This year was hard for numerous reasons: politically, it was a shit show, but we all know that. But this reflection isn’t about that. This is personal. It is me looking at this year. What I’ve learned. What the messages were. Where I got lost. Where I was found. What it all comes down to for me, on this 31st of December.
This was the year my daughter turned 13, the age I was when I left everything and everyone I knew and loved to make my way out in the world. The 28th anniversary of that departure was in August, around the time my daughter turned 13. I was triggered, worried about how I would mother her–I have no model, how can I do this?
The truth is, she didn’t feel compelled to leave like I did. In fact, she started the boarding school process then decided to stop mid-way, saying: “I don’t wanna leave, mommy.” I broke the cycle, and really, that’s been one of my greatest accomplishments by far.
This was also the year that I turned 42. My brother didn’t make it to 42. The weeks leading up to my birthday on December 9th and the holidays were especially hard. And then the day came, and I felt something lift off of me. A weight. A burden. Something I didn’t have to carry anymore.
What did I do this year?
I started the #52essays2017 challenge, inviting people on the journey I took in 2016, writing an essay a week that I dubbed The Relentless Files. Hundreds joined me. At last count, the FB page had more than 730 members. There were some who submitted regularly. Others who did it on their own. There are thousands more essays in the world due to that challenge, and that’s something I’m sitting with today… Who knew I could inspire such beauty? I can’t say I always did.
And that was a lot of what this year was for me: really seeing who I am and how my work moves in the world, the ricochet effects it has, I have…
I didn’t produce as much this year. It’s not that I didn’t write. It’s that I shared less of it. It’s that I instead chose to submit it to lit journals and mags. It’s that I worked on my memoir more and that work I’m keeping close for a spell.
I did write 17 essays as part of the #52essays2017 challenge. I stopped participating in the challenge because I’d already gotten out of it what I needed (after writing 53 essays in 2016 and then 17 this year, plus a few I wrote after and posted on my blog). I produced. I got out of my own way. I learned to trust my thoughts and surrender to the subconscious and, in turn, the page. I was still participating out of obligation. To show that I could, but I’d already proven that to myself, and the weekly essays were getting in the way of other writing that was important to me, so I bowed out, while continuing to hold space for others participating in the challenge. I posted weekly. I checked in on writers. And I worked on my own stuff.
I traveled a bit this year. I ran the regional VONA at Minneapolis’s The Loft Literary Center on MLK Weekend. Less than two weeks later, I went to Tin House where I worked with Lidia Yuknavitch, who is phenomenal and will be one of my favorite writing teachers for eternity. In February, I facilitated a craft talk and writing class at the Center for Women Writers in North Carolina, then in March I headed to DC for AWP where I was on my first panel. In June I went to my tenth consecutive VONA, where I led the team that ran two weeks of workshops at UPenn. This fall I went to Grub Street for a one day intensive on essay forms.
I also traveled with my family to the woods of northern Michigan, where I broke bread and sang songs and sat around fires with women I will remember forever. I watched dozens of falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower and the moon rise over the hill. I watched my daughter sing her heart out during a talent show in the woods, and I saw again what a star she really is. It was glorious.
This past May marked the seven year anniversary of having resigned from a full-time editing job to write and teach. I felt that seven year itch hard. I get anxious and depressed when I feel myself getting complacent or stagnant. I always need to be doing something risky, challenging myself in different ways, and I wasn’t feeling that this past spring. I needed to do something as drastic and as nurturing to my work as I had back in 2010, so I decided to take a sabbatical from most of my teaching gigs to write and expand the Writing Our Lives Workshops. And that’s exactly what I did. I expanded the Essentials to the Personal Essay class to nine weeks and just a few weeks ago completed the class with nine wonderful writers. I also taught an eight week workshop through the Sackett Street Workshop. I brought my classes online, starting with two three-week classes: Writing Fiction from Real Life and Reclaiming Your Voice. This coming January, I start a five week online introduction to the personal essay class. I’m working on some new classes (in person and on-line) including the Narcissist’s Guide to the Personal Essay (which also starts at the end of January), Experimenting with Essay Forms, Writing the Self as a Character and one that I’ve spent much of my life preparing for and building towards: Writing the Mother Wound. I also start teaching online for Boston’s Grub Street in January.
My spring is already jam packed with magic, including taking an essay class with Marwa Helal in February (I must always be a student, at least once or twice a year). I’m traveling to AWP in Tampa in March, where I’ll be on two panels. I’m taking the train to and fro, with the idea that perhaps it can serve as a DIY residency. I’ve done some of my best writing on the train. In fact, I wrote my second novel commuting two and from work, so I’m doing this to see if I can channel that same energy into my now fourth book (FOURTH?!), my memoir.
In April, I’m heading up to Boston for Muse and the Marketplace, Grub Street’s literary conference, where I’ll be facilitating a craft talk. In May I’m heading to Chicago to facilitate a workshop, and later in the month, I’ll be facilitating again at the fourth annual Sankofa Sisterhood Weekend Retreat. All the while, I’m writing and teaching and making this life happen for me. I think a lot of the work I did this year was to give myself permission to do what I need and want: to give myself in 2018 what I’ve given the world over these many years of service.
So much of this year was the universe making me slow down, to see and witness who I am and what I’ve done. I started documenting it after VONA.
On July 6th, I wrote:
There was the young writer who grabbed my hand and said, “I’ve been wanting to say this to you…” Then she shared how when she was in Palestine in 2016, she and her friend would read my essays aloud to one another, sitting cross legged on their livingroom floor. She said, “They helped me get through.” She thanked and hugged me. Later said she wanted to take a selfie with me to send to her friend. We never did get to take that photo, but I’m carrying her with me today as I write this.
There was the writer who after the open mic I emceed the second week said, “I know your voice from somewhere.” He asked for my last name, searched on his phone, then gasped, looked at me wide-eyed, then back to his phone. Pushed the phone towards me. Said, “You wrote this?” On the screen was my essay, “Writers of Color: Your Voice Matters.” He said my essay is the reason he started writing again. He said he’s shared it with tons of his friends.
There was the writer who described herself as a “Vanessa groupie.” She said my writing gave her courage and strength. She said she considers me one of her teachers.
There was the writer who said, “I read your essay ‘Millie’s Girl’ and feel like I know her. I can’t wait for your book.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard it is to receive praise. I listen. I smile. I thank them. And all the while, in my head, I am wondering how this happened. How is it that my words are being read across the world? How is it this unmothered Bushwick girl with stories to tell is touching people just by sharing her truth? I am working on receiving this kind of praise. It is, after all, another form of love, and we can never have enough love. I am working on being gentle with that voice in me that sometimes rages and sometimes whispers: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Today, I am whispering back: “I am Vanessa and I am enough. I am Vanessa and I am enough. I am Vanessa and I am enough.”
Another lesson: this book isn’t just for you, V. There are worlds of folks that need it. You are enough. You are ready. It’s time. It’s time. It’s time. And your community will hold you through it.
Universe to Vanessa: Work on this praise thing you have. Stare at how your work has held and inspired people. This is who you are. This is what you do. It’s time to start owning and embracing this truth. Not doing so does not serve you or anyone. Es tiempo, Vanessa.
Universe to Vanessa: What if you gave to yourself what you give the world? What if you loved and took care of yourself with the same intensity? What could you do if…?
I didn’t write as much publicly in 2017 as I did in 2016. In fact, I haven’t written an essay in months. I have written though. I write every morning as part of my daily ritual. And I’ve written on the train, memories at first that lead to revelations and connections that always surprise me and remind me that the book is there, simmering, brewing, calling me. This year was so much about becoming.
Becoming the writer who could finish the essay I’ve been working on for 7 years, the hardest and most vulnerable one to date. The one that I submitted to Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. It’s called “What I Told Myself” and it’s coming out in the anthology in May of 2018. Oh shit!
I also wrote my first long form essay this year. I interviewed 20+ women and transcribed pages and pages of those interviews (last count was about 60 pages), wrote several drafts, working with a wonderful editor, Lisa Factora-Borchers. She reached out to me to write this essay on the fragility of motherhood. She left it up to me to pick the angle. She said she knew I was the perfect fit, and though I didn’t believe that to be true at first, she helped me see that I was. The essay “Can You See Me Now?: The Fragilty of Maternal Transition” went live on August 31st, and did so well (was viewed and shared thousands of times) that they decided to also publish it in their print edition: The Devotion Issue for Winter 2018. I just got my copy. It’s fuckin beautiful!
That essay made me finally write about the traumatic experience that was pregnancy and child birth. I realize that I’m still carrying that in my body…how I had to clean my open wound from a cesarean gone wrong. How my daughter’s father said we couldn’t afford to pay the visiting nurse who was assigned to come in every day to do just that: clean my wound. How she taught me to do it and didn’t look at my daughter’s father when she left that last time. How I’d clean it when he was away at work. How I cried hard and longed for my mother as I did it. How fuckin brutal that was…How that memory still makes me tear up…
One of the highlights of this year was when my daughter read that essay. She walked away because she knew I was trying to read her facial expressions. Then she came back and said: “I’m sorry you went through that, but I was worth it, right?” She smiled with her whole face and hugged me. Then she said: “I’m proud of you, mom,” squeezed me and walked away. And of course I was left a pile of blubbering tears.
I got some big blows this fall. I submitted an essay to an Australian Magazine. An essay they commissioned me for. The theme was family and they were sure I could write something stellar about being an unmothered woman and how that’s shaped me, but when push came to shove, the editor in chief said she couldn’t publish it as it was. She talked about Australian laws that sounded a lot like protecting predators and leaving victims unprotected and unable to write their stories. The edits they wanted to make would leave out so much, and portray my mother in a way that wasn’t fair. Yes, she was cruel in many ways and she didn’t mother me the way I needed, but there’s more to that story. My mother has suffered. She has endured violence and hunger that hardened her and made her into the woman she is today and the mother she was to me. To not include that in the story was (and still is) something I can’t and won’t do. It would only show one side of this very complicated woman. A woman that I love and am not trying to hurt with my writing. I couldn’t in good conscience let that essay go out into the world like that, so I withdrew it, though that too was very sad for me.
I didn’t get an NEA. Honestly, I didn’t expect to, and was really okay about not getting it, but that was just the first of a slew of rejections that hit me real hard. It was the Hedgebrook rejection that hit me the hardest, because I really wanted that one, and no, hearing that I’d made it to the final 103 applicants but not the final 40 who got the residencies didn’t help. I wanted time to work on my book. Time where I didn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning the house or helping Vasia with homework or holding space for anyone but me and my stories. Hedgebrook didn’t give me that, and yes, that was hard. I’m still hoping to get that space somehow in 2018. Let’s see how.
As the holidays came, I reeled. My brother loved the holidays, and here I am, 42 years old, the age he never made it to. I was so very triggered.
All of these hits and triggers made me pause, to sit with myself and listen to the lessons the universe was sending me… That I am ready. That I have become the writer who can do this work, who can listen to and receive the praise (because as my brujermana Lizz reminded me: “giving is control, receiving is surrender”), and I can keep doing the work and writing the stories and yes, I can and will finish A Dim Capacity for Wings.
So, my challenge to myself is personal this year. It’s not one I’m sharing with the world. Yes, there are some essays that I’m working on for publishing, and that’s something I will continue to do because I love it and it’s important to establishing a platform as a writer, but this challenge I’m speaking of is for me and my work, and I’m keeping it close. Sharing it only with a select few of chosen familia.
I ended friendships this year and started new ones. I cried a lot and laughed even more. And I got loved up on beautifully by a partner who supports all my whims and crazy risk taking. Who says yes when I’m wondering if I should do something like take a sabbatical from my steady money making gigs to expand my heart work: Writing Our Lives. Who when I was asked to write that long form essay for Bitch Media was like, “Of course they chose you. You can do this.” Who spent the afternoon with me singing old school Spanish ballads by José José, Rocio Jurado, El Puma, Juan Gabriel and more, while we reminisced about who we were and how we got here.
I’m ending the year hopeful. And I’m bringing in 2018 with some big manifesting and dreaming and risk taking. I’m announcing my classes in the coming days, and there’s some writing happening that I’ll be sharing and some that I won’t be sharing. Just know that I’m making moves, and I appreciate y’all for following and supporting and encouraging and loving up on me. I believe in you and I believe in your stories. Do the work, fam, and stay beautiful while you’re doing it.
As I was writing this, my mother texted to tell me that today marks 47 years since she came to this country from Honduras. It’s a bittersweet memory for her. She calls her immigration a desgracia. A curse. “I came to this country to suffer,” she’s said. I can honor and hold space for that, and can also be grateful for her sacrifices and how that’s brought me here.
I am thinking about that GQ essay about Stephen Colbert, where he shares some wisdom he got early in his career (“You gotta learn to love the bomb.”), and that he connected to the greatest bomb of his life: his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10.
Mucho amor, always,