*An essay a week in 2017*
As of Friday morning, just before posting this essay, 9 days after putting out the call for the #52essays2017 challenge, there are 445 members in the Facebook page who have committed to taking on the challenge. That doesn’t include the many who are doing the challenge on their own. People have called it a movement. I think of that line in the hip hop song: “I’m a movement by myself but I’m a force when we’re together…”
One friend informed me that by year’s end, there will be 22,000+ essays out in the world as a result of this challenge. My response:
People have encouraged me to consider an anthology at year’s end. (I’m focused on what’s in the headlights right now…) Another said this is sure to change the literary landscape in the next five to six years. What?! 😳 … Where am I? I’m still somewhat in shock. I’m taking it all in. I’m trying to support these writers and still focus on my own writing and teaching and mothering and and and…
I’m thinking about the questions I’ve been fielding. A woman asked me how much time I spent each week on the essays. She said she’s not good at time management so she wants to structure her time to make this happen. Another asked for tips on how to write a structured essay as opposed to a stream of consciousness. I’ve been asked for tips on how to organize topics for each week, what’s the difference between a blog and an essay, is a blog less prestigious or less intellectual, and who said so?
I have to confess, if I thought about all these things, how long it would take me to write each essay, how I would structure it so it didn’t read like a stream of consciousness, what made it an essay and not a blog post, I wouldn’t have gotten through the Relentless Files 2016 challenge. This just isn’t my process and it never has been.
I know people who have to map out their stories before they sit down to write them. My comadre did a book treatment for the historical fiction novel she hasn’t yet finished. She’s mapped out every chapter, down to the T. This works for her, she says. It gives her structure and parameters to work with. Me? That would drive me absolutely insane. I wrote my two novels without doing this at all. I just had these characters talking to me. I listened and wrote.
The other day I read an interview with Roxane Gay on Goodreads where she says: “I definitely get into a kind of trance—I just lose myself, and I become immersed in the story and the setting and the characters. When I’m done, I sort of wake up to the world around me.” I can relate to this kind of “losing myself in the writing” style/process because sometimes I go into a zone and I don’t realize what I’ve written until I come out of it. And let me tell you, there’s always magic on the page when I resurface. That’s how I wrote my first and second novels. And that’s a lot of what happened this past summer when I was working on the memoir.
So much of the Relentless Files challenge was to remind myself and recapture that…the writer who wrote without abandon, who didn’t worry about what people would say or getting it “right,” or publishing. The writer who channeled. The intuitive writer who went with what came and let the story tell itself. I wanted to remember and (re)learn the writer who was wide open to mystery, who trusted that the story was there and would reveal itself, because the truth is, it always has and always does.
My mind keeps going back to a writer who asked what’s the difference between a blog and an essay. I admitted that I don’t consider myself a blogger. I write essays and memoir and fiction and even poetry, but I’m not a blogger. She asked: “Do you think blogging has a ‘lower status’ or that you use a different part of your brain?” The truth is I never really thought about any of that. I started a blog a few years back but didn’t really start using it until I came back from my VONA 2012 residency with Mat Johnson, set on working on my voice. My blog felt like a safe place to practice and work since it was mine, my space, my platform. I never thought to differentiate between blogs and essays. When I started the Relentless Files challenge, I knew I was writing personal essays and referred to them as such. Why not blogs? I’m not sure. Or maybe I am subconsciously aware that in the literary world, bloggers are looked down as “not real writers.” Maybe I succumbed to the snobbery. I’m not sure. But I definitely want to look at this because I know what it’s like to not be considered a real writer because of my chosen genre. Do you know how many times people have dared to say that creative nonfiction requires less imagination than fiction? Listen, I’ve written two novels and I don’t know how many essays and short stories. I know that’s bullshit.
by Judity Ortiz Cofer
It is a dangerous thing
to forget the climate of your birthplace,
to choke out the voices of dead relatives
when in dreams they call you
by your secret name.
It is dangerous
to spurn the clothes you were born to wear
for the sake of fashion; dangerous
to use weapons and sharp instruments
you are not familiar with; dangerous
to disdain the plaster saints
before which your mother kneels
praying with embarrassing fervor
that you survive in the place you have chosen to live:
a bare, cold room with no pictures on the walls,
a forgetting place where she fears you will die
of loneliness and exposure.
Jesús, María, y José, she says,
el olvido is a dangerous thing.
Something called me back to bell hooks’s collection of essays remembered rapture: the writer at work. I’ve read the book so many times, annotated it so much, that these days I just go back to the lines and paragraphs I highlighted and put stars next to. I read my notes in the margins.
In childhood, hooks kept a diary which she says was “for me the space for critical reflections, where I struggled to understand myself and the world around me, that crazy world of family and community, the painful world. I could say there what was hurting me, how I felt about things, what I hoped for. I could be angry there with no threat of punishment. I could “talk back.” Nothing had to be concealed. I could hold on to myself there.
However much the real of diary-keeping has been a female experience that has often kept closeted writers, away from the act of writing as authorship, it has most assuredly been a writing act that intimately connects the art of expressing one’s feeling on the written page with the construction of self and identity, with the effort to be fully self-actualized. This precious powerful sense of writing as a healing place where our souls can speak and unfold has been crucial to women’s development of a counter-hegemonic experience of creativity within patriarchal culture. Significantly, diary writing has not been traditionally seen by literary scholars as subversive autobiography, as a form of authorship that challenges conventional notions about the primacy of confessional writing as mere documentation (for women most often a record of our sorrows). Yet in many cases where such writing has enhanced our struggle to be self-defining it emerges as a narrative of resistance, as writing that enables us to experience both self-discovery and self-recovery…
We know that poetry does not save us, that writing does not always keep us away from death, that the sorrow of wounds that have never healed, excruciating self-doubt, or overwhelming melancholy often crushes the spirit, making it impossible to stay alive. Julia Kristeva speaks about women’s struggle to find and sustain creative voice in the chapter “I Who Want Not to be,” which is part of the introduction to About Chinese Women. There she addresses the tension between our longing to “speak as women,” to have being that is strong enough to bear the identity writer, and the coercive imposition of a feminine identity within patriarchy that opposes such being. Within patriarchy women has no legitimate voice. Her voice is either constructed in complicity or resistance. If the choice is not radical then we speak only what the patriarchal culture would have us say. If we do not speak as liberators we collapse under the weight of this effort to speak within patriarchal confines or lose ourselves without dying. (writing from the darkness)
We do not write because we must; we always have a choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life. With words we experience our deepest understandings of what it means to be intimate. We communicate to connect, to know community. Even though writing is a solitary act, when I sit with words that I trust will be read by someone, I know that I can never be truly alone. There is always someone who waits for words, eager to embrace them and hold them close.” (women who write too much)
In “writing to confess,” hooks speaks of how influential Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were to her as a young would-be writer.
I have never heard any critic belittling the confessional nature of these letters. Diverse readers seem to all agree that these letters have enriched our understanding of writing, of creative process. In recent years as women of all races/ethnicities and men of color embrace confessional writing as a way of coming to voice, whether through autobiographies, memoirs, letters, diaries, etc., mainstream critics aggressively devalue such writing… Feminist insistence that “the personal is political” did encourage many women to engage in existential self-reflection about the meaning of life, especially in relation to sexism and male domination… The growing body of confessional writing by women coincided with the proliferation in mass culture of the talk show as a place for personal confession. Since these shows are designed to appeal to a predominately female market of the topics for discussion are appropriated from cultural narratives that were initially validated only within feminist circles, narratives about child abuse, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, abortion, etc. Patriarchal mass media’s appropriation and popularization of these topics helped create a cultural context where confessional narrative has been trivialized, made to appear solely a gesture that is self-serving and exhibitionist. This trivialization has led to an overall devaluation of any confessional narrative.
In actuality, writers who make use of personal confession do not share a common style, standpoint, or intent. This is true for women writers as men. Yet sexism tends to ensure that women’s writing is often approached as though it is all the same–“every women speaking through one voice.”
In The Last Generation, Cherrie Moraga urges us to celebrate confession. “All writing is confession. Confession masked and revealed in the voices and faces of our characters. All is hunger. The longing to be known fully and still loved. The admission of our own inherent vulnerability, our weakness, our tenderness of skin, fragility of heart, our overwhelming desire to be relieved of the burden of ourselves in the body of another, to be forgiven of our ultimate aloneness in the mystical body of a god or the common work of a revolution. These are human considerations that the best of writers presses her fingers upon.”
As Kelly Sundberg writes in Brevity: “I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing… The story is important, but it must also be written with craft, and with nuance. I have no desire to always write about trauma, nor have I always written about trauma, but I am fatigued by the notion that narratives of trauma are rewarded simply on the merits of the struggle that one has endured. I had a traumatic experience, and perhaps that did gain me entrance into a club—a club of women’s pain—but that traumatic experience did not make me a literary writer. My hard work and my craft are what have, hopefully, made me into a literary writer.” (“Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?”)
What I do know is that whether I’m a writer or blogger or both, I am a literary writer. I write. I write a lot. And yes, my shit is literary. I write and shape my stories. I worry about craft. Sometimes too much, hence why I started the Relentless Files challenge a year ago–to get out of my own damn way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own writing and my motivations. I’ve learned that it’s important that we writers ask ourselves why we write and come back to this question now and then.
It was my sister flipping out on me on Christmas that brought me back to this question. Not because I doubted myself or even for a minute considered what she said was true, that my writing is bullshit. A fellow writer’s questions about the difference between blogging and personal essay writing, made me go deeper.
I started telling stories before I knew how to write. When I finally told my mother a few years ago that I’m a writer, she told me a story about when I was in Pre-K. The teacher complained that I was always distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting quietly on the rug in a circle to listen to her read, I wanted to roam around, take the books out of the shelves and skim through them. When my mother asked me what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t behave, I shrugged and said: “I already know how the story goes, mom…” “Really?” she challenged. “Then tell me the story.” Mom says my face brightened. She says I stood up and started: “Once upon a time…” and I proceeded to tell a story I made up on the spot. I was animated and excited, and when I was done, I said, “The end.” She didn’t say it outright, but my mom was telling me that I’ve always been a writer.
Then mom dug into the bottom shelf of a bookshelf she’s had in our living room since we were just kids. I noticed the Compton’s Encyclopedias she bought from the door to door salesman, and paid off little by little. The same ones I used for so many projects and that entertained me on so many rainy, sad days when I was growing up. Mom took out a yellow page legal pad, it’s pages curled at the edges. The papers were scrawled with her cursive. Mom presses on the pen so hard, you can feel the letters on the back of the pages like braille. She let me read some of the pages: stories of her childhood in Honduras, going to the Rio Cangrejal, how her grandmother Tinita mothered her. When I finally looked up, my mother was watching me. She took the pad out of my hands and said, “When I die, this is yours.”
I get this writing gene from my mother.
The other day I was on my deck talking to a writer friend who I’ve witnessed transform and evolve. She shared, “I feel like I’m finally ready.” “Word,” I said. Then I challenged her to join the #52essays2017 endeavor. I told her to do it for her. That she didn’t have to share what she wrote, that the purpose really is to help her get out of her own way, as she’d said she’s committed to doing this year. “I believe in you,” I said. She said, “You really gonna make me cry right now?” And just then a hawk soared overhead, so close I could see the brown and white feathers on its belly, the red on its tail. I was so taken aback at the timing, I shared it with my writer friend. In the two months I’ve lived in my new place, I have yet to see a hawk from my deck, though I’ve scanned the sky for them. I believe that birds are messengers from the gods, intermediaries to the spiritual world. They’ve brought me so many messages in the past so I know this one too was a message.
I thought about the work I do. I thought of the writers I’ve worked with over the years, young and old. I thought about how in that moment, I was sharing and building with a writer, holding up the mirror so she could see herself, see what I see–a strong, powerful woman with a pen that’s calling to her. If I’ve done anything right in my life it’s this: I’ve inspired people to create and make magic of their life stories. I’ve done this by being my authentic self, all Bushwick-bred Loba, fierce and loving, relentless and unfuckwithable.
In that moment, I remembered why I do this work, how I know it is one of my life’s purposes, my dharma, if you will. And I remembered how I quit my fulltime editing job in 2010 to do this work. I did it as a single mom. That’s how much I believe in this work. It’s something I take great pride and care in doing, and that I know comes with great responsibility.
I watched a P.O.P Video that was posted on the VONA/Voices page earlier this week. In it poet Willie Perdomo tells of once watching a guy from his neighborhood in East Harlem walk the span of a rooftop ledge. Perdomo shares that writing poetry to him is like the risk and balancing of walking on that ledge, what’s required to prevent a fall… I think we all have images we circle back to in our work that serve as metaphors for why we write. For me that image is my mother tending her garden in the backyard. This was early 1980s Bushwick, just before crack ravaged our neighborhoods. The poverty had already sank its teeth deep. Our apartment was falling apart, the walls flaked, giving my brother and me asthma. There were rubble and trash strewn lots for blocks. One of those lots was next door. For two years, my mother took it upon herself to till the bit of soil in our backyard to plant a garden.
The yard was partly paved. A fence covered in chipped red paint separated the paved area from where mom planted her garden. This area was separated in two by a paved pathway which led to a red ladder that went all the way up to the third floor. Clothes fluttered on the clothes lines that stretched from the ladder to the apartments above. On the left side towards the back was the plum tree I started climbing when I was five. I’d stretch out on one of the thick branches and watch mom work.
Mom wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat, gloves and gardening apron. She was third world, an Hondureña from La Ceiba. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here. She planted in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt stained with sofrito and dirt.
Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected from the yard over the falling apart plywood fence into the junkyard next door. It took days for mom to weed and till the soil that had been packed by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. She then used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg, she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
The right side she tilled right up to the gate that separated our yard from the yard of the building behind ours. The left side she toiled up to the base of the plum tree.
Then mom went out and bought the seeds. I don’t know how she figured out what she would plant or how she would arrange the seeds, but she was deliberate in her choices. I watched from the plastic covered couch in the living room, pretending to watch TV. She laid the envelopes of seeds out on the wooden table my second mom Millie built and lacquered when we first moved into the apartment when I was three. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into the holes and packed the soil down with her palm. She did this softly, handling the seeds with a tenderness I envied.
The herbs and flowers went in the rows closest to the gate that separated the garden from the paved section of the yard. The vegetables followed. Tomatoes first then the peppers, squash and pumpkins.
In the mornings, Mom stood by the window, staring out at her garden while she sipped her coffee. She cursed when she saw garbage thrown out the window by a tenant. “Estos desgraciados. Por eso es que no tienen na’.” She climbed out the window, picked up the trash and tended to her garden.
Some days, when the sun beamed down hard and rain didn’t come, Mom connected her long green hose into our kitchen sink and pulled it out the window into the yard. She’d water her plants herself, screaming at me to lower the pressure if the water shot out too hard.
I watched her smile as the tomatoes and eggplants came in. When she turned them over in her hand, I imagined her talking to them in her head, encouraging them to grow and flourish. The sunflowers grew so tall, mom got old shoelaces and tied the stalks to the fence to keep them from toppling over.
One day, mom was making dinner when she sent me out to the yard to get tomatoes and peppers. “I need them to make sofrito,” she said. Small piles of onions and garlic lay on the cutting board on top of the table. The day before I’d noticed that the tomatoes were red and green. I turned to see if mom was watching before I touched them, turning them over like I’d seen her do. They were firm to the touch.
I gasped at the scene that greeted me. The rats from the junkyard next door had feasted on mom’s vegetables. Peppers and tomatoes were scattered about, bitten into in chunks. I could make out their teeth marks on the flesh. A few hung limply on the bush. I gathered what few I could and climbed back into the apartment.
“Mami,” I said almost in a whisper. “The rats ate them. These are the only ones left.”
Mom slammed down the knife she was using to chop cilantro and stomped out to the yard. She cursed and yanked up some of the bushes. I ran to the room and hid. I didn’t come out until she called me for dinner.
After two years mom brought her plants into the house where she could protect them.
Excerpted from “They Call Her Saint” a chapter in my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings
My mother built that garden in resistance to the landscape that surrounded her. It was her way of making beauty and love out of the devastation that was Bushwick, Brooklyn in that era. She gave up after a while, deeming her efforts futile.
I am still in that garden. I am still in up in that plum tree watching my mother and telling myself stories. My writing is my resistance to the devastation that has surrounded me, the trauma of my childhood and being an unmothered woman. In the journey I have become relentless. The difference is that I’m not giving up. Not now. Not ever.