VONA/Voices: The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me

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VONA faculty members lay down wisdom in a panel discussion about writing.

Last week was one of the best of my life, I think.

I spent the week at the University of Pennsylvania in writing workshops at VONA, where I mingled and sat at the feet (figuratively) of some literary greats, including Junot Diaz. My instructor was Reyna Grande, a Mexican writer whose memoir The Distance Between Us detailed her own journey crossing the border and how it affected her family.

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My instructor, Reyna Grande, reading material from her new, not-yet-published memoir. #sneakpeek

My piece—the first 20ish pages of my memoir—was workshopped on Monday, the first day of the week, which was nerve-wracking. I also happened to go last, after two of my colleagues’ great work was discussed, which compounded my heart palpitations even more. The feedback I got was brutal, but good: the child narrative voice I use in the early chapters limits what the reader can see if there is no accompanying adult reflection; also, my book’s overall theme didn’t ring through the early pages. Reyna’s personality was a little hard to read, and that made the workshop more difficult because I couldn’t put a confident “but she doesn’t actually hate my work” on it until the end of the week, after we’d opened up to each other a bit more.

I had a one-on-one meeting with Reyna, and that was invaluable. I mean, her lectures contained MFA-level material and the other workshops were great, but the one-on-one meeting allowed me to talk out some of the kinks in my story. I told her the basics of my story (my dad was a minister who was married four times and abandoned me and my older brother in favor of my sisters, with whom he had an inappropriately close relationship), and we discussed a short piece I wrote for her class, a letter to one of my sisters who made me feel like I didn’t belong in a most vulnerable situation. And that was the key—belonging. I knew that was a theme of my book, but I didn’t know how important it was until I spoke with Reyna about it. Therefore, having that 20-minute conversation with her changed the course of my book, and made me think that, maybe, I’ve got more than one memoir in me.

Reyna also had us write about our first time doing something, first about the physical experience, then about the subtext/what really happened underneath that physical experience. I wrote about my first (and only) time on a water slide. My mom took me on it when I was about 4, and it didn’t go so well. It was my first near-drowning incident. I wasn’t happy with the way I’d written the assignment, though, so I didn’t share it in class, but thought about it more once I got home, back to DC. Only yesterday, during a long walk to relieve some muscle stiffness, did I realize that the story wasn’t about my mom letting me go and me nearly drowning. It was about her putting me in harm’s way and not apologizing. It was about my needing to forgive my mother for everything that happened with my father. I had never thought about that EVER in almost 32 years, with all my focus going to forgiving my father and sisters. But forgiving my mother is equally important, and I was finally able to do that in my heart yesterday.

People say that VONA is life-changing, but I sort of thought they were full of sh*t, or at least way more touchy-feely than I will ever be. But VONA did more for me when I got home than it did the week I was there, and that is incredible.

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Renowned poet Patricia Smith and students shaking us up with a heart-wrenching poem about children’s concept of death. #blacklivesmatter

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Happy Father’s Day, Jesus!

For today’s post, I will lead you to an essay I wrote and published on Medium. Please click to read! Father’s Day has always been a tough nugget for me, and, truth be told, the one holiday that’s passed since my father passed away in late 2015 was a little easier. We’ll see how I do this year.

But, on Sunday, I head to Philadelphia for the Voices of Our Nation summer writing workshop, about which I am THRILLED. If you don’t see a blog post from me next week, it’s because I’m overwhelmed and delighted by the goings-on of the workshop. Have a great week, and Happy Father’s Day, dads!

How I Survived My College Reunion

Sometime last year, after reading sensationalized, click-bait style essays on Thought Catalog and XOJane, I drafted my own, which I titled, “Going to Georgetown ruined my relationship with my family.” Which isn’t true.

This past weekend was my 10-year college reunion. Since I now live in DC, I took the bus or a Lyft to the tent parties held on campus to see people I hadn’t seen in that many years, or more. I was anxious to the point of abdominal bloating, which is really not helpful when you want to show off all the time you’ve spent holding minute-long planks over the past couple of years.

And those who know me even an iota know that I did not enjoy my time at Georgetown while I was there (the first or the second time). Undergrad was, by far, the hardest four years of my life, due to a bunch of factors, but mostly academic rigor that I wasn’t used to and socioeconomic weirdness.

The moment I stepped onto campus in August 2003, I knew that I was different from damn near everyone else there. I was poor. I was raised by my mom with little contact from my dad by the time I went to college. I would have to work while I was in school. I would not travel for spring break. I shopped at the Gap, not BCBG, and I only bought things on clearance because I couldn’t afford even sale prices. On top of that, I was Black.

The combination of everything I listed in the previous paragraph made me feel like the elephant in every single room I entered (though not physically: white girls still complimented me on how skinny I was, something that had been happening to me since eighth grade, and something that Black girls virtually never did or do). I was uncomfortable to a magnitude I didn’t know was possible for four years straight.

BUT.

I would do it all over again. Every single anxiety-ridden, self-questioning moment.

Why?

Because I was finally outside of my comfort zone, in a place where I had figure out who I was and where I wanted to belong because no one was there to tell me.

I was put off by the preppy lifestyle because I didn’t have the money to sustain it and it felt inauthentic, even in those who lived it every day of their lives. It seemed that most of them were hiding something; nothing crazy, most likely just dissatisfaction or unhappiness of some kind, neither of which I wanted. They were also not attracted to me, likely because we had so little in common.

I didn’t really fit in with many of the Black students in my class, either, though I’d been struggling with that since elementary school. In college, I was too conservative and not militant enough and had put my ‘hood roots safely behind me in my personal history book. Rather than aiming to be as “black” as possible, I decided to do and believe what felt right to me, and that definitely caused some friction.

I found that I fit in with the people I’d always fit in with: the misfits. The theater kids, the international students who were venturing to America for the first time, the Christians who drank and partied and loved Jesus with all their hearts, the girls who had never had boyfriends, the boys who were trying to figure out if they liked girls or not, the literary bunch, the Library kids.

But the kids I wasn’t friends with influenced me powerfully. From them, I learned about Earl Grey tea, the Parisian department store Printemps, art history, and how to become an investor. Obviously, these new things were the ones that stood out most when I went home to North Carolina. Asking for a cup of Twinings Earl Grey in a house that only has Lipton can be awkward, as with any growing pain.

Georgetown helped expand my world, literally when it afforded me the opportunity to study abroad in the UK, and figuratively. It made me aware that I am a global citizen, not just one of my city, state, and country. When I thought I was being quartered, I was really just being stretched so I could reach beyond boundaries of differences with empathy. I am who I am, and I am a better version of who I am, because of Georgetown, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

I was anxious that I would be seen as a Wall Street failure who got an MBA, but left the industry and had time to write a book since she’s kept by her corporate lawyer husband. But more than one of my classmates told me that I was “impressive” for having written a book. They said that they were proud that I was in their class, representing them well. I was blown away by their positivity and encouragement. I know I’m not supposed to need validation, but, hey, I’m a Millennial and I need a bone thrown sometimes. It made me feel good to know that I had done something that even I wasn’t sure I could do, and that my classmates respected me for it. I just hope not to let them, or more importantly, myself, down as my editing and publishing journey resumes.

 

There’s no place like home.

But, for the next two weeks, I’m on break. I’m letting my memoir breathe, as we writers say; that is, I’m allowing myself some mental distance from my manuscript so I’ll be able to edit it with a more objective eye. I’ll still be writing, but I’m going to catch up on reading and journaling, and try to do as much of nothing as I can. We’ll see about that.