I must write: when a woman finally finds her vision

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre


Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world. –Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

When I was small I used to watch my mother knit; her thin fingers mastered the tango between two needles as they warred to create a scarf, shawl or blanket. For years I took up mimicry like a kind of cross-stitch, but I failed because the complexity of patterns and needlework subsumed me; the chink of cool metal forever eluded me. Here I was, a child composing haikus likening my mother’s voice to thunder, yet I couldn’t thread a needle. My thread always grazed the eye but never dared plunge through it. And I worried about this. A lot. If I couldn’t conjoin cheap yarn how could I possibly tell stories? How could I step into a world and inhabit it so completely? Words belong to one another, and a writer’s job is to sit amongst spools of thread and weave. Their work lies in creating tapestry, silent symphonies.

I think about the movie, Heat, specifically the “face-to-face” scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

These are two men who are what they go after. Two men who don’t know any other work than the work in which they do; their life is their work, no going back. And although the work is risky–it’s like risk versus reward, baby–the action is the juice. The work, the life, is the reward. Even in moments that feel like plague, when the ground gives way and the fall seems infinite, bottomless, we press on. We carry the weight of the dark on our backs in the journey into the light because all of it, the depth of it, the darkness of it, is worth the stretch.

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees. —Anne Dillard

A WRITER? Why do you want to be a writer? Writers don’t make any money, said a woman to me once. I remember the way she said writer, as if it were tinged, sullied, a word not worthy of the letters that comprise it. Maybe she thought herself as someone who could wash the stink off me, scrape away at the plaque that had begun to harvest its way into my heart. Because finance will make you clean again. This woman was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and I sat in her office discussing my resignation. I’d just been awarded admission to a fancy writing program and I was jubilant. My work until then had become a blanket intent on smothering me, and all I wanted to do was fucking breathe. For a time I relegated writing to a hobby state while I managed the serious work, my vocation, off to the side. Because I was an adult now. I had student loans now. I had an apartment now. I had a bone-crushing subway commute now. I had my mid-day Starbucks run now. I had happy hour now where everyone was on the road to ruin, night drinking until they saw black, now. I had to wake up now. I had to Monday moan now. I had to do this all over again now. I had to measure my own grave now.

The days had become repeats of themselves with minor variations.

I go through this a lot–trying to deny writing as something serious and true in favor of the work over there. And I always, invariably, come up short. I always end up working myself into a place of despair because while I’m good at what I do–marketing, projections, budgets, brand positioning and planning–it’s not the only thing I’m meant to do.

What I’m meant to do is write. Plain and simple. Although, in reality, not so plain and definitely not so simple, but give me a minute with this.

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Over the weekend I read a book in one sitting, an exposition off of a widely-read essay, “The Crossroads of Should and Must”. I remember reading the essay with a considerable amount of interest and passing it along to my friends. I remember being inspired by Elle Luna’s words but untouched. Perhaps I wasn’t primed for confrontation because I was still sorting out the nuances of this freelance life, but now, right now, I’m ready to drive my car off the road.

I’m good at compartmentalizing things, brilliant even. When I resigned from my last job I talked a lot about having room for all my children to play in the proverbial sandbox, that none of them would be considered changelings. That I could practice my writing in one space, my affection for food in another, and finally, the marketing–the bill-paying stuff–in another silo, far over there. Never once did I consider how I could merge the three. How I could seamlessly move from one state of play to another and even imbue my life with play! IMAGINE THAT! Never did I think that three simple children could morph into one complex child.

Never did I realize that I’m now in the midst of my own needlework.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about my life. That might sound dramatic and it probably is, but when you’re inching your way toward 40 and you’re still in student loan and credit card debt maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and take stock. I did the 8,760 hour mind map. I read a slew of books. I got angry all over again about shit blogger books getting published while I’m told my strange, beautiful writing will never find a large home (fuck this and the horse you rode in on). I thought about my move to California and the role a foreign place would have in the grand scheme of things (more alone time, more space and less distractions). And after all this noise and mess and thinking (all that yarn!) I asked myself a really simple question:

What brings me joy?

I started to look at everything I did over the course of the day and I realized that my joy lies in writing. Whether I’m working on a brand voice guide or a blog post or a short story, the art of weaving words together challenges and excites me. The art of reading and constantly absorbing information so that I can keep the knife sharp as it were, feels like home.

Writing is home to me.

It’s taken me 39 years of denial to admit that I have to put writing front and center. I have to design a career, a life, around my ability to take up wordsmithing like cross stitch. And I’ve finally landed on an idea that I’ve been sharing with friends over the past few weeks–a consultancy focused on storytelling.

Now, this isn’t about creating content or some other bullshit reductive term that looks fancy on LinkedIN or gets you penning articles for trade publications–as you know I don’t care about exposure or popularity. By default, I’m unpopular and far from mass market. What I’m talking about is the ability to hire me (and down the road, others) to help you create a world or tell stories. From product naming to brand architecture to helping you write your book, I want to be able to practice what I love, what I must do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Will I fail? Probably. Will I get to connect with talented artists? Absolutely. Will I get better at what I do? You better believe it. Will it take the sting and weight off of having difficulty publishing my own experimental fiction? For the love of god, yes. Will I freak out? Probably once a day, on a good day.

But it’s like risk versus reward, baby.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I’ll unveil the official name + all the fireworks in the coming weeks, but for now know that I’ve set down my brush, as Lily Briscoe once did.

Know that I’ve found my vision.

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literary gems: paul h. connolly’s essay collection: on essays

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Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary. And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask. Miss Moore was her name. –From Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”

Sometimes a piece of writing will seize you, will put your heart on pause and make you come down to your knees because you feel just like that. Because the arrangement of words–and that’s what good writing is really, the delicate dance between rhythm and type–made you see the world for what it is, or perhaps it made you see something about yourself, or others, differently. For me, the power of prose is in the author’s ability to give me second sight. There’s a tree in the middle of a forest, but it’s not really a tree because it reminds you of a moment in your childhood when the forest was your house and the tree was your mother’s hair and all you wanted to do was climb up and in. A good writer arranges words in such a way that you just don’t see the tree, you see above, beyond, under, over and through it to something else, something other.

You are, if nothing else, a fakir.

I’ve been in a funk lately. I’ve dozens of books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t. And after completing an exhausting round of necessary revisions on my manuscript, the idea of committing to a whole new world felt unbearable. I’ve just returned from battle, and now you’re asking me to jump once more unto the breach, dear friends? COME NOW. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, I’m still waiting on finalized contracts for two projects and who knows if I’ll ever sell this dark novel. So I set aside all the novels in favor of an essay collection I picked up on the street a few weeks back. A man was moving out of his home and he put out, quite literally, hundreds of books onto the street. I’m talking first editions. I’m talking Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Janet Malcolm, and Philip Roth. I nearly had a seizure and I took as many books as I could carry (40) and rushed on home to pore over my loot.

Can I tell you that I spent the day with Paul H. Connolly’s On Essays: A Reader for Writers? This out-of-print collection is so obscure it was challenging to locate it online (Amazon doesn’t stock it, but your local library might). A pity, really, because the collection is so remarkable, and part me of me wanted to retitle the subtitle to: A Reader for Anyone Who Likes to Read. The 56 essays examine the symbiotic nature between character and style. The essays are relatively short, but potent, and what’s remarkable is that the essays are satisfying for any reader, however, for the writer, they provide an excellent blueprint for how many authors found their voice and style.

Virginia Woolf, my hero, who brought modernist, experimental fiction to the fore (DYK that Mrs. Dalloway influenced Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude? Fun fact, right?) displayed her elliptical relationship between time and the interior/exterior world in “Gas.” Sure, the essay is about tripping out on gas during a perfunctory visit to the dentist, however, you start to see how the interior (the mind) is able to move through time and space and worlds while one is confined to a chair in a state of semi-consciousness. You can see how she plays with the juxtaposition of time (the dentist visit is short but your travel and imagination makes it feel as you’ve endured years)–both devices were the foundation for her later works, notably, The Waves (one of my favorite books!!!) and Mrs. Dalloway. I also chuckled reading her rage blackout confrontation with E.M. Forrester in “A Writer’s Diary,” over women being passed over for literary prizes.

In Connolly’s collection, you’ll find essays from Joan Didion (her landmark essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” is an obvious must-read. Then again, anything of Didion’s should be required reading), Calvin Trillin, George Orwell, E.B. White, Susan Sontag (my god, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-down or Power Source?“), and finally Toni Cade Bambara!

There’s so much I love, and can learn from, Bambara. I’ve always been taught that if the style of what you’re trying to achieve subsumes the meaning, the style is a disservice. Writing shouldn’t call attention to itself, shouldn’t be hyper-stylized, rather the work should be speak as a whole, as a brilliant symphony of language, tone, depth and meaning. The brilliance is in the balance, and I love how Bambara’s style is visual, visceral and dramatic. Read “The Lesson,” and you’ll see what I mean. She’s telling you a story and you can hear and feel her on the page. Her language sometimes drifts from Standard English (Junot Diaz got this too, when he refused to translate from the Spanish in Drown). On a technical level, she’s a dream for me because I’m obsessed with cadence and rhythm. I read everything I write out loud, every time, just so I can hear if it’s right. It has to sound melodic, musical, potent, for me to commit to it. And like the accumulation of notes, every line has to work in conjunction with what preceded it and the line that’s about to be written. On a pure story level, her writing is smart, funny, sharp, honest, and it brings me back to old Brooklyn, when I was from around the way and boys would conversate.

I haven’t been inspired in so long, and finding Bambara was a gift. I’ve ordered all of her books and I can’t wait to dive in.

chocolate chip banana coconut muffins

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“I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world.” ― Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Last night it occurred to me that it’s almost been a year since I decided to leave a safe, uncomfortably comfortable, world behind. I remember those first few uncertain weeks and how I was terrified that I wouldn’t find my way. A year later, I’ve achieved some clarity but my life plan hasn’t revealed itself as of yet. Instead of over-managing or planning maniacally, which I’m often wont to do, I’ve decided to cleave to what excites and challenges me. I’ve decided to pursue the projects that make me bolt out of bed in the morning.

I’m closing on a three month project in the middle of March, and I’m not sure of what’s next. Financially, this makes me a bit nervous but I’m trying to take each day as it comes. Knowing that what I’m gaining is so much richer than what I’ve given up.

And naturally, when I get nervous, I bake. So here’s my gift of nerves…chocolate chip coconut banana muffins.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup safflower oil
2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups ripe mashed banana (about 3 medium)
1 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cups rice or almond milk
Nonstick cooking spray

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 12-cup muffin tin with butter or coconut spray; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and vegetable oil on medium-low speed until combined. Beat in the flour mixture. Add the vanilla, banana, coconut, chips, and milk, and beat just to combine.

Divide batter evenly using an ice cream scoop. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, 40-45 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 15-20 minutes. Remove muffins from pans and let cool completely. Bread can be kept at room temperature, wrapped well in plastic, for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 3 months.

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