Who do writers of color write for?

I’m currently in a couple of online writing classes as part of my near-constant efforts to become a better writer.

For one of the classes, I submitted a few chapters of my memoir, parts where I talk about the churches my family went to and how life started to change when my half-siblings started coming to live with us. I very carefully went through these chapters to make sure that there was a good balance of child-voice narration and adult reflection, a comment I’ve gotten before. I also tried to make sure that my theme—seeking belonging and stability in a home that was constantly changing—was coming in clearly.

The class gave me positive feedback, mostly. But I couldn’t help noticing that someone made comments about things that I hadn’t written: my mother’s skin tone is dark (false), my father was unemployed (false), that my family was sticking together during dysfunctional times (false), that my brother was kicked out of the house (false).

I wondered if the person had actually read my piece at all, since nothing of the such is said anywhere in the chapters. It is clear that they didn’t do all that close of a read, and maybe allowed the stereotype of the “typical” Black family to fill in the blanks.

I’m aware that this happens in MFA programs and writing workshops the world over. That’s why organizations such as VONA and Cave Canem exist. That’s why Junot Diaz wrote this piece that tore (and still kinda tears) the writing world apart, exposing this stuff that happens way too often.

It is not fair at all to writers of color who work so hard to create damn good art when our art is cast aside or, worse, assumed to be someone else’s experience.

I’ve had to think about the idea of “writing for the audience,” in the sense of asking myself, “Who is my audience?” Is my audience people who know what a Wave Nuveau is? Is it people who know that playing drums at church is not a paying job, but a volunteer position? Is it people who don’t assume there was a question of paternity because I was born with my mother’s last name?

Yes.

I so desperately have wanted to be inclusive with my writing, but I realize that word “inclusive” is inflammatory, and it doesn’t actually apply to me.

So, my audience is those who know what a Wave Nuveau is and those who will pick up their iPhones and Google it, for the love of God. Being bothered to learn something from me is the ultimate sign of respect.

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.

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.

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!

 

 

Writing Binge, Clothing Purge

Yesterday, I donated half of my wardrobe and one-third of my books to charity.

When I got home from the VQR Writers’ Conference on Saturday, I felt the need to cleanse myself of material possessions that were holding me back. So I spent Sunday going through all of my clothes, including the winter ones that were packed away in those big plastic bins. I was going to do the Marie Kondo thing of asking myself of each piece, “Does this spark joy?” But then I realized that “Does this even fit?” was the much more salient question.

I started exercising (mostly with weights) about 2.5 years ago, and I changed my diet to be a bit more clean(ish); as a result, my body has changed a lot. My shoulders are broader now, so little my cap-sleeved t-shirts looked ridiculous. My biceps are visibly larger, and they threated to break the seams of some of my dress sleeves. My butt has gotten firmer and higher, making some of my dresses inappropriately short.

I didn’t realize any of this because I hadn’t actually worn any of those clothes in the past year. Since I quit my job, I’ve solidly taken on the uniform of a writer: in winter, jeans and sweater, and in summer, shorts and t-shirt. Sure, I’ll throw in a casual dress here and there, but not really. Since I’ve been delving into some uncomfortable emotional places, I’ve wanted to be physically comfortable, meaning even in my wardrobe.

But, I did ask myself of some of my clothes, “Does this spark joy?” And for a whole host of my button-down shirts, slacks, and skirts, the answer was a resounding, “NO.” I am not opposed to business attire (I, in fact, look forward to wearing it again one day), but most of my work clothes reminded me of just that – work. My striped Banana Republic buttondowns reminded me of every Monday morning Investment Team meeting in which I felt that I did not belong. My shift dresses purchased on Gilt.com reminded me of my performance reviews in which one of my bosses flagrantly lied about my performance. I know they’re just clothes, but it was what they represented: denigration, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, sorrow, regret. All but joy.

There was no way I could hold onto these pieces and feel liberated from that crazy situation. One year later, I feel a psychic freedom I wish I’d had 365 days ago.

 

The last time I went through one of these purge phases was when I returned to the US from a semester abroad in England, about 11 years ago. I’d just experienced a HUGE life change – I’d spent half a year away from my family going to countries where none of my family members had ever been. It was obvious that my life was going to be different from then on, and I needed to make room for that difference. So, I went through all of my clothes and books, and donated everything I wanted to get rid of.

I most clearly remember packing up my shelves of chicklit. I had decided to write literary fiction, so needed to be careful of what kinds of books I took in: only those I wanted to emulate in some way. Yes, this made me a little bit of a book snob (I have not read any Sue Monk Kidd or even Harry Potter as a result of this rule), but it made my art better.

What is the big life change I just had that made me want to dump all of my old stuff?

A year spent doing the thing I have been most passionate about since I was 12 years old.

Spending the year writing my own story has been monumental. The amount of self-assessment I’ve done, the amount of empathizing with people who still hate me has been sorta nuts. And it has prepared me for the next phase in my life. I’m not sure what that phase is, and, of course, I plan to continue writing in some capacity, but it is clear that something in me has shifted and I sought to mark the change by making room in my life for new things.

That’s my “I’m paying attention to Bret Anthony Johnston” face.

All that being said, I should say how great the VQR Writers’ Conference was. It was very different from VONA, mostly in that there were white people at VQR (seven people of color among 30 attendees, which I suppose is a decent ratio for these sorts of things?).

Although the cafeteria food was inedible, the mosquitos were relentless, and a couple of workshop participants voluntarily read wildly racist material, I had a lot of fun. I met some amazing writers who I hope to keep in touch with, and my workshop instructor, Anne Helen Petersen, was incredible. Instead of doing lectures on craft, she led us through some generative exercises, so I now have a boatload of ideas for new essays, two of which I started at the conference with her guidance (meaning, she actually sort of outlined essays on the white board as we spitballed questions – it was INCREDIBLE). I’ve never had an instructor spend so much time on the participants’ writing, especially on generating new material. So while I couldn’t help think about the ghosts of the slaves who obviously inhabit UVA’s campus (you should thank them whenever something automatic works, like the paper towel dispenser), I felt honored that I was chosen to attend the workshop.

VQR readers

VQR Open Mic readers

I told myself that after a year of writing my memoir, I would take a break. I would drink tea and go to museums and write fiction, perhaps all at the same time. The point of that was to finally actually recover, since I’d gone from one emotion turmoil (crazyass job) to another (crazyass memoir). But VQR has restored my excitement about revising my book, and we’re planning to move into our condo soon, so my break might wind up not happening, and I’m actually okay with that. I guess it’s the next phase moving in. I’ve made room for it, so I should just open the door.

 

 

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

img_1029

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.

img_1035

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.

img_1038

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

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.