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

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.

Writing Wins (!)

This was a rare whirlwind of wins for me this week, and I just wanted to celebrate!

Memoir: I started editing my book!

If you might recall, several weeks ago, I met with a few literary agents who expressed interest in my memoir. One of them wanted me to send the first 20 pages of my manuscript and a synopsis. Well, this week I busted out a 600-word synopsis (for which I am now seeking feedback) and started macro-editing the first 20 pages. I used the book The Artful Edit by Susan Bell to get me started, and it has been so helpful, mostly in getting me to ensure that every sentence I include in my book is there on purpose.

Publishing: I was published in The Billfold!

I am in my second class with the delightful Michele Filgate, who I took for Creative Nonfiction online at Sackett Street and now freelancing at Catapult. When I submitted an essay to my class about my quest for financial security is in conflict with my life as a writer, Michele suggested that I pitch it to The Billfold. I did, thinking I wouldn’t even get a response, but I did, and my essay ran this past Friday! It’s gotten 66 recommends (!!!) and so many positive comments, I am really overwhelmed by how well-received it’s been! I mean, I guess the way I feel about people reading my work is a blogpost or essay in itself, but it is just crazy – I am so touched at the number of people who have said I’ve touched them!

Conference: I was accepted to the VQR Writers’ Conference!

Since my friend Lauren told me about summer writing workshops, I wanted to get my feet as wet as I could. Praise the Lord, I was accepted to VONA, which I was toppled over by, and then I was accepted to VQR on top of that, so I’m just outdone. Of course I’m looking forward to the instruction and networking, I’m honored that I was chosen to take part in these programs. I know they both get a lot of applicants, so it means the world to me that they thought I was worthy to be among them.

Talk about a winning week! I feel super boosted as a writer, and it has come at the right time: I’m approaching the 1-year mark of having resigned from my job in NYC, so I’m glad I’ve had some successes to make me question myself and my decision ever so slightly less. 🙂

Who the Hell Am I, Again?

I finished the first draft of my memoir just in time for my 5th wedding anniversary last week. To celebrate the latter occasion, my spouse and I headed out to Newport, RI, to get our Coastal New England on.

Rhode Island happens to be where my memoir opens. My father moved to Providence not long after I was born to go to Bible college and to work at Brown University. My mother moved me and my half-sister Kimi there in the summer of 1988, and my parents were married there. Since I was only about 3 years old at the time, I don’t remember *that* much about Rhode Island, just a few details about the house we lived in, and my parents’ wedding. We only lived there for about a year before moving back to Camden, NJ, then to North Carolina.

While we were in Newport, I called my aunt Rose (my father’s sister). She was delighted to hear that my marriage had lasted 5 years so far and was happy that I was on vacation near my father’s old stomping grounds. She said that the Young family was having reunion soon, but she wasn’t planning to go. I asked why.

She said, “I always feel a little weird going to Young events since we’re not really Youngs.”

Huh?

“Yeah, we’re not really Youngs. My mother was adopted. She was a Townsley and a Mathis. Her mother married a Young, so she became Young.”

Dear readers, I will be 32 years old in October, and I had no idea that my father’s last name wasn’t actually connected to a blood relative.

I felt two things: (1) I decided that I should probably go sit down with my Aunt Rose and write all this stuff down since Lord knows what else I don’t know, and (2) I realized that people would think it utter nonsense that I kept my last name after I got married when I’m not actually related to the family whose name I possess.

On point 1, I will definitely have to do that because it’s surely a bunch of interesting stories. On point 2, I didn’t keep my name because I felt some great affinity for my father’s family; I kept my name because I like my name and it’s who I am. The fact that my name isn’t really connected to anything but me is empowering. It makes me feel like I’m an island, creating my own family from scratch the way I want it to be, not tied down to meaningless traditions.

Aunt Rose continued that she’d spoken a while back with her brother/my uncle, who has requested that she not tell anyone where he lives or to give them his contact information.

“That’s too much,” Aunt Rose said. “Sometimes you have to let people be and love them just by praying for them.”

I agreed. I also realized that I’m not the only island. Apparently, I belong to a family of islands, a bunch of folks floating around out there on their own, creating their own destinies. We are an archipelago.

When I told my mom about it, she said, “I don’t know what anyone did to him to make him not want to be a part of the family.”

“Me, either,” I said, but I could definitely understand.

Sometimes, when you don’t feel understood, it hurts. And it’s best to keep your distance. Blood or a name is what keeps you in common, but that doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to keep the bonds, especially if they wear you down.

For now, I am happy to know that I’m a little floater, doing my own thing, out here on my own. Because I’m not actually alone. I belong to an unbreakable archipelago.

FIRST DRAFT DONE!!!

The first draft of my memoir is done!!!!

I wrote the last word on Friday, May 12, 2017 at 11:10am.

Final word count? 208,230 words. 595 pages.

So, I have quite a bit of editing in my immediate future.

While it feels amazing to have gotten the first draft out of the way, it’s a little surreal: I spent 10 months (well, nine, really since I lost about a month to the NYC to DC move and related planning/packing/unpacking) writing the story of my existence, from my earliest memory until just after my 30th birthday. I have a record of my whole life, basically, and that is just wild, if you think about it.

This is a bratty thing to say, but completing this first draft doesn’t feel like quite the accomplishment that it should be. Probably because I’ve written first drafts of books before, in middle school, high school, and college. None of those novels were anywhere near as long as this memoir draft, and I did not devote all of my time to them the way I did this book.

So I have to remind myself that this project has been special for a number of reasons: it commemorates my father’s life, the person that I became because of him, and people in my life who helped me become a better person in his absence. It is also the first book that I’m serious about, and will actually edit and query agents. (I went through the querying process with my college novel. I sent 10 letters, received 9 rejections, then gave up.)

My next step? To let this sucker breathe and to not think about it for a while.

I’m going to VONA Voices in June, so by then, I think I will be ready to tackle the Everest that editing this book will be. My plan is to whittle the 200k+ pages down to roughly 85k.

Yes, I plan to remove approximately 123,230 words—well more than half the book—that I spent almost a year getting down on paper. Writing is a tough business. Dems da breaks.

I’m not sure what’s next for me after my memoir. Editing will take several months and will be just as time-consuming as writing because editing is writing, but then I have to figure out what I’ll do afterwards. More writing? Go back to the corporate world? I have no idea. Let’s see what happens!

But for now, I rejoice and I edit.

Stop & Smell the Grapes

This past weekend, I went to San Francisco visit my friend LT, who is moving to Asia for a really cool job at a start-up. As a result, this blog post has nothing to do with writing, only wine.

We drove up to Sonoma and went did tastings at two wineries, Copain and Porter Creek. While I loved Porter Creek, the tasting at Copain was incredible, mostly because of the view:

But the chickens at Porter Creek were a hoot!

I bought entirely too many bottles of wine, but it was well worth it. It was sort of a pre-celebration: by the time you read my next blog post, I will have completed the first draft of my memoir. If that doesn’t call for wine, I don’t know what does!

Pitching to Agents: the Most Nerve-Wracking Exercise of My Writing Life

This past Saturday, I attended Books Alive!, the Washington Independent Review of Books writers conference held annually in the DC area. While there are panels and talks like every conference, the thing about this conference that attracts so many attendees, I think, is the chance to pitch your book to agents. I met with four of them: by far the most nerve-wracking exercise of my writing life.

I’ve been working on my book pitch for months, since before AWP in February, but I was still really nervous. What if I left something out? Or worse, what if I forgot my lines? Or even worst, what if they interrupted me with a question about my book that I didn’t know the answer to?

All of the agents would be sitting at desks in the room, and it would be very similar to speed dating, not unlike what I’d done with editors at the Barrelhouse conference the week prior. We got six minutes with the agents to deliver our pitch, ask any questions we might have, and to basically see if we hit it off or not.

As I entered the room for the first time, my heart nearly blasted out of my chest.

I sat in front of my first agent, a girl who seemed about my age, maybe even younger, actually. She introduced herself to me, then asked what I was writing. I said, “Should I just jump into my pitch?” My hands were shaking. She said, “Sure.” And I did. I delivered my pitch! I didn’t forget my lines! I didn’t choke!

“You did great!” She said.

“I feel so much better,” I said, audibly exhaling.

Then she said my story sounded interesting and she asked me to send her my first 20 pages and a synopsis! It’s a big deal for an agent to ask to read pages; they can decide later if they’re not interested, but their request for pages shows initial interest.

WOO-HOO!

My second meeting went well enough. The agent was nice, but she doesn’t really represent memoir unless the author is a celebrity or has a really extensive platform. Same for my third meeting.

But the fourth one requested pages, too! She was really conversational, and after I’d given my pitch three times, I was nowhere near as nervous, so I imagine that helped.

So, two out of four agents requested pages. 50% is not bad at all!

My next step is to edit the beginning of my book to make sure it’s a real hook/line/sinker. Progress! 😀

Speed Dating with Editors: My First Time

I attended Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections writer’s conference this past weekend, and I found it immensely helpful. The panels and keynote readers were amazing, but the thing that drew me to this conference was the chance to do Speed Dating with Editors from literary magazines across the country. Since I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I’d never met any editors about my work, so I was both nervous and excited, and I had no idea what to expect.

Since we only got 10 minutes with each editor, I brought a piece that was very short (less than 400 words), so they could read really snappily. This short piece was sort of experimental: all dialogue, recalling a conversation that I repeatedly had with my mother in which she would tell me to call my father, and then a short convo with him.

I chose to do the piece exclusively in dialogue because the setting and gestures were not important to those conversations. It was more to display how the pain of fatherlessness played out in my life on a day-to-day basis, which was through my mother unintentionally constantly reminding me of the fact that I was not close to my father. The conversations with my dad were always short because, while he was friendly, he never showed the appropriate amount of interest in my life, so it hurt to talk to him.

Even without narrative or real prose, these ideas come across clearly in the dialogue. But I know that a flash non-fiction piece made up of just dialogue is very different from what is typically seen in the industry these days, so I was excited to hear what the editors had to say about it.

The first person I met, a man, did not get it at all. He told me that there was no story in my piece, that just because people are talking didn’t mean that anything was happening, and if I’d watched this in a movie, it would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? He said that I needed more drama—the father missing the graduation would be much more interesting. This editor failed to give me any concrete advice, so I have no idea what he would have wanted me to do to make it better. In truth, it felt like working for one of my old bosses again. It really sucked for that to have been my first meeting with an editor. But I shook his words off, got Peruvian chicken for lunch, then met with my next person.

The second person, a woman, actually laughed out loud at the funny part of the story! I was thrilled! Then she said she really liked it! She gave me great suggestions, such as changing the title to something more emotionally evocative and to add, not narrative, but a meditation at the end that sounded almost like rhythmic poetry. Then she told me to send it to her when her magazine’s submission period re-opens! (EEEEkkkk!!!) I made those changes today, and I can tell you that I feel so much more confident about the piece. I pray that her journal takes it because it would be amazing to be published in it.

The third person, also a man, didn’t laugh out loud, but liked the risk of an all-dialogue piece and suggested that I make the piece even longer or more experimental. He didn’t embrace it with open arms, but he still seemed more accepting than the first guy, and that was really all that mattered.

I was seeking some level of validation by meeting with three editors, and I think I got what I was looking for. Reiterating, meeting with that first editor was absolutely awful and was so reflective of my work experience that I really wanted to give up, right then and there. But thank God other people understood me and my work, and proved that I and my work matter. I’m holding on to that feeling tight because I’ve got my first meetings with real literary agents about my book on Saturday, and I cannot wait.

Sociological Pickles of the Talented Tenth: House Hunting Edition

Backstory: my spouse and I both obtained bachelor’s degrees from Georgetown; I have an MBA from the same school, and my spouse has a law degree from Howard. When we lived and worked in NYC, we were basically in the 2% of income earners in the country (but NOT NYC because, well, billionaires). Essentially, we are blessed to say that we started from the bottom, now we’re here.

Pickle #1: One pondering that has particularly bugged me is, “Is it still gentrification if the people moving into the neighborhood are affluent Blacks?” My spouse and I debated this and ultimately concluded that the answer is both yes and no; yes, if your base assumption is class, and no, if your base assumption is race. As much as I enjoy buying chia pudding from Whole Foods, I don’t really see the ‘hood as “inferior in quality or value,” and my spouse and I tend to blend in pretty well on the surface in these neighborhoods, despite my Tory Burch flats and Longchamp bag.

Pickle #2: Basically, we have the choice of living in a lower-income area, like we did in NYC, or a higher-income one. Living in a lower-income area allows us to be 3-D models of DuBois’ Talented Tenth. Not Black Saviors by any stretch, but just role models for kids who want to be upwardly mobile on the economic ladder. It allows to be living, breathing Obama-ites, being the change we want to see.

Now, notice that I said that we have options. This means that, although we make a pretty good living, my spouse and I actually think about living in a neighborhood where people earn considerably less than we do. We take seriously the chance to live in a place where there are more renters than buyers, so property tax income is lower, therefore the schools aren’t so great.

I sort of only just realized the other day that not everyone takes the low-income option as an option. When I was chatting with a friend the other day, she said that she and her husband were moving to a nicer area of North Carolina, where the schools had some of the highest test scores and rate of free/reduced lunch was only 5%, meaning that most of the kids are middle- to upper-class. I don’t knock my friend AT ALL for thinking about this because it’s an important consideration. But I do find it interesting that my friend probably wouldn’t think to live in an area with poorer people because, even though she is woke, she is white.

Pickle #3: Given Pickle #2, whenever we look at a house in a higher-income (read: more white than other colors) neighborhood, I feel kind of terrible. While I have no fear of discrimination (though it’s a very real possibility), I fear that my kids won’t know authenticity. Although my kids would go to a great school, I think they’d be at risk of losing sight of their place in society, as children of two hardworking, well-educated Black parents who want them to give back to not just their community, but communities where people don’t give quite as much. I’m afraid of the level of entitlement that accompanies living an easier life; I want my kids to know struggle only because I want them to be strong.

I understand that all of these pickles are true first-world problems. They’re probably some sort of discrimination in their own way, but they’re still very present thoughts, and not recognizing them won’t make them go away. All I can hope is to be the best neighbor I can be, wherever that winds up being, and to teach my kids to do the same.