Category: blog

Tortoise and the Hare

It’s been a minute, y’all! Please don’t take my absence here to mean I’ve not been busy. I have been! I kind of feel as if I’m running the slowest, fastest race known to man!

I had the pleasure of presenting at HippoCamp for the third year in a row. It is such a great conference. It’s big enough to meet new people and network, but also small enough that you can run into familiar faces. Do yourself a favor and go if you have the chance. 

Besides that, I did my first ever book tour stop. I was honored to read with three other poets at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. for the Breakbeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic anthology. While that day was an adventure (wallet left behind in Philadelphia!), it was great to hear the work of other black female writers and vibe with a room of people interested in hearing our work. 

I was also honored to be added as a member of the Moving Forewards  Memoir Writers Collective. This is an amazing group of women! 

There are a few things I can’t yet speak about, but I’m hoping 2019 is full of abundant writing success! 

What If Icarus Was a Writer?

In a perfect world the managing editor of my journal, Angie, would have stepped in and stopped me from writing this before I even logged into the site. This is a not a perfect world.

One of the things I aim to do in my writing here and elsewhere is to be as honest as possible. My honesty is not loud nor does it often manifest itself in ways that fit the mold of a brooding writer. I am not one to delve into the opaque. I guess I’m pretty simple. And that’s what worries me.

For the last few years, I’ve been in silent competition with people who have no idea they are even in a race. I catch wind of publications, book deals, guest spots with prestigious outlets, and other activities that let writers know they’ve made it. And I turn green. And I turn red. And then I turn blue. I get jealous because I want to scream, “What about me?!” I get angry because I feel as if I’m never going to breakthrough. Lastly, I get sad because what if this moment is as good as it gets?

That last thought has been the topic of discussion with the two people closest to my writing, Angie and Jameel. Both of them have done their best to shake me out of my impostor syndrome. They’ve reminded me of my years of publishing, the success and consistency of Linden Avenue, the great things forthcoming. Especially, they remind me that I’ve done more in my thirty-nine years than many will do in a lifetime. The problem is that I never feel I’ve done enough. I’m always looking at what others are doing and comparing myself to what they’ve accomplished. Doing this means I’m never satisfied. It means I’m blind to what I’m doing and where I’m going.

I will never pretend to be wholly confident in what I write nor in my position in this community. In some ways, that works to my advantage. It makes me want to improve. It makes me want to figure out how to push myself off the beaten path and into the wildness of what my writing can be. It makes me Icarus. And we all know what happened to him, right? But before he came crashing back to Earth, he made it higher than those on the ground. Perhaps that’s what I need to concentrate on. Maybe those writers I am in secret competition with are the sun and the closer I try to get to them, the sooner I will crash and burn. What’s stopping me from being happy in my extraordinary ordinariness?

A few entries ago, I wrote about doing what you love and how detrimental that can be to writers who have a dual life. I’m one of those. Monday to Friday I sit in a cubicle. I am a worker bee. And as noble as my job can be, helping those people trying to stay afloat, it is not very glamorous. It is a rare occasion I can attend weekday meet and greets or network in ways that seem to make opportunities appear. And I’m shy. So in the end I feel like my writing is the only way people know who I am. And maybe it’s just not good enough. Sometimes, when I’m especially in my feelings, I think that I believe I am more talented than I actually am. Maybe I read my words and feel them in ways the world never will.

But there are those times when I’m convinced I’ve yet to find my audience, my niche. I know my strengths and perhaps once I find those people interested in what I have to say all of this doubt will dissipate. I’m hoping it will. In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep my head down and write. There are so many things I want to say. I just need to avoid the sun and enjoy the view.

Stay the Course

A year ago I vented to a friend about wanting to shutdown my literary journal. I was frustrated and feeling as if both my writing and the journal were stalled. I couldn’t see what good was coming from spending each month publishing work and sending my own submissions out into the world. He listened to me vent and then told me in a deadpan voice to shut it down. I, of course, cried and found a reason to end the call. A few minutes later, he called back and told me he knew I hadn’t meant it and he was giving me a bit of tough love.

Since that phone call, I’ve come to be very appreciative that I didn’t drop my pen and stop writing. Soon after, I was accepted into Callaloo and traveled to Oxford. I won a chapbook contest. I got poems selected for an upcoming anthology. I sold my first pitched piece. I was solicited to submit work. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. I presented at HippoCamp. I published multiple essays and poems.

I started to believe that 2017 was becoming my year. And then I stopped. It’s not about one year belonging to me. It was about me finally seeing some of the fruits of my labor and recognizing my path belongs to only me. I’d spent so much time comparing myself to the successes I saw on Twitter. I was upset I always seemed on the outside of the (black) literary world and I would have given anything to have a bit of that light. I reduced the world to such microscopic levels it was amazing.

I can’t say I don’t still crave that light at times, but I’m better at recognizing my talents and my journey. I’m a good writer and I have a voice that is my own.I’m slower than most and that’s okay. I cast my seeds out into the world a small bit at a time and wait to harvest them. I don’t sow them as wild oats. The number of submissions I have out in the world isn’t as important to me as whether or not the piece is a good fit and it’s something I love. I don’t want to throw things against the wall to see what sticks.

I’m promising myself I will continue to go at my own speed and stop comparing myself to writers who are on a completely different path. I know where I want to go, what I want to accomplish, what I want to leave as my writing legacy. I’ll get there, at snail’s pace or slower, but there nonetheless.

If I Was Smart, I’d Be a Rapper

First things first, I love hip-hop. I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was in college in the early 2000s and now in my late 30s, I’m still listening to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Roots before anything else. So, the title isn’t an affront to any lyricist past, present, or future. And let’s be honest. I’d get destroyed in a cypher.

What I’m getting at is the idea that somehow creative writing gets overlooked when it comes to familial support. I suppose you can lump friends in there as well. We all make fun of our cousin’s “fire ass” mixtape, but I’m sure most of our networks would be more likely to click that SoundCloud link before buying our chapbooks. That’s not to say your granny thinks you’re a terrible writer or your uncle thinks your cousin is the next Black Thought. It just means that hip-hop, or rap if you’re nasty, is much more accessible for some of our family and friends.

It wasn’t until recently that I allowed my mother and father to read my essays. They’d, of course, read some of my poetry, but I’m not sure they picked up on all of the MFA tricks I’d thrown in there. Before I went to Callaloo in Oxford this past summer, I let them read my submission packet. Two of the essays were pretty basic childhood good times tales. The last one, which is still looking for a home, was about how I never felt quite black enough even in a close knit community in a small town. How I always felt left out despite being a middle class, only child with popular parents. My father called me after he read it. He, and my mother, told me they never knew I felt that way. They’d assumed I always felt like I belonged. That was miles from the truth.

The next time I let them read something was risky. This was an essay about my attempts to kill myself after surviving an emotionally abusive breakup and divorce. My father called me on the verge of tears. He said he’d known I’d been tired (that was they only way I could describe it to him at the time), but he never knew how close I came to ending my life. In that sharing, we bonded in ways we’d never done so before.

Now, in my writing that includes my parents, I ask them questions and weave them into what I am doing. It is now that I feel as if I have their support. It’s a far cry from when I told my mother I’d gotten into graduate school and she proclaimed, “That’s nice! When are you going to get a real job?” Now, that I’ve made my work accessible and they feel as if they can ask questions, I know they will at least try to read what I am writing. That’s not to say that they’ll like everything or even understand it. There are even things I am currently writing that I am afraid to let them read. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Each day on Facebook, my timeline is full of performance videos, links to songs, and flyers for events. And along with that comes likes and comments and re-posts/blogs. On Facebook, which like Twitter I’m not a fan of, I follow both creative writers and rappers. It seems more often than not the writers are struggling to be heard. And I wonder if it’s a matter of accessibility. Like listening to WuTang vs. listening to Drake. Both genres are valid. One is just a lot smoother going down.

I’m not saying that writers need to dumb down what we are writing. And I’m not saying all mixtape, Facebook rappers are simplistic. I’m just saying, as a writer who has been through an MFA program, we can be a bit much. We can fall in love with our own words and voices to the extent we say more than is necessary to get the point across. I’m not sure if that means doing something as simple as including a line about welcoming questions or engaging with people in the comments to get them to expand on their “That’s nice!” posts. Or maybe taking a step back and thinking maybe they see you as such a great writer that they are intimidated. Sometimes all it takes is an open door to open both your world and theirs.

 

Romance is Dead: Do What You Love

Sitting at my desk Friday afternoon, freezing in my cubicle, I kept turning over the phrase Do What You Love! And it struck me just how unfair and exclusionary that phrase can be.

I’ve been working my “day” job since 2009. Prior to taking my position, I was an English adjunct at three schools in Southern New Jersey. I drove all over the state teaching English 101 and Introduction to Literature. I took that position fresh out of graduate school in 2008, full of dreams of a tenure track position. And then I learned that adjuncts got the leftover courses and little to no benefits. So then my dream shifted to being a full-time instructor who got to teach creative writing. And then I realized that I was exiting my twenties and making so little money left me with a tiny amount of wiggle room to eek out a life. And then the breaking point occurred. I reached my level of narrative essays and the like. I got discouraged by the pay, the lack of support from the full-time faculty, and the nearly impossible chance of advancing.

I took my job with the federal government for the healthcare, the salary, and the ability to build a retirement fund. I knew there would be very little creative writing, just the black and white letter of the law. I also knew my parents had sacrificed their dreams, and their bodies, in steel mills and factories to make sure my sister and I never had to know manual labor as a career. Who was I to turn down a “good government job” to be a writer and an adjunct making less than $25,000 a year?

Writing became my “night” job. I was no longer “doing what I loved”, but I was able to launch my literary journal, travel to conferences, study in foreign countries, and squeeze in a creative life between the hours in my cubicle. But it’s disheartening to hear that phase wielded as a weapon. It implies a level playing field, a life free of concerns that require a day job with health insurance, or an existence that doesn’t spread your salary out to help family. It lessens the sacrifice of doing both in favor of the romantic notion of being a writer, a struggling artist who is on the cusp of “making it”.

I’m not Carrie Bradshaw. I’m Athena. I can’t sustain myself on freelance fees. I don’t have family who can supplement my expenses while I work my way up through the ranks or take internships. I’m a first generation college student from a working poor family in Northeast Ohio. My writing, and the time I dedicate to it, is just as valid as someone able to do the same full-time. I’ve heard writers, in creative settings and at large, toss out the idea that you are dedicated to your craft when you invest money. What of the writers who are barely keeping the electricity on, food on table, who are in default on student loans? They aren’t serious?

Thankfully, my “day” job offers me more than enough to balance my monthly expenses and my creative pursuits. I know that I am fortunate and I guess that’s why I’m so offended when I hear “motivational” speeches about doing what you love. If we all lived by that philosophy, how would the world turn? How would some of us eat, afford families, stay on our medications, have a place to live? It’s unfair and it’s ignorant to equate someone’s worthiness as a member of our community to how much money or time they have to invest.

We exclude so many with this idea. We exclude even more when our writing workshops meet at times people with day jobs could never attend without taking personal time (if you have a job that actually offers that option). Even more when we hoard the information we gather at meetings and workshops like some sort of magical elixir that the less fortunate shouldn’t be privy to. Even more by assuming everyone in the room has read the same books, knows the same articles, understands the same backstories. Even more when we pay lip service by “acknowledging” these issues for a few fresh days in our minds and then going back to the same patterns.

I know I’m rambling, but I am always flabbergasted by the assumptions we make and how those assumptions ripple. In the end, I’m just hoping we continue to be mindful of our words in public just as much as we are mindful on the page.

 

-Athena