Who’s the Traumatized-est of Them All?

I have loved writing fiction since I was 12 years old. Memoir is relatively new for me, not something I’d thought about until someone I met at a networking event suggested I write one after my friend Jessica passed away (ironically, that someone was also named Jessica).

I was traumatized by my friend’s death because she was extremely important to me, but also because also because her death happened so close to my wedding, only three days after. I was plagued with grief and also questions of what my marriage now meant. So, I decided to write about it, not for others, but for myself, to process my grief and wash away guilt about ever even getting married. (So funny how the mind works. I really thought, “I shouldn’t have gotten married. If I hadn’t gotten married, they wouldn’t have died.” Which may or may not be true.)

I joined a Meetup group full of other people who were also writing memoirs. Getting to hear about their traumas helped heal me of my own. I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d felt grief. I wasn’t the only one who had to persevere through really tough times. Oddly enough, listening to their stories made me grateful that something worse hadn’t happened in my life—I’d never been physically or sexually abused, thank God.

I never completed my first memoir, mainly because I found it too difficult to finish. I’d written just enough to remember some of the best times I had with my friend, and that was soothing. I visited her grave during a trip to Orlando and felt a small sense of closure, so writing more felt like opening up a wound that God was finally starting to seal.

Writing the memoir about my father was much easier. I’d, more or less, gotten over the way he treated me and my mother when I was growing up. I’d healed from those feelings of worthlessness (though, to this day, I can’t seem to shake off the feelings of distrust I acquired). I was able to write a narrative that I could fully immerse myself in because I’d grown distant from the actual events, if that makes any sense. Put another way, it didn’t hurt anymore, so I could write it easily. I hope my book helps other fatherless people to heal from their feelings of worthlessness and maybe even from the distrust that still grips me.

I write all of this to say that, while writing has been so instrumental in helping heal me, I sometimes wonder if I’m too well from my father’s transgressions to write a damn good story.

These days, creative nonfiction seems to focus a lot on trauma. The stories that are best heralded are the ones that involve really horrible things: rape, incest, physical assault, emotional assault from being told by family members one is going to hell for being gay. I sometimes wonder if CNF is really just a contest between who has been through the worst in life. That’s a contest I am very okay with not winning.

That being said, these stories of horrible traumas do encourage me to go to the places I’m afraid to go, like back into the happy memories of Jessica and the depths of grief. Clearly, if others are able to write about their traumas and are still standing, the same would likely happen for me. But I don’t want to go there if it’s only to win the Trauma-Rama, only if it will continue to help me and others seal our wounds more permanently.


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?


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.

What I’m Thankful For

Thanksgiving is on Thursday, so there’s no better time to contemplate the things we’re grateful for. Here’s my list. (Be sure to take some time out to thank your family and friends for supporting you and wishing you well this week!)

I’m thankful for Jesus, without whom I would be much more lost and anxious than I am.

I’m thankful for my mom, without whom I would have no life.

I’m thankful for Georgetown, without which I would have no spouse. Jk. I’m thankful for Georgetown because it proved to me that the world is larger than I ever thought it could be, then showed me that it was smaller than I thought it was.

I’m thankful for my spouse, who is loving and supportive, even when I’m not.

I’m thankful for my home, which has given me plenty of headaches in the past 3 months, but has made me feel comfortable.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the thing I always dreamed of doing, which is writing whatever I want as my job.

I’m thankful for nonfiction essays, which challenge me to think outside of myself and consider the world and people around me.

I’m thankful for Blaise Kearsley and Michele Filgate, who changed my life by encouraging me to submit my first essay and by teaching me to make them better, respectively.

I’m thankful for my family, who is letting me tell some of our business in a book.

I’m thankful for my friends, who entertain me and remind me of who I am when I doubt my abilities.

I’m thankful for Washington, DC, the city where I have felt the strongest sense of belonging since I first stepped on its ground at age 16.

I’m thankful for my terrible work experience in New York, without which I would not have the low tolerance for gaslighting and workplace bullying that I have now.

I’m thankful for my dad, without whom I would have no life and no stories of resilience and perseverance to tell.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

My Goals for 32

I skipped writing a post last week because last Monday was my birthday, so I took the week off to think a little bit less about what I’m doing right now and a bit more about what I’d like to do in the near future.

For starters, I turned 32! That’s a huge deal for someone who knows their fair share of people who didn’t make it past 27. Not to be morbid, I just thank God for every day I get.

That being said, I’m a planner like nobody’s business. I like to figure out where I’m going before I get there, in addition to how and when I’m getting there.

I decided that, this year—my 33rd on the planet—I want to finish my memoir. No surprises there, you might be thinking, and you’re correct. I started my third round of edits, including rewriting the first chapter, last week, and that helped me see that I have a lot more to do. Editing isn’t just moving things around—it’s full-scale making what I have sound a lot more compelling. (No, I’m not embellishing anything, I’m just moving beyond the step of “get it all down,” and actually turning my memories into a cohesive narrative.)

I also decided that I’d like to go back to work full-time.

I know, I know.

If you’ve read enough of my work (including the essay that will soon be posted to Levo.com), you know that my career history has not been to my satisfaction, to say the least, especially my last job (#nightmare). I’ve been going to therapy to move past the abusive elements of that job, and writing has definitely made me feel more confident about going back into Corporate America. Writing has been a part of my life for my whole life (was just thinking today that it all started with Ghostwriter in 1992), and that will not change. But the part of me that needs to solve concrete problems and be around people also will not change, and I can’t ignore that part of me, either.

Last, since my spouse and I are in our early 30s and have been married for five years, we’re starting to figure out when we want to start having kids. (Ack, I’ve gotten to that place in my life that that’s a real conversation and real planning.) We’re not starting soon, but it’s definitely a more real possibility to us now than it was five, or even two, years ago.

So, I have a lot of goals: book (that’s well-written and compelling), job (that I enjoy doing because it’ll take me away from writing), and prepping for a kid. Looks like my Jesus year (next year) is going to be a busy one!

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.

A Special Anniversary, Part II

Happy bloggingversary to me! I started this blog one year ago today to build my author platform and keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I wrote my memoir. I called it “Tales of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. I realize that I should rename it “Diary of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I’ve gotten way more personal here than I ever expected to. Thank you to everyone who’s read me here and supported my work elsewhere online. I hope to have many more things to say as I continue editing my book!

I called my first post last year “A Special Anniversary,” since it was one year after my father passed away. I wrote a positive reflection on some of the laughs we shared, in truth, because I couldn’t think of any other reflection. (I took the post down when my awesome Gotham memoir instructor, Blaise Kearsely, encouraged me to submit it, and it was published on Thought Catalog, my first published piece!) I couldn’t write a moving tribute because I felt sort of numb about his being dead. I felt bad about it, feeling like I should be broken up thinking about my father being no longer with us.

Well, unfortunately, I still feel that way. I still feel largely nothing about my dad being gone.

I wish I could say, upon typing previous sentence, I felt a well up in my chest and tears misted at my eyes. But, nope.

I say this in contrast to, for example, when I think about my friend Jessica. When she died three days after my wedding, I could hardly get out of bed. Five years later, I still can’t quite talk about her without crying at some point, as my therapist learned a few weeks ago.

But nothing ever happens in me when I think about the fact that my father is in eternity.

I feel less bad about feeling this way now. After writing down my whole life story, I don’t feel guilty about not feeling bad because I see the parts in my life when my connection to my father fissured and fissured until there was nothing left. I wondered if the exercise of writing a memoir would make me feel closer to him, but it didn’t; in a way, it made me feel more distant because I was reminded of all of the terrible things he did.

But one thing I feel differently about after writing this book? I feel a bout of empathy—oddly enough—for my father’s first wife and his kids from his first marriage. Once I put myself in their shoes, I could clearly see that it would suck for my husband (even if I didn’t treat him well) to conceive a child with someone else before we were even divorced. It would super suck for my dad to move out of our house to live with someone he had a child with. I see how that is really awful, and I hate that it ever happened to them. But my empathy ends at the point of holding onto a grudge not worth clinging to. Even when I put myself in their shoes, I always come to the conclusion that I would have had to get over all of it at some point, and recognize that the child didn’t ask to be born, and not hold any animosity toward her. But that’s just me.

I am blessed that my life has chugged along over the past two years. I’ve had some weird challenges, like my job going south and having to re-adjust to a changing city, but overall, I’ve still had the good end of the bargain. I’m just going to be grateful for every breath, tell my story, and march on, continuing to accept myself and my flaws for all that I am, even when my feelings aren’t what I think they should be.