*An essay every Friday of 2016 – delayed this week due to illness but better late than never, right?*
The first time I attempted to write this—my Week 7 Relentless Files essay—I was still a bit feverish but convinced that I could push through it. It was Thursday, February 11th and had just returned the day before from my trip to Oregon to attend Tin House’s Nonfiction Winter Workshop where I worked with the talented Lacy Johnson and met the incomparable Dorothy Allison (incomparable is no exaggeration) and the hilarious Nick Flynn (seriously, why nobody told me he’s so cool?).
I started feeling sick on the first day of the workshop (which was Friday 2/5) but brushed it off and pushed through. It was a magical weekend but the truth is I felt sick throughout. I was congested and coughing, but I pushed because people helped me raise a lot of money to get there and I had work to do. By Sunday, I had to walk out of the faculty reading at the local bookstore because I was hacking so hard. The next day, Monday the 8th, I had a full on fever and felt run over. I had rented an Air BNB in Portland’s Art District where I’d planned to do a DIY residency and maybe some exploring. None of that happened. Instead, I spent two days in bed with chills and fever, crying and wishing I was home and not alone in a strange city. On Wednesday, I headed home. I was so delirious with illness, I left my tablet and keyboard (with two USB memory sticks that contain my writings and lesson plans and life) at airport security and didn’t even notice until 36 hours later when I thought Maybe I can get some writing done. Wrong. Thank God my computer was at the airport Lost & Found. It arrived on Saturday. I’ve spent the past few days healing, hence why my Relentless Files Week 7 essay is late. Sometimes, despite all effort, you have to concede that you’re sick and self-care has to be the focus.
I’ve had a few days to sit and think about the workshop. What I learned. The experiences I had. It was huge in some very important ways. The workshop was at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport (Nye Beach), Oregon, a sleepy beach town overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Have you seen the ocean crashing onto the shore of the Pacific Northwest? Its white crested waves are huge and roiling and gorgeous. Evergreen dotted cliffs in the distance, it’s like a scene out of a movie complete with a lighthouse (the Yaquina Head Lighthouse). Wooden houses with huge windows and decks, no curtains in site. Why bother? Who would deny oneself all that natural light and those stunning views?
Let’s start with what I learned from Lacy Johnson, this petite blonde with a crooked smile and bright blue eyes who’s seen some gorgeous things and experienced some horrid things and written about them.
I was in the workshop with five other writers (four women, one man) and I was the first one workshopped on the first day because such is my life and the universe knows I need time to process. What did I learn? Many things but the greatest discovery is that this memoir I’m writing, that started organically on this here blog as I was enduring the greatest grief of my life, isn’t about that grief over losing my brother. I guess I’ve known all along and that’s why I’ve had trouble pulling the book together. I guess I’ve been running away from writing about it though I write about it all the time. What’s that? Being unmothered.
Lacy had us come up with a question that we’re trying to answer. She called it the “mystery” part of the creative nonfiction piece we’re writing. There’s more to it and there were steps along the way, of course, but in essence that’s what it came down to: What are the essential questions we’re trying to answer, even if we’re not sure we can answer them. She gave us time to spin our wheels, to think about what we’re writing and why. What is it we’re trying to accomplish? Why are we digging into our pasts and pulling out all this trauma and pain and beauty? I kept coming back to my mother. I kept coming back to finally facing that I am unmothered, that I pretty much always have been and will likely be for the rest of my life. The questions I’m tackling in this book are:
How can I learn to live (no longer just survive) and thrive and be a mother and partner and writer and teacher and sister and friend, how can I be this woman, now that I know this–that I am unmothered? How can I learn to live without my mother? How can I learn to live letting go of the hope that she will one day be able to love me the way I’ve always wanted and needed?
This changes the book, of course, but not in a way that scares me. In a way that makes so much sense. I talked to my brujermana Lizz about it and she reminded me: “So much of your work is about your mother, sis.” And it is.
A few weeks ago, at my five hour free Writing Our Lives class, a returning student confessed that she wanted to stop writing about her sister. “I’m tired of giving her that power.” I reminded her that we circle back to these stories that haunt us again and again in our work. I said: “You’re not giving her power by writing about her, love. You’re taking your power back.”
I think about the two novels I’ve written, how both protagonists have serious mom issues. Both are unmothered. Both struggle with this truth. Both make devastating decisions because they are unmoored and unguided, because they had to become women alone, through trial and error. I’ve been trying to take my power back for so long, it’s just that now I’m aware of it. Now I know what it is I’m doing and why. Now I have the audacity to do it. Or maybe it’s that I’m tired of trying. Maybe I needed to get here, to a place where I’m finally okay with this book not ending with a red bow wrapped all nice and neat, because life just doesn’t work that way. I will still be unmothered. I will still have to deal with that mother wound for the rest of my life. I’m no longer waiting or hoping for my mother to wake up one day, fit and able to love me. 39 years of waiting and hoping beyond all hope didn’t make that happen. This book is about trying to come to terms with that the best I can and the realization that there will be days that that truth will still be hard to bear. It may always be that way… If the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally can’t, that shit will damage you in ways that I am still naming and finding words for. So, no, this isn’t about unrealistic happy endings. That’s some movie shit and I’m writing real life here…my life. I’m finding a new way to live a less fractured and less pained way… I’m finding new ways of being relentless.
I could see and hear the ocean from my room, the Alice Walker room. In the distance, I could see the flash of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse every few seconds. It was against this backdrop that I met Dorothy Allison, one of my favorite writers.
I met her the first day at the opening reception when I went up to her in the Hemingway House (which is just as fancy as it sounds with a stunning view of the roiling Pacific from every room). I ran into her as I was coming downstairs after touring the house. She was ascending the stairs. I stopped her on the middle landing and said, “Hello, Dorothy.” I put out my hand. “I’m Vanessa and I’m a huge fan of your work.” “Hi, baby,” she said and took my hand. “Thank you. Who you working with?” I walked away trembling but proud of myself for not freezing up and actually introducing myself. I wanted to throw up.
It was the next day that Dorothy reminded me why she’s such a fuckin rockstar.
After our first day of workshop (where I was workshopped first, remember), Lacy Johnson and Dorothy Allison had craft talks on the ground floor of the Sylvia Hotel. They were framed by huge windows with a view of the gleaming sun and the ocean behind them. Yemaya of the Pacific is boisterous and loud.
Lacy Johnson went first with her Writing into the Silence talk. She was fantastic. I learned that Lacy Johnson was in the room with her then professor Claudia Rankine when an invited tenured white male professor (she never named him but if you know anything about what happened at AWP back in 2011, you know it was Tony Hoagland) was taken to task for his clearly racist poetry, specifically his 2002 poem “The Change.” Lacy said he started screaming as soon as the word racist was uttered. He yelled at his junior colleague, Claudie Rankine, telling her she didn’t need to understand his poem because it was “for white people.” He told a student to “shut up” and didn’t stop yelling until he left the room. Lacy confessed she said nothing. She stood there, in horror, as this tenured white professor yelled, wielding his privilege in the way that he knew he could. When Tony finally stormed out, the only other African American in the room, a student, turned to Lacy, who apparently claimed herself an ally then, and yelled, “Where the fuck were you? Where. The. Fuck. Were. You?” Lacy said she’s been trying to make up for her silence at that moment ever since.
Lacy was fantastic. She said essay is a verb, not just a noun, and that the essay gives voice to the intellectual mind. “The essays demands that you write the unspeakable…what you don’t have the language for.” She quoted John Berger: “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” As such “essaying is a form of productive looking,” Lacy said. She shared Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope as active, where “the odds are against you but you believe anyway.” “Essaying is a practice of hope,” Lacy insisted because essaying “stacks silences and gives them language.”
Lacy left me with much to think about, especially considering that I’ve felt for some time that the reason I write is to expose silences that have held my family in a chokehold for decades, the same silence that killed my brother. Still, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it was Dorothy Allison, who followed Lacy Johnson, who really took my breath away with her talk Writing from Life.
Dorothy is a proud 68 year old Southern white lesbian with deep wrinkles, loose skin and a presence that took up the entire room and the majestic view behind her. She started by saying, “The work I do is an assault.” She didn’t read like Lacy did. She talked and she didn’t miss a step. She said she believes she has a right to write because she’s suffered and as a result, “I have a right to make you suffer.”
She spoke of a poem she wrote years ago and performed dozens of times as a performance poet back in the day. The poem, “Boston, Massachusetts”, was written in the aftermath of the homophobic murder of a lesbian in Boston, who was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. In the poem, the narrator imagines the voice of that woman who’d been burned alive, “This is not all I am / I had something more in mind to do.” Dorothy said that she was mortified when she heard of the murder. “I wanted to be a hammer. I wanted to be a shaman. I wanted to be the fire that would make it so that no one could burn a lesbian in the street again…”
Months after writing the piece, she performed it at an event where afterward she was approached by the partner of that lesbian who was murdered. Dorothy said her blood went cold. “I never wanted to be the hammer in the same room with her lover.” We all gasped. “It makes you question your entitlement.”
Dorothy blew the top of my head off in that craft talk. I felt like I was at church complete with mhms and one hand raised saying, “Yes yes” except my sacrilegious ass said, “Oh shit” and “fuck yeah” instead. Highlights include:
– “I am a ruthless mother fucker. I steal from the people I love.”
– “The world does not change except through suffering and somebody taking a big, big risk.”
– When asked how to deal with the emotional nature of writing about your life, she suggested we find a physical activity that we really enjoy (she swims) and she added: “Jerk off!”
She said you have to be ruthless with your stories and have to be just as ruthless with yourself. “There are rules about writing about your life,” she said. “The problem is you have to construct them as you go.” It’s about what you can stand at the moment you’re writing. “How naked can you be?” She looked around at us when she said this, looking us all in the eye. I shivered when she looked at me, not in fear, but in awe. That’s when she said, “The world does not change except through suffering and somebody taking a big, big risk… Start small. Say a true thing then say another true thing, the next think you know you’re walking naked through the world.”
The demands of the writing from life, according to Dorothy, include:
– Honor the people you’re putting on the page because guilt will get you or they will because they are deeply hurt. Buy yourself a little bit of grace.
– Don’t hurt yourself in the process of writing your life. Give yourself permission. Take the time you need because you’re making art out of life and will release it into a world that may misrepresent you and/or create a version of you that’s not true. These are the costs to being naked in the world with your story so you have to “grow up in spirit” so you can handle that. You have to live up to the risk you’re taking.
– “There is no get out of jail free card. You will be damaged.” She told us about the time her sister called to tell her that her eleven year old niece was following in the family tradition—she was raped by her grandfather, her father’s father. Her sister wanted to know why it had happened. Why it happened to so many of the girls in their family. “You wrote that book. You should know.” Dorothy stared off and I could almost feel her ache: “You’ll wonder if you’d been better, you could have protected your niece…”
Dorothy insisted that art is an act of hope—hope to connect with the world—and this requires ruthlessness. In order to be ruthless “you have to be a witness to what they’ve done to you.” To forgive yourself, you have to be honest with the things you’ve done. She told us a story about when she was a “baby feminist.” She was working to get waitresses in South Carolina unionized when a black waitress asked her “Why aren’t you helping us?” “I don’t know why,” Dorothy said. She had to look at herself and admit, “Because I’m terrified of you.” She was horrified by her own racism. She said serious work requires this kind of risk taking. “Don’t make yourself the only Goldilocks of your stories.”
The following day, I saw Dorothy sitting out on the deck under the sun. I sat with her and we spent the next two hours talking about trauma and poverty and writing and the universe and why we do what we do. I told her my story, about my brother, about the silence around the rape in which he was conceived. I told her that I was revealing these secrets. She shook then nodded her head, “It’s so complicated.” “Those silences killed my brother. Those silences are why my mother can’t love me.” My eyes watered when I said it. By then I’d already realized that Relentless is about my being unmothered. “Aw baby,” Dorothy said. She looked at me in the eyes and put her hand on my knee and squeezed. Before we parted ways, she asked me for my address and told me to send her my essay Millie’s Girl.
I’m home now and it’s a week since Tin House ended. I’m finally feeling better. I miss the lulling sound of the ocean outside my window. I miss the energy of the Sylvia Beach hotel and the 21 writers who came from all over the country to talk writing nonfiction and craft and why we write. I was sick from day one but I pushed myself to participate in everything because I know I was supposed to be there. Lacy Johnson as a facilitator was pretty bad ass. During the faculty reading, she read an excerpt of her memoir that shook me hard and made me cry. Nick Flynn is brilliant. He had us do an exercise on the beach on Sunday that I’m going to bring home to my students. We bonded over Brooklyn; turns out he lives in “the mean streets of Carrol Gardens” (his words) and I had jokes on him about it all weekend. What more can I tell you about Dorothy Allison except that I wish she was my grandma and love that she called me baby. She’s wise and ruthlessly honest and so loving, she made my heart fly open every time I talked to her. I really hope to work with her in the future.
There were moments where I was acutely aware of being one of two or three people of color there—like when someone in my workshop asked me to translate the Spanish in my piece. Then there were moments when I realized I was among allies, like at Sunday morning breakfast when Lacy put her phone on the breakfast table for Dorothy to watch Beyonce’s “Formation” video for the first time. Her only preface was “Marlon James posted it last night with one comment: Black. As. Fuck.” We sat there and watched, then dissected it for the implications. It was a marvelous moment and really reminded me that we writers and artists are at the forefront of social change. As Dorothy said in her craft talk: “No change happens without suffering and someone taking big, big risks.” What risks are you taking? What are you doing to be a part of the movement? Stand up. It’s time.
When we returned to Tin House in Portland, Dorothy, Nick and Lacy were sitting around talking to a white haired man whose name I never did get. Somehow the topic of storms came up. The man said: There would be no literature without storms.
Dorothy Allison nodded, then said: And some of us are storms making our way in the world.
I love that woman’s spirit. Be a storm, familia.
There were journals in the room I stayed in (the Alice Walker room) where past guests wrote messages for those of us to come. The last occupants were a Latina lesbian couple who wrote in Spanish: “Miren por la ventana !ahi esta Dios!” I’m going out to be where God is. Join me.