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Writing Coach Tip #1: Who are you writing for?

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I am a writer. I am a writing teacher. I am moving into the world of being a writing coach (though the truth is I’ve been doing this unofficially for years). I think of coaching along the same lines I think of my writing: Who is my audience? Who am I doing this for?

My audience is and always will be people of color. Yes, that means I write about and for people of color. I mean, it’s great when folks who aren’t POC read my work and learn from me, but I have to be honest when I say that they are not who I have in mind when I do this work.

I write for that girl who grew up in the hood after the Fire Wars and at the height of the crack era. Whose neighborhood was a pile of rubble. Who created an imaginative world in the junkyard next door. Who learned what violence was and heartbreak was in the same place she learned about community and resilience.

I write for the scholarship kid who was repeatedly reminded that she didn’t belong.

I write for the ones who were told that the only reason they were admitted to [insert university name here] was because of affirmative action. Like we couldn’t possibly have earned our seat or worked for that seat. Like we were indebted to white people for all that we have and will become.

I write for the single mom who doesn’t know how she got there but is determined to make it, for herself and for her children.

I write for the girls who teased their hair and blasted freestyle songs by TKA and George Lamond, Cynthia and Judy Torres, from the glass front stereo in the living room. The songs she sang, while propped on a pillow on the sill of her best friend’s third floor window. The girls who sang to the boys playing stickball on the street below.

I write for us who grew up in NYC during the birth of hip hop. Who saw the kids stealing away at night with their bags full of spray cans. Who saw them return with paint stained hands and stories about the art they created on train cars and walls, and having to run away from the cops before they could take it all in.

I write for those who waited anxiously while the break dancers slit the cardboard boxes with box cutters so they could lay them out to do their headpins and windmills and hand hops. Some of us even knew how to get power from the lamp posts so we could blast music for the boys and girls in their track suits and kangols to do their thing.

We who danced to Menudo and learned all the steps from the videos. We who excitedly planned to go see the movie Una Aventura Llamada Menudo, and later, Salsa with former Menudo member Robby Rosa.

We who learned about love and heartbreak from the salsa songs and boleros our mothers listened to on Super KQ while they cleaned our apartments with King Pine.

We women who dare to love women, and men who dare to love men. And those of us who don’t fit into the binaries. Who love who we love in darkness because we are terrified of what will happen when and if that comes to light.

And those of us who love under the strobe light for everyone to see, because we can and want to. Because we dare. Because we know we will be ostracized and judged, but we do it anyway because we love that hard and with that much risk.

We who rarely see ourselves in movies and books, and when we do, we are the drug dealers and the nannies and the maids and the prostitutes. We are the criminals.

We who when we learn about where and who we come from, are told in no uncertain terms that it was the white man’s burden to save us, and they’ve been saving us ever since.

I write for and about us, and I do so unapologetically. And when I think about coaching people like us, I know that our stories are unique and necessary and important; and the needs of the writers of those stories are also unique and important, and must be considered.

You need a writing coach who understands these realities, fam.

Today, as I move forward in this new venture, I am thinking specifically about what writers of color need: What support do they need? What do I key in on when it comes to craft and living the “writer life”?

I am thinking today about voice: voice on the page; how we tell our stories and to whom.

Who is in the room with you when you write, metaphorically speaking? Can you be your complete self with these people? Are there people who make you feel uncomfortable, insecure, like you are not enough? Why are they in the room with you? How is there presence affecting your writing? What can you do to remove them?

There is no such thing as writing for everyone or a general audience. That far too often translates to white people since we’ve been told directly and subliminally for our entire lives that we should aim to write like dead white men, and that our people and our cultures and our histories aren’t worthy of being studied or read. We learned this when the books we read and the histories we learned in school were largely white and western.

So, what do we do? Much of the work requires unlearning what we’ve learned. We have to dig into ourselves to find our voices. We have to do that now.

Check out my essay “Writers of Color: Your Voice Matter” for tips on how to find your voice; and how I learned that I was writing for the white gaze and what steps I took to unlearn that.

And stay tuned for my online Finding Your Voice class coming in November.

I’ll also be launching writing coach sessions soon. Until then, read on and write on and stay beautiful. Word.

Can You See Me Now? The Fragility of Maternal Transition

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I was commissioned a few weeks ago to write my first longform essay for Bitch Media. I was both terrified and excited. So much of the journey was convincing myself that I could do this. That I was enough and worthy. I was fortunate to have an editor, Lisa Factora-Borchers, who was indispensable in helping me stay focused, and reminded me that my voice was the anchor of the piece. Cheers to taking risks & getting out of your comfort zone to try something new. I think I like longform, and will definitely be doing this again. Yes yes! ❤

The essay went live today! Here’s an excerpt and a link:

I was in labor for 26 hours. The contractions were unrelenting. When I was asked if I needed an epidural, my mother reminded me, “Your sister never needed that.” My aunt said, “Me either.” I turned the meds down.

I had to be induced at hour 16 because I was stuck at three centimeters. Sensing what I was dealing with, my doctor whispered, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’re having back labor, the worst labor. The pain will get worse once I give you the Pitocin. You are not weak for needing help, Vanessa.” That’s when I finally got the epidural. I had an emergency C-section ten hours later.

The next day, the staples holding the wound shut snapped in two places. I was told that the wound would not be re-stapled and instead a visiting nurse would come to my home every day for four weeks to dress the wound. That would cost $30 per visit.

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My mother came the first day to prepare a Honduran remedy to induce my production of breast milk. Then she was gone.

My daughter’s father went back to work days later. I don’t remember him ever asking for paternity leave, or if it was even an option then. Saying we couldn’t afford it, he pushed me to end the nurse services after two weeks. The nurse cautioned against this, but still taught taught me how to dress the wound myself, which was excruciating. She didn’t look at my daughter’s father as she walked out.

Keep reading here: Can You See Me Now?: The Fragility of Maternal Transition by Vanessa Martir

When the microaggressions stack

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I should be working on this commissioned essay on the fragility of motherhood, but instead, I’m here on my deck, trying to gouge out this tightness in my chest. Claw it out. These words are my attempt.

My daughter and I went out this morning to run errands and walk the dog. We went to the bank, to Starbucks to get my coffee then to the market to get a few things. She waited outside with the dog when we made our first two stops, but wanted to go into the market with me, that way she could remind me to get granola and cheese, and “please, can we get some more strawberries and yogurt so I can make a smoothie?” “Can we get bananas?” “Can we get ice cream?” We tied the dog in the shade. We were only supposed to be a few minutes, but it’s Sunday and there were lines and it took us longer than expected.

Baby girl went out ahead of me. “I’m gonna go get Napoleon.” She loves her dog, this tiny mutt who is fearless and protective and has helped us work through our grief over the past four years since losing my brother. I remember Napoleon sitting close to me, watching, as I cried myself to sleep some nights when I was in that deep well of grief. I remember how quickly he learned my whistle when I brought him with me to hike the woods. How joyful he gets when he’s allowed to run off his leash. How stiff he gets when he sees a stranger approach. He stands in front of me, ears perked, a quiet growl, mouth snarled, his canines shining. He is lying on my lap as I type this.

I came out to see a woman yelling at my daughter. I saw red, but tried to stay calm. My daughter is 12. I have to set an example. 

A man approaches me. He has a badge hanging around a string on his neck. He says, “Is this your dog?” “Yes,” I say, but I am staring at that woman and my daughter still has her back to me. “What’s going on? Why are you yelling at my daughter?” My daughter turns. Her eyes are wide. The woman walks towards me. “Is this your dog? He’s been out here for 45 minutes…” I put up my hand. “How about you lower your voice? That’s not the way you talk to people.”

The man asks for the dog’s tags. Says I can’t leave my dog out here like that. I show him my bags. Tell him about the lines. The woman is yelling. I glare at her. “You need to stop yelling at me and you also need to not yell at my kid.” “I didn’t know she was your daughter,” she yells. Her face is red. She is sweating. There is a cool breeze. Her sweat is rage.

“The point is that she’s someone’s daughter and you don’t yell at someone else’s kid.” She continues to yell. The man tucks the badge back into his shirt.

“It’s inappropriate for you to approach an adult like this.” I am still trying to stay calm but my hands are fists. White-knuckled. “You can talk to me without yelling or being hostile.” He nods. I pull my daughter towards me.

The woman has walked away. She is still yelling. “Get the fuck out of my face.”

“No one is in your face. I walked out here to you yelling at my kid, then you yelled at me. You’re a savage.”

She turns and walks towards me. I pull my daughter behind me. Through gritted teeth, I say, “You don’t wanna do that.” She stops in her tracks. Tells me, “Fuck you… You people…”

The man stands in front of her. She makes to move around him. She’s emboldened by him trying to stop her.

I laugh. “You’re a barbarian.”

“Barbaric is you leaving this dog out here. Poor dog.”

Before you defend her or think maybe she was right, remember that my dog was in the shade. It is not a burning hot day. There is a breeze in the air. Contrary to what she insisted, we were not in the market for 45 minutes. And we don’t usually leave him out like that. We went into the market for a few things that turned into a small compra, as happens with a 12 year old who wants you to buy this and that.

Regardless, there is a way to speak to people that doesn’t require yelling or being hostile and aggressive.

Regardless, that is not the way to get people to hear you.

Regardless, I am one of the “you people” she referred to. That’s all she said, “you people…” She didn’t have to finish. I saw it in the curl of her lip when I walked out and saw her yelling my kid. I saw it when she sneered fuck you.

***

I moved to this neighborhood in the Bronx that is notorious for its racism. I moved here because I heard it’s gotten more diverse, and I liked the small town feel of the neighborhood. I love our apartment. I love that I have a writing room and a deck. I love that we’re on a quiet road, across the street from a park. I love that I am woken by the chirping of the birds outside my window, blue jays and sparrows and red cardinals and tufted titmouses. A hawk likes to perch itself in a dead tree behind the house. I have heard her screech through the canopy. There are hiking trails a few blocks away. I’ve made this place home.

I moved here in the winter so I was “protected” for a while. Then the weather warmed and people started showing their asses.

The first time happened in the early spring, when there was still a chill in the air. I was wearing a sweatshirt. I looked like a teenager. I am 41. I was walking the dog past three older white folks by a stretch littered with mounds of dog poop. Napoleon stopped to pee. One of the woman sneered at me as they passed. Though I was perplexed, I ignored her. I was feeling damn good. I was planning a day of writing and hiking the trails I’d found the week before. It was spring, my favorite season, when the earth comes back to life.

“These people are disgusting. They need to clean up after their dogs.” She was referring to the mounds of dog shit she’d just walked past. Mounds the size of my dog’s head. None of them were his.

That’s when I realized she was talking about me.

“You’re right,” I said. “They do need to clean up after their dogs, but none of that was my dog.”

“So where is your bag?” she yelled. “You’re disgusting.”

“No, you’re disgusting for making assumptions about someone you don’t know. Did you see my dog shit there?”

She got into the car quickly and slammed the door. That’s when the man she was with said something. I don’t remember what but I know it was along the same lines as her diatribe: “you people…”

I lost it at that point. “Shut the fuck up,” I yelled and kept walking.

But it sat in my belly. The “you people…” The knowing that this was just the beginning.

There have been more incidents. A teenage girl who insisted that I walk around her. A white man in the supermarket. The owner of the house telling us “this isn’t Washington Heights” one night when she complained that our music was too loud.

***

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I had to read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” slowly. It was so hard to see that reflection. I remembered so many moments: in boarding school, a lit cigarette thrown at my thirteen year old body; in college, being repeatedly mistaken for a member of the custodial staff, not a student, never a student; being told that I owe my elite education to affirmative action, not something I worked my ass off to get. These instances, too many to list and count, stack up and weigh on you. They are granite in your throat, a boulder on your chest, cement in your shoes. My daughter is learning this, and it is devastating to not be able to protect her from it.

***

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities. World-Trust.org

***

My daughter and I got into a conversation on our way back home about what happened. She said, “That lady wouldn’t have yelled at us like that if we were white…” It is one of the saddest things my daughter has ever said to me. Why? Because she is 12 and already knows what racism and prejudice looks like.

She also knows that her mama got her back, always.

***

How to care for the injured body,
the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

It was in Ankara that I first felt shame for being who I was and coming from where I was from. I was in Turkey for the NATO Children of the World Festival. A group of black and brown kids from NYC was assembled to participate. We practiced for weeks before the auditions, then practiced for months before we headed to Turkey in the spring of 1989. I was 13, in 8th grade, and going through the boarding school admission process. This was the first time I was away from home by myself.

My host sister’s name was Asli. She was my age, blond and blue-eyed, and lived with her mother in a high rise condominium that overlooked the city. One day I walked into the bathroom to shower and saw Asli’s period soaked panties in the tub. I asked her to move them so I could shower. “That’s the maid’s job,” she said, with disgust.

That was the first and last time I saw the maid, who looked so much like me and my people. She hung her head as she entered the bathroom and shut the door behind her. When she resurfaced, the panties were gone and the bathroom sparkled. She stared at the floor as she walked past.

“What’s her name?” I asked Asli.

“What do you want to know that for?”

I went and took a shower as I’d planned.

The day before I left, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The woman turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.

I came back to New York knowing that I had to leave Brooklyn. I had to prove that I was better than that. Than them. My people. I don’t say this with any sort of pride. I was a little girl who for the first time learned in Turkey, with Asli, that there was shame in being brown and being poor. I wanted nothing to do with that shame. I internalized that shit. I believed I was less than. It took me a long time to unlearn that shit. It was hard to when in boarding school and college and corporate America, I was reminded constantly that I was inferior because I was brown.

I shrunk myself for a long time. I tried to shrink the Latina brown girl in me. I tried to talk the way they wanted me to and act the way they wanted me to. I wanted so desperately to fit in…

***

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend. ― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

A memory came flying in last weekend. I was camping in the woods of Northern Michigan with a group of women. A sister, E. Nina Jay, showed me her book (which I later purchased) and I spent some time reading her poems aloud. Beautiful, devastating poems about love and heartbreak and blackness. She complimented me on my speaking voice. The next day, at the Variety Show, I read one of Nina’s poems and a poem I wrote hours before. People complimented me on both my writing and my voice. “You read so well,” they said. I flashed to boarding school. 1989.

We were walking across one of the bridges that connected the lunch room and mezzanine to the main school building. This specific bridge had large windows that looked out onto the shop on one side (where mostly boys learned about cars) and onto the playground of the child learning center on the other side.

I was a new arrival, the only 9th grader in the scholarship program. He, a young black man, a senior who was a starter on the football team, bused in from Boston (Roxbury? Dorchester?), passed me the letter as I was walking with two girls in the same scholarship program, a senior and a sophomore, also from NY.

It was one of those “I like you, do you like me?” kind of love letters. Nothing profound. Cute in that young love way. But that’s not the point of this story. The point is that after I read the letter, they scrambled to read it too. I passed it to the senior, a Boricua from the Bronx. “You can read it firster than her.” They fell over laughing. Belly clutching laughing. At me. But it took me a minute to realize that. “Firster?” the black Dominican sophomore from Brooklyn said, laughing in my face now. “Who says firster? That’s not even a word.”

That wasn’t the first time I was made fun of for the way I spoke. And it wasn’t the last. The teachers corrected me. “It’s want to, Vanessa. Not wanna.” They told me I shouldn’t speak Spanish outside of Spanish class and, no, Spanglish wasn’t acceptable either.

I remember walking down the hallway, hearing, “Tawk, Rosie, tawk. We wanna hear you tawk.” They were referring to me as Rosie Perez (Tina) in the movie Do the Right Thing, the only context they had of a Latina in that era.

The kids would snicker when I was called on to read aloud in class. I knew how to read but I was always nervous so I messed up words. I stuttered. I stumbled. And they’d laugh.

I hated it. I hated that I didn’t fit in. I hated being mocked and made fun of. I hated feeling so small and less than. I promised  myself that I’d left that shit in NYC. That wasn’t going to happen to me here. Here I was starting anew. Here I was going to belong.

It started one day while I was sitting in the basement study of the house on Norfolk Terrace which served as our dorm. Our desks faced the wall. There was a window above mine that led to the driveway and the big oak tree I stared at at night from my bed.

I looked at the book shelf a few feet away to my left and scanned the shelves. I stopped at the Encyclopedias. I picked one up, opened it and started reading out loud. I enunciated the words. Want to. Going to. The not da. 

I practiced every day, alone in that basement. I practiced in my head on my long walks to school. But why not Pero why.

I started to volunteer to read aloud. The students stopped laughing. They watched me with raised eyebrows. They asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?” “Do what?” I asked, feigning confusion.

I learned to to read and speak the way they wanted me to. I didn’t use Spanish or slang.

I learned how to read aloud confidently. I learned to project my voice. I learned the power of captivating a room.

I’d soon realize that I wouldn’t fit in no matter what I did, but by then it didn’t matter. They knew I was smart. They knew I was determined. They knew I could assimilate. That’s what mattered. My brain could be respected if I wasn’t. That’s what mattered.

***

Nobody notices, only you’ve known,
you’re not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad–
It’s just this, you’re injured.
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

***

On our way up to Michigan, we stopped at a huge shopping store to get some final items for camping. We hear: “Oh shit” and turn around. We see a black man staring at us open mouthed. His eyes are so wide. My partner Katia laughs and says, “People of color, right?” He says: “Yes.” His name is Ovanté. He hugs us. Says: “Thank you for existing. Thank you for being alive here in Northern Michigan.” This is evidence of the importance of representation and seeing ourselves in the world we live in.

I remember the isolation of boarding school. It was there that I learned solitude. This is why…

***

It’s taken me a long time to undo what the world did to the girl and young woman I was. I had to teach myself that I was worthy and my stories were important and needed to be written. I had to read writers of color and protest for Ethnic Studies at Columbia University. I had to attend writing programs and workshops like VONA/Voices and Cave Canem. I had to be among communities of writers and artists of color. I had to make my way in this world that still assaults us every day, outside supermarkets, in neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly diversified while the white folks remind us that we do not belong. You people… 

I am no longer the girl that wants or needs their acceptance. I am no longer trying to be anyone but who I am—Afro-Indígena, fierce and loving and protective and loud and in your face. I will not be silenced. Ever. You should know that before you come for me. You will learn.

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FREE One Day WOL Essay Class

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Spread the word fam: FREE One Day Writing Our Lives Personal Essay Class

When: September 16th, 12pm-5pm
Where: West Village, NYC
Note: I will be streaming this class online, likely via FB Live (more info on that forthcoming)

Interested: send an email to writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com with “Free One Day Class” in the Subject Line

I also have upcoming tuition based classes coming this fall, including a nine week personal essay class and a slew of online classes launching in October. You can find that information here.

Fall 2017 Writing Our Lives: Essentials of the Personal Essay Class

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* Workshop Dates: September 23, 30, October 7, 14, 21, November 4, 11, 18, December 2

* Workshop Times: 12pm-5pm unless otherwise indicated

* Tuition/Cost: $620 — Payment plans available. There is a nonrefundable $100 deposit required to reserve your seat. The deposit goes towards your tuition. If you are interested in a payment plan, you must arrange this BEFORE class begins.

* Financial Aid: A limited number of need based, partial scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, send a letter explaining your financial need—i.e. unemployed, underemployed, etc. Also explain why you think you need this class, what you expect to gain from it, and why you think you are deserving of the scholarship beyond your financial need. Send the letter with “Writing Our Lives Scholarship” in the subject line to: writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com. (Note: Students who have not received a scholarship in the past will be given first dibs on the scholarships.)

* Project: A maximum 1500 word essay. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, December 2nd. More details will be provided.

Why nine weeks? Because I want to give my writers extended time to sit with the lessons and practice them at length; to dig into the stories that haunt them to find the one they want to delve into for their project: the essay we workshop in the last week of class. I want to give my writers time to practice what it means to write in their own voices—you’d be surprised how many of us write in these voices that are not ours because we’ve been told for our entire lives that we are not enough and our stories are not enough and our language is inferior (more on this here). I want to give my writers more time to be with themselves and their conviction to write these stories that gnaw at them.

What you need to know:

* This class is designed for people who are new or fairly new to the personal essay/memoir and know they want to take on the challenge.

* Perhaps you are interested in writing a memoir and want to get your feet wet in essay. As a memoir writer myself, I can tell you that the personal essay is the micro of the macro that is memoir.

* Maybe you’re a seasoned writer who wants to brush up on the essentials. There’s room for you too! Legend has it that Alvin Ailey used to take a basics dance class periodically, even after he created his now renowned dance school, “to remind myself,” he said.

* In the class we will dig into the fundamentals of writing personal essays: how to decide on a topic, how to start, how to read essays like writers (because reading like a writer and reading like a reader are not the same thing), how to build well-developed characters, how to write dialogue, etc.

* We will be reading essays (lots of them) and dissecting them; analyzing why the author made the decision(s) he/she made. We’ll also be doing tons of writing, including a maximum 1500 word essay as a final project. What I’m saying is you must be willing and able to do the work. The writing life you envision requires it.

Still not sure if this class is for you? Ask yourself this:

* Have you read essays and wanted to write your own but the thoughts get lost in translation, somewhere between your brain and your fingertips?

* Have you tried to write essays but find them hard to finish?

* Have you wondered how writers write their amazing essays but think you just don’t have the chops and wish you did? (Side note: you do have the chops!)

* Do you write religiously or sporadically in your journal and wish (maybe even know) you could make those streams of consciousness into essays?

* Are you a writer (perhaps you’ve written poetry and/or fiction) who wants a refresher on the techniques you take for granted so you can take a stab at essay writing?

* Have you heard some great things about the Writing Our Lives Workshop and want to see Vanessa in action?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this class is for you. Email writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com for information on registration, payment plans, etc.

Still not sure, I am offering a FREE One Day Class on September 16th, 12-5pm. Email for more details on that, including location, etc.

 

The Story of Writing Our Lives

In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop. I walked out knowing I wanted to help bring our stories out into the world. Stories by marginalized writers like me who didn’t see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists.

Writing Our Lives is my way of helping you write your stories that are so necessary and important, even if you don’t yet believe they are.

Since creating Writing Our Lives in 2010, I’ve led hundreds of writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Many have gone on to publish and attend reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.

There was so much going on in the country and in my life when I created the class. I’d just quit my full-time editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. The climate of the country was contentious, to say the least—Proposition 8 had just been ratified, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation, and the Texas Textbook wars were gathering steam.

The present climate continues to fuel my belief that it’s time we write our stories, that we write them in our voices, and that we do so unapologetically. The massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the reality that Trump is in the White House, have all served to convince me even more that we need, the world needs our stories.

I’ve been enamored with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books (which I know now are very problematic but was too young to know then), reading the series at least three or four times, but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia University that really grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Known as the first memoir in history (which is questionable but that’s a conversation for a later time), that book started this personal writing obsession that made me search out and read thousands of memoirs and essays. I’ve used all this curiosity and knowledge to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop, and to reinvent it numerous times, and build upon on it.

With that in mind, I am bringing Writing Our Lives online! More information will be provided in the coming weeks, but here are the classes slated to launch in October:

– Essentials of the Personal Essay (generative online class) — six sessions. *Note: this is not a workshop. Workshopping may be offered for an additional fee.

– Writing Fiction from Real Life (generative online class) — 3 sessions.

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page (generative online class) — 3 sessions.

 

Coming Spring 2018 — Information Forthcoming 

– Writing the Self as a Character— Online & In-Person Generative class

– Writing the Mother Wound — Online & In-Person generative class

– Writing Fiction from Real Life — In-Person class

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page — In-Person Class

*Note: The nine week essentials of the personal essay class will not be offered in the spring

 

How is Vanessa Mártir qualified to do this work?

Vanessa Mártir is a writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: vanessamartir.blog. Vanessa’s essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Butter, Poets and Writers, Huffington Post, Kweli Journal, Thought Catalog, and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (shopping), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists(Workman Books, 2010). In 2010, Vanessa resigned from her full-time editing position to write and teach full-time. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow. She created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2010 and has since led more than 200 emerging writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship. In 2016, Vanessa challenged herself to write an essay a week, dubbing the effort in The Relentless Files. She was so inspired by what she learned, that she decided to share the challenge with her community, creating the #52essays2017 challenge, in which more than 800 writers are participating. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find her on a dance floor, punching a bag at the gym, or hugging a tree in a forest near you.

Celebrate yourself 

Addiction and the ghosts we carry

This morning I learned of the acceptance of a panel I was invited to be on at AWP 2018 in Tampa. The panel is titled Destruction and Creation: Addiction, Recovery, and Writing with Melissa Febos, Terese Mailhot, and Rob Roberge, moderated by Kelly Thompson

Panel description: The addiction story, though centuries old, is a breaking one. Five authors who write from the edges present perspectives and offer their approaches, both practical and emotional, to writing about addiction and recovery and the role addiction plays in their creative lives. The addiction myth operates in profound ways both historically and presently in the lives of writers. How do vocation and addiction intersect? How do we write in and through addiction spaces, images, and narratives?

I am thinking of my brother, Juan Carlos. When he died, after his fifteen year struggle with heroin addiction, I became obsessed with learning about addiction. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand him–why he snorted it that first time; why he picked up that needle. I wanted to dig into why it is/was that I have been able to make something beautiful out of these ghosts that haunt me while he was taken out by his.

What happened to you, Superman?

In my research, I came upon these lines in an article that have stayed with me:

“If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.”

I thought of this recently when someone told me that we have to stop treating addicts as victims. That kind of thinking isn’t just problematic, it’s simplistic and dismissive. We can hold people accountable for their behavior while also understanding that they are wounded and can’t deal with these wounds. “They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.” Or that bottle of scotch. Or that crack pipe.

***

When I first noticed the sore on Carlos’s hand, it was just above his wrist, in the meaty part where his thumb and his index finger met. I knew he used heroin, he’d been doing it for years, had been in and out of rehab, but he always said he couldn’t shoot up. “It scares me,” he said.

I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I searched his face, for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.

“Nothing. I cut myself.” He snatched his hand away.

“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid. Or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

“Ay Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When we finally spoke, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.

One time, when Carlos was living with me back in 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push.

Later, out of nowhere, he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”

I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization, and I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was by this cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand until just before he died.

***

My childhood friend Ulysses lost his mother to the crack epidemic that scourged our neighborhoods in the 80s and 90s. Maritza became the neighborhood crackhead. Back then, we all had a neighborhood crackhead. She was different when she was high. Once, she balanced herself on the top of a fire hydrant, laughing and marveling at herself, she looked like something straight out of a circus act.

But when she was sober, a dark cloud came over her. She would sometimes call to me and lower her bag on a rope from her second floor window where she put change so I could go get her the Weekly World News from the newsstand up the block. She paid me by giving me the old ones she’d already read. I’d run to the backyard and scurry up my plum tree to read them. Stories about aliens and a bat child found in a cave and how Elvis was alive and living in a monastery in India. It was in that tree that I became a writer. Maritza was part of the journey.

***

Is that what I had that my brother didn’t have: writing? A way of processing and being with these ghosts. A way of digging into them and thus freeing myself from their chokehold, poco a poco, día a día. 

***

My brother found out that he was conceived in a rape when he was just 13 years old. There are several stories around how he found out. My mother says it was Millie, her partner, who told him. She’s built a whole narrative around it. She’s cried to me, “Why did she tell my son?”

My brother told me it was my mother who told him. Which story is true, I can’t say. What I can say is that my brother didn’t receive the support he needed. No therapy. No discussion. He was told this story about his conception and was supposed to, expected to live with it. Forced to live with it. This is the story that haunted him. This is the thing that was scarier than that fuckin needle and that crack and the crystal meth that I only learned about after he died.

I think of Voldemort, the antagonist of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. According to the story, Voldemort could not feel love because his witch mother, Merope, conceived him when his father (a muggle named Tom Riddle, Sr.) was under the influence of a powerful love potion, Amortentia. The love potion could not create actual love, only infatuation. Merope died in childbirth and in an interview, J.K. Rowling said: “It was a symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union–but of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived.” Once the effects of the potion wore off, Tom Riddle Sr. abandoned both Merope and his son, so when his mother died, Voldemort had to spend his most impressionable years in an orphanage, and later at Hogwarts as a member of the Slytherin house.

Consider the story of Harry together. Harry also had a terrible loveless childhood, and somehow gained strength from the struggle. Harry used that strength in a much different way than Voldemort. He became “the one.” The only one who could destroy Voldemort.

My brother had my mother. She loved him in a co-dependent way that I’m still picking apart. She took care of him until the end.

She abandoned me.

So that leads me to the question: if my brother was unmothered, would he have been able to survive his ghosts?

I don’t know. These are all questions I have. They come from the bittersweet realization I’ve had over the journey of writing my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings — I would not be who I am, would not have accomplished all that I have and continue to, had I been mothered.

Ain’t that a bitch?

I still want to know… What happened to you, Superman? Why? Why did you not see yourself worthy of love when you had so much of it in your life? Why couldn’t you overcome that ghost? And why do I continue to work tirelessly to overcome mine?

It was my brother’s death that made me decide to do the work to heal.

I can pinpoint the moment I decided to live. Because, yes, that’s what it became. I had to decide to live. I was in that darkness of grief that I knew could take me out. That almost did.

I walked into my daughter’s room like I have and still do every night since she was born. I looked at this beautiful little girl who formed in my womb, and thought, “I can’t leave her. She needs me.”

She needs me like I needed my mother.

And so, I took a chair and sat in my grief and all those griefs this grief uncovered, especially the grief over my relationship with my mother, the fact that she can’t and won’t mother me. And she probably never will. 

Why couldn’t he do that? Why, carajo, why?

***

I have so many questions. Some of them I’ll never be able to answer, but this I do know — this work I do is how I bring my brother along with me. I love him. I miss him. I carry him. Always.

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