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Fall 2017 Writing Our Lives: Essentials of the Personal Essay Class



* Workshop Dates: September 23, 30, October 7, 14, 21, November 4, 11, 18, December 2

* Workshop Times: 12pm-5pm unless otherwise indicated

* Tuition/Cost: $620 — Payment plans available. There is a nonrefundable $100 deposit required to reserve your seat. The deposit goes towards your tuition. If you are interested in a payment plan, you must arrange this BEFORE class begins.

* Financial Aid: A limited number of need based, partial scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, send a letter explaining your financial need—i.e. unemployed, underemployed, etc. Also explain why you think you need this class, what you expect to gain from it, and why you think you are deserving of the scholarship beyond your financial need. Send the letter with “Writing Our Lives Scholarship” in the subject line to: (Note: Students who have not received a scholarship in the past will be given first dibs on the scholarships.)

* Project: A maximum 1500 word essay. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, December 2nd. More details will be provided.

Why nine weeks? Because I want to give my writers extended time to sit with the lessons and practice them at length; to dig into the stories that haunt them to find the one they want to delve into for their project: the essay we workshop in the last week of class. I want to give my writers time to practice what it means to write in their own voices—you’d be surprised how many of us write in these voices that are not ours because we’ve been told for our entire lives that we are not enough and our stories are not enough and our language is inferior (more on this here). I want to give my writers more time to be with themselves and their conviction to write these stories that gnaw at them.

What you need to know:

* This class is designed for people who are new or fairly new to the personal essay/memoir and know they want to take on the challenge.

* Perhaps you are interested in writing a memoir and want to get your feet wet in essay. As a memoir writer myself, I can tell you that the personal essay is the micro of the macro that is memoir.

* Maybe you’re a seasoned writer who wants to brush up on the essentials. There’s room for you too! Legend has it that Alvin Ailey used to take a basics dance class periodically, even after he created his now renowned dance school, “to remind myself,” he said.

* In the class we will dig into the fundamentals of writing personal essays: how to decide on a topic, how to start, how to read essays like writers (because reading like a writer and reading like a reader are not the same thing), how to build well-developed characters, how to write dialogue, etc.

* We will be reading essays (lots of them) and dissecting them; analyzing why the author made the decision(s) he/she made. We’ll also be doing tons of writing, including a maximum 1500 word essay as a final project. What I’m saying is you must be willing and able to do the work. The writing life you envision requires it.

Still not sure if this class is for you? Ask yourself this:

* Have you read essays and wanted to write your own but the thoughts get lost in translation, somewhere between your brain and your fingertips?

* Have you tried to write essays but find them hard to finish?

* Have you wondered how writers write their amazing essays but think you just don’t have the chops and wish you did? (Side note: you do have the chops!)

* Do you write religiously or sporadically in your journal and wish (maybe even know) you could make those streams of consciousness into essays?

* Are you a writer (perhaps you’ve written poetry and/or fiction) who wants a refresher on the techniques you take for granted so you can take a stab at essay writing?

* Have you heard some great things about the Writing Our Lives Workshop and want to see Vanessa in action?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this class is for you. Email for information on registration, payment plans, etc.

Still not sure, I am offering a FREE One Day Class on September 16th, 12-5pm. Email for more details on that, including location, etc.


The Story of Writing Our Lives

In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop. I walked out knowing I wanted to help bring our stories out into the world. Stories by marginalized writers like me who didn’t see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists.

Writing Our Lives is my way of helping you write your stories that are so necessary and important, even if you don’t yet believe they are.

Since creating Writing Our Lives in 2010, I’ve led hundreds of writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Many have gone on to publish and attend reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.

There was so much going on in the country and in my life when I created the class. I’d just quit my full-time editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. The climate of the country was contentious, to say the least—Proposition 8 had just been ratified, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation, and the Texas Textbook wars were gathering steam.

The present climate continues to fuel my belief that it’s time we write our stories, that we write them in our voices, and that we do so unapologetically. The massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the reality that Trump is in the White House, have all served to convince me even more that we need, the world needs our stories.

I’ve been enamored with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books (which I know now are very problematic but was too young to know then), reading the series at least three or four times, but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia University that really grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Known as the first memoir in history (which is questionable but that’s a conversation for a later time), that book started this personal writing obsession that made me search out and read thousands of memoirs and essays. I’ve used all this curiosity and knowledge to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop, and to reinvent it numerous times, and build upon on it.

With that in mind, I am bringing Writing Our Lives online! More information will be provided in the coming weeks, but here are the classes slated to launch in October:

– Essentials of the Personal Essay (generative online class) — six sessions. *Note: this is not a workshop. Workshopping may be offered for an additional fee.

– Writing Fiction from Real Life (generative online class) — 3 sessions.

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page (generative online class) — 3 sessions.


Coming Spring 2018 — Information Forthcoming 

– Writing the Self as a Character— Online & In-Person Generative class

– Writing the Mother Wound — Online & In-Person generative class

– Writing Fiction from Real Life — In-Person class

– Finding and Crafting Your Voice on the Page — In-Person Class

*Note: The nine week essentials of the personal essay class will not be offered in the spring


How is Vanessa Mártir qualified to do this work?

Vanessa Mártir is a writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: Vanessa’s essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Butter, Poets and Writers, Huffington Post, Kweli Journal, Thought Catalog, and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (shopping), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists(Workman Books, 2010). In 2010, Vanessa resigned from her full-time editing position to write and teach full-time. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow. She created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2010 and has since led more than 200 emerging writers through the journey of writing personal and memoir essays. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship. In 2016, Vanessa challenged herself to write an essay a week, dubbing the effort in The Relentless Files. She was so inspired by what she learned, that she decided to share the challenge with her community, creating the #52essays2017 challenge, in which more than 800 writers are participating. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find her on a dance floor, punching a bag at the gym, or hugging a tree in a forest near you.

Celebrate yourself 

Addiction and the ghosts we carry

This morning I learned of the acceptance of a panel I was invited to be on at AWP 2018 in Tampa. The panel is titled Destruction and Creation: Addiction, Recovery, and Writing with Melissa Febos, Terese Mailhot, and Rob Roberge, moderated by Kelly Thompson

Panel description: The addiction story, though centuries old, is a breaking one. Five authors who write from the edges present perspectives and offer their approaches, both practical and emotional, to writing about addiction and recovery and the role addiction plays in their creative lives. The addiction myth operates in profound ways both historically and presently in the lives of writers. How do vocation and addiction intersect? How do we write in and through addiction spaces, images, and narratives?

I am thinking of my brother, Juan Carlos. When he died, after his fifteen year struggle with heroin addiction, I became obsessed with learning about addiction. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand him–why he snorted it that first time; why he picked up that needle. I wanted to dig into why it is/was that I have been able to make something beautiful out of these ghosts that haunt me while he was taken out by his.

What happened to you, Superman?

In my research, I came upon these lines in an article that have stayed with me:

“If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.”

I thought of this recently when someone told me that we have to stop treating addicts as victims. That kind of thinking isn’t just problematic, it’s simplistic and dismissive. We can hold people accountable for their behavior while also understanding that they are wounded and can’t deal with these wounds. “They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.” Or that bottle of scotch. Or that crack pipe.


When I first noticed the sore on Carlos’s hand, it was just above his wrist, in the meaty part where his thumb and his index finger met. I knew he used heroin, he’d been doing it for years, had been in and out of rehab, but he always said he couldn’t shoot up. “It scares me,” he said.

I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I searched his face, for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.

“Nothing. I cut myself.” He snatched his hand away.

“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid. Or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

“Ay Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When we finally spoke, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.

One time, when Carlos was living with me back in 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push.

Later, out of nowhere, he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”

I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization, and I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was by this cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand until just before he died.


My childhood friend Ulysses lost his mother to the crack epidemic that scourged our neighborhoods in the 80s and 90s. Maritza became the neighborhood crackhead. Back then, we all had a neighborhood crackhead. She was different when she was high. Once, she balanced herself on the top of a fire hydrant, laughing and marveling at herself, she looked like something straight out of a circus act.

But when she was sober, a dark cloud came over her. She would sometimes call to me and lower her bag on a rope from her second floor window where she put change so I could go get her the Weekly World News from the newsstand up the block. She paid me by giving me the old ones she’d already read. I’d run to the backyard and scurry up my plum tree to read them. Stories about aliens and a bat child found in a cave and how Elvis was alive and living in a monastery in India. It was in that tree that I became a writer. Maritza was part of the journey.


Is that what I had that my brother didn’t have: writing? A way of processing and being with these ghosts. A way of digging into them and thus freeing myself from their chokehold, poco a poco, día a día. 


My brother found out that he was conceived in a rape when he was just 13 years old. There are several stories around how he found out. My mother says it was Millie, her partner, who told him. She’s built a whole narrative around it. She’s cried to me, “Why did she tell my son?”

My brother told me it was my mother who told him. Which story is true, I can’t say. What I can say is that my brother didn’t receive the support he needed. No therapy. No discussion. He was told this story about his conception and was supposed to, expected to live with it. Forced to live with it. This is the story that haunted him. This is the thing that was scarier than that fuckin needle and that crack and the crystal meth that I only learned about after he died.

I think of Voldemort, the antagonist of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. According to the story, Voldemort could not feel love because his witch mother, Merope, conceived him when his father (a muggle named Tom Riddle, Sr.) was under the influence of a powerful love potion, Amortentia. The love potion could not create actual love, only infatuation. Merope died in childbirth and in an interview, J.K. Rowling said: “It was a symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union–but of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived.” Once the effects of the potion wore off, Tom Riddle Sr. abandoned both Merope and his son, so when his mother died, Voldemort had to spend his most impressionable years in an orphanage, and later at Hogwarts as a member of the Slytherin house.

Consider the story of Harry together. Harry also had a terrible loveless childhood, and somehow gained strength from the struggle. Harry used that strength in a much different way than Voldemort. He became “the one.” The only one who could destroy Voldemort.

My brother had my mother. She loved him in a co-dependent way that I’m still picking apart. She took care of him until the end.

She abandoned me.

So that leads me to the question: if my brother was unmothered, would he have been able to survive his ghosts?

I don’t know. These are all questions I have. They come from the bittersweet realization I’ve had over the journey of writing my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings — I would not be who I am, would not have accomplished all that I have and continue to, had I been mothered.

Ain’t that a bitch?

I still want to know… What happened to you, Superman? Why? Why did you not see yourself worthy of love when you had so much of it in your life? Why couldn’t you overcome that ghost? And why do I continue to work tirelessly to overcome mine?

It was my brother’s death that made me decide to do the work to heal.

I can pinpoint the moment I decided to live. Because, yes, that’s what it became. I had to decide to live. I was in that darkness of grief that I knew could take me out. That almost did.

I walked into my daughter’s room like I have and still do every night since she was born. I looked at this beautiful little girl who formed in my womb, and thought, “I can’t leave her. She needs me.”

She needs me like I needed my mother.

And so, I took a chair and sat in my grief and all those griefs this grief uncovered, especially the grief over my relationship with my mother, the fact that she can’t and won’t mother me. And she probably never will. 

Why couldn’t he do that? Why, carajo, why?


I have so many questions. Some of them I’ll never be able to answer, but this I do know — this work I do is how I bring my brother along with me. I love him. I miss him. I carry him. Always.


Soup Ministry


I taught myself how to make soup a few years ago. I was well into my 30s and already a mom. I wanted to make soup the way my mother did, rich with herbs and tubers and the love she didn’t know how to give me. I’ve mastered chicken soup and beef neck bone soup. I’m working on others.

This morning I made a caldero of sopa de pollo. I didn’t know I was going to make it until I was in the market for something else and my stomach started turning with anxiety. I saw the yucca and cilantro and thought: “That’s what I need–soup!” This is how I mother myself.

This is what we unmothered woman must learn to do for ourselves. Call it cooking. Call it revolution. I call it saving, because I’ve been saving my own life since I was 13. This soup making is part of the journey.


Last Friday I had a traumatic event on the train. I dealt with near crippling anxiety all weekend, but I pushed through. That night I went to a birthday dinner for my partner’s mom. Saturday I stayed home and wrote. I’m a writer, this is how I process.

Sunday there was a house music festival (Soul Summit) at Coney Island and my partner really wanted me to go and my daughter really wanted to go, so I pushed through and I went. Thank God I did.

We were swaying our bodies while taking in the breeze and the music and watching the dancers in the center of the circle. You know those dancers, right? The ones who take over every dance floor they’re on. The ones who know how to move their bodies to the beat. Who kick and swing arms and smile and werk. My lawd, do they werk. I watched my daughter as she watched the dancers. I watched her eyes, her smile, her oh my god. I know that expression well. She was longing to be in that circle.

Baby girl has been in dance classes since she was three. She was that baby who did circles on her butt before she could walk. There’s something about music that lights her up.

Once, when she was one and a half, we were at a bbq. I was having trouble putting her to sleep because she’s always loved to be in the mix. She’d fight sleep to stay up and watch and giggle. My friend took her out of my arms and started rocking her to sleep. Baby girl was lolling off when her favorite song came on–Music Makes You Lose Control by Missy Elliot. She popped up, put one arm up and started thumping in rhythm to the music. This has always been her. So I knew what she wanted as she watched those dancers doing their thing in the middle of the circle.

I nudged her. “G’head, mama.”

She shook her head. “I can’t do that.”

I reminded her that she’s performed in front of hundreds of people. “You danced in Radio City Music Hall just a few months ago,” I said.

“I’m scared,” she replied, without taking her eyes off the dancers.

“Ok, that’s different, right?” She nodded and looked at me. “It’s okay to be scared, mama. What do we do with fear?”

She looked back at the circle. There was a woman swinging her arms, twirling her body. “You face it and overcome it,” baby girl responded.

“That’s right,” I said.

She kept watching with this longing expression that soon turned to determination. A little while later, she went into that circle and wowed us all. There’s a video of her doing her thing. She vogued, she Milly rocked, she even incorporated a boxing move into her improvised performance. And she ended in a split that made people holler and high five her. That video has garnered 400 likes and dozens of comments. 

I was a proud mama in that moment, and I was also heartbroken.

See, while at Coney Island, I found out via FB that my sister had a graduation/18th birthday/going away party for her daughter, my niece, who is going away to the Air Force in a few days. My entire family was there. Everyone. My mom, aunt, grandmother, uncle, nephews. The babies. Everyone except me and my daughter.

My sister stopped talking to me in December. On Christmas Day to be exact. The argument started with a text about one thing and ended up about another: my writing. She called me toxic. Said I don’t think about how my writing affects people. She told me what I do is shit and everyone who follows me is shit. She hasn’t spoken to me since. She’s doing what my mother has done for much of my life–punish me by denying me her love.


So while I was watching my daughter shine, I was also holding my heart. No one can break your heart the way family can. And no one can bring you back to life the way they can too…the way my daughter did. In that moment, and since then, I’ve been watching this girl I raised. Her bravery. Her willingness to do something that terrifies her. Her focus on doing what makes her happy. I taught her that. On Sunday, she reminded me.

That night I wrote: What I know: you can be overjoyed and heartbroken at the same moment, in the same space. This is the magic and the sorrow of being alive.


the hard season
split you through.
do not worry.
you will bleed water.
do not worry.
this is grief.
your face will fall out and
down your skin
there will be scorching.
but do not worry.
keep speaking the years from
their hiding places.
keep coughing up smoke
from all the deaths you have
keep the rage tender.
because the soft season will
it will come.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.
from Salt. by nayyirah waheed


On Monday morning, I sat with all this love and devastation. I stared at the computer screen. I was hurt. I was inspired. I knew I had to do something with all of it. That’s when I saw the call for essays by women of color by a writer I admire. She needed two essays for this anthology she’s editing. I went in.

I’ve been working on this essay about being molested and sexually assaulted for seven years. I haven’t had the audacity to submit it though. It’s my most vulnerable piece. I’m not one to stray away from writing the difficult, so this is a huge statement, but I know it’s true. In the essay I write about my mother’s rape and how I held the secret of what’s happened to me because of what happened to my mother. I’ve been silent trying to protect everyone but me. On Monday I sat with the reality that none of these silences has protected anyone, especially not me. Silence killed my brother.

So I brought that essay out and I started working on it. Cutting words and moving sentences. Deleting entire paragraphs. I read it out loud a few times. I put all my rage and love into that piece, and I pressed submit. The following day I learned that of the hundred essays that were submitted, mine was one of two chosen. I was overjoyed, and proud of myself for doing something with my pain.

On Wednesday I got the editor’s suggested edits. I loved what she did with my piece. How she moved paragraphs around to make it more powerful. How she kept all my words and honored my story. On Friday, I was in a super proud place.

I wrote a status on FB:

Today I’m reminded that yes, it’s true we’re often more afraid of our success than we are our failure. I responded to the edits I got on an essay that’s been accepted to a huge anthology. Huge as in the editor is huge and generous and supportive of me beyond words. Huge as in this is what I’ve been working towards. Huge as in this is perfect timing as I’m finishing my memoir and sitting with these stories and this work I’ve done and this name I’ve built for myself. Huge as in typing “this name I’ve built for myself” made me pause as I heard the familiar voice in my head whisper: “who the fuck do you think you are?” Huge as in I can roar back “I am Vanessa Mártir, carajo”, and believe it. And I have this other commissioned essay I’m chipping away at. And I have these Writing Our Lives classes and workshops I’m planning for the fall. And I’m bringing these classes online. And I have folks in my inbox excitedly signing up for classes I have yet to post dates on. And I have this coming and that coming, and this in the works and that on the check list. And I have this drive and this wow and this oh shit, this is really happening. Let me tell you something, no matter where you are in your career and your writing and your teaching and whatever it is you’re aspiring towards, I hope you have these moments where you ask yourself: “Yo, whose life is this?” And I hope that in those moments you also have the reminders that YOU did this. YOU YOU YOU! You grinded, you sacrificed, you lost sleep, you risked, you pushed past all your fears and doubts and worries to make this shit happen. And I hope you have folks in your corner to remind you and hold you down and pat you on the back and toast with you. In other words, I hope you have love, especially self-love, the best and most hard won kind. Word.

And then today, I woke up with anxiety. Because, one day you’re squealing and joyous about that essay you just sent the edits back on and all these moves you’re making and how this is the life you’ve been working towards. And the next day you’re like: “what the fuck did I just do?” when you think about what you shared in that essay, your most vulnerable piece yet which says a lot considering you don’t stray away from writing the hard shit. Vulnerability hangover is very real, and I know I had to take care of myself through it…but I didn’t know exactly what I needed.

I know that I was licking my wounds. I know that I was and still am processing all this pain and joy and achievement and heartbreak. I felt all of it in my belly, where I carry my anxiety. It was in the market that it hit me: soup, make yourself soup.

I made a huge caldero. Like the kind my mom makes when she doesn’t know how to say  I love you and I’m sorry. This is how I mother myself back to wholeness.


My homeboy came over the other day and as we sat out on my deck, sipping whiskey and talking life, he said he wanted me to get over this story I have that I’m not enough and I’m not this or that. I could hear him and hold space for him because I know he loves me and is trying to look out for me. I told him I’m not holding on to anything. See, writing about your wounds doesn’t mean you’re holding on to them. Most people won’t get that. My boy doesn’t get that. I reminded him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to navigate the world without his mother. I told him that this writing has helped me work through and heal and keep healing. I wasn’t mad or offended or resentful. I’m still not. I told him, “I’m good”, and I believed that to be true. Not everyone will understand my healing journey. And that’s okay. It’s mine. And I will defend it and myself tooth and nail.



This week I came upon an article on grief that I just had to go back and read to remind myself.

The natural course of grief, as in the rest of nature, is contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion—perhaps endlessly.

Our emotions move within us, through us, and between us.

Disintegration comes first. Reintegration follows.

A contraction allows an expansion.

This is the wisdom of the universe, the wisdom of your body, the wisdom of your heart.

I’m remembering something my brother said to me over those last three months we spent together before he died. “I’m worried that when I die, our family’s gonna fall apart. That you and mom and Dee won’t talk again.” I shook my head and told him “that won’t happen.” The thing is that though I said that to my brother, I new that was a real possibility. And it’s happened. And there’s nothing I can do about that. Can you imagine how helpless that makes me feel?

But then I think about this Humans in New York story I came across this week:


My older brother was my hero growing up. Everyone called him ‘Jise.’ He was this hip-hop dude. People loved him, especially the girls. Everyone knew when he walked into a room. I was the opposite. I blended into the crowd. I was quiet. I made straight A’s. I liked comic books and action figures. So I always looked up to him. He was murdered one night in 1989. Somebody shot him. I was fifteen at the time, and I just kind of gave up. I thought our family was cursed. I always had this feeling that I was up next. So it was like, ‘What’s the point of being good?’ I dropped out of school. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. We started robbing people. I never actually took anything myself. I just tagged along for the adrenaline high. Even at my lowest, part of me was always the same good kid. I always held down a job. I wrote poetry. I kept dream journals. Whenever we were getting into trouble, my friends would always tease me. They’d say: ‘This isn’t you, man. Why are you here?’ Hip-hop saved me. It gave me a voice. I started doing open mic nights. I took all those dream journals and turned them into lyrics. I joined a group called The Arsonists. We toured all over Europe. We pressed a lot of records. Of course I always held down a second job. My proudest moment was when they wrote about us in The Source. My stage name was ‘Jise,’ in honor of my brother. It was like I’d gotten us both there.

I get this. As the little sister of a lost brother, my writing is how I get us both there, me and my brother, and even my family too… But I have to start with me. With caring for  and defending and protecting myself. And, yes, mothering myself. Today that meant making soup and writing these words while sitting on my deck…because I’m a writer and this is how I process. And this is how I take back my heart… Word.

Trauma on the train and the aftermath

Man gets on train blasting music on his phone. He sits next to me. I say nothing for several stops while people roll their eyes and move away. I can’t concentrate on what I’m reading (Sherman Alexie’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”) because the music is so loud. I ask man nicely to lower his music. He rolls his eyes, grumbles some shit about it being too early (indeed it is, sir) but lowers his music. He keeps grumbling, peppering the word fuck freely in his rant. Music comes on again. He challenges: “Say something.” Then raises his music even higher and starts cursing at me, saying I need to get fucked, asks me if I’m the one that he fucks. See, that’s my problem: I need to get fucked good and hard, and maybe then his loud music won’t bother me. I say: “What does me being fucked have to do with your music being disruptive? I wasn’t rude to you.” He keeps cursing and yelling. I laugh. I pretend to be unbothered. But the truth is that my hands are shaking and my heart is thrashing. I put my book away and place my coffee on the floor. I put my hand in my bag and grab my keys. I fist them in my hand. Put a key in between each finger. He gets up. Glares at me. Sneers, “fuck you.” I tell him to have a good weekend. He walks out.

I typed this while riding on the same train. Yes, I could have stayed quiet and left him to be disruptive. How does that help? I didn’t know this man had the capacity to be so vile. The thing is, this isn’t a rare occurrence. Women have to deal with this kind of violence all the time. It ranges from a conversation online when a man calls a woman emotional, thus negating her and connoting that she is hysterical and incapable of logic and having a conversation, to men putting their hands on us and assaulting us and abusing us and killing us. These incidences are all in the same vein. They are rooted in hatred and the the belief that we are inferior and not worthy of respect. I think of these Tupac lines:

And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women


I carried that trauma in my body all day. I still went about my day. I went to therapy where I unpacked some of the anxiety I was carrying. I went to NYU for a business meeting. I felt a pressure in my head all day, in my temples and the back of my head. I kept going.

Because I have to.

Because what other option do I have?

Because I didn’t know what else to do.

I felt it as I tried to leave the NYU building. The plan was to head home. It started in the elevator. I felt my stomach turn and fizz. I ran to the bathroom. I was on the toilet for forty minutes.

When I finally felt like maybe I could make it, I walked out the building only to run back in. I threw up for ten minutes.

I curled up on the couch in the lobby. This was my body trying to release the stress of the day. It was also a stress response to having to get back on the train to get home. Every time I tried to leave, my stomach lurched. This is what trauma does. It’s trauma that stacks up on you. As I described it to my therapist: “One pebble is nothing but imagine a thousand pebbles. That weighs on you…” I’m sharing this so y’all know that even the strongest woman is not unaffected…even we can break…


This world is dangerous for women. Men: we need you too to step up and help us make it safer for all of us because this violence is detrimental to you too.

I made the decision yesterday to start boxing again. And I’m putting my daughter in boxing classes too. Why? Because I feel safer knowing I can knock a mothafucka out. Here’s the thing: I shouldn’t have to…


I know many people who follow me on social media and read my writing think I’m so strong, impenetrable even. You should know that I cried yesterday. I cried because I felt the trauma in my body. Because my body revolted and froze up at the idea of having to get back on the train. I curled up on that couch at NYU and I shake-cried for the triggered little girl in me. I cried for my daughter who is already navigating this world that is so cruel to women and girls.

I am blessed to have a partner who knew what I needed though I couldn’t tell her. I thought it was too much to ask. How could I, this mujerona, say: “I need you to come get me. I can’t get on the train. I just can’t.” She knew. She came. And when I got in the car, I fell into her, sobbing. I cried for much of the ride home.

We’ve all been touched by trauma. Being strong doesn’t save any of us from it. And pretending that we are unaffected doesn’t serve anyone.


When I posted about my traumatizing experience, most folks responded with such incredible tenderness and support, I was overwhelmed by it, and so grateful. There was one person, however, who chose to take this moment to lecture me about how Tupac was an asshole (I quoted some of his lyrics), and how she’s tired of him being quoted. I can’t give her words verbatim because I deleted her comment. I didn’t need that shit in my space. I think this is a learning opportunity for all of us on what not to do when someone is sharing trauma.

I’m a writer. I process through writing, so in that moment, I was raw and hurting. I typed the status update moments after the incident. It was what I had to keep myself present and calm when my insides felt like they were exploding. I was having that post-adrenaline rush crash that leaves you reeling and chewing your nails down to the root. A lecture is not what I needed. I get that the comment wasn’t about me. Perhaps that person has her own unresolved trauma she hasn’t processed. The thing is, that’s not mine, but she chose to put it on me by responding to my status. I can’t take care of your hurt when I’m still in the thick of mine. It’s also a hell of a selfish thing to do.

Listen, if you’re not in a place to be there for someone, don’t be. If you don’t know how to be present and hold space, don’t. Don’t make their trauma about you. Don’t be that asshole. Thanks.


I put this piece together as I work on editing an essay on toxic masculinity. The irony does not escape me. I started the essay weeks ago, when my homegirl Elisabet Velasquez wrote a status on FB calling men out on their problematic behavior. Some dude bro came on to tell her that she was being divisive and it wasn’t fair for her to address all men since “we’re not all the same.” He went on to say that this wasn’t the solution to the problem.

There’s always one fool that comes on to take attention away from the real issue to defend himself because that’s how fragile male egos are.

I started thinking about the countless times I’ve had to deal with men and their shit. Their fragile egos. Their toxic behavior. I started a list… I eventually stopped compiling because the list got so long and I knew I could keep going for days, weeks even. And I knew that I could add present experiences, because we women have to deal with this shit daily…even from people we love.

Yesterday, one of my best friends who I’ve known since we were 17-year-old freshmen at Columbia University, responded to one of my statuses about how when men want to disqualify and condescend a woman and gaslight her, they tell her she’s being emotional. Of course that’s an old tired, sexist trick. I don’t pretend not to be emotional. In fact, I embrace it these days. I am emotional because I give a fuck. I can be emotional and engage in a conversation and/or debate. I can be emotional and still function in the world. This best friend decided to tell me what men mean by this. He did the #notallmen thing. To be clear, that shit is never okay, but he did it on a day that I was dealing with trauma. It did not go well.

I deleted his note and sent him a text about why. See, we’re both 41. This friend and I have seen one another through so many phases of our lives, and some really hard shit. In short, he’s my boy and I love him, but the truth is that our friendship has always been contentious like this. I know he can be sexist because he’s been sexist to me, but yesterday was not the day to do this.

We went back and forth. He wasn’t hearing me and I wasn’t hearing him. I wrote: “Yes, I’ve lost my shit before. So have you. But I was talking about specific moments. I didn’t have to explain that to women who get that this shit happens. I have to explain it to a man, you, who wants to pick this apart because the reflection is too hard for him to look at. That’s weak. You’re being emotional. See what I did there?”

He wrote: “Blanket assertions are killing society now. Stop feeding into that.”

I called him out. I asked him when was the last time he checked in on me. (So you don’t check on me but think it’s okay to mansplain me? Fuck that, no.) Told him he was doing what so many of them do: diverting attention away from the issue at hand. Said that the status did in fact have context but he didn’t bother to ask. Instead he took this as a chance to school me.

This is part of the problem: We don’t ask questions. We make assumptions. We make things about us.

The truth is that my boy doesn’t know what it is to walk in the world as a woman. He doesn’t get that we women have to deal with this kind of dismissiveness and these gradients of toxic masculinity all the fuckin time. Even from the men we love.


I don’t have a conclusion for this here essay. All I know is that I’m licking my wounds today.

I’m thinking about how we hold space for one another and how we don’t.

I’m thinking about what it is to be a woman and the mother of an almost thirteen-year-old girl.

I’m thinking about how even the men we love treat us in ways that are problematic as fuck.

I’m thinking about how we all have to learn to listen more and react less.

I’m feeling those boxing gloves on my hands as I pummel that bag. It’s just me and the bag and my fists. I feel the rage and aggression pulsing through my arms as I swing.

Jab-Right cross.


Jab-Cross-Left hook.


Jab-Cross-Left uppercut-Cross.

Jab-Right uppercut-Left hook-Right Hand finish.

Right cross-Left hook-Right cross.

I am sweating, panting, sore. I feel powerful. Unfuckwithable.

I feel safe.


Writing the Ghosts that Haunt: A Craft Talk and Generative Writing Class facilitated by Vanessa Mártir

Writing Our Lives Logo

I am ready to take Writing Our Lives on the road. I’ve created this Craft Talk and Generative Class to do exactly that. Read below for more detail and click on the link for PDF of the pitch. If you are interested in bringing me to your town, college, university or organization, please contact me at

Writing the Ghosts that Haunt by Vanessa A. Martir

Are there stories that you circle back to again and again? Stories about your life that you want to tell, but you don’t know where to start? Do you wonder what could come of tapping into your reserves, mining for the deeper stories and your deepest feelings? Vanessa Mártir, a renowned workshop leader and storyteller, has delved into the darkest places of her life to find the brightest lights, and will help you do the same in this craft talk and generative class.

Participants of “Writing the Ghosts that Haunt” will:

  1. Come away with an understanding of why their stories are important and necessary.
  2. Compile a list of stories they can dig into.
  3. Begin to write at least one of the personal stories from this list.
  4. Begin to add sensory details to the story they select.
  5. Zero in on and develop a scene in this story.

Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational. I call these ectoplasmic moments avataric manifestations. ~ Chris Abani

All artists, writers among them, have several stories–one might call them creation myths–that haunt and obsess them. Edwidge Danticat

Duration of session: 3-5 hours depending on what the organization wants and can handle

Requirements for the facility: a dry erase board, ability to make copies of handouts

Quotes available upon request. Contact Information: 

View pitch in PDF form here: Writing the Ghosts that Haunt by Vanessa A. Martir


Relentless Files — Week 71 (#52essays2017 Week 18)

*an essay a week in 2017*

What is toxic masculinity?

According to TheGoodMenProject:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.


What is male fragility? In an LA Times article entitled “Why is #masculinitySoFragile?”, Dexter Thomas writes: 

Does buying a rose gold iPhone 6s make you gay?

Sorry, that’s a dumb question. How could a color determine your sexual orientation – and even if it did, why would that matter?

But it’s a question that has been floating around on Twitter, and one that Anthony Williams, a sociology major at UC Berkeley, finds alternately hilarious and sad – especially because behind that question is the suggestion that being gay equals being less of a man.

Tuesday night, Williams began tweeting using the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag, in an effort to talk about violence and harassment that women face daily. Overnight, the hashtag started trending.

Williams woke up to death threats.

“When you challenge masculinity, it hits a nerve,” Williams said in a phone interview with The Times. “It makes some men nervous. But violence against women is a result of the fragility of masculinity. A woman can say ‘no’ to a man on a date, and she could end up dead. That’s what women have to deal with. And we as men have to recognize that.”


The internet has had a field day poking fun at men and their fragile egos. As a 41 year old woman, I don’t need the internet or anyone really to tell me that male egos are fragile. I’ve been dealing with that shit my entire life. I’m still dealing with it. Consider what happened to me on Mother’s Day last weekend:

I was using one of the squat stations, super-setting leg exercises (squats and lunges) with tricep exercises using free weights. I was about to do deadlifts (for hamstrings) when I saw a young man put a bar behind me to do the same. I told him I was going to use the space. I started with “I’m sorry but…” He huffed and moved. Rolling his eyes and pursing his lips but saying nothing. I made a note of his bitchiness but kept right on with my regimen. I was there to work out, not deal with his shit.

A few minutes later, another man came up to me to ask when I was going to be done. Admittedly I’d been on the station for a while, but that’s just how it is at the gym–you wait your turn. I told the man that I only had a few more exercises to do and that he could use the station but I wasn’t done using the bar, as I was using it to do deadlifts. Of course the man who I had asked to move piped in to bitch. “You know, you can’t use the station and the space behind it.”

I tried to be nice. “I’m sorry. Was he talking to you or to me?”

He said: “Well, it’s loud enough for me to hear. You asked me to move…”

That’s when I cut him off. “You need to mind your business. You’re just mad I asked you to move.” He kept talking smack and I eventually told him to put his toxic masculinity in his pocket and shut the fuck up. At that point I was tired of being courteous. I’ve waited countless time for men to finish using the squat stations and other equipment in the weights area of the gym. I’ve had to deal with them being disrespectful and mansplainy as they insist on telling me how to do an exercise, never for a moment considering that I already know how. (I’ve been working out for more than 20 years now.) I once almost kicked a dude over for standing behind me and ogling my ass as I was doing squats. I just want to work out and be left the fuck alone. 

I should add that he told me to “watch your mouth” when I told him to shut the fuck up, because, you know, it’s not ladylike for a woman to curse at a man.

That only caused me to tell him to shut the fuck up two more times. 


I started this essay a few weeks ago when my homegirl Elisabet Velasquez wrote a status on FB calling men out on their problematic behavior of men. Some dude bro came on to tell her that she was being divisive and it wasn’t fair for her to address all men since “we’re not all the same.” He went on to say that this wasn’t the solution to the problem.

There’s always one fool that comes on to take attention away from the real issue to defend himself because that’s how fragile male egos are.

I started thinking about the countless times I’ve had to deal with men and their shit. Their fragile egos. Their toxic behavior. I started a list:

When: early 2000s

Where: club in NYC

I walked by a guy in a crowded club. He grabbed my arm. I pulled away and kept walking. Next thing I knew, his entire drink was on my back.

When: late 90s

Where: Washington Heights

I’ve traversed every borough except Staten Island on rollerblades and my bike. This time I was stopped at a light on my bike somewhere on Broadway in Washington Heights. Man who looks to be in his early 30s gets way too close and mouths, “Yo te quiero romper ese toto, mami.” I kick him hard and pedal as fast as I can. I don’t know where my foot lands, I just know it lands hard. I heard him groan and I am out of there. I don’t bother to look back but I imagine him curled on the street. The image still gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. 

When: Halloween 1998

Where: Halloween Parade in the Village

I am walking with friends among the crowds. It is night time. I am dressed as a black cat. I wear a shiny cat suit. I have a tail and ears and my face is painted elaborately. I feel him grab my ass. He cups my entire ass, grabbing the inside of my ass cheek. When I turn, he is laughing and walking away casually. I start running after him. We corner him. I yell. I slap him. I see the fear in his eyes and I feel bad. Why the fuck do I feel bad? He just assaulted me!

When: Spring 2001

Where: Broadway Hill in Washington Heights

I am power walking down the hill after power walking up. I am sweating and panting and feeling good. Teenager flies by on his bike and slaps my ass hard. He cackles, “Nice ass, mami.”

When: Sometime in early 2000s

Where: bar on the upper Eastside

Drunk, white guy at bar leans into me slurring. I can’t make out what he’s saying except every other word–“mami.” When I turn to walk away, he grabs my wrist hard. I yank away. He grabs my other wrist. I push him hard so he goes sprawling across the bar, knocking down two bar stools. Friend says as he helps drunk guy up: “You don’t have to be so harsh. He’s drunk.” Me: “Fuck that. Tell your boy not to grab women.”

When: 2001 or 2002

Where: Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC on Fifth Avenue

I am walking through the crowd in front of the Met. I don’t want to walk through the crowd but the two women I am with insist on it. I follow reluctantly. There is an area where men have created a tunnel of sorts. They are lined up so women have to walk through this tunnel to get to the other side. My heart starts to race. I ignore my gut instinct that tells me not to walk through that tunnel. I regret it immediately. I am cupped from behind, meaning my ass and vagina are grabbed in one fell swoop. I lunge around ready to destroy. There are dozens of men behind me screaming and laughing, blowing kisses, calling me “mami.” (Before you say anything, you should know I was dressed in an ankle length dress. What I was wearing shouldn’t fuckin’ matter though.)

To this day, I’ve never returned to the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

When: 2011

Where: after wedding reception in New Jersey

We are at the bar in the hotel. I am hanging out and dancing with friends. I feel a hard penis on my ass. I turn and push without hesitation. He goes flying to the floor. He too is drunk. He is a groomsman in the wedding. The groom, one of my best friends, picks him off the floor. Groomsman steps towards me. Says: “Did you see what she did to me?” Groom says: “You’ve had enough. You’re lucky she didn’t punch you in the face.” I later learn that the groomsman slept on the floor outside his room because his pissed off wife wouldn’t let him in.

When: 2000

Where: corporate office in midtown

Broker from Miami walks by my desk an unnecessary number of times. He always has a random question: Can you recommend a restaurant nearby to take a client? What clubs are hot in NY? Where can I get some good Spanish food? I entertain him at first. I’m working as an administrative assistant. It’s my job. Then it gets uncomfortable. Where do you go out? He’s leaning in so hard, I have to lean back on my chair. Take me with you one day. My responses become curt and monosyllabic. I shrug and avert my eyes when I catch him staring. I get him a Zagats restaurant guide, the one with the burgundy cover, but it has the opposite effect I hope for. I catch him staring often. He tells me about five star restaurants he wants to take me to. I ignore him. I go to Miami for vacation. He calls my personal cell. I’ve never given him my number. I pretend to be someone else. Say: “Vanessa’s not available.” He calls three more times. I get fired not long after I return from vacation.

When: 2000

Where: Corporate Building in mid-town

Security guard at building I work in makes numerous passes at me. He leers when I walk by. Comments on my dress, my shoes, my hair, always something about my appearance. My floor to ceiling windowed office looks down into the lobby, where his security desk is. I catch him watching me. He does it all the time. He does not try to hide it. He finally asks me out. I smile, say no, thank you. He tries again and again and again. I say no every time. I smile every single time. One day, after the nth rejection, I see a dark shadow pass over his face. He says: “Aight, whatever. I get it. I ain’t good enough for you with my security job.” He stomps off. He stops saying good morning and good evening and hello. I still catch him staring up at me but now he glowers. He sneers. He tells my boss that I am disrespectful. Says I break security rules all the time. That I’m a problem. “Argumentative and hostile.” I try to defend myself but the boss says: “There you are being argumentative.”

I could go on with this list.  I could spend weeks adding to it. Weeks. 

The times men called me bitch and lesbian and ho because I didn’t give in to their advances or didn’t smile when they wanted me to.

The times they said: “You ugly anyway” because I kept on walking.

Men of all races and ethnicities and classes. Men from all walks of life. Construction workers and men on the street and men in suits at bars.


My daughter is 12. I often think of what my mother said when I told her I was having a girl: “Girls come into this world to suffer.” I’ve thought of these words often when I’ve had heart to hearts with my daughter about the world we exist in.

That time I had to tell her that if a man ever grabbed her, she should scream really loud. I made her practice how loud.

I’ve given my daughter boxing lessons. I’m looking for a self-defense class to enroll her in.

I don’t want to have teach my daughter this shit. But I know I have to…


I remember a time when I was in college and went to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn to visit my mom. I took a walk to visit a friend and returned after it was dark. I’d walked these streets so often as a kid. I felt safe there. It was home. I remember passing the guy sitting on a stoop on Palmetto Street, two blocks away from where I grew up and where my mom still lives. I heard his piropo but kept walking, like I always do. You learn early that this is what men do. I can’t remember when I got my first but I remember that I was barely pubescent. I learned to ignore them. I learned that this didn’t save you from being verbally attacked but that day I learned that it could also lead to violence. I wrote about the incident in my essay “The Danger of Being a Woman” published on

I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.

I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.

He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.

The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”

That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.”

When I got to my mom’s house, I was shaking and crying. She called the cops and we circled the neighborhood in a patrol car looking for that pendejo. Of course we didn’t find him. The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”

I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”

He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?” 


This is more common than folks want to admit and it’s us women who see it and suffer the consequences. The dude who calls you a ho and a bitch when you pay no mind to his catcalling. The one who throws his entire drink on you because you won’t dance with him. And, yes, the one who comes on a thread to say not all men and chastise you for dique lumping all men together because his masculinity is fragile as fuck and more important than the issue at hand :: that it’s fuckin dangerous to be a woman.

I wasn’t going to publish this essay. I started it and let it sit in my google drive. I’ve thought about it often over the past few weeks: when that fool at the gym gave me shit for asking him to move; when a guy on 125th Street nearly knocked me down because I didn’t move enough out of his way; when I noticed a guy following me on the 42nd Street platform after I’d ignored his winking at me… This list too could go on.

I’m publishing this because while there are so many articles and essays about toxic masculinity and male fragility and how it’s women who often suffer the most as a result of this shit, there obviously aren’t enough. Women are still being violated. We still live in fear.

When I saw that guy following me, I dug into my pocket and grabbed my keys. I put a key in between each finger, and wound my fist tightly around the ring. I had to make sure I was equipped to defend myself if I had to. Then I started darting through the crowd, looking back every few steps. I finally lost him when I ran down the stairs to the 7 train. There were hundreds of people around. I was still scared. I’m not the only one…