10 January 2011

RoRo's Torch Song Soliloquy

Monday afternoon. I am sitting in front of my net book, hesitating before the keys, trying to get myself motivated to write. This is an attempt at a free write exercise. I don’t know where it will lead, but my goal is to just be doing something, something related to writing. Something related to creativity.

I’ve had my hair cut this morning. My head feels cold. But I’ve received several compliments while out with a friend to get a sandwich and coffee this afternoon. No matter how much I may want to grow out my hair, lock it or do something else with it, I continue to keep it short. I’ve found it suits me. I find my short mane quite liberating.

When I got home, I ate my sandwich, drank a bottle of Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Ale, and reheated my coffee to enjoy with a cigarette or two. Yes, I have begun the nasty habit of smoking again. I will probably puff away until the pack is empty. Already, though, I am feeling a bit winded. I try to convince myself that the best thing to do is to keep busy at something, and since I have been such a procrastinator with my writing, I thought this exercise would be just what I needed to get me motivated, energized, and in the mood to write. So far so good.

While smoking and sipping coffee outside my door, I read an article from the most current Poets and Writers magazine (Jan/Feb 2011). A dear writer friend is featured for her having won the Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers. A big congrats and shout out to Olufunke Grace Bankole for living her dream and being on her way to more greatness! Can’t wait to read 26 Bones.
This month’s feature of Why We Write was penned by a woman from Boulder, Colorado by the name of Jenny Shank. She wrote something that seemed to be intended just for me:
“….It reminded me of my childhood dream of becoming a writer, one that I haven’t shaken for three decades, a dream that I almost gave up on a number of times, even though I still continued to write. Having my novel accepted for publication has churned up memories of the young, dreaming person I used to be before I hardened over that part of myself, the girl who wanted someone to read her work and laugh or cry…”

The “It” was in reference to a scene in a movie Shank had watched called Nights of Cabiria, a 1957 film directed by the famed Federico Felini. Shank recalls the scene about the movie’s main character, Cabiria, who is a prostitute longing for a more prescribed life that mimics other people in her Italian town: love, marriage, respectability. At some point the protagonist finds herself in the presence of a hypnotist performing in a show and is coerced into volunteering. Under hypnosis, Cabiria is dreaming herself a teenager, not a prostitute, and in this state she is her true self. She is “pure, open, and hopeful” writes Shank. This passage uprooted my own girlhood dreams of writing, of expressing my purest thoughts and desires, of being open and vulnerable, and like Shank, I’ve wanted to write and be published, have an audience enjoy my work for just as many decades.

Further along in the magazine, I came across the Inspiration section, which features other recently published writers. Their stories, too, were just the right dose of medicine I needed to make me feel good about my decision (although I am sometimes more indecisive than not) to keep at this craft no matter what the outcome. I have always known that I am more into the writing for writing’s sake than I have been about writing for publishing’s sake. But to have something recognized (by anyone) as something worth reading, is a great incentive and ego booster for any writer, including myself. So onward and upward, I continue to try and create something that will someday land in book form and be touted as good (great would be even better) work.

Of the writers featured in the Inspiration section, I particularly like what was communicated by the writers of color. Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose book of poetry is entitled, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, had this to say: “Publishing is a maze that you can get caught up in and can cause you to forget why you write, which is to get the words out. So my suggestion is to be doing both. To read when you can, e-mail your poems to friends, to strangers—and then, also to learn the market, to learn about presses. To buy books and build relationships that aren’t centered necessarily on getting published but are centered on living a life that acknowledges that poetry—and people reading poetry—is an important thing.”

Great advice from a brother, who, while in prison began to write in order to create a voice that stood out “amidst all the noise, violence, and pain.” Now, at age 30, Betts has overcome his torrid past to go on from prison to get his MFA, become a teacher working with public schools in D.C. for the Creative Writing Workshop,  to win a 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award, and now has his own book of poems picked up and published. What a magnificent feat.

Leslie C. Chang was inspired by stories told by her grandmother and mother. She has written work derived from “bits and pieces of a family history, and [Chang's] interest in finding a place for historical detail in a lyric poem.” I've found I also draw from my past histories, things learned while growing up in Chicago, stories overheard that my older family members (and sometimes from my siblings and other younger relatives, who’ve had privy to learning about what scandals certain kinfolk have enacted) would tell and reveal while having a few shots of scotch. Chang also suggests that a writer longing to publish should read those pieces that have an impact on you, that have been published in other presses or magazines where one may want to submit their work. Point taken. She concludes by advising the reader to enjoy their own work and not become too attached to it. Know when to let them go. “It’s all right for the first book to be an artifact of who you were when you wrote it,” she says.  I’m very much feeling this issue.

J. Michael Martinez, a 32 year-old resident of Denver, has had his work, Heredities, recently published by Louisiana State University Press. He spent about a year writing his poems from 2005 and 2006. His inspiration came from his heritage and what it means to be a minority in the U.S. “I was really focused on relationships between self and nation, self and beloved, self and self, self and family. I see this now in retrospect. As I was writing, I didn’t have these conceptual frameworks in mind, I just wrote.” He also recommend “poets focus on the actual act of writing. It is easy to get preoccupied with the fetishizing of publication and lose sight of why we do what we do.”

I replace poetry with creative nonfiction, fiction, and memoir. I like poetry very much, and have been enamored with the act of writing my own poems that have not often been concerned with structure and style, what Martinez calls “dualistic aesthetic”. I write what is on my heart and then later, I get into how to structure it, if it needs any structuring at all, and to further wordsmith it to be just so (this doesn’t mean that I don’t get caught up, from time to time, in the aesthetics of what I write; I often find myself stuck at how to begin a piece rather than just getting it out of my system and dealing with the logistics of it later on). But my major love is nonfiction, which stems from my having written so many nonfictive works while in college, and that place from which I write when journaling. Life. Life as it happens to me or someone I know and love, maybe even sometimes dislike (hate would be too strong a word here, and pretty much inaccurate).

It is John Murillo, whose work Up Jump the Boogie, is derived from the need to be inquisitive, that really moves me in the write direction. He believes that of “all the arts I consider literature best qualified to reveal ourselves to ourselves.” For me, this statement resonates, brings back the memory of taking my first (or maybe the first I ever loved) literature class at Merritt College in Oakland. The instructor was a black woman name Karen Johnson, who loved horseback riding. I was introduced to Kafka, Wilde, Kate Chopin, Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Wordsworth, and the like. I read beautiful poetry and learned about the tragic lives of people like Sylvia Plath, of the great writers who died in poverty, went to prison, became mad, were even open or closeted homosexuals. Ms. Johnson’s passion was like a torch to me, passed on for me to carry and later pass on to someone else.

I am still carrying that torch, that has been returned to me over and over by folks like Ms. Johnson and now Murillo who through his selfless words, demonstrates how his inspiration came from his personal experiences and “the lives of those with whom I shared the working-class black and brown neighborhoods of my youth and early adulthood.”

I, like this young poet from Ithaca, New York, have so many such stories under my arsenal of words, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. I know within me lie words ready to be lit up. I have my work still cut out for me, but the desire, however buried, is still there, the torch is still burning and needing to be handed over, handed down, and ultimately used to light the world waiting to hear from me. Murillo finally advises readers to “tend to your craft, take as long as you need to write the best book you can, work hard until you are genuinely satisfied. Then send it out and hope for the best. Second, know that what’s meant for you will find you; what isn’t, won’t. It’s a waste of both time and energy worrying about where this person publishes or what that person wins. So-and-so’s success or lack thereof has nothing to do with the poems you need to write. Don’t hate, hustle.”

This is where I am. I am in the middle of the hustle. Yet not hustling enough, because I continue to start, stop, and start over again. Maybe this is how it is supposed to be. This is my style. It is unique to me and I shouldn’t worry about where someone else is. The other day a friend said in an e-mail that she is going back to her 8-hour days of writing her dissertation now that the holidays are over. 8-hours! I could not begin to fathom sitting at my computer that long. I’m easily distracted...

1, 943 (and counting) words later, I am still sitting here, almost numb from the winter chill flowing into my two-bedroom apartment. Yet I am so proud of myself for remaining, keeping at least my fingers moving and a little heated from the pounding of the keyboard. I have successfully worked at this stream of consciousness writing exercise. Without having once taken too much time to ponder my next word, words chewing away at my thoughts, putting down my inspirations and desires to be a writer. I am happy to have this hunger after more than three decades. The feeling and need is strong, no matter how I try to fight it, and no matter how many times I have given up resigning to failure and a host of other inadequate beliefs that I can’t do this, I’m no good. I’m not going to let this spoil my long-term dreams of becoming. Becoming a writer.

Thanks P&W for a slam-dunk edition. I especially appreciate the number of people of color featured in the Inspiration section. I am truly inspired. I can keep going. I will keep going. I am not ready to blow out the torch. And verily I say to all you other torch holders out there, keep igniting your passions, do what you love, keep at it and don’t hesitate to pass it on. Just don’t extinguish your flames.

1 comment:

Nguyen Louie said...


What an amazing peace of soul work! You put it out there, drew the line. Bless you. The part I love the most is the (transparent) job description. It made me laugh out loud in that sardonic way, because it resonates with pain. What your piece (peace) says to me is that people are crying out and someone is listening, someone is feeling, someone is healing. It is a call to arms. Forgive me for using a battle cry, but so it is a struggle. I hope that we can overcome. Thank you,