When I was 24, I graduated from college. Two years later, after a failed stint in a grad program that didn’t fit me, I moved back home and bought my first condo. Five years after that, I got married. A year later, I left my job which started me down a path to figure out what I was supposed to do. Two years after that, I enrolled in a different grad program and left after a successful semester of classes. By this time, every family member I had left the state, I developed fibroid tumors and psoriasis on most parts of my body.
A few months after leaving grad school, I knew if I was going to make anything creative work, I would have to do more writing than talking. I started writing a novel and had one article published. I joined a group of people trying to structure their lives and focus on goal setting. A couple of months later, I pitched said novel to an agent. The pitch went well and she requested pages. I sent her pages she did not love.
I kept writing this novel that seemed to go nowhere. I started a blog upon the suggestion of an agent at the writer’s conference where I pitched my idea. I took creative non-fiction and fiction writing classes, went to book signings and workshops and met other writers. I worked a few more jobs that had nothing to do with what I love most but you know, money.
When I was 37, I had a series of panic attacks I didn’t see coming. I thought working a soul numbing job, blogging three times a week, stressing about my husband’s health, writing a wedding vows journal and trying to keep up with life in general was a lot of things that were no big deal until I couldn’t breathe in the bed and then in front of my computer.
About a month later, I was let go for the first time from this job. I got back out there again and found one that was close by. At this time, I was still writing but not sure where any of it is going. I applied for a storytelling project for women of color. I actually get it. I fly to the University of Alabama. I feel myself coming to life again. My voice seems to be audible where it felt so quiet before. I had spoken a couple of places and published more but this was different.
I could be Black, insecure, awkward but vocal me. It didn’t matter I hadn’t found my footing professionally. In Alabama, I was surrounded by Black women who were excelling in every field from education, activism, music to law and social work. I could have felt less worthy but it didn’t matter. We all had stories to tell.
I flew back home and kept writing. I start working at a non-profit whose values more closely align with mine and eventually start facilitating creative non-fiction writing sessions there. I keep going to counseling and start weight training. I see myself as an athlete for the first time as a Strongman competitor. I keep writing because now it’s 2020 and I can’t hold back anymore of my rage, anxiety and frustration at the state of the world. I need to be free.
My writing becomes more honest.
I become more honest with myself.
I start thinking about turning this honesty into a book.
I receive a phone call. I am offered the opportunity to compile my work into a book by a publisher.
In a few days, I will be 40. I am just starting.
Because my life will always be a series of beginnings and endings.
When I think about my writing class these past couple of weeks, one thing comes to mind: I was set free. I was understandbly attached to writing my novel, whether it was random paragraphs, potential scenes or referring back to my synopsis hoping to be inspired to go the distance. I was forcing myself to think of fiction in only one way. I trapped myself without even realizing it.
Since taking this fiction writing course, I have heeded my teacher’s advice to play. The last two stories I wrote had a possible salacious betrayal and one was written from the perspective of a ghost. I know I didn’t need permission to set myself free but it worked. I have a couple of months after this class ends to keep pushing myself and I look forward to it. I look forward to the release of expectation and the freedom it will undoubtedly bring.
Yesterday, I started a new writing class. To say there was anxiety would be a massive understatement. The focus of the course is primarily to strengthen fiction writing skills and I haven’t put forth consistent effort in this area in over a year.
In the two hours of class, I was reminded just how vulnerable I feel creating a story and not solely relying on details from my life. I felt the pain of stumbling and not trusting myself as I wrote. Even when I read aloud, I cringed. That normally doesn’t happen to me. I know it was just one class but it was rough.
But I can’t help but think “rough” is what I need. I am scared of my upcoming critique on the 2-3 pages I am sending but that’s ok. It will have to be. If it all felt easy or natural, how would I grow? How would I know if going forward with this novel even makes sense for me?
Another thought occurred to me: Ever since I started “The Artist’s Way”, I have pushed myself to do more like attending my first Mindful Mornings lecture, signing up for belly dance class, joined a fitness accountability group and of course, attend this writing class.
On my last blog post of 2017, one of my goals for 2018 was to be intentional about reading two books a month. I know I could read more but I want to start there. At one point in time, I swallowed books, especially novels. Within the last year or so, I have been introduced to a lot more non-fiction. I would read the occasional autobiography but fiction always had my heart and attention. I found myself feeling like I had to read these non-fiction books to increase my knowledge about setting and achieving goals, financial fitness and self-awareness. While I think the subject matters are worthwhile and many of the personal development books I attempted to read have an engaging style, I find myself setting them down and moving on to another one without finishing.
I heard recently that I need to break down all of my goals. In that spirit, I will choose one non-fiction/personal development book to read each month along with one novel. This month my fiction selection is a book of short stories I began but never finished: The PEN literary award winner “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” by Danielle Evans. I had started reading it at the beach over the summer and for some reason I can’t remember now, I put it down.
My second selection is “Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown. I started reading this book over the fall and I remember my interest waning after about 50 pages. I love watching Brene Brown being interviewed and delivering speeches but for some reason once the research was being introduced, I started getting distracted. I will not be surprised if I love it after committing to finish it.
It’s been said that how you do one thing is how you do everything. I don’t know how true that is but if I start with something as small as committing to my reading goals, my other goals will not be far behind.
Even though I write a lot of non-fiction and lately, have been inundated with a lot of personal development books, my first love is fiction. Yesterday, after thanking God for waking me and my husband up, I grabbed the latest book I am reading: “The Perfect Find” by Tia Williams. She is one of the authors I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of weeks ago at the James River Writers Conference 2017. I am not ashamed to admit I spent my morning wrapped up in my blankets, getting caught up in the tension and excitement of the story.
The words “keep the story moving forward” have been ringing in my head for a while now and it got louder as I read yesterday. One of my writing teachers, author Sadeqa Johnson offered similar advice to me during the Pens Up, Fears Down course I took earlier this year. I heard it again at the James River Writers Conference during the Library of Virginia Nonfiction Awards Finalists panel from Annette Gordon-Reed.
Writing has taken a more central role in my life this year so those words do ring true. However, why the volume turn-up right now? As I am writing, I am having an onslaught of realization. Those words have been my theme “song” this year. I have challenged myself to do more writing, traveling, confronting of my health, posting, applying, conference-attending and class-taking than any other year of my life. The song is just beginning to build, no deep-throated belting yet but make no mistake, it is audible. With my acceptance of the #bloglikecrazy challenge next month, the commitment to complete my first draft of my novel, starting the process of establishing my business and falling in love with dance again, the vision and the song have clarity.
I have been moving my story forward.
Your turn: What have you been doing to move your story forward?
I spent the weekend at the 15th Annual James River Writers Conference 2017 which started with Master Classes held on Friday, October 13th. I did not attend the master classes but I was there on Saturday and Sunday. The conference offered one-on-one meetings with an agent or an editor, panels on writing (both the business and the craft), Library of Virginia Literary Luncheon featuring an interview with honoree and Richmond native David Baldacci, an opportunity to play the Agent Dating Game and First Pages panel.
Day 1, ready to connect with my fellow writers!
James RIver Writers Conference celebrating 15 years!
There were several sessions running concurrently so I could only go to three each day. The first session was a panel of agents answering questions about paths to publication. One agent, Cherise Fisher, made a striking point that as writers, that we should understand our dreams. The consistent message was that we should be self-aware. We should know our genre, be able to name realistic but comparable titles and take time to research the agents-their Twitter, other authors they represent and books they have sold. Ms. Fisher from Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc. also reminded us not to forget about the smaller publishing houses. I particularly enjoyed the tip that we should write such a dynamic query letter that they should have to do little else before sending it to a publishing house/editor.
The social media panel gave insight into how authors Sadeqa Johnson, Sonia Yoerg and Panio Gianopoulos manage their social media. They covered topics such as when to post, scheduling apps used, blogging and the major importance of a newsletter in reaching your audience. I admired how they didn’t pretend to have it all figured out and advised if you don’t, then seek counsel! A solid piece of advice given by Sadeqa was to know your lane and build from there when posting on your media sites. For example, if you like gardening, post pictures and video of yourself doing things related to that along with content about your writing. They all acknowledged that readers like to feel as if they know you, not just your work.
The Literary Luncheon was fun and the food was tasty. I was grateful they had a real vegetarian option (a flavorful Portobello mushroom and peppers dish). It gave us the opportunity to reflect on the first half of the day with friends (my awesome writing tribe!) and meet new ones. David Baldacci’s interview was engaging and although emerging authors like myself can’t relate to his meteoric rise, I believe it gave us all a dream to aspire to.
The third panel was moderated by a local writer friend of mine, David Streever. It featured Library of Virginia Nonfiction Award Finalists Belle Boggs, Patrick O’ Donnell and Annette Gordon-Reed. Belle Boggs recited a quote I liked: “Writing won’t make you a living but it will make you a life.” They shed light on what it is like to devote copious amounts of time to research, interviewing and unearthing untold stories that were long overdue for its place in the sun.
The end of Day 1 was fascinating: an interview with “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly. Getting to hear how she grew up in a neighborhood full of engineers, professors and mathematicians in Hampton and had no idea the greatness she was in the presence of astounded me. I loved hearing about her professional background which included founding an expatriate magazine in Mexico with her husband and working on Wall Street. I believe we all gasped about how quickly the book and the movie deal came together after the book proposal was accepted. Listening to this woman was a sonic delight I will not soon forget.
The second day was introduced by highlighting Richmond Young Writers’ books. I was inspired by the literary talent of Richmond’s youth led by Bird Cox. After the opening ceremonies, the First Pages panel began. I commend all of these people who submitted their first pages and were willing to be judged. I submitted my first page last year. Although it did not get selected for reading, I remember the anxiety I felt waiting to hear my words read in front of a crowd of strangers.
There was a Lunch and Learn session. I attended the one about content marketing. Phaedra Hise of Legacy Navigator explained in detail what it takes to succeed in that field. She was blunt in what we should expect and be asking for with content marketing. The session was a welcome departure from the long form writing heavily discussed throughout the conference. It opened my eyes to revenue streams with writing that do not get enough attention at events like these.
One of the more notable panels was Sexy Narratives moderated by co-chair Robin Farmer with authors Sadeqa Johnson, Tia Williams and Marguerite Bennett. The way writers describe flirtation, sex and the buildup between two people is more than titillating conversation. Tia Williams referred to it as a “careful, slow manipulation.” I love this advice! We all had a good laugh at their blanket condemnation of clichéd scenes with heaving bosoms and throbbing body parts.
My last panel before the Agent Dating Game was Family Stories: For Your Family or the World? My book draws so much from both mine and my grandmother’s life that I knew I needed to hear whatever the panel had to say about this subject matter. I did come to a realization that since there are many details about my grandmother’s life in Haiti that I cannot corroborate, it is best to keep my work as fiction.
The final event was the Agent Dating Game. It was a rendition of the throwback TV show. This time an agent asks his/her bachelors (or writers in this case) the same three questions about themselves, story lines or characters and based on their answers, determines which author they want to learn more about. The segment even had a corny but hilarious host.
I need to say a few words about this year compared to last year. Outside of the crowd being bigger (they sold out this year!), it was much more diverse. The authors were more of a representation of what I like to see, which is a healthy sprinkling of what this world already has to offer. I hope they continue this inclusion for years to come. No one likes to feel like they are the only, or one of a few.
All in all, I am excited about returning next year. I will definitely be ready to pitch my novel and get to know more of the smiling, nervous, pensive, curious faces I see roaming the Greater Richmond Convention Center in 2018.
It’s here!!! The final day of my Water-Workout-Write Challenge is completed. I am preparing to leave for Columbus, Ohio tomorrow morning so I have been on my feet all day. I am happy to report I barely had a coughing fit today and may only have to use my inhaler once this evening. I have fallen behind on my water intake so I will have to get on that. I know the challenge is basically over but the focus on increasing my water intake is something I want to continue.
Speaking of habits I want to continue, I’ve decided what my goals are for the foreseeable future. I will work out five days a week, publish a blog post twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drink 100 oz. of water every day, submit to a publication or blog once a week and complete at least 2 essays a week.
The essays will be a new undertaking for me. I could never “get there” with my novel. I felt like there was a truth I was trying to tell but I was poorly disguising it as fiction. I grew up believing that one day I would use my imagination to weave a poignant and magical work of fiction. Except I haven’t been able to do it. With each writing class I’ve taken since the beginning of the year, I’ve drawn closer to the conclusion that my novel should be a book of essays. It made sense that the agent that read my work said that although she didn’t have a problem with my crafting, she didn’t “connect” with my writing. Even though she is just one person, I do believe she had a point. I will always love fiction. I have been surrounded by a lot of personal development books lately which I appreciate and have grown fond of as well. But the magic for me is in the stories. And my essays can be those stories. I am not sure what took me so long to admit it. But there it is.
These past 21 days has taught me what I should be writing right now. It has taught me that I have the discipline to issue a challenge to myself and complete it. It taught that if I make myself accountable, that I will choose not to fail. It has taught me that I need accountability. It has taught me that I want to be a disciplined person. I never placed importance on that notion before. I knew being undisciplined wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go but it never mattered enough until the lack of results wasn’t only staring me in the face, it was slapping me in the face. And the sting hurt like hell.
Outside of the lessons learned, there was a win. The piece I submitted last weekend will be published next Tuesday! I will post all the details next week. There is nothing like seeing the fruit of your labor. I am chasing that high. Even when I may feel uninspired, I am going to remember this challenge—not only the lessons that came from it but the pride I feel swelling up in me as I write these final words to close it.
There is one last thing. This blog is fairly new but I did have a few followers who read it and supported me throughout these 21 days. You know who you are.