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.

We Are All Horrible Human Beings

Last night, Rustin and I boarded the Metro after house hunting. We were discussing the house and trying to decide if we wanted to make an offer. It was a serious discussion, but we felt patient and lighthearted, and were having fun talking about it.

When we arrived at Union Station, an old homeless man got on the train, followed by several teenaged boys. The homeless man, who appeared to be either mentally ill or under the influence of something (maybe both), plopped into a seat with a clear trashbag full of clothes, leading me to believe he’d just left the hospital or shelter. The boys gathered in the seats around him, and one of them hovered over him, provoking him to hit him. The homeless man yelled so loudly for them to leave him alone that the whole train (which is usually pretty quiet in DC, one thing I love) went dead silent; earsplittingly silent aside from the screams of this homeless man to be left alone.

Since the whole train was looking at him, I thought the one boy standing over the man would get embarrassed and sit down. Instead, he taunted him more, even threatening the man’s life. The man pushed past him to sit in another seat, but the boy followed him, still mumbling provocations. Then, the boy punched the old homeless man in the head and nose until he bled. One of his friends took the man’s bag and opened it so all of his belongs fell on the floor of the train.

The other passengers huddled at the far end of the train, away from the crazy. We were supposed to get off at the next stop, and when we did, we called the cops to report what had just happened. The other passengers rushed into the next train car, and when I motioned with my hands for them to call the cops, too, none of them even looked my way.

As we walked, I told Rustin that it reminded me of a situation I was in once in high school. One of the kids who everyone knew was in Special Ed was sitting next to me on the bus home. One of the huge kids found it a good idea to start making fun of him and started punching him in the head as hard as he could. The boy was sitting right next to me, blow after blow falling on him, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be associated with the “special” kid. I didn’t want the bully to say, “What? You like him or something?” So, I put my own piddling, insignificant social status above that kid’s safety.

I will never forget that moment because it showed me how horrible a human being I am. If any of us would allow that to happen to someone who is unable to defend themselves, we are all horrible.

When we got home last night, I remembered that it is Holy Week, the week in which Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends then executed, ultimately as penance for the sins of all humankind. I started praying and, as I did, my heart broke into a bagillion pieces. It broke for the old homeless man who could not defend himself. It broke for the boy beating him. It broke for the friends of the boy beating the man. It broke for the people who ran to the next train car at the next stop.

I wondered, how could we as a population have failed so many people? We’ve failed our poor. We’ve failed our youth. We failed ourselves, holding our own safety above that of another human being who is worth just as much as we are.

How could we as a society have let that boy get so calloused that he thought nothing of beating up a homeless person? Does he have nothing else to live for that he was so okay with going to jail, where he must know he will be treated unjustly as a young Black man?

How could we as a society have left that homeless man alone? He could have been killed and his blood would have been on all of our hands because we left him alone. Even if we didn’t jump on the boy who was beating him, there is so much strength in numbers that the man was safer with us there than in our absence. And we left him.

I repented for not doing anything more, for once again, holding my own safety more highly than another’s. I was again the 14 year-old-girl on the school bus, all the same at age 31. I pray that I actually become a better person instead of just talking about it.

There are no easy answers, and I know that I’m being hard on myself. I should—we all should. That’s the only way the world will change. That’s the only way the world will change, when we call out unacceptable behavior, including our own omissions.

Strong vs. Skinny

(Only Kenny O’Neal can capture how I feel after I go to the gym: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7mnjiOPKGE)

Today, I was released from the sports doctor.

I’m sure that means nothing to you, but, to me, it means that the pain in my lower back/hip/glute area is now healed, or at least manageable without professional help. And that I amazing!

Going to the sports doctor makes me feel important, like an athlete, because they’re not just any old doctor, they’re a sports doctor, which means they work with athletes and if they’re working with me, that means I’m an athlete. 😀

I found eating burdensome as a kid, so I didn’t do it until I absolutely had to. This meant that I was teased mercilessly for most of my childhood with every insult you could think of (“You could hula-hoop through a Cheerio!” “Are you from Ethiopia, like on the commercials?”). I hated being skinny because my peers made me feel awful for it.

Once puberty struck, I started eating everything in sight, but I maintained a wicked fast metabolism, so all the crap I did eat never stuck to me.

Around eighth grade, something flipped. Suddenly, everyone (or at least the white girls) wanted to be skinny. Then they would tell me, “Vonetta, you’re so lucky. You don’t have to exercise at all!”

And I believed them. I considered myself lucky. What more did I need than being a size 0?

I knew I could be a model – the industry loves skinny girls, and it’s the only place where a skinny black girl could find some affection (if selected for a show at all despite the color of her skin, of course). I never pulled the trigger on starting a modeling career, and by the time I was old enough to try to take matters into my own hands, I was too old (like, 17) and had lost interest.

But during my senior year of college, I was chosen to model in Georgetown’s annual fashion show. I thought it would be fun to finally use the years of model-walk practice to use.

At rehearsal, I put on my high, high heels and started down the carpeted “runway,” a path between some desks in an empty classroom. I came to the end, stopped to pose but hesitated for some reason, and felt a small bump in my knee. I didn’t think anything of it, and continued walking in rehearsal.

The fashion show was scheduled for just after spring break. I’d planned to stay on campus and work that week, to make extra money. When I woke up on Monday, I could hardly walk.

I limped to the library for my eight-hour shift, almost all of which I spent sitting because my knee was in so much pain. The pain didn’t go away the next day or the next or the next. I swallowed Advil every few hours to take the edge off, but the pain wouldn’t go away.

I panicked. How was I supposed to walk in the show when I wanted to tear my leg off?

As luck would have it, something happened with the university and the Fashion Club had to cancel the show.

Which meant that I had injured myself for nothing.

The pain had gone away by the time I could get into the doctor’s office almost two months later. But it came back when I took a mile-long walk a month later. The pain went on and off like that for years before I finally saw a physical therapist who told me that the reason for the pain was that I was weak.

So, I was skinny. But I was weak.

What was the point of being skinny if body parts would start to hurt? Would I be physically able to carry a baby if I became pregnant? Would I fall and break a hip and not be able to recover because I didn’t have enough muscle around my joints?

I’d started exercising when I was 25, but I didn’t get intense with weight lifting until I got a trainer when I was 29. I’ve spent the past two years building strength I never had. As a result, I have no more knee pain at all.

Of course, with exercise comes bumps and bruises if you don’t do things right, hence how I wound up at the sports doctor recently. But working out prevents far worse future injuries. Which I was something I didn’t know or fully understand before.

Being skinny is great, but being strong is so much better. I weigh more than I ever have, but I’m firmer. When I lift weights, I genuinely feel like I’m taking good care of myself, now and in the future. I implore you to do the same.

The War for Home

I lived in 13 houses/apartments before I turned 16.

Some of those were nuclear family moves from a small house to a larger one, but lots of those occurred after my mom left my dad and we stayed with friends or relatives for a while. As a result, I didn’t have my own room, really, until I was 15. A few years after my parents divorced, my mom bought a house, and I finally, after years of unfulfilled promises, had my own room. All that said, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I hate moving and I’ve always wanted my own home.

When I got a job in DC after college, I had one weekend to find a place to live and another weekend to move into that place before I started work. I landed in a studio apartment downtown, on 12th & M, and intended to move when my lease was up the next year because the rent was crazy expensive relative to my income (about 50% of my paycheck rather than the finance-guru-advised 30%). But the psychic pain that accompanied the thought of moving (along with my not having any extra money to do so) and the desire for stability kept me in that apartment for 6 years. Only relocating to New York dislodged me from my studio.

My husband, on the other hand, has had the exact opposite experience. Until he went to college, he lived in two houses, the second of which his family moved into when he was 2 years old. As an adult, he bounced around from apartment to apartment, usually seeking cheaper rent or nicer amenities.

So, the four years we spent in our New York apartment were deeply treasured by both of us: him, for the stability of creating a home as a married couple; me, for not having to move from one place to another.

When we decided to move back to DC, we chose to get an apartment for a year and begin the search for our forever home, the place where we would raise our children and have family over Thanksgiving dinner and invite friends over for cocktail parties.

But the DC real estate market slapped us across the face and told us to quit dreaming.

The sticker price on something we’d consider a “forever home” in the District is approximately $2 million over our current budget. So we said, let’s get a starter, something we’ll stay in for five to seven years, then pray that it appreciates well enough (and we hit the lotto) that we can move into said forever home.

Last week, we found the perfect starter. It was in Brookland, an area of DC that neither one of us had hung out in, but we realized was actually really cute. It was a detached house (DETACHED!) in the city (IN THE CITY!) with grass (GRASS!) and a screened-in porch (PORCH!). We both saw our future selves raising our kids there in that city farmhouse (FARMHOUSE!). So, we bet the farm, went all in on an offer and even offered slightly more than would have been prudent for us to pay.

And we lost.

Someone out there wanted our city farmhouse so much more than we did that they bet not only the farm, but the contingencies that would ensure that the farm was worth what they were betting.

So, we lost a bidding war for a home. The thing that I’ve sought out for such a long time, the thing that my husband is so used to, neither one of us could get.

Well, not this time. There will be other houses. We will be comfortable. We will be stable.

So help us God, we will make our home.

Daddy’s Little Girl All Over Again

I’ve reached a pivotal point in my memoir, the summer of 2008, when I was 22 and pure curiosity led me into (and kept me in) a [sort of] relationship that would up being really, really awful. I did not want to write about this time period or this particular individual—who for the sake the of this blog post I’ll call Dean—because I didn’t want to give Dean any credence and I was happy having convinced myself that none of it had really happened.

But as I thought about the themes that have appeared in my story—desire for belonging and acceptance, finding confidence in who I am regardless of what others think or say of me—it only made sense to include my two-month relationship with Dean. You’ll definitely read more in the book, but Dean was a guy I met through an online community. We hung out once at a club, literally dancing the night away, and were attracted to each other. We were pretty different with respect to virtually everything—political views, religious views, values, time and money management—but I was willing to cast all of that aside because I liked Dean and, quite frankly, I was curious as hell about what went into being in a relationship in general.

Dean and I had a great time for few weeks, until he broke up with me via text message (TEXT MESSAGE), saying that we were too different so we shouldn’t date, but we could be friends. I, for some reason, went along with that suggestion, assuming it meant that we would hang out and talk as friends. But we never hung out again or talked, only emailed about really personal things. As I shared some of my deepest secrets in the written word, I felt closer to Dean and myself, being vulnerable to us both. Ultimately, Dean used my vulnerability against me, becoming the “moral police” who indicted me for everything I did wrong, including shopping with a credit card and making a joke about wanting a cigarette.

I was livid at Dean for about six months, and even then, I wasn’t sure why I was so angry. Writing this book now helped me see that, like my dad, Dean made me feel like being my imperfect self wasn’t enough. He called me an imposter, something that I still struggle with to this day despite my vehement argument to him, and myself, that I was and still am being authentic. He refused to accept me for who I was, and because I was only 22, that made me question myself and shook my confidence more than it had been shaken since I was a little girl. Dean made me feel the way my father made me feel, and I hated him for pushing me back in time to emotions that I had buried so deeply.

I met my husband shortly after the end of the six-month lividity period. When Rustin accepted my flaws, I thought I was being punk’d (and I still do sometimes, don’t say anything), but I relished in the freedom. All my life I’ve wanted the people I love and just plain like to love or like me for me, which makes me feel worthy of being loved or liked. My dad made me question that worthiness, Dean made me question that worthiness, but Rustin left me speechless.