*An essay a week in 2016*
On the morning of December 27th, I had a conversation with my brujermana Lizz Huerta where I shared that I thought I was going to continue with the Relentless Files, this essay-a-week-challenge I took on in 2016. My ever encouraging hermana agreed that I should. We discussed what I learned from the process, how much my writing has grown, how it’s fed my memoir and taught me the magic of surrendering to mystery. She asked if she could join me and suggested I bring other people along. “You can call it #52essays2017,” she said excitedly. She’s a big idea woman that I adore and respect, but I confess that sometimes her big ideas scare me. But I was intrigued so I pushed into the fear this time and embraced the #52essays2017 idea. I posted it on fb and on my blog. It started with me and Lizz, this woman who reminds me of who I am and the importance of community in this work we do. Now there’s a Facebook page and several hundred writers have joined the endeavor.
I’ve gotten messages asking questions and thanking me. There are the over-thinkers who ask questions like: “What’s the difference is between an essay and a blog? Is it still an essay if it’s on a blog?” There are those who’ve asked for tips on how to write a well-structured, “good” essay. There are those who have asked for writing prompts. And there are those who are worried about whether they can publish these essays later if they’re on a blog. This is what I can tell you: When I decided to take on this challenge at the end of 2015, it was for me. I wanted to confront my ego and this self-sabotaging perfectionism that I’ve walked with for so long. I wanted to push myself to write more and reflect more. I wanted to work on surrendering more to process and opening myself up to mystery. And now, 53!essays in and committed to doing this again in 2017, I can’t overstate what I’ve learned from this process. How it’s made me show up to the page even when I didn’t want to. It’s taught me a newfound respect for writing, my writing, this work I do, this relentlessness I have, my own fierceness.
There were times when the essays roiled me up so bad, but there was such beautiful release when I got it all out. I dug up stories that I’d forgotten about, and I realized later that they belong in my memoir. I also learned that I can’t wait for inspiration to come calling. I grabbed the reins. I showed up and kept showing up. I paid attention to the signs around me and I followed them. I wrote these everywhere: on the train, in the park, in my livingroom/bedroom before I moved to a larger, light-filled space where I have my own writing room. I opened myself up to story, and they came rushing in. Always. Sin falla. It wasn’t always easy but I’m proud of the work I’ve done and that I am committed to. And I’m excited to share this with a group of writers and thinkers who want to challenge themselves as well. Let’s do this!
I wrote at least 53 essays this year, including this one. Truth is I wrote much more. I completed a solid draft of the first half of my memoir. I wrote several commissioned essays. I worked on some fiction that’s been brewing for a while and even had one published at the start of 2016: The Dollhead. I filled dozens of journals with musings and ideas. The point is that I wrote a shit ton this year. I didn’t submit as much because my goals were different, but I grew so much as a writer and learned so much about my own process. More than anything I learned to get out of my own darn way. We are our biggest obstacles sometimes…
One of the unexpected lessons from the Relentless Files challenge was learning the importance (and necessity) of establishing and imposing boundaries. I think of that scene in Dirty Dancing where Johnny tells Baby: “This is your dance space. This my dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.” Who knew after watching this movies dozens of time and loving it for 20 years, that it would give me a template and meme for these boundaries that help me “surthrive” this work I do and life I live?
I was reminded of these boundaries on Christmas night when my sister tried to silence me and called my writing bullshit. Thanks to the work I’ve done this year and in the past, I know better than to believe that. I know that this work I do is important. I know that it’s necessary. And I know that I won’t be silenced, not by her or anyone.
Still, people will try to challenge your boundaries. They will push on them. They will try to incite and rile you up. They will play themselves, because they hate that you’re doing what they’re not doing. Because of their own internalized shit. Because they just can’t handle seeing someone else’s shine. Because they think they can unload on you and you’re just supposed to take it. Well, no… Just no.
I was confronted with this early on in the Relentless Files challenge. There was a writer from Portland who identified as unmothered and my writing on it resonated with her. She wrote pages of responses to my essays. She thanked me. She said she wished she could be as brave… Then I wrote something she didn’t like or maybe it was that I quoted one of her comments once and referred to her as a commenter on my essay and didn’t give her direct credit by name, or whatever reason she came up with to flip out the way she did. She created an avatar to confront me about it, and because I’m sometimes naive and don’t believe or want to believe people capable of such things, I didn’t (wouldn’t?) see it. She claimed to be a friend of the unmothered Portland woman. It eventually blew up, of course. This woman who ended up being both (issues much?) wrote some pretty heinous things to me. She said she could hear my brother and he was ashamed and hated me. She said I was abusing my daughter. She said I was just like my mother. I eventually stopped reading her comments and just deleted them as they came in. Pretty sick stuff, right? The woman obviously needs help, but here’s the thing I (re)learned: her shit is not mine to carry. It’s not my job to hold someone through their breakdowns. It’s not my job to let people invade my space and cross boundaries. Just no.
I also (re)learned that I am relentless. That I have done the work to know better than to believe this hatred this woman spewed at me. This woman sounded venomous like my mother, and she obviously doesn’t know that I know enough about myself and my heart to know that I am none of those things she said are true. No, I did not flip out on her like I could have and probably would have in the past. I said I prayed for her and I did. I then dismissed her. So, why am I writing about her now? Because the universe decided I needed to remember these things about myself: that I am not what people project on me. This is also a boundary that I needed to establish, and needed to re-establish with my sister.
Another wonderful lesson I (re)learned was that you can make something beautiful out of your trauma, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise. And even when they dare, I will show ’em how it’s done, hence the essays I write (including these) and my memoir, and the way I exist in the world, and the classes I teach and, and, and…
So much of the work I’ve done this year has brought me back to the woman I was in 2005 who wrote a novel in a matter of weeks. I was nursing my daughter and had just gotten fired (as I’d conspired so I could collect). I sat down one day with this character in my mind, India, and this story she wanted to tell. I didn’t think about craft or what people would say or why. I just wrote. I had the audacity to let the story tell itself. I wasn’t scared of fucking it up or doing it “right” (whatever that means). I just wanted to get that story out. India didn’t let me sleep much. She didn’t relent, and I’m grateful for it, grateful for her and my willingness to let her talk through me, because once I wrote that book, as soon as I finished the last line, I mouthed: “I’m a writer” and the thing is, I believed it. (The book, “Woman’s Cry” was published by Augustus Publishing in 2007.)
Surrender and show up. That’s what I had to do to stick to this challenge. There were days when I didn’t want to write. I got sick with a horrible flu while at Tin House in January and had planned a DIY residency for two days after which ended up being just me, lying in a strange bed, wishing I was home, and crying a lot. I was so delirious with fever on my way back to NYC, that I left my tablet at airport security check in and didn’t even notice until two days later. Thank God some kind soul found it and handed it over to the Lost and Found. Needless to say, the essay was late that week, but I still did it. I was late a few times in fact, but I still wrote the weekly essay. I still showed up, late perhaps, but still…
I dealt with a few pretty serious bouts of depression this year. If there was a year where depression was rampant, this was it. We have a president incumbent who has zero experience and has spent more time on Twitter wars and rants than he has prepping for running this country. We’ve lost some of our childhood heroes: Prince, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Phife Dawg, George Michael among so many others. Today I got news that the brilliant Judith Ortiz Cofer passed. I was introduced to Judith Ortiz Cofer’s work in college; “Silent Dancing” was one of the first Latina written memoirs I ever read, and “An Island Like You” is one of my faves. I’ve taught her essay “The Myth of the Latin Woman” many times. Thank you for your work maestra, yours was one of the first places I saw my face and people in letters. You helped me believe that I too could write our stories.
In 2016, so many of us have had devastating personal losses. This summer while at VONA, I lost dear friend who was so much a part of my growing up years, from smoking blunts as we drove “around the world” (or Manhattan Island as we called it back then) to trips to Amsterdam and upstate and Miami and Fire Island and the Jersey Shore and so many beaches and hang outs and clubs. I remember the times I cried in his arms over whichever emotionally unavailable man had broken my heart that time… My friend took his life in a really violent manner. I think of him often these days.
This year was the three year anniversary of my Superman, my brother’s death. The grief doesn’t cut as deep these days but there are still times, especially around his birthday and the holidays and around the anniversary of his death, that I feel the weight on my chest. I miss him so bad… It’s not about getting over these kinds of losses. It’s about learning to live with them, and yes, to make beauty of the kind of darkness that once almost took you out.
This year I faced fear in a whole different way. People have called me fearless. They call me brave. They tell me I inspire, and ask me how it is I do this work so ferociously. Here’s the thing they don’t know and perhaps don’t wanna know because it will taint this view they have of me, because if they know the truth, they will see that I am no different from them: I too am scared all the time. I worry often about this work I’m doing, these stories I write, the secrets I reveal, the people I expose. I don’t want to, am not trying to hurt anyone by writing these stories of my life and my childhood and what I’ve experienced, the traumas, the pain, and, yes, the beauty, how I made this life, became a woman, through trial and error. The thing is, as I’m (re)learning, I can’t control that. I can’t dictate what will hurt people or how they will react. And if I start thinking about that too much, it will become a noose and that’s just not an option.
I hear the words my brother said to me when I told him what I was writing: “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody’ll fuckin talk.” He died three months later.
Silence killed my brother. It stops here…
How have all these lessons permeated my life? I’m taking more risks in my teaching. I’m showing up in different, more heart-full ways, especially in my Writing Our Lives Workshop. I expanded the class to nine weeks (from six) and I’ve restructured and condensed the lessons so the writers spend more time writing and practicing what I teach. I also created a generative Writing Fiction from Real Life class.
I’m also daring myself to do things that terrify me. Like I applied to Tin House’s Nonfiction Winter Workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch, and I got in! Although I didn’t get the scholarship, I made it to the final round, and in the end, I again faced my fear around asking for help and started a GoFundMe. (I can still hear my bruja sis Lizz saying: “You don’t want to because you don’t think you deserve it.”) In under 48 hours, I raised the funds I asked for plus hundreds of dollars more. I’m out in late January!
I agreed to be on a panel at AWP2017 in Washington, D.C. and it was accepted. Woohoo! So, on the morning of Saturday, February 11th, I’ll be on a panel entitled Social Media: Breaking Barriers for the Marginalized, the Remote, and the Academic Outsider, along with Kelly Thompson, Sandra Gail Lambert, Michele Filgate and Alice Anderson. The write up goes: “Five authors who write from the edges present ways, both practical and emotional, that social media has advanced their careers and craft. Class, disability, gender, education, location, and race are among the barriers to accessing a writing community. But social media can connect those of us who exist at the margins or outside of the academic literary world to editors, publishers, journals, conference leaders, and other writers. It can even serve as an education in itself.” Good shit!
I’ve submitted to a few contests and fellowships and residencies, which I normally talk myself out of doing because, hello, fear. I’m still waiting to hear back from some and have gotten rejections from others, but I haven’t been crushed by it. Shit, if a writer doesn’t get used to rejection or at least learn to navigate the sting that comes from it, it’s going to be real hard to make this life happen… I’m proud to say I was selected as a semi-finalist of the Brooklyn Nonfiction Essay Contest, which was dope because I wrote about my Brooklyn of yesteryear that people often refuse to see the beauty in. I was invited to read an excerpt at a recent event and my essay will be included in the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival’s Brooklyn Non-Fiction Collection of stories. Here’s an excerpt:
Brooklyn to them was a ghetto wasteland where all there was was drugs and gangs and prostitution and hunger. They didn’t see the love I saw. They didn’t see the people who lived in that and thrived in that and loved in that and hoped in that. They didn’t see how every summer a vacant lot was cleared of the trash and rubble, and a carnival was set up complete with Ferris Wheel and flying swings and cotton candy and gambling tables and kiosks where alcapurias and pastelitos were fried in huge vats of bubbling oil. They didn’t see the games of Kick the Can that we played into the night. The men who sipped on their latitas of Budweiser as they played game after game of dominoes on tables made of plywood balanced on their knees. They didn’t see how we hunted through the remains of the burnt out buildings for thick cables to pay double dutch. They didn’t see the block parties where the boys laid out their cardboard boxes to do their windmills and headstands while the girls planned their outfits ahead of time so they matched while they danced to Menudo.
We couldn’t do anything to keep the walls in our apartments from flaking and falling, giving us asthma and lead poisoning. We couldn’t get the slumlords to do the repairs our railroad style apartments desperately needed. We couldn’t keep the drug dealers out of the playgrounds or the fiends from doing their drugs in our hallways (the smell of burnt cotton candy will forever remind me of crack), but we could try to live in that and that’s exactly what we did. Hundreds of thousands of us black and brown folk.
I also took some real risks in my writing, knowing that I would likely get shit for it. Like when I wrote the essay “She called it ‘White Women Shit’” where I called out white women for the shit they do, and looked at my own dynamic with white woman that has made me, a usually outspoken, quick to defend herself woman, question myself and sometimes remain silent.
That night I pulled out my journal and started writing what became a pages long list of the white women who’ve silenced and shamed me. I traced it back to when I was a thirteen year old girl from Bushwick just trying to get an education.
There was my guidance counselor my first year of boarding school in 1989 (I’ll call her Ms. G) who reminded me every chance she got that I was too much, I needed to be tamed, quieted, the Brooklyn bred Latina taken out of me, by force or shaming if necessary.
When I talked too loud or laughed too loud or showed excited too loud, “Hush,” Ms. G said.
The keys that dangled from my hip jingled too loudly. “Take those off and put them in your bag.”
“It’s want to, Vanessa, not wanna.”
“You only speak Spanish in Spanish class, Vanessa.”
When she looked at me, she was tight lipped, nose turned up, her eyes scanning me, looking for something else to correct, to make right, to contain.
Years later, my boss would look at me like that. I was in my mid-twenties when I started working at a medical management company. I was still learning the ways of corporate America. I was never taught the etiquette of corporate America and could have used loving guidance, instead, she and the director of nursing tag-teamed to remind me that I did not belong there. They policed what I wore. They policed what I said and how I said it. They policed who I talked to. They even tried to police what I did outside of work.
When I returned from vacation once, the temp who’d covered for me told me they’d offered her my job, told her: “You’re just the kind of girl I need to be my assistant.” She’d graduated from a private college like me but was white, wore loose button down shirts and skirts below the knee with flats. She didn’t go to Happy Hour after work. She was raised in the suburbs in upstate New York. She would never be accused (as I had) of smoking a joint during lunch. Nice, suburban white girls don’t do that. Hood Latinas do.
I’ve always been a risk taker. I mean, I left Bushwick, Brooklyn at the height of the crack epidemic to attend a boarding school in very white, very wealthy Wellesley, Massachusetts. I never moved back… but this year, I took my risk taking up several notches. This year I ran out of fucks. It was scary and refreshing and invigorating, and I plan on doing it again and again in 2017, because, really, what have I got to lose?
Change is rarely ever comfortable, but it’s always necessary.
I’ve found that we writers, myself included, are some strange, twisted folk who rationalize our shit for days. I’ve had writers ask me for advice on writing, then answer the advice I offer with: “that’s my process” or “I’ve been doing this for years” or “this is how I organize myself.” My response is usually something along the lines of: “How has that worked for you so far?” Then I give them the raised eyebrow stare that my Writing Our Lives students know so well and dread. As a teacher/facilitator, I am not soft in my approach. I am more the velvet glove on an iron fist type (I’ve been saying this shit for years so don’t act like this is yours, homie). I will be loving but I will not coddle you. You are here to learn and grow, and in order to do that, you have to leave yourself open to learning and trying something new, which includes switching things up. Yes, we all have our own process but do you really know your process? Do you know when you write best–morning, afternoon, middle of the night when the world is asleep and your mind is racing? Do you wait for inspiration to come beckoning or do you take it by the reins and show up to the page regardless, even when you don’t want to? Has organizing those lists of infinite thoughts really fed your writing or is that a crutch to keep you from doing the real work that you seem to be avoiding? Are you waiting for ideal conditions to get to the writing you want to do and live the writing life you’ve dreamed of since you were 12? Or are you the type to work in several dozen projects at once while not finishing a damn one?
This isn’t shade I’m giving here, this is real shit. This is me sharing with you what I’ve learned over this year (& many years) of relentless writing. I may not have “published” as much this year but it’s the most prolific I’ve ever been. I’ve grown as a writer in ways I’m still unraveling and processing. More than anything, I’ve learned the magic of opening myself up to mystery. I’ve learned to listen and surrender. I’ve learned to get out of my own fuckin way, something I have to confront and release every single time I come to that blank page. I’m sharing this to help you do the same. Resistance shows up in so many ways and has so many faces. It also shows up as a sneer on your lip and a “she thinks she knows it all” grimaced thought. You want to be relentless? Learn from someone who is. Get out of your own way.
I’m over here trying to keep getting out of mine, hence why I’m continuing this Relentless Files journey. I’ll see y’all in 2017. Word.