*An essay a week in 2016*
If you told me in my 20s that there would come a day when I would be in bed by 10 on a Friday night, I would laugh at you and tell you you were crazy. Pero these days, I’ve been grinding so hard on the writing, working smart and working hard, my body has pulled me to bed, which is a great thing really if I consider my history of insomnia.
In the past two weeks, I surrendered to story and got a chapter out while also mothering and teaching and mentoring and making calderos of chicken soup and still unpacking and and and…
Chapter 7 of my memoir is complete and submitted to Tin House 2017 Winter Nonfiction Workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch. Oh shit! Woohoo!
I relearned an important lesson in the process: No matter how much I’ve taught creative nonfiction, no matter how many hundreds of thousands (dare I say, millions?) of words I’ve written, no matter how much digging I’ve done into my life for these stories, this work is always challenging. You have a vision of what you want to say and how you want to say it, and when you get to the page, set to do it, translating the vision onto the canvas is such hard work.
In “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” Ann Patchett writes:
For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
In a now famous Paris Review interview, E.L. Doctorow said:
It’s not calculated at all. It never has been. One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing. I did that with World’s Fair, as with all of them. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.
INTERVIEWER: What comes first? Is it a character? You say a premise. What does that mean? Is it a theme?
DOCTOROW: Well, it can be anything. It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began: through desperation to those few images. With Loon Lake, in contrast, it was just a very strong sense of place, a heightened emotion when I found myself in the Adirondacks after many, many years of being away . . . and all this came to a point when I saw a sign, a road sign: Loon Lake. So it can be anything.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any idea how a project is going to end?
DOCTOROW: Not at that point, no. It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain. I have found one explanation that seems to satisfy people. I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I am reminded of the old Aesop fable about the sun and wind’s debate over who is more powerful. After arguing and boasting about their prowess, they made a wager. They saw a man walking down the street with a coat on, and decided that whomever could force the coat off the man was the most powerful. The wind tried to blow off the coat by sheer force. He blew and blew and blew, but failed. The man just wrapped his coat around himself tighter to protect himself. The wind felt it had no choice but to give up. So, the sun took over, shining brightly until the man slipped off his coat, slung it over his shoulder and continued walking down the street.
The wind attempted to do by force what the sun was able to do by being. What’s the lesson? That sometimes you have to surrender and just be, let the story slip out of you and tell itself. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work. It just means sometimes you have to let go and let the story come to you.
That’s what I did with this chapter, what I did with the book this past summer, and in doing so, I’ve created something more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. The greatest lesson of 2016 and the Relentless Files essay-a-week challenge has been this: to just be, to let go (which is a never-ending process, really) and have more faith in myself; to let the stories come because they always do.
I have a writing room in my new place. It’s lovely with its two windows and bright natural light. There are trees outside the window and the birds chirp and screech all day long. Sparrows and blue jays and red cardinals and woodpeckers. The other day, a squirrel grappled up and past my window, then jumped onto the tree where it stopped, stared at me then scurried off.
I haven’t finished setting up the room (unpacking takes forever y’all) but I did put my bookcases up (yes, I have four of them and need more and don’t you dare tell me I have to get rid of some books cuz I will dismiss you real quick) & I set up my desk and workspace because I have essays and stories and a book to write, and I also have to lesson plan. All of this is to say that yes, it’s ideal to have a room of one’s own and I’m very grateful for mine, pero let me tell you something: one of the best things I could have done was to teach myself to write anywhere. I wrote my second novel while commuting to and from work on the bus and train. I’ve written essays at the laundromat while waiting for my clothes to dry. I finished editing a commissioned essay yesterday while commuting to west bum Queens to a teaching gig, & sent it to the editor on my way home. I wrote much of my memoir while sitting on my couch, in Inwood Hill Park and at various cafés around the city. I don’t wait for inspiration. I let my fingers race. I leave room for mystery.
It’s self-sabotage to tell yourself that you’ll write that book or that poem or whatever it is you want to write, when you have this or that, a writing room of your own, your own crib, when the stars are aligned, or whatever it is you tell yourself needs to happen before you get to the work. I’ve learned to create that space for myself wherever I can–be it in the corner seat on a crowded train or at a tiny table at a Starbucks or in my bed at night. I can, you can, create anywhere. I’ve had to train myself to do so, and so can you.
Last week I started a gig in casa del carajo campo Ozone Park, Queens. I have to leave my crib at 9:45am to make it to my 12:08pm class. No sweat, I spend the time writing. Refer to the message above about teaching myself to write anywhere.
In the midst of teaching three consecutive classes to 7th graders, my homegirl texted to say, “Yo, I think your white women shit essay is going viral.” (Can I get a wepa?!) I rushed off to East Harlem to teach my high school fiction class and when I finally landed, I found out I’m a semi finalist for the Brooklyn NonFiction essay contest! (Can I get another wepa?!) But you wanna know what the best part of my day was? In my fiction class, one student said: “Ms. I wish you were my ELA teacher, you mad cool.” And another said, “Ms. I usually hate reading but you make it fun.” Yes, the accolades are awesome and I’m grateful for them, but there’s something about this on the ground work that fulfills on a whole next level. Word.
I teach various essays in my Writing Our Lives class. A few of them I teach consistently. One of them is Phillip Lopate’s “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Writing the Self as the Character”. The thing is, the essay is problematic. In it, Lopate flaunts his white male privilege. He’s reckless.
Ethnicity, gender, religion, class, geography, politics: These are all strong determinants in the development of character. Sometimes they can be made too much of, as in the worst sort of “identity politics,” which seeks to explain away all the intangibles of a human being’s destiny by this or that social oppression.
Ain’t that some shit for him to say?
And, yet and still, Lopate also says some real truth:
So how do you turn yourself into a character? First of all, you need to have–or acquire–some distance from yourself. If you are so panicked by any self-examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal essays. You need to be able to see yourself from the ceiling: to know, for instance, how you are coming across in social situations, and to assess accurately when you are charming, and when you seem pushy, mousy, or ridiculous. From the viewpoint of honest essay writing, it is just as unsatisfactorily distorting to underrate yourself all the time, and think you are far less effective than you actually are, than to give yourself credit. The point is to begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.
When I teach this essay, I preface it with this: “This essay has its real issue” and I point them out. But Lopate also shares some real truths, and I instruct the authors to read the essay for homework and see them for themselves. In the following class, we pick the essay apart and use it as guidance for the various prompts I give them. This is usually one of the hardest classes. I have the writers write a list of things they are ashamed of. By this class, they’ve written at length about moments and scenes they remember. I have them write “a list of memories they can’t forget…”
This is the class I think of when my student says: “There were moments in class and after where I wanted to throw things at you.” This writer now calls me her writing madrina.
I am transparent with my writers; I tell them that I teach this essay because I haven’t found an essay on writing the self as a character that digs into this like Lopate does. With its issues and all, this is still true. I will teach this essay until I find an essay of this caliber that covers this essential point.
This past spring, after teaching the essay for the upteenth time, some of my repeat offenders (what I call my students who have taken the class again and again) said: “We think you have to write that essay, Vanessa.”
I didn’t always think myself able to write this essay.
How do I relay the importance of getting into the self, our fears and hopes and shames and joys and traumas and everything that shapes us, what we’ve suffered, the microaggressions, being woman and of color and poor in this world that tells us again and again, subliminally and outright that we are less than and unworthy? How do I show you that you have to stare in that mirror and not flinch? And even if you do, you have to pull yourself back, over and over? How do I show you that even if you think you’ve dug deep, there is always more to dig into, there is always more to uncover, there is more to stare at and into, and it will likely rip you to shreds, and you can let yourself feel it but you always have to return, no matter what or why, because that’s where the magic lies? That’s where the work is. I can always see when you look away from the page so don’t look away. Stay there.
And take care of yourself while doing it. Please, take care, because this shit can take you out if you don’t.
Although I will confess that sometimes the taking out is necessary. I know firsthand…I am grateful to have been able to bring myself back afloat, over and over.
This is what the work requires. I finally feel ready to write this essay. Ready? Vamos.