Workshop Dates: February 25, March 4, 11, 18, 25, April 1, 8, 22, May 6
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: 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Note: Students who have not received a scholarship in the past will be given first dibs for the scholarships.)
Project: A maximum 1500 word essay due April 12th at 9pm. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, April 22. More details will be provided in class.
The Story of Writing Our Lives
Like today, there was a lot going on in the world when I created the Writing Our Lives back in 2010. I had quit my editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. I had attended VONA for two consecutive years and knew I would be back. (I ended up attending five summers in a row and worked with some of the greatest writers of our time including Chris Abani, Elmaz Abinader, Staceyann Chin, Mat Johnson and David Mura. I now work for the organization.) The climate in the country was both hopeful and incendiary–we had elected our first black president and he was making moves to bring the change he promised us, meanwhile California’s Prop 8 had just been ratified eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation and the Texas Textbook wars (where history was essentially rewritten) were gathering steam.
In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop (Memoir with Elmaz Abinader) and I walked out of there knowing I wanted to help bring our stories into the world. I wanted to help writers of color 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 to bring our stories into the world. I’ve dedicated the last six years of my life to do this work. I even quit the safety of a full-time editing job while I was a single parent, to live this life. That’s how much I believe in the work I do.
I won’t lie, there have been moments over the past year where my faith has been challenged and has waned–this horrendous election season, the shocking results, the team of bigots Trump is putting together as his cabinet, the massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the Dakota Pipeline and the criminal treatment of peaceful protesters and on and on and on… I’ve questioned and wondered: Does story really matter? Can story effect real change? I haven’t always been able to say yes with certainty, which is frightening considering how much I’ve invested in this work, but sitting idle isn’t an option either. Toni Morrison once said: “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I want to be part of that healing, if nothing else.
Our children need our stories, we need our stories, I need your stories, and people need mine. This workshop is here to help you write those stories you wished you’d had as a kid.
I’ve been enamored (read: obsessed) with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books, reading the series at least three or four times (I know now that this series is very problematic but was too young to know that then), 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 years later I used to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop.
Since teaching my first class in early 2011, I’ve led several hundred writers through the journey of writing personal essays and memoirs. Many have gone on to publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and have attended reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.
I’ve reinvented the class several dozen times and have now extended it to a nine week class where students generate tons of writing and write a 1500 word essay as a final project.
Why nine weeks? Because you think five hours once a week for six weeks is enough to teach the layers of the personal essay but it’s not. I want to give my writers more 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, so I’ve added fifteen hours of class-time.
As per usual, I offer a one day FREE five hour class each semester. Why? Because I believe in paying it forward. I believe that when you have a gift, you are supposed to share it with the world. I believe there are people out there who want to write personal essays but don’t know how and can’t afford to take a class. This is my offering to them and to you. More on the free class here.
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 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. Here are the details on the spring semester of classes one more time for good measure:
FREE One Day Class: January 7th, 12-5pm
Nine-Week Writing Our Lives Workshop Dates*: February 25, March 4 11, 18, 25, April 1, 8, 22, May 6
*All classes are 12pm-5pm unless otherwise specified.
Have questions? Interested? Want to talk to me further about it? Holler at me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
How is Vanessa Mártir qualified to teach this class?
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: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. In 2016, Vanessa challenged herself to write an essay a week, dubbing the effort in The Relentless Files. She’s currently in week 48! 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 fellow and now works on staff. She created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2010 and has since led more than 200 emerging writers through the journey of writing personal essays and memoirs. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship, and works as a teaching artist for community organizations like East Harlem Tutorial Program (EHTP) and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Most recently she was accepted to Tin House’s Winter 2016 Nonfiction Workshop where she worked with Lacy B. Johnson and spent enough time with Dorothy Allison that she wishes she was her grandma. Vanessa was once accepted to Tin House’s Winter 2017 Nonfiction Workshop where she will be working with Lidia Yuknavitch. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna.
Today I googled, “How do you know when you’re depressed?” Pathetic, I know, but how do you know? For me, it’s more than just sadness. I get irritable, short tempered. I rage. I don’t always see it right away. The people around me do. The people I love do…because they’re the ones who targeted. (Sorry, babe!)
What’s been whirling in my head:
I should be happy. I have an awesome kid who is shining super bright (her report card was ridiculously stellar). I have a partner who is supportive and loving. I moved to a sun-filled apartment in a great neighborhood where I’m surrounded by trees and nature. I have a writing room in my new place and a deck! I have students who work hard and teach me something new and necessary all the time.
I was accepted to Tin House and crowdfunded so I could attend. I raised the money plus an extra $1300 in under 48 hours so most of my AWP trip is covered too. I should be happy but…
I’ve also been overwhelmed by the state of the world. There’s so much going on. So. Much. And I’m not just talking about the election. I’m talking about the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter and the rash of hate crimes across the country and Syria and…and…and…
Last week, I wrote a love letter to my Writing Our Lives students. They submitted their final project essays on time last week, and as I’ve been reading, I’ve felt so proud and emotional. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and I’ve felt this swell in my chest that I can’t really describe other than to say that it felt both hopeful and sad… In the letter, I wrote:
I’m writing to congratulate you for sacrificing so much of your time and putting so much effort into your stories and this class. Most people don’t want to give up their Saturdays to take a class with a teacher who doesn’t hold any punches. As I always tell you, this isn’t easy work, but you’ve showed up (mostly :)), pushed yourself to write and dig into those spaces that you don’t really want to dig into but know that’s where healing and release lies. You’ve pushed even when you want to throw things at me and yell. You’ve done the work, and I want to remind you of that. I want to tell you that no matter what anyone says, this is the time that your stories are even more important than ever.
I confess that today I’m feeling a little disillusioned. I am listening to jazz (Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” is currently playing) and I’m thinking about how the news these days gives us no reason to hope. There are days like today when my faith wanes that I wonder about the work I do. Then something comes across my timeline or someone sends me a note or I remember a book I read or talk I saw, and I am reminded of the truth… As Jedi Master Chris Abani puts it in his TED Talk “On Humanity”, “…what I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa, they have a phrase called Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. But if you’re like me, my humanity is more like a window. I don’t really see it, I don’t pay attention to it until there’s, you know, like a bug that’s dead on the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it’s never good. It’s usually when I’m cussing in traffic at someone who is trying to drive their car and drink coffee and send emails and make notes. So what Ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. It’s really very simple, but really very complicated.”
Thank you for shining my humanity back at me.
I think of you and the work you’ve done and the faith you’ve put in me and this road you’re walking in your writing and artist life, and I thought: shit, they are reason to hope. I look at you and wonder if you know how much you do for me. How I get up excited on Saturdays to share with you and hear you and work with you. How you’ve inspired me to keep pushing and think of new ways to teach the work and show up.
This morning, I was lying in bed, looking up at the sky and the trees outside my window, the way the branches bend and shake in the wind but hold fast and refuse to fall… I was feeling hopeless and worried, wondering: what is it I can do? I am, after all, only one person. I went on my FB and the first thing that showed up with this video of VONA alumna Piper Anderson “Can Stories Create Justice?” She’s a great speaker, is engaging and makes you think, and she reminded me that stories can indeed be an instrument of justice.
So, today, this is my love letter to you, my gorgeous Writing Our Lives students. Thank you for believing in me and sharing your journey and letting me help you. I’m so looking forward to reading your essays and sharing love on the 3rd. Have a wonderful turkey day. Stay beautiful. Y’all don’t have to try. You already are.
All my love,
When you feel like it’s all too much. There is so much horror in the world. People protesting peacefully getting pelted by water in below freezing temperatures. A president elect putting together a team of white supremacists and problematic pendejos like him to help him in his administration. Hate crimes left and right. Fools telling you to just get over it. And there’s so much more… It’s a lot to take in. A lot to try to do something about. What can one person do to effect change, right? I am reminded that the world is not changed by grand messianic acts but, rather, by the on the ground work you do every single day. So, today you went to a protest or posted a rant on FB. Great. That has a purpose too but what else are you doing? Like every day, what are you doing? Because, folks, it’s right there that longstanding change really happens. Remember that.
I’ve been told: so, you write? How does that do anything to change the world? I’m meditating on that today, as a writer and a writing teacher. I quit my job six and a half years ago to do this work, to write and to teach. Since that orange pendejo was elected, I’ve been wondering about what it is I can do to effect change. Am I doing enough? Are stories really that important? Can writing really effect change? I think about my Writing Our Lives students and what they’ve sacrificed to take this class and write these stories. I think about my own writing journey. And I think about how books and stories and letters and writing writing writing have influenced my life. Where would I be without my books? Where would we be without MLK’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail or his I have a Dream speech? Where would the world be without all the religious texts that have stood the test of time: the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, the Vedas, the Tripitaka (Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the so many more? What would we be without the written word? What and where would we be without stories? I am thinking so hard, really wondering how is it we artists can effect change in these times when it’s so easy for hope to wane… I don’t want my hope to wane. It’s my superpower, but, shit, these times are so fuckin’ hard.
In an interview, Nina Simone said: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians… I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved… We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.”
Last week, headlines reported that VP elect Pence (yes, the one who believes in conversion therapy for LGBTQ folks) was “harassed” by the cast of Hamilton when he went to see the show. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who portrays Aaron Burr, delivered the speech at the end of the night’s performance. In it he implored Pence, as the newly elected VP, to work on behalf of Americans.
While Trump was foaming at the mouth mad, basically denying the cast’s first amendment rights when he insisted “This should not happen” and demanding an apology, Dixon told Broadway.com: “These are the opportunities that you die for. If you have differences, say something! What better place than on this stage telling this story with these people? I hope he thinks of us every time he has to deal with an issue or talk about a bill or present anything.”
Here’s the transcript of the speech:
Thank you so much for joining us tonight. You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you’re walking out but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here, we’re all here sharing a story of love.
We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK?
Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
Last night, lying in bed, as I listened to my partner’s steady breathing, I wrote: “I’m feeling helpless.” It hit me like a bag of cement to the chest. But I can’t lie, that’s the sentence that’s been whirling around my head for weeks now.
What’s making me pay attention to it now? I’m not sure. The election? The news that feels straight out of a horror film? What’s happening in North Dakota? Trump’s cabinet being a long list of white supremacists and bigots? My own questioning as I watched my timeline blow up after Fidel’s death?
I’m wondering: Am I doing enough? Is writing enough? Can story really change the world or effect change?
I’ve been known to say that statistics do little or nothing to sway people, story does… But does it? It’s terrifying to think that it can’t when I’ve invested so much in it.
I think of these lines in the essay “To A Truth That Yet Could Be” by Ryka Aoki in The James Franco Review:
But what is the role in such community of the artist? I’m no healer. I’m no facilitator. I write stuff. And my truth?
Nothing I write can make a white, womyn-born-womyn accept a trans lesbian of color, nor force a bigoted family to offer a decent Christmas to their queer child. Nothing I write will stop the rage of a bully who thinks trans women like me should die. Nothing I write will block the bullets flying in an Orlando nightclub. My best writing can’t even stop a Texas school from keeping a child out of the bathroom.
At this point, I am so tempted to protest, “until it does.”
Of course, I believe it’s possible for a poem to change the world—but then again, I also believe in the benevolence of the Buddha. And justifying or measuring the value of art in terms of timely substantial change is much like burning incense so you can win jackpots in Las Vegas or be cured of whatever is ailing you.
It’s just not going to work that way.
Instead, what preserves my sanity rests so much upon understanding the limitations of what I can do. There is a difference between curing and creating, between correcting an unjust culture and presenting alternative storylines that offer, if not justice, at least some vitality, connection, inspiration, or even hope.
Of course, the truth does not set you free. But through poetry, through art, one can envision ways to process the truth, to show that it is possible to resist to the truth—to create alternative narratives and show that “the truth” is an invariably an emperor without clothes.
I’m no more and no less self-involved as the next person. I keep going back to that Abani TED Talk: “the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion…” But shit, there have been days when my faith has waned.
I’ve been accused of being an idealist. Told I need to come back to earth. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend RD. He was such a pessimist. He insisted he was a realist. I told him he had to give people, the world a chance. He believed people were out for themselves, that no one really cared about anyone else. He wondered why a woman like me could be single: “You’re beautiful. Any man would give anything to have you.” He blamed my being single for ten years on me. When I told him I wanted to love and be loved, he waved me off. “Love doesn’t exist,” he said. “That’s the bullshit story they sold you.”
RD killed himself this summer. It wasn’t his first attempt. This time he threw himself in front of a 4 train. He was committed to dying.
I think about the kind of helplessness that takes you there…
I haven’t been writing much. I’ve been brooding. Mulling shit in my head. Listening to those voices that have become shouts. They’re all over the place, but what they come down to is this: What are you doing, Vanessa, and is it enough?… Are you enough?
I remember that darkness I went into when my brother died. And I remember the day that I decided I wanted to be well.
I was reading voraciously about grief and depression. Books like Unholy Ghost—Writers on Depression; I read essays and articles and studies. Then something shifted one day in April while I was on my way to therapy. I was on the B train crossing the Manhattan Bridge. The day was that kind of sunny and crisp that only happens in early spring when the earth hasn’t yet exploded with green but is about to, and you can’t help but smile at the tiny green shoots pushing up through the brown. You smile because you know what’s coming—life.
I was reading yet another essay on depression. The author wrote about how bad it got for her, how deep she sunk that she thought about offing herself to make it stop. Suddenly, I thought (I may have even said it out loud), “I don’t wanna kill myself!” and I slammed the book shut. I finally really understood those lines in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
I did want to be well. I wanted it more than anything. ~Do You Want to Be Well: Lessons From Grief
I still want to be well. I still want it more than anything…
And as is the way of the universe, she leans in to remind me that I’ve been here before. That I will get out of it. That I will be well…
Earlier today I reached out to a friend on FB who writes about her struggles with depression and anxiety. I wrote:
When I’m depressed, I’m an asshole. I’m irritable and short-tempered and mean…
She wrote: Yes, because you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to see outside yourself. You snap and rage because you are tired and in pain.
That’s when I first saw it…the root of this irritability that’s made me lash out and in turn get quiet–sadness and grief.
She reminded me: DEPRESSION LIES!
She reminded me to do something. “You feel like you can’t move–but you can.” So I moved. I sat in front of my computer in my writing room, where I have pictures of my brother and my Millie to my left and a copy of my first novel to my right. And I started writing.
She said: It’s okay to be scared and it’s even okay to be sad. One thing to remember is that this will pass. And forget all the reasons you’re supposed to be happy–telling yourself that makes you feel guilty for not being happy and that’s not cool.
She reminded me: A whole new environment can shake you–even if it’s for the better because it’s unknown.
She wrote: Sometimes depression is just something that amplifies fear and sadness and ugliness. It robs you of your ability to see through. Being empathic makes that shit worse because we are all scared. And you soaking all of that up. And what does a fighter do with fear? She fights. Becomes aggressive. But there’s no real fight actually happening. So pent up aggression and anger and frustration–like a caged wolf pacing.
That visual struck me–the caged wolf pacing. That’s so me right now. It’s been me for weeks now.
I confessed: One of the things that has been whirling in my head is just that: am I doing enough? Are stories really that important? Look at the state of the fuckin world…why does writing matter? Some days I know how to answer that. It’s scary when I can’t.
She reminded me: You write for yourself. The stories are not meant to be earthquakes but small waves. Those waves echo and reverberate a lot longer. I know and even that–the change happens slowly. Remember all those people at Capicu telling you that it is your teaching that got them through?
Remember that not being “enough” is a lie depression tells you because of fear. It’s okay to be afraid of not doing enough but you have to remember–you are a human being filled with emotions and life and responsibility. You do what you can do–that is more than enough. More than enough.
I didn’t know I needed I that, her, but I did. Because here I am. I am writing. And as I write, I’ve been looking back on the writing I’ve done over this year and I came upon this from Week 17 of the Relentless Files:
Shortly after posting my last Relentless essay this past Monday, someone posted a meme on FB that resonated so profoundly, I mentioned it to my therapist today after telling him about the serious bouts of anxiety I had all week and how shame kept coming up for me. I took out my phone so I could read it to him (I’d saved it in my pictures to remind myself when I needed reminding):
My therapist got that thoughtful look on his face where he swallows his lips and creases his brow. He asked, “So how does that make you feel?” I leaned back and said, “Like I’m not alone. Like I can take it easier on myself now that I know that it’s a result of past traumas.”
Ken nodded. “Is that all?”
“That I should be patient with myself.”
He nodded again and said, “You are dealing with trauma and shame you’ve been carrying for a long time. You’ve stored it in different places in your body. And now you’ve decided to deal with it. I’d say that’s very brave, Vanessa.”
I don’t feel particularly brave today. I know that I almost didn’t write this essay. I almost didn’t try. I almost let myself be sucked into the whirl. Instead, I sat down and I reached out and I tried…and I’m glad I did.
*An essay a week in 2016*
I had the scare of my life this week. On Wednesday evening, I started calling my daughter when I got out of teaching my high school fiction class at 6:30. I called her nonstop for until 8pm, an hour and a half, with no answer. She told me the night before that she had a performance at school for an event (she’s on a cheerleading/dance team) and would be late, but late to me is not 8pm. I told her to keep me in the loop. She didn’t. She thought telling me she would be late was enough. By the time I got home from teaching, I’d called her at least a dozen times. I thought/hoped that her phone had died and she was at home being a tween, dancing around her room, reading a book (she’s an avid reader like her mama), doing homework, anything and everything but paying attention to her phone…so when I got home and she wasn’t there, I had a full on panic attack that led to an asthma attack. I am not the worst case scenario type of person but that’s exactly where my mind went. I started thinking about all those people that criticize my parenting, telling me I give her too much independence, that I need to be stricter, more stern, a helicopter mom. “My God, they’re right. I’m a terrible mom. Where is my baby?” A whirl of horrible thoughts invaded my chest and I was shaking like crazy, crying and praying. I kept calling and texting my baby girl like a mad woman. I called and yelled at my partner, and she let me. She didn’t try to calm me down. She knew she couldn’t. She just went into fix it mode like she does and tried to come up with a plan/options: does baby girl have Find My Phone on her cell? Can we locate her that way? Have you called her school? Do you have her coach’s number? etc. I went out to walk the dog because staying in the crib was driving me further up into anxiety lane–I was ready to climb the walls. I left the dinner I bought on the stove and ran out. I was crying walking up and down the block. I walked into the park across the street. At one point, I looked at the moon through the trees and said, “Luna, por favor, traeme mi hija.” I did all this while calling my daughter over and over, praying that she’d answer, wafting between desperation and rage and terror and everything in between. When she finally called, I was so relieved, all I could do was cry and shake and blubber. She explained that she didn’t have her phone because she was performing. That she was sorry. That she told me she’d be late and she thought that was enough information. That if I didn’t believe her, I could call her coach. I explained that this wasn’t about believing her. Baby girl has never given me reason not to trust her. She’s a thriving seventh grader with a 95+ average, a dancer and singer and avid reader with a quirky personality and a heart that always surprises me with its capacity for compassion. “This isn’t about me trusting you, baby. This is about mommy being worried.” I was crying so hard, I was hiccuping. “What if you were calling me and couldn’t contact me for over an hour? What would you do?” “I would cry too, mom. I would worry.” When she got home, I hugged her so hard. “You’re trembling, mommy,” she said. We sat and talked about what happened and how it can’t happen again. She apologized again the following morning. Me? I’m just happy she’s safe. A part of me is still trembling, and I’m thinking about how careless and carefree kids can be while we the parents go insane worrying about their safety. Dios mio, she’s not even a teenager yet. Lo que me espera.
What does the aftermath of trauma look like? By Thursday, that appeared to be the theme of the week, from having a number of students dealing with no joke health issues (two of them have to drop out of my WOL class) to having a meltdown after not being able to find my kid. All this got me thinking about how my own trauma from childhood showed up in my terror on Tuesday as did my concerns about what that orange pendejo being elected means for my brown kid, my kid who is being raised in a lesbian relationship by her mom who is queer, my kid who is only now discovering how scary this world can be. I had trouble focusing on Thursday. I cried a few times. I was feeling all the soft and tender and vulnerable. And I warned people not to tell me it would be okay. I was (still am) feeling what I need to feel. Emotions are real and I don’t dismiss their validity.
At one point this week, post-lost-child-flip-out, I flashed to a memory of being at the 2009 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. It was the year Rihanna was recognized and Maya Angelou gave a remarkable speech. I remember feeling distressed by some of the statistics that were shared that night on the world our girls live in. I thought of my daughter who was then five years old. I thought about how especially hard it is for brown and black girls. The CEO of the org I worked for texted me at that moment (she was sitting by the stage in Carnegie Hall while I was up on the balcony) and I shared my distress. She told me, “No. Our girls are fine. Don’t think like that.” She in essence shut down my feelings. I remember thinking that she as a white woman with a white daughter was coming from a place of privilege. She didn’t get where I was coming from because she didn’t have the same concerns I did as a brown woman who is raising a brown daughter. And the thing is: she didn’t try, she just dismissed it. Swatted my worries away. This memory came up as I contemplated how crazy I went when I couldn’t locate my kid for an hour and a half. I thought about the brown and black girls that have gone missing in the Bronx and how that hasn’t made headline news. This is the world we live in. Don’t tell me not to worry, especially if your concerns aren’t the same as mine and you can’t identify with my worries as a mother who is not white with a child who is not white. I will not respond kindly.
Like my daughter, I was really active and involved when I was in elementary and middle school. I went to after school programs and was in dance and cheerleading teams. In 1989, when I was in 8th grade, I auditioned and was accepted to a dance group that traveled to Turkey to dance in the NATO Children of the World Festival. The practices leading up to the audition started in fall of 1988, followed by choreography and practice sessions until we departed for two weeks in April. All this meant that after school, I headed to rehearsals at a school that was out of my way and about two miles from where home was. By the time I got out, I couldn’t use my train pass because in those days, your pass (which you flashed at the token booth attendant) was only good until 6pm and practices often went much later than that. So, I had to walk home through my Bushwick hood, at the height of the crack epidemic, when the neighborhood was a pile of rubble and had a history of violence and gang activity. My mother made sure to tell me what routes to take and I didn’t dare stray from them. I learned quickly what blocks to stay away from. Drugs were everywhere, both the selling and use of them. You could hear the dealers yelling “Eight ball! Eight ball” when you walked through certain blocks, and you’d see the fiends smoking from their pipes in alleys and corners. The smell of burnt cotton candy will forever remind me of crack.
I usually walked home alone, but on occasion, Mom or Millie met me along the route. One day, mom came running out of Millie’s station wagon (the one with the wood panelling on the side and Borincueña hanging from the rearview mirror — how very Boricua of her!). Mom was hysterical, yelling and spitting, a crazed expression on her face. “Where were you?” That’s when she first swung. The slap landed on my arm. “We’ve been looking all over for you?” She swung again. Grabbed me by my hair and yanked. I’d learn later that the stiffness and ache in my neck that was often the result of mom’s rages, was whiplash. “Mommy,” I whimpered. “You told me to come this way.” She stopped. Let go of my hair.
“Que?” She looked at me with a confused expression. “Ay m’ija, get in the car.”
I wiped my tears and avoided Millie’s pleading eyes staring at me in the rearview. I learned early on that she couldn’t protect me from my mother.
I’d forgotten this memory but it came rushing back when I couldn’t find my daughter. I understand my mom’s rage that day in a whole different way. I get now that she was scared. My mother has trouble processing her emotions. Anger she can deal with. Fear and desperation, not so much. So, when she saw me, walking down the street, 13 years old, applying to boarding school and going to Turkey without my family, she lost her shit. Her fear manifested itself in rage. Yes, I reacted differently when my daughter finally called me, but in the thick of it, I vacillated between rage and terror.
This parenting thing is so fuckin’ hard.
What I’m learning (again): You have to take care of yourself when doing this work. I mean the work of digging into your traumas and writing from your wounds. It’s crazy what can happen to your body when you excavate your life… For me, it shows up as asthma. Grief lives in the lungs. This semester, four of my Writing Our Lives students have encountered serious health problems. Three were hospitalized. Two had to drop the class. Their bodies are revolting. I asked them: where does your trauma lie? Are you paying attention? What is your body telling you? What have you buried so deep that your body is now fighting you going there? We come up with these myriad ways to survive. The thing is that eventually they stop working, and the trauma starts to bleed into the rest of your life, your relationships… Still, we must be grateful for what our minds and hearts did to help us keep going. These coping mechanisms (my therapist calls them “creative adjustments”) served their purpose–we’re here, right? But they have an expiration date. That’s when it’s your turn to take the reins and work deliberately on your healing. And the thing is: Healing as a journey, not a destination. It’s not easy work. Most of the world would rather pretend this shit doesn’t exist. But we know better. We’re not most of the world. We are guerreras. Our ancestors are counting on us. We are counting on us. Go slow. Poco a poco. Día a día. Do the work, the digging… we are your own archeological sites. We are worth the effort. Word.
When I told my therapist about the week I’ve had, I said: “Trauma has been the theme of the week.” Later, he said, “It seems like safety is the theme, Vanessa.” He explained that those creative adjustments were to meant to protect us in a world (and maybe from a world?) that was unsafe. After all, the definition of safety is: the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury. (Google.com)
What came up for me when I couldn’t find my daughter, was also about safety: Is she safe? Why can’t I ensure her safety all the time? I know it’s impossible but fuck that’s so hard to accept. The memory about my mom’s reaction when she couldn’t find me was about safety as was the memory of the Glamour Awards.
I went right to work when Trump was elected. My work took on a new urgency–my writing and my teaching. “What about you?” my therapist asked. “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” I was stumped. I realized, I’m doing it again. When I feel helpless and desesperada, I go to work because it makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I can do something to make the world a better place, for my daughter, for my students, for my family…for myself. But that work is taxing. It takes so much out of me. What am I doing to take care of myself while doing it? Isn’t this what I preach to my students? You have to take care of yourself while you do the work…
This election caught up to me in a whole different way this week. When my daughter was “missing,” I was confronted by my real feelings of dread and worry about the state of this country, the 700+ reports of hate crimes in the last 12 days since Trump was elected, the racist, white supremacists he’d choosing to serve in his cabinet. I’m fuckin scared. I’m worried. I’m terrified for me, my daughter, my family, my students, their families, you, our communities, us… We people of color, we marginalized, we queer and LGBTQ, non-Christian folks are being targeted. This is our generation’s civil rights movement. It’s our McCarthy era. And, yes, this gives my work more urgency. Yes, the work is more important now than ever…and so is my health, my emotional, spiritual, physical health. My asthma’s been acting up these past few weeks. I told you that grief is centered in the lungs, right? I’ve had two migraines since last week. One of them took me out. My stomach has also been a mess–I carry my stress in my stomach. My anxiety is running high. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears as I type this… How do we take care of ourselves while we do this very necessary, critical work? Last night my partner and I spent time, we cuddled and watched movies and reminded one another of love. This morning I went for a long walk. Now I’m sitting at this desk. Later I will cook a delicious, healthy meal. I will lesson plan. I will sit with myself. I am committed to doing something daily specifically for my emotional, spiritual and physical health. Even if that just means sitting out on the deck by myself under the moon after baby girl and my partner are asleep. We take care poco a poco. Día a día. It’s all I have for now…
I sometimes wonder about what my life would have been like had I done what was expected of me and kept going on the Ivy League track I was on. This morning, at a Starbucks in my new hood, I ran into someone I went to Columbia with (I may not have hung out with all the students of color in that very white school, but we all knew one another.) He was grading papers. Turns out he’s an English professor at a cushy private school. “Are you a writer?” I ask. He did that half nod, half shrug thing we do when we’re not sure how to answer a question, when we want to believe something is true of ourselves but we can’t own it for whatever reason. “I’m off again, on again working on a novel.” I nodded excitedly. Told him I wrote a novel. Told him about VONA. He gave me his card. Turns out he’s chair of the English Department at his school. “Fancy,” I said. I told him I’m going to Tin House. That I work for VONA now and he should consider it. He has two kids, his job…”it’s hard.” Truth is he has a stability I don’t have. He made his decision and I made mine. Who is happier or more satisfied, I can’t say. What I can say is that I know that look of resignation and, dare I say, disappointment when he spoke of his novel. I know his eyes opened wide when I told him I’m a teaching artist because I can make my own hours, “and focus on your writing,” he said, finishing my sentence for me. I know when I told him how involved I was in the literary world, he sighed and said, “I’m not.” I know that yesterday when my Writing Our Lives students spoke about the final project essays due in a few days, when they shared their fears and how good they felt about all the writing they’ve done over the past few weeks of class, I knew then that I am absolutely where I’m supposed to be, doing the work I am supposed to do, and although I chose the path less taken, one riddled with so many failures and frustrations and heartbreaks, I can’t say I’d change a thing because I’m here and I’m writing and teaching and doing work that fulfills me and makes a difference, and this is a beautiful place to be…. I just gotta keep reminding myself to take care of myself on the journey.
So you have these stories you want to tell and you need help telling them. Or, say, you have these stories about your life that you want to write but you don’t want to piss anyone off or aren’t ready to admit this really happened to you–label it fiction! Or, perhaps, you’ve been writing fiction forever and want to dig into what it means to use your real life as fodder for your fiction. Or perhaps you’re mostly a memoir/personal essay writer and you’re interested in writing fiction. No matter where you’re coming from, if the title of this class piqued your interest, there’s a reason for it.
What I love about fiction is that we are free to use all of the materials of our human experience in writing it.
What do I know about writing fiction from real life? I wrote two novels running away from memoir: A Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Write Play (shopping). I’ve also had short stories published that were written using materials from my life, like the flash piece Dollhead, published in SmokeLong Quarterly earlier this year.
I know that using my life, the people I’ve known, the experiences I’ve had, have given me a wonderful foundation to work with in my stories.
In this class, I will share insights into my inspirations and methods, which will help you take away some fresh ideas for your own writing. This is a generative class, meaning you will be writing a lot and generating material to take with you and hopefully keep working on.
Dates: January 21st, February 4th
Location: A central location in the West Village (exact location will be provided when you register)
Price: $70 for one class, $130 for both
To register: send an email with “Writing Fiction from Real Life” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond with further information including payment methods.
I look forward to hearing from you all soon. Let’s start 2017 with some writing and dream chasing! Word.
I want to begin 2017 in gratitude and what better way to do that than to offer a FREE One Day Writing Our Lives Class on the first Saturday of 2017.
Date: January 7, 2017
Location: Central location in the West Village (exact location will be provided when you register)
This class is my gift to you. My gift to the community that always has my back. This is also how I pay it forward. I believe that when you have a gift, you are supposed to share it with the world. I have been obsessed with all things memoir and personal essay since I was just a kid. Since then I’ve studied the craft intently, read hundreds of memoirs and essays, and written dozens of essays myself while also working on completing my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings. I’ve taken numerous workshops and residencies, and am excited to share all that I’ve learned in my journey.
In this class I provide an overview of what goes into writing a personal essay. You will have homework (two essays) that I ask you read BEFORE class as we will be referring to them throughout the class.
To sign up for the free class, send an email with FREE One Day Writing Our Lives Class in the subject line to email@example.com. I will respond with all relevant information including the location of the class and homework. I look forward to seeing you all soon.
*An essay a week in 2016*
We turned the TV off around 11pm on election night. It was too much to take. We could barely sleep. My partner and I tossed and turned. We were up at 3am, checking the news for updates, praying, hoping that a turn had happened. Of course you already know that it didn’t. We couldn’t sleep after that. Bae had to get up at 4:30am to head to work. Those crazy electrician hours. I stayed up despite myself.
At 7am I was staring out my bedroom at the yellow and red leaves glowing in the morning light. I wondered how the world could still look so beautiful after the tragedy of this election. My twelve year old knocked on the door. She stared at me wide eyed. “Mami, Trump won.” I pulled her into bed and held her. A few minutes later, she went out to walk the dog then left to school. What more do we have but to go on with our lives?
I spent the day wafting between desperation and trying to work. I had lesson plans to create, payments to send to AWP and Tin House, I had to keep unpacking the boxes that were stacked in the living room and kitchen and just about every room in the apartment we just moved into. I also had to write. I spent most of the day staring at the blank screen on my tablet.
I was terrified to leave the house. If only I could pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the next four years. I thought about the high school students I was supposed to teach that evening—all poor, all black and brown, two undocumented, a few queer, one trans. If I as an adult was having a difficult time grappling with this, what were they feeling? How are they going to navigate a world that has told them in no uncertain terms that they are hated?
I resisted the temptation to hovel up at home, got dressed and headed to work. My kids needed me. What I didn’t realize was that I needed them, too.
What is hope?
Hope — hōp/
1. a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
“he looked through her belongings in the hope of coming across some information”
synonyms: aspiration, desire, wish, expectation, ambition, aim, goal, plan, design; dream, daydream, pipe dream
“I had high hopes”
2. archaic a feeling of trust.
1. want something to happen or be the case.
“he’s hoping for an offer of compensation”
synonyms: expect, anticipate, look for, be hopeful of, pin one’s hopes on, want; wish for, long for, dream of
“he’s hoping for a medal”
I confess that on my way to work I side-eyed every white person I saw. They voted Trump into office, overwhelmingly so… so I was not happy when a white man sat next to me. He was young, had black rimmed glasses on and jeans that were tighter than mine. He took out a book. I peered over. It was Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. “That’s a great book,” I said before I could stop myself. He smiled. “It’s a lot. I’ve had to read it slow.” I nodded and heard “mansplain” in my head. I thought of the million and one times I’ve quoted that book, in essays and to men who explained things to me in that condescending-let-me-school-you manner that they do to women. Pendejos.
We got to talking about the election. It hadn’t been 24 hours and he too was dumbstruck. I thought: he doesn’t have as much to lose as a white cis-man but I didn’t say this. I listened to him, this man who asked me what I do and nodded when I said, “We have to keep doing the work. It’s all we have.” He said kids give him hope. I tell him that not all my kids are hopeful or positive but they have a unique way of looking at the world that inspires me and they teach me so much every day. “Teaching should be a symbiotic relationship. You should learn from your students as you teach them.” I said. He nodded. “My name is Jesse,” he extended a hand. His hand was warm, his shake firm and welcoming. It said, “I see you. Please see me too.” And thus he reminded me that there are good people in the world and although the stakes are different for all of us, the point is that we all have stakes in this, we all have something to lose and to gain and to work through. How’s that for perspective?
One of my students, a writer who overthinks and feels everything, caught me as I entered the building. I was two hours early. “As soon as I found out, you were the one person I wanted to see.” Her face looked like my daughter’s did that morning–crestfallen. I hugged her.
A few hours later, I sat in front of the class and stared as my fiction writers walked in. This group that’s normally boisterous talked in whispers, their shoulders were slumped, eyes downcast. That’s when the tears I’d been fighting all day came. Soft tears that gathered at the corners and slipped down my face.
“Who’s scared?” I asked. Hands went up.
“So am I.” And before I knew it, I was coming out to my students. I told them that I was in a relationship with a butch who didn’t have the privilege of presenting straight like I do as a femme. “I’m scared for her. For us.” I said. I told them I was raising my twelve year old daughter in this gay relationship. My voice cracked as I told them about the homophobia I’d endured while being raised by my two moms in 1970s and 80s Brooklyn. I told them about the girl who told me, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.”
“Is that what we’re going back to?” I was shaking by that point.
Slowly my students shared their fears. One girl came out to me. I walked out of there with more faith than I walked in with. My students showed me that though the next four years look bleak, they, these students, are the reason for hope. When they slapped their hands on the desk and raised their fists in the air and shared their soft, pulsing hearts, I saw the generation that is inheriting this country and was proud.
A few hugged me as they left. One kid lingered. The one who makes a joke out of everything, he stared at me intently from his desk and stood up. As he approached, a hulking six feet of pure love, I noticed his eyes were wet. “A white guy called me a nigger this morning. I had just left my house.” He said he went back upstairs and cried while he played video games. “I couldn’t go back outside for an hour. I was late to school.”
I thought about my daughter. What had she encountered on her way to school? I texted my partner from the bus ride home. “We have to talk to Vasia about this election.” Katia said she was worried Vasia would internalize our fears. I said, “I’ve always shared my feelings with my daughter. I have to show her that it’s okay to be worried. All her feelings are valid.” And that’s exactly how I started the conversation in our kitchen, with me leaning on the door frame, my daughter sitting cross-legged on the floor with the dog on her lap and my partner sitting across from her at the table.
“I learned today from my students that this teaching and writing and mentoring I do is more important now than ever.” I said. My daughter nodded. Later I asked her, “Are you scared?” She shrugged. “A little bit.” Then she looked at my partner and back at me. “But I know I have you.” Indeed, she does.
I normally have incredible faith that is steadfast and virtually impenetrable. I like to think it’s my superpower. But there have been moments this week when I’ve felt stripped of the one thing that’s got me through so much, from being on my own from an early age and becoming a woman by myself through trial and error to being unmothered to having my heart broken too many times to count. I want to believe I, we will bounce back from this. This is our wake up call, our rallying cry, our push to make moves to effect real change. I have to believe that because what do we have without hope?
So many of us joked that we would leave the country if Trump was elected. I wonder how many of us really thought this was possible, that we would spend four years with that orange pendejo as the commander in chief. I certainly didn’t. I was one of those who said that I would leave but I realized pretty quickly that I can’t. None of us should. Remember that if you bounce & head for the hills, as they say, you are abandoning the work that needs to be done here. You are abandoning the young people who are going to inherit this country. This week my daughter and my students reminded me that this work is important and the world isn’t changed through grandiose messianic acts but by the way we live our lives and the work we do and the love we give and gift and receive every single day. So the focus for me is how I can effect change, cada dia, poco a poco. That’s what we have…& really, that’s what matters–what we do, how we exist and share, on the ground. Because let’s be real, while I would have preferred that HRC be the next one in the Oval Office, she wasn’t going to save us or this country. That job is ours. Yours and mine. We got work to do.
Saturday was the 7th class of this fall’s nine week Writing Our Lives Workshop. Of course we talked about the election. At one point, during lunch, a student and I were waiting outside a Thai restaurant on West 3rd Street when a Trump supporter who overheard our conversation decided to chime in. She said she voted for Trump, that she wasn’t racist but she wanted a change. “But you co-signed a racist,” I said. She shrugged. “It’s the people on welfare and the system that are really worried,” she said. I sucked my teeth. “That’s not true. I’m an educated woman with a job, I teach, and I’m worried.” She said she lived in midtown and was tired of what she was seeing. She said that there was a time when she could get a job at a delis for $10/hour but now she could barely find one for $8. “You go into these delis down here and there’s Mexicans everywhere. ” My student who is of Mexican heritage, winced. The Trump supporter said she had a house in the Bronx and immigrants bought the house next door. “There’s like 20 of them in there. It’s like a hotel.” She insisted they brought the value of her house down. She kept saying that we had to accept the results of the election. When I told her that her language was xenophobic, she shook her head and said, “We’re overpopulated.” When I told her that she can’t try to control what other people do on their property, she again shook her head and said, “I just want a change.” I didn’t talk about red-lining and all the systematic racist shit that’s really to blame for her property value going down. “You just have to accept it. He’s our president.” she insisted. “No, I don’t. He’s your president not mine. You can’t control how people feel.” I can’t tell you how many times I had to repeat myself. Then she told me about the kid whose mother kicked him out of the house for being a Trump supporter. She said it’s Hillary supporters who are protesting and looting and burning the flag. I told her about how not 24 hours after Trump won, two of my students were called niggers for the first time in their lives. My students are high school age. 13-18. You can’t cover the sun with one finger. That’s when I walked away, because I was done. But first I shook this woman’s hand. I don’t understand her or her logic, I have opinions about her greed and the problematic views she shared, but we had an exchange about our political beliefs and we didn’t attack one another or lose our shit, though it took some deliberate restraining of my wild tongue to do it. There’s something to say for that.
I’m a queer woman. I am in a relationship with a butch woman. I am raising a daughter in this relationship. I was raised by a self-proclaimed butch who died terrified of going to hell and there was NOTHING I could do or say to undo the decades of Pentecostal ideology that was drilled into her in Lares, Puerto Rico where those kinds of homophobic credos were (and still are) as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees. My brother was a gay man who lived with HIV for twenty years! Don’t you dare tell me not to be concerned. Don’t you dare tell me to accept this fool! Don’t dare!
If you play pool maybe you’ve thought that this mess of an election is like that time you cleared the table, leaving your opponent with skittles, then you scratch that 8 ball. You loss, yes, but not because your opponent beat you.
I woke up this morning feeling tense. The news on my timeline riled me up and pissed me off. Pence’s assault on LGBTQ equality is already underway (this fool believes in conversion therapy!), there’s a video of students in a lunchroom chanting “build a wall,” in Natick, a town over from Wellesley, the town I went to in 1989 to attend boarding school, the same town I learned what racism looked and felt like, a resident posted a letter that was left in his mailbox warning him to “make sure to get rid of those trash.” The trash the “concerned neighbors” were referring to were black people. “We tolerated the latinos now you are going total black. This trash belong to Dorchester. We have reclaimed our country back by selecting Trump and you are now messing up everything. Our kids and pets are scared to death.” This is the hatred that has been unleashed as a result of Trump winning.
I knew if I sat still I would despair so instead I started organizing my writing room, cleaning and sorting and preparing this room for the work that will be done in here. Clearing space for the act of writing and strategizing and protesting and lesson planning…the on the ground work.
Toni Morrison said, “In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.”
Tonight I am sitting in my writing room, a white candle on my right, to my left pictures of my brother and my Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me. Tonight I am channeling this rage and pain and frustration onto the page under this gorgeous moon because if the work was ever important, it is now all the more so.
I started off this week feeling incredibly supported and loved. On Friday, November 4th, I leaned into my fear and vulnerability and posted a GoFundMe for the Tin House CNF Winter Workshop I’d been accepted to where I’ll be working with Lidia Yuknavitch. Within 24 hours I raised the $2100 and some. Within 48, I raised more than $3,000, including generous donations from two of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay and Jaquira Díaz. Since then I’ve raised upwards of $3600. I am remembering this as I type this essay. I am remembering that people came through for me, showed me that I am seen. They’ve co-signed my work. They’ve told me with their wallets and their FB shares and their inbox messages that what I’m doing is righteous and necessary. I am feeling all of them as I go in on this page and promise to continue to do this work, for all of us. Word.
*An essay a week in 2016*
I finished moving this week. It was a long, difficult process that brought up so many emotions. I found things that twisted up my insides and/or made me question why the hell did I save all this shit? Things like letters I wrote to my daughter’s father (aka baby daddy) when we first met and letters my brother sent me when he was locked up. Poems my daughter wrote to me. Letters I wrote to myself. Random quotes and journals. So many journals.
The bulk of the move happened on Sunday, but I had to go back on Monday and Tuesday to finish things up, pack the miscellaneous items and throw out a shit ton of trash.
On Monday, I stopped at my favorite Dominican spot for a lonche and my coffee. I wondered if I’ll ever find a spot like this where the doña (Clara is her name) added two spare rib tips for free to my lunch (“’Ta bueno, pruebalo,” she said) and knows how to make my coffee perfectly without me having to ask. I told her I was moving and she gave me her blessing but not until after she shared stories of her many moves over the years. This woman who will read you in a second and the next will wink at you and give you a piece of pan con mantequilla fresh off the press.
Later, at the old spot, as I packed my comino and sofrita, I realized that doing this made the move more real. This is doña speak, I know.
On November 1st, I finally moved everything out and turned in the key to the super. There’s something about shutting the door for the last time to a place that was once home, home for seven critical years of your life, where you took your life back and became a new and more authentic and driven as fuck and relentless you. What a ride. And now on to start a delicious new, a love-filled new, a new you are so ready for…this is what you’ve been grinding for. Enjoy it, nena. You deserve it.
They say that when you declutter and/or move, you open up space for the universe to gift you. I was reminded of the truth of this on Wednesday evening when I found out that I was accepted into Tin House’s 2017 Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Winter Workshop. I applied last minute, on the day the scholarship ap was due, knowing full well that if I didn’t get the scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to go. But if I’m anything, I’m a risk taker, so I did what I do: I submitted a portion of the memoir that I completed this past summer and I proceeded to kick that scholarship letter’s ass.
When I write, I am that little girl up in the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I am watching my mother tend to her garden, treating the tomato vines and pepper plants with a tenderness I rarely felt. I am that little girl sitting at my mother’s feet. She is sewing a flower onto a table cloth as she tells me stories of her childhood in La Ceiba, Honduras where she endured the kind of poverty we only see in Save the Children Commercials. She grows quiet when she gets to the part about coming to the U.S. at 15. That’s where she always stopped, no matter how much I tried to pry it out of her. I write to fill in those silences to understand why and how she became the woman and mother she did, and why I, in turn, became an unmothered woman.
I haven’t always known this. It was in my Tin House workshop with Lacy Johnson in February 2016 that I uncovered this. Lacy asked, “Where is your mother in this?” During our one on one, she said, “A memoir attempts to answer a question.” I heard the question right away: How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?
I walked into Tin House thinking I was writing a memoir called Relentless about my journey through grief after losing my brother in 2013 to a fifteen year heroin addiction. Lacy helped me see that I was in fact writing the same book I’d abandoned when Carlos died: A Dim Capacity for Wings. I couldn’t finish it because I hadn’t faced the grief that has haunted me my entire life: the grief over being unmothered.
This past summer I sat with my stories and everything I learned at Tin House. I tried to find the structure to put the book together, and it was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water that gave me the permission to say, “Fuck traditional structure!” I braid stories. My book is a mixtape. Lidia Yuknavitch helped me own that.
It was at Tin House that I unlocked the first half of this book. I’m in a transitional period in my life and my work, and am ready to tackle the second half of Wings and the question that arose in the writing: what is resilience and what is about me that I’ve been able to create something beautiful out of these ghosts that haunt me while my brother Carlos was taken out by his? I know that Tin House can help me unlock this second part and finish this book that I’ve been writing for more than ten years.
I had some tremendous epiphanies while at Tin House in February. Sitting on the veranda with Dorothy Allison, the backdrop the crashing Pacific Ocean, I was reminded of why I’m writing this book and why it’s so important: it tells the story of unmothered women like me who somehow make their way in this world, who have survived and thrived in spite of (and maybe because of) all of it.
I didn’t get the scholarship though the folks at Tin House did make it a point to tell me that I made it to the final 7 of the 215 applicants.
I immediately went into how-the-fuck-am-I-gonna-afford-this mode? The workshop costs are: $1300 for the workshop and housing at the Sylvia Beach Hotel on Nye Beach. That doesn’t include the flight from NYC to Portland or transportation to and from the airports or meals or incidentals…
I took to Facebook.
Status 1 – So what do you do if you get into a really prestigious and competitive workshop (1 in 5 got in), and though you made it to the last round, you didn’t get the scholarship, but if you go, you will work with someone whose work helped you finish half our book, how do you proceed?
Status 2 – Full disclosure: I got into Tin House’s CNF Winter Workshop. I did not get the scholarship. I cannot afford it. I could work with Lidia Yuknavitch whose Chronology of Water helped me figure out the structure of my memoir and, as a result, I was able to finish half of it thiss summer. I have some big decisions to make this week… Gah!
Status 3 – At what point do you feel worthy of the love you are given? Tonight I had a talk with my daughter about getting into Tin House but not getting the scholarship. I told her about the love people are offering me in the form of money and praise and “we gotchu.” I admitted that I was uncomfortable. She asked why. I told her about the money I raised a year ago for the same workshop (from which I walked out with the question the memoir attempts to answer which, if you’re a writer, you know is momentous and necessary). She said: “What does that have to do with anything.” Then she looked at me, all wise and shit and said, “You can’t turn down people’s love. You give so much, mommy. It’s okay to accept love too.” I’m a big ball of emotion right now. Bear with me, fam. This unmothered woman is still learning how to mother herself and let others love her.
Status 4 – Bruja sis Lizz said, “You feel uncomfortable because you think you don’t deserve it.” This is the thing about emotions: even if logically we know we give and grind and are relentless, emotions are not logical. These kind are rooted in our traumas, in what we didn’t get as kids, those ghosts that haunt us, waiting for vulnerable moments like these to pounce and remind us…despite all the work we do, they are there to push us to keep doing the work, keep manifesting the holy spirits that we are, for if it is true that God created us in Her image, then it’s true that we carry God in us and therefore, I dare say, we are Gods too…& perhaps the journey of this human life is to see that and own that and manifest that God essence we all have within us, right? Don’t mind me. I’m blabbering. I’m trying to work through all this emotion y’all got me feeling gifting me all this love and “we gotchu.” All I can say right now is that I am grateful and I’ll get back to you. Loba’s got some big decisions to make.
So many of my FB friends and familia reached out to tell me that they had my back. They inboxed me, responded to my statuses, texted me. The overwhelming consensus was: I deserve this. I should do it. I should crowdfund. I should let my community love on me, so here goes everything.
I am raising $2100. Why so much?
– Tin House is $1300. A generous donor sent me $450 which with the $50 my partner gave me covers the deposit I put down earlier this evening. So, that leaves $800.
– The flight is upwards of $425 plus taxes, fees, etc. averages out to say, $500.
– I need to feed myself while I’m out there and get around (taxis from airport, etc.).
– And finally, GoFundMe takes a percentage of the money you raise… They are a business, after all.
Last year, around this time, I got into Tin House to work with Lacy Johnson. I had applied to work with Dorothy Allison. Tin House made the right decision by placing me in the workshop with Lacy Johnon. I still remember my one on one with Lacy where she said, “A memoir answers a question or at least tries to.” I heard the question right away in my heart: “How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?” I’d been trying to write this book for ten years. It was only after my brother died in 2013 that I finally faced the grief I’ve been carrying all my life: the grief over being unmothered. The grief over how abusive she was when I was a kid and how I made that brave choice at 13 to leave her home and make my way in the world, and become a woman through trial and error. I am now a month shy of 41 and that wound is still there, though the work I’ve done over the years—the therapy and the writing and the deliberate sitting and confronting my wounds—have helped ebb its sting.
I walked away from the book for a few months after Tin House to let it and myself breathe. I had to process what I’d just learned. I had to mull over that question. I had to let that shit roil inside of me. “How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother?”
This book is an in depth look at my life and what led up to my leaving at 13 and what happened afterwards. All the shit I did, the missteps, the beautiful and the ridiculous, that were direct consequences of me looking for the love my mother couldn’t give me in people and sex and partying and a whole bunch of other shit but the right shit.
But just because I wasn’t working on the book directly, didn’t mean I wasn’t working on it indirectly. I was still writing my weekly Relentless Files essays and I was journaling and I was reading tons. That’s when I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. I had to read the book slow. I read it at night by nightlight, a box of tissue next to me. This woman who had such a different life than mine but also had to deal with much of the same abuse and abandonment. She spoke to everything I was feeling. She gave my feelings life and reminded me that our stories matter, that we matter, and writing ourselves into existence matters… I remembered what I’ve said to my Writing Our Lives students time and again: We write to connect. We write to take our power back.
This is something I know: damaged women? We don’t think we deserve kindness. In fact, when kindness happens to us, we go a little berserk. It’s threatening. Deeply. Because if I have to admit how profoundly I need kindness? I have to admit that I hid the me who deserves it down in a sadness well.
So yes I know how angry, or naïve, or self-destructive, or messed up, or even deluded I sound weaving my way through these life stories at times. But beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes appear in dark places. Besides, I’m trying to tell you the truth of a woman like me.
I don’t have any problem understanding why people flunk out of college or quit their jobs or cheat on each other or break the law or spray-paint walls. A little bit outside of things is where some people feel each other. We do it to replace the frame of family. WE do it to erase and remake our origins in their own images. To say, I too was here.
Sometimes a mind is just born late, coming through waves on a slower journey. You were never, in the end, alone. Isn’t it a blessing, what becomes from inside the alone?
I could sit here and quote so many lines and paragraphs and whole chapters that stayed with me and dug in and made me flinch and wince and cry and say, out loud, “Yes, yes yes!” and “Oh shit!” But it was these lines that made me think of the structure of my book, which I had been breaking my head about up to that point (hearing Lacy Johnson tell me: You have the stories. What your book needs is structure.):
“Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and patter formations. Language and water have this in common.”
“Have endless patterns and repetitions accompanying your thoughtlessness, as if to say let go of that other more linear story, with its beginning, middle and end, with its transcendent end, let go, we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.”
I took these words to heart. I thought about what I’d learned about traditional structure. I thought about the structure I was trying to impose on the book. I thought about how I’ve written and rewritten these stories again and again. These stories that make up this book. A Dim Capacity for Wings. I thought about how I tell stories: I’m a braider. I weave stories together, from the past and the present. I often don’t know how they are related until I look at them together. If I’ve learned anything over this Relentless Files challenge (46 weeks!), it’s to give myself over to mystery, to surrender to process, to trust myself and these stories… So I sat with the book this summer and I wrote.
I can still recall specific moments: I am sitting in a café, surrounded by the smell of coffee and butter, a little girl is talking in her tiny, wise voice to her dad. She is speaking Spanish (español castellano), and she is asking him questions: Papi, que le ponen as croissant que le da su sabor? Papi, que vamos a’cer despues de comer? Papi, porque te gusta el café tanto? I smile, nod at dad and turn to the page. I am writing about my father. I am weaving stories about him, how he tried to beat me out of my mother when she found out she was pregnant though she was on birth control (she took the pill for four months before realizing I was growing inside of her). I am thinking about that daughter and that father and how I never had that and how I deal with my baby daddy’s bs because I want to save my daughter from the hole I walk with where my father should be… As I sit and write, I remember a story I wrote some time ago. It fits perfectly. I find it and plug it into the chapter. Then I remember another and another. Before I know it, I’ve put these stories together to create a chapter: “Not My Daddy’s Girl.”
Lidia Yuknavitch helped me get out of my own way to see that I have the stories. They are there. It’s about me putting them together. It’s about me asking the book: What do you want? Listening and then following suit.
I wrote half of A Dim Capacity for Wings this summer. Seven chapters. I did that. Me. It’s time to finish it. It’s time for me to birth this baby.
Last year I raised the funds I needed to attend Tin House (plus some) in under 24 hours. Funders included students, friends, strangers who follow my writing, and a generous $1000 donation from one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay.
I’d raised money before, though it had been years since, and the last time was to attend VONA in 2011 or 2012, I believe. This time felt different because I was different and my writing was different. I’m more vulnerable and in your face, so to have one of my favorite writers, someone I look up to and follow, who I’ve met only twice and don’t know personally, endorse my work and in a way say: “I believe in you and support you,” there’s nothing like that. Nothing.
There’s this idea that you shouldn’t need anyone else’s praise or support, and maybe in an ideal work that would be true but we’re not living in an ideal world. We live in a world where we’re still dealing with our traumas and heartbreaks. We’re all human. We’re all fighting our own private wars, and if needing and wanting to be seen helps us through, then there’s beauty in that, and there is cojones in letting oneself be that vulnerable and that seen.
With this GoFundMe I am letting myself be vulnerable and seen and all that. This is hard for me. I have trouble asking for help and even more trouble accepting it. I keep thinking about my bruja sis Lizz who told me that a spiritual adviser said that not being able to accept help is an issue of control: when you’re the one giving, you’re the one in control; when accepting help, you’re relinquishing all control. Ain’t that some shit?! Yikes!
So here I go relinquishing control and turning to you, fam, to help me make this happen.
I have to raise $800 by December 9th to pay for the workshop.
The rest of the money will cover the flight, transportation to and from the airport, food, incidentals and the GoFundMe fees. This year, for the first time, I got perks that include a handwritten note, a one liner just for you (and maybe about you) by me, coaching sessions, books, and mad, mad love! Check the campaign for details: Send Vanessa to Tin House Again!
I love you. Thank you for supporting this dream of mine. I appreciate you.