I’ve been dreading writing this. Diem Jones, our fearless leader, assigned me this article on the last day of VONA, when I was raw and shaken and exhausted and scared. Scared to re-enter my life in NYC, scared to go in on my memoir again with the epiphanies I made during my residency with Mat Johnson, scared to stare at my reflection on the blank page. I’m still scared.
As we VONA alumni know, VONA has a way of jolting you. Tsunami-ing your heart so no matter how confident you are when you walk in, no matter how many times you’ve been to VONA, you’re going to be shaken, shaken like shaken-baby-syndrome-kind-of- shaken. This year was no different. No, I lie, it was different. It was a totally different kind of rattling. This one was seismic. Like tectonic plates shifting.
I walked in with the first draft of my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. And, being who I am, I met with Mat at 9:30am on Monday morning. I was ready to go in. Or so I thought. He asked me questions I stammered through. “What memoirs have you read?” I couldn’t answer. I’ve read dozens of memoirs and personal narratives, but I drew a blank. I kept dropping things. My pen. My wallet. My journal. What is wrong with you, woman? Get it together!
“What structure are you using?” Matt asked.
Me: Blank stare.
“What question does your memoir answer?”
Me: Blank stare. More dropping of things.
I summarized each story of my book. Explained why I was able to write it when I did. Usually because of something my daughter Vasialys did or said or a memory of myself when I was her age.
“So, how are you including your daughter in this book?”
“That’s what you’re running from.” My insides clenched. How the hell did he know I was avoiding that? That I didn’t want to include my Minnie Me. That doing that would be a completely different kind of confrontation. I’d have to face my insecurities about myself as a mother. Oh shit!
By the end of our one hour meeting, which turned into an hour and a half, I had five assignments.
- Figure out the question that the memoir answers.
- Explain how each story answers that question.
- Rewrite one of the stories to include my daughter.
- Come up with a list of themes.
- Figure out the structure.
The first three days of VONA are a fuckin’ semester, man.
I cried that day. I ran to the cafeteria and cried into my friend’s shoulder. I didn’t want to do the work. I was scared to. I was scared of having to include my daughter. I was scared of going into that space, and I was pissed off at Mat for making me do it.
Thank God for Elmaz. She called and said, “Wanna go on a hike?” I almost choked. “Oh my God, how did you know?” We trekked to Albany Bulb with Evelina Galang, and somehow, between confessions and giggles and posing for pictures, the weight lifted and I knew I’d be okay, that I’d do the work, like I always do, and though I’d fall apart, I’d come back together.
Over the next two days I cried at least six times. Snot dripping, blubbering kind of crying. While talking to my VONA sisters about what was coming up while working on my assignments, I finally said out loud, “Most of the time I think Vasia’s amazing in spite of me, not because of me.” (Yes, I know this doesn’t make logical sense but the heart isn’t dictated by logic.) An angel sat in front of me, palmed my cheeks, and said, “How do you expect her to see her light if you don’t see yours.” Yes, the tectonic plates did a loud grind in that moment.
Thursday morning I met with Mat again. All my assignments complete. “Brilliant,” Matt smiled. “Good work. Now [pause] let’s talk about your voice.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your voice, Vanessa. You know how to write. That’s not a question. You have this amazing story that I want to read. It’s your voice you have to work on.”
Me: Blank stare. Inside I was fighting myself: Don’t you dare cry, woman. Not again. Get yourself together!
“You have this energy when you tell a story. Shit, you carry this energy about you. It’s who you are. I want to see that on the page.”
Me: Puzzled expression.
“Let me show you. Talk to me about Millie.”
My insides squeezed again. Millie didn’t birth me. She wasn’t my biological mother but she’s the one who showed me love. Tender, unconditional, I believe in you love. I was orphaned when she died seven years ago.
Matt typed while I spoke.
“Millie always wore a kangol. A black kangol. And a pair of worn jeans. Worn to the point that there was a square in the left back pocket from where she carried her wallet. And she carried a ring with a thousand keys on the belt loop of her right hip. She always had beads of sweat on her lip and on the bridge of her Castillian nose no matter what season it was. Summer. Winter. She’d grab the brim of her Kangol and say, ‘Yo soy butch.’ But the way she did it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.”
“Okay. Stop.” He passed me my laptop. “You wrote that. I just typed it.” I bit my lip and swallowed hard. “That’s your voice. You have this staccato to your voice that shows the East Coast, hip hop influence. That’s where your power is. I want to see that on the page.”
I spent the day thinking about my voice. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, actually. Where and how I lost it and what I could do to remember. The hardest part was realizing that no matter how I’d convinced myself that I’d exposed my whole heart in the writing of my memoir, voice was a way I’d kept myself detached. Voice has always been a way to keep myself detached.
I traced the root of this silencing back to when I was a kid and different stages in my life when I was made to feel less than for having such a big personality, for being loud, for being Latina, for being from Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Friday morning, as I prepared for our final presentation, I was not in the in-your-face-yo-soy-loba-hear-me-howl-space that I’ve become known for. I was vulnerable and soft, and I knew I had to show that. Isn’t that what voice is? So, this is part of what I wrote and performed:
“What do you do when you realize your voice on the page isn’t yours? Your voice is the one you silenced porque de chiquita te dijeron que ‘las niñas no se portan asi.’ And in boarding school they made fun of you because ‘you sound like Rosie Perez.’ And in college, when that professor returned your piece, he said, ‘This isn’t writing.’ And he didn’t even look at you. You wanted to say, ‘Fuck you. This is writing. This is my fuckin’ writing.’ But you didn’t. Instead, you went home and you cried and you learned to write the way they wanted you to write. What do you do when you realize that you’re still writing the way they want you to write?”
(I should note that up to that point, I’d found writing in the second person almost impossible though I often speak in the second person. Voice epiphany? Yes! Shift 3042!)
I’ve been working on remembering my voice since my “re-entry” six weeks ago, and the universe has put a pile of projects on my plate to keep me writing—a piece my best friend asked me to write for his wedding, a presentation to a group of 27 bound-for-boarding-school-eighth-grade-boys, a key note address for my sorority’s twentieth anniversary gala. So many opportunities to work on voice! Yes! And also a sign from the universe: Remember your voice, lean into the fear though a large part of you wants to run far away from the page.
This work is hard. I am unlearning what I have learned, what I thought to be true, what I internalized for so many years: that I am not enough.
Still, I’m on a mission. I’m writing my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, with my voice, with all that Vanessa is. And I have the VONA tribe to thank for showing me that my story deserves to be, needs to be told. For showing me that I am more than enough.