*An essay a week in 2016*
When discussing my resistance to organized religion last summer, my mentor and friend Chris Abani, who I mention often in my work because he’s had that powerful an influence on me, said, “It’s not religion you resist, Vanessa, it’s orthodoxy.” I’ve been sitting with these words this week as I dig into my memoir.
Google defines orthodoxy as: “authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.”
I have studied the craft of writing at length. I have dug into memoirs and novels with the eye of a writer, looking at structure, at why the author made the decisions she made, at story arc and the way the story is put together. It is said that memoir has to have a structure. In her book on craft, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in a straightforward, linear time.”
At Tin House this past February, the facilitator of my nonfiction workshop, Lacy Johnson told me, “You have the stories. You have to think about your structure, Vanessa.”
I walked away from the book for a bit to consider this: How am I going to structure this memoir? I became obsessed with it. I couldn’t get past how I was going to start this memoir and structure it in a way that makes sense. Sense to whom? I got caught up in the reader. I got lost in the question and forgot about the story. This week, after lucid dreams where my brother visited me, I remembered: I’ve been writing this book for ten years. I already started. I had to get out of my own fuckin way.
In the dream I had this week with my Superman, he’d been murdered and I had the chance to go back in time to help find the assailant. When I saw my brother, I threw my arms around him and we both cried. Of relief. Of loss. Of I miss you. We stared at one another intently. Into each other.
I hadn’t felt him like that since shortly after he passed in 2013. In that dream we were in the ocean water. I saw a giant wave coming at us. My heart pounded so hard I felt it in my ears. When I looked at my brother, he said, “You know this is a dream, right?” I nodded. “I know it is…because you’re dead.
I had both these dreams in the early morning hours after a sleepless night of tossing and turning. This week I was up because I kept thinking about the book. How am I gonna start? What’s my structure? How will I tackle the questions the memoir attempts to answer: How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother? How is it I’ve been resilient in spite of (because of?) these ghosts that haunt me, while my brother and my dear friend RD were taken out by them?
I wrote a list of the stories I had in my iNotes. I wondered, doubted, questioned: Can I really do this? I took the summer off to finish this shit. Oh shit! That means I have to!
I went and sat in the park, my safe place where I can feel Mother Nature below me and around me and above me. All around. I reached out for love—my bruja sis Lizz, my homegirl Gabby. Then I went home and started pulling the stories up on the screen. I remembered that I’ve been working on this book for ten years. I have these stories. So many of them. I found stories I’d forgotten about. And right before my eyes, the book started coming together. My book. A Dim Capacity for Wings: A Relentless Journey by Vanessa Mártir.
Yesterday I printed it out. All the stories. I am carrying the manuscript around like I did my first and second novels. I am praying over these pages. I am reading and making notes. Seeing what fits and what doesn’t. Where the holes are. I am resisting orthodoxy. I am writing the way I do and love: collaging.
Merriam-Webster defines collage as: 1 a: an artistic composition made of various materials (as paper, cloth or wood) glues on a surface; b: a creative work that resembles such a composition in incorporating various materials or elements <the album is a collage of several musical styles>
What do I know? That I am writing this book and I am going to write it the way I want to. I will let the structure find me as it always has, in my essays and my books and the way I tell my stories to my Loba pack, in my kitchen, after a meal I cooked for them (baked chicken and arroz con fideo with a salad); we are sipping bourbon and loving one another.
Grand Valley University defines collage essay as “a form of lyric essay that depends on fragmentation, imagery, juxtaposition, and metaphor to get its work done. It creates multiple sections, each of which is a little piece by itself.
About.com says: The collage essay (also known as discontinuous essay or patchwork essay) generally forgoes conventional transitions, leaving it up to the reader to locate or impose connections between fragmented observations.
In her fantastic memoir The Chronology of Water Lidia Yuknavitch also resists structure. It was her book that gave me permission to do the same; to write this book the way I want to. “Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.”
Why am I sharing this? During my journey of trying to write this book, I searched for this: a record of the journey of memoir writing by memoir writers. I wanted to bear witness to their experiences, the rollercoaster that is memoir writing. I needed it to understand what I was feeling: the guilt, the anxiety, the worry, the call to write memoir. This memoir. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I found interviews and essays and articles about the journey after the memoirs were done and out in the world. I wanted to read documentation of the journey while it was happening. I couldn’t find any, so I decided to chronicle the journey myself. That is what this blog is, and ultimately, I see now, what the Relentless Files attempts to do: to show you, the reader, my roadmap, which is in no way linear or easy. It just is.
I’ve been told that I shouldn’t share this. That people who do not wish me well, who do not want me to succeed, will give me mal de ojo. They will wish me failure. They will roll their eyes and purse their lips and say, “She can’t do it. She won’t do it. She ain’t shit.”
Today, as I sit here in my partner’s backyard, I made the decision to share this because someone out there needs it and I need it too. I am an open book. And I am protected. I am doing this with love and honesty and hope, relentless faith that protects me and this work. So if you are out there, wishing me ill will and failure, I send you love. And I remind you: I am relentless. I have my wings. I am flying and will continue to. If you are inspired in resistance of me and all your pursed lip shade, then so be it. The point is that you too fly.
I am a woman who believes in herself. I am a woman who wasn’t meant to survive, but here I am, not just surviving, but thriving, and so can you. Yes, YOU!
Earlier this week, when in the thick of worry over the book, I posted this FB status: “Writers who’ve finished books, I have mad respect and admiration for you. I’ve written three, published two, but that feels so distant right now. So so far away. Another life. Another person. Another me. Dios mio, this writing books life requires some serious dedication and relentlessness. Yes, I got this but there are moments, yo, like earlier today, when I’m not so sure… Ay!”
People responded with love. Reminded me of who I am. Reminded me that I can do this. Reyna Grande, whose memoir, The Distance Between Us, I am currently reading, commented: “échale ganas!”
People read a final product and judge you by that. They don’t think about what it took to get there. They don’t think about the training it takes to run a marathon or finish a portrait or write a book. I am one of those people who is willing to share the journey. This is how I show you my humanity.
In her TEDTalk on shame, Brené Brown said: “The most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
This is how I say, “Look, me too.” This is my healing journey. Take from it what you will. Do so as I do, with mad love.