary to join in matrimony personal and universal truths—to participate in this? Nope.

So, friends, that’s where I am today, sitting in front of my laptop, trying to prove my Imposter Syndrome wrong.

Today, I’m going to read to give my writer’s brain a little break. Reading other people’s work gives me perspective on my own. This is not to say that I compare my work to other people’s; reading boosts my sense of empathy. It allows me to put myself in other people’s shoes, which, in turn, allows me to better understand myself.

Right now, I’m reading Donna Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl, a memoir about a girl who travels with a tent revival group in the 1960s. My life is pretty different from Johnson’s (aside from all the Jesus; I had a lot of Jesus growing up), but reading her story is helping me identify some of my deepest unknown desires, such as recognition by parishioners for being the child of a pastor and the power that that position holds.

See—I’m making progress already. Take that, Imposter Syndrome.

AWP17 Recap: Writing Tips, Crisis Catalyst

Two weeks ago, I attended my ever first writers’ conference!

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair is a huge affair, with 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and agents descending upon a city to talk art and the business of art. There are easily 25 panels going on during each time slot from 9am to 5pm, AND THEN there are after-hours events, where the magic (of networking) happens.

I went to soooo many panels, and they were pretty helpful overall. Here’s some tips that I picked up that I found immeasurably beneficial:

  • “Memoir isn’t about what happened; it’s about what the f*ck happened,” said novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, quoting a teacher she’d once heard. That is to say, memoir isn’t just about what happened to you, it’s an examination of the impact on what happened to you, and what was going on in the world. That’s part of what makes memoir universal: the common bits beneath the extraordinary story of each individual.
  • Think about jazz as you balance scene and reflection, suggested memoirist Marie Mockett. There’s a certain momentum created in the reader similar to that which a jazz band creates in its listeners, and music listeners know when the solo should end. Try to avoid getting the reader to the point of “Could the drummer please just stop already for the love of God???” by modulating reflection with scene and vice versa.
  • Don’t worry about how you will end your memoir since you’re not dead (and I hope you’re not if you’re reading this). Ask yourself, “What is the ending for now?” You could feel the crowd ease in their chairs when Mockett said, “Remember that a book is a made thing. It’s not actually you, it’s a composition, and you are in charge of that composition.”
  • Avoid revealing too much about minor characters in your memoir, and keep the focus on places rather than people. This will keep the real people in your life from being insulted (if they would be) by the way they’re portrayed in your story.
  • The voice of innocence relays facts; the voice of experience explains and deepens those facts with metaphor and spirituality. The voice of innocence isn’t necessarily your kid voice; it’s the voice you use at the point at which something is happening to you. The voice of experience comes in at any point after that thing has happened and interprets what the events mean in the grand scheme of things.

See? So helpful, and that was just the tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg.

After three days of conference action, I was exhausted, not just physically, but mentally, too. Looking around at the other conference attendees, I felt kinda small.

So many people who attend AWP have MFAs from prestigious universities and/or are critically-acclaimed published authors, like Shapiro and Mockett. I only just started writing a memoir 7 months ago after leaving a job in finance, an industry that couldn’t be more opposite to the literary world — how was I qualified to sit at the same table as respected authors? I felt like an imposter. Sure, I’ve been writing since I was 12, but I’ve also always loved business. I’ve loved concreteness, disambiguity, and seeing things as black-and-white, not grey, since I was a little girl. In one session, one of the panelists said that she lives in the grey because “the story is found in the ambiguity,” and, I swear, my skin crawled. I felt that I did not belong in this crowd.

I shared my feelings with my poet friend who was in town for the conference and my husband, and both of them said I was being ridiculous. Everyone has the right to write, they said.

Giving myself a good talking to, I remembered that I have a story to tell and I’m telling it, and that is perfectly acceptable. I’m trying my best to tell my story well; I want to be good at whatever I do, of course. I just have to be confident. There’s no room for feeling unworthy when you’re trying to tell others that they are. I just have to keep on trucking until I finish telling all the stories I have to tell.

Valentine’s Day: My Tribute to Nana

Happy Valentine’s Day, all! I absolutely adore Valentine’s Day, primarily because it’s one of only two holidays that begin with the letter V and, as a kid, I had an uncontrollable love of chocolate and could satisfy it so easily on this day.

Valentine’s Day became more special for me when I was a senior in college, back in 2007. I woke up to find my college campus shimmering with a foot of snow. Excited at the prospect of a snow day curled up in bed with a book (for pleasure!) and a hot toddy, I turned on my cellphone to call the college weather hotline. I had a habit of turning my phone off at night to charge it, uninterrupted. It took its time turning on, and while it did, I decided that, in addition to reading with a hot toddy, I would have brunch with my friends in the cafeteria and invite the guy that I was sort of interested in back to my room to hang out for just a little while longer. It was going to be the best day ever, and it happened to be Valentine’s Day: the ultimate excuse to indulge oneself in chocolate and wine.

Immediately after my phone came to life, it notified me that I had a new voicemail. I listened to it right away, sensing that something must have been wrong if someone had called me between the hours of 3am and 8am.

It was my mom.

“Vonetta, it’s your mom,” she always said, as if I couldn’t recognize her voice after more than 21 years of being her child. “Call me as soon as you get this message.”

Part of me was afraid to call her; what if she had terrible news? On the other hand, I thought, what if she had really good news. Like, what if she’d just won the lottery and I no longer had $25,000 in student loan debt with no job prospects?

Barely fully conscious, I called her back.

“Hi, Vonetta,” she said, lacking the joy that belonged in her voice. After a hard childhood and two failed marriages, my mother was a survivor, and she carried that triumph with her always, even in her shy voice that she insisted was incapable of projecting.

“Hey, Mommy, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to let you know that your Nana passed away.” She’d delivered the message about my grandmother as gently as she could.

I blinked for a second as my brain pushed sleep out of its way so that it could register her words.

“No!” I said as soon as the word “Nana” hit my grey matter. “No, no, no!” I screamed and cried instantly, like someone had flipped a switch on the back of my neck that made me make sounds.

“I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry.” Mommy’s voice was calm, calmer than it should have been given that her mother—the only biological parent she’d ever known—had just entered eternity.

I told Mommy that I would call her back. I told my roommate what had happened, and she gave me genuine condolences in her Korean-accented English.

What I’d thought would be the best Valentine’s Day ever turned into the worst. I spent the day in bed, not reading, but crying. I saw my friends at bible study that night, and I was afraid to tell them what had happened, for fear of spoiling all the fun they’d had on their snow day. I didn’t have any chocolate, denying myself just to make sure I wouldn’t take things overboard. The next day, I had a phone interview for a job; I completely botched it, unable to make myself sound enthusiastic about anything in life, much less a potential career in finance as an English major. I remained depressed and grieving for several months. From that day forward, I have not turned off my phone at night, more willing for my sleep to be interrupted than to be rattled in the morning.

By graduation that May, my good spirits had returned as, with therapy and talking to my family somewhat frequently, I remembered that my grandmother had lived a full life. She died instantly of congestive heart failure at the age of 77. She didn’t suffer in pain for months or years. She didn’t die young. She’d had seven children and multiple grand- and even great-grandchildren who she’d lived to see and hug.

Nana represented the ultimate in love. She sacrificed a potential career to raise her children and help my grandfather sustain their family. She babysat my sister, me, and my cousins for years without pay. Although she spoke her mind when she was in the right mood, she was kind and giving. She loved the nuns at our Catholic school and always went out of her way to say, “Hi, sister,” to them if she passed them on the street. Nana idealized sacrificial love in a way that, perhaps, only those nuns, who sit at the foot of the cross for a good bit of the day, understood, and that’s why she felt a kinship with them.

For years, Valentine’s Day for me was about which boy didn’t like me and who I wouldn’t be receiving a valentine from. From that fateful Valentine’s Day ten years ago, it became about Nana and all of the love she showed me. I can only hope to emulate a sliver of it for the rest of my days.