*An essay a week in 2016*
(Late again, I know…)
August 14th marked the thirteenth anniversary of the Northeast blackout of 2003. When I saw an article about it, my mind ricocheted back to that day. I had to walk uptown to Dyckman-200th Street from where I worked on 57th Street and 10th Avenue. I had just met my daughter’s father a few weeks before and we had already declared our love. The following week we went to Dominican Republic and three months later, I’d get pregnant with our daughter. The relationship didn’t last three years. I was such a different woman then.
Over the past week I’ve had numerous reminders of the woman I was. There was a celebration for what would have been my friend RD’s 51st birthday. We all came together at his house upstate to remember him. Dozens of people, many who I knew from way back when and many who I didn’t. I saw people I once considered friends and even two exes. I looked at one of my exes and remembered who I was when we started. Just 16, he was 24 and I thought that was the flyest thing in the world that an older man had noticed me. He loved me when I wanted someone to love me and he was smooth, he knew exactly what to say to a lonely sixteen year old girl. Why that relationship lasted six years I can attribute to the ignorance of youth. He wasn’t faithful and he wasn’t careful with his infidelities either. I put up with it. He wasn’t reliable and I didn’t ever feel safe with him, but at that point that’s what I thought I was worth. I’ve done that so many times…sold myself short because I didn’t realize I deserved more, that I deserved tenderness and consideration and reliability.
He tried to get me back, that one, a few years ago, after he spent a few years in jail. I agreed to see him because, well, I’d spent years of my life with him and at that point I still believed (hoped?) that we could be civil and perhaps even friends. He showed up with an overnight bag. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was not staying in my house. He didn’t get it. He pulled the same game he pulled when I was sixteen, but by then I was in my early thirties, I was a mom, and had lived enough to know I wasn’t going there ever again.
You tend to think about the past a lot when you’re writing a memoir.
I’ve been writing about my childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Bushwick of the before. Bushwick when it was all black and Latino, when rubble and tire strewn junkyards and burnt out buildings dotted the neighborhood, going on for blocks. Bushwick at the beginning of hip hop, when Planet Rock blasted from passing cars and boom boxes and the b-boys laid out cardboard boxes to do their headstands and windmills. Bushwick during the crack era, when the candy color topped vials dotted the landscape, in the cracks of the sidewalks, in the gutters, in our playgrounds and stairwells. It wasn’t always pretty but it was home.
I feel an incredible sense of loss when I think of Bushwick, and it’s not just because of the gentrification. Sure, it sucks that the revitalization isn’t for us, the brown and black people that were stuck there when nobody wanted to go there. But what I remember, what makes me feel the loss, is that once I left, I never returned, and in many ways, I’ve felt unanchored since…
If I close my eyes I can go back to that moment. It’s three o’clock in the morning on a warm, cloudless night in late August 1989. My second mom Millie borrowed her brother’s church van to take me to Wellesley, MA where I would be starting boarding school in a few days. We were packing the van with my things. Two maletas of clothes, toiletries, an alarm clock, a bookbag, pens and paper, the square toed village shoes my sister gifted me that I only wore once on the first day of school because they blistered my feet so bad, just the sight of them made my toes ache. When Millie brought out the red ten speed she bought off a crackhead just a few days before, I asked if I could ride it before she put it in the car. Mom shook her head and said “‘tas loca, es media noche,” but Millie insisted, “Dejala, no ves que se va.” I rode that bike up and down my block and said goodbye. I blew a kiss up to the second floor window where my first love lived. I rode through the lumber yard turned supermarket parking lot that we kids played in and where I got my first kiss. I knew somehow that though I’d be back for vacations and breaks, I would never really be of that neighborhood again though I would always be from it.
I stared out the back window of the van when we pulled off an hour later and said goodbye to the Vanessa I was, who I’d never be again.
There have been so many versions of me. The Vanessa who was ashamed to be from poverty, from Bushwick, ashamed to be Latina, brown and black and all things she was taught were inferior. The Vanessa who rejected her roots because she just wanted to feel like she belonged to something, to somewhere. Then I was gifted How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents in my junior year of boarding school and for the first time I learned that my people have history and literature and stories. And so I grew into the Vanessa that would fight for Ethnic Studies at Columbia so I could study the history of my people, their rich cultures and stories.
During that era I was still the Vanessa looking for love in all the wrong places. I was the Ivy League student in love with a drug dealer from uptown. I lived two completely different lives until I turned around shortly after graduation and realized this wasn’t the life I imagined for myself so I left him and I bounced around for a while. I fell in love again and still sold myself short. I worked in corporate America. So many jobs, so many times getting fired, so much unhappiness. So many betrayals and lessons. It was having my daughter that caused the first major shift in my adult life. It made me stop running away from writing. I threw myself into that world and never looked back. The second huge shift was my brother’s death. I had to face all the griefs I was carrying or be broken by them. I had to face and name that primordial wound of being unmothered and all the stupid shit I’d done as a result, including repeatedly falling for mirror images of my mother, emotionally unavailable and abusive.
Of course so much happened in between and during all these eras of my life, all these renditions of Vanessa. So much partying and drinking and hanging out. So many tears, friendships made and ended. A whole lot of drama.
The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. Urbandictionary.com defines it as: The scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.
- A man traveled back in time to prehistoric ages and stepped on a butterfly, and the universe was entirely different when he got back.
- The flap of a butterfly’s wings changed the air around it so much that a tornado broke out two continents away.
This week I revisited the story of being molested. I’d been avoiding it. I wrote it years ago and haven’t looked at it in at least two years. I knew it was time to dig into it for my memoir, so I took myself to the park where I could sit under the big, blue sky and be held by Pachamama while I worked. It was so hard. I’d written it in visceral detail, including everything that motherfucker did to me. I know I had to write it all to get to the point where I could edit it for craft. I chopped it up for the book, then slammed my computer shut and sat for a while.
Later that day, someone who’d read my work reached out to thank me. She too is unmothered but didn’t have the term for it until she read my essays. She insisted that this reality has made us stronger. Here’s the thing: It’s difficult to hear that what has made me suffer also made me strong. It’s not that I don’t get that. Trust me, no one knows that about myself more than me. Yes, I am resilient and relentless because I had to learn how to be. It’s just that that strength does not negate nor does it protect me from the suffering that came (and still comes) from being unmothered. This shit has layers.
I started going out to the backyard and up that plum tree when I was five. I did it to escape my mother and her abuse. I was molested in that backyard when I was six and for a long time, even after that desgraciado moved back to Puerto Rico, that backyard didn’t feel safe to me. That’s when I started climbing into the junkyard next door. It was easy to climb into because the fence that separated the lot from the yard was falling apart so I could easily slip my body through the gaps.
The yard was like those that dotted the neighborhood—piles of rubble and trash, tires and rusted license plates, lumber with nails sticking out at angles, hypodermic needles strewn throughout. Trees and bushes pushed through those heaps of garbage. It was there, among the feral cats and kitten sized rats, that I imagined I was the female Indian Jones on a quest in a foreign land to save the world. I saved myself over and over in those fantasies.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like had I not experienced such trauma at such a young age. What would my life be like if I was mothered, if my mother was tender and kind? I have no answers. I know that it’s all contributed to me becoming this fierce woman who is just as beautiful as she is flawed. Would I change it if I could? I can’t say no…but I can’t say yes, either. I may have struggled and suffered but I’ve created a life for myself that I’m proud of. I’m raising a fantastic kid who shines supernova bright. I’m in a relationship, experiencing a love I’ve never known where I feel the safest and most cherished I have in I don’t know how long. I’m the writer I imagined I wanted to be, doing the work I want to do. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s no less amazing. So, no, maybe I wouldn’t change anything though I confess it chokes me up to admit this… It just be like that sometimes. I told you this shit has layers, right?
*An essay a week in 2016*
I’m sitting in my living room, trying to ignore the cleaning that I have to do, as I nurse a summer cold that took me out these past two days. Being sick always sucks. Being sick in this heat is a different kind of hellish. The upside is that I’ve been digging into Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A Generation Speaks about Race. If you don’t have it, COP IT!
Race has been on my mind all week. From the #BlackGirlMagic that’s been happening in the Olympics in Rio (Biggup Simone Bile, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Simone Manuel) and the problematic coverage of their accomplishments, to that fool who I refuse to name, whom I can’t believe is actually a candidate for our next president, saying that Obama founded Isis, and so much in between.
This week I learned that a panel I was invited to participate on was accepted for AWP17. I thought back to the last AWP conference I attended in 2015 in Minneapolis and the reflection essay I wrote (that went viral), Color in AW(hite)Place.
There was a time when I refused to believe that race was such a pervasive issue. I’d cringe when people cried “racism.” I’ve been known to say, “Not everything comes down to race, dammit.” I’m not that naive anymore.
On Monday, an essay published on Electric Literature showed up on my timeline as a sponsored piece. (Thank you, universe. I see you!) I clicked on it because, as you might know, I’m an avid reader of personal essays. In the piece, a white woman attempts to own how she was complicit when confronted with racism. Imagine my surprise when I saw an entire paragraph of one of my Relentless Files essays quoted. The essay ended with a line from my essay. I was not named anywhere in the piece though my words, dozens of them, were quoted. I was referred to as “a writer you know from Facebook…”
Erasure: e·ra·sure, əˈrāSHər/, noun:
* the removal of writing, recorded material, or data.
* the removal of all traces of something; obliteration. “the erasure of prior history” Google.com
Cultural erasure is a practice in which a dominant culture, for example a colonizing nation, attempts to negate, suppress, remove and, in effect, erase the culture of a subordinate culture. The idea of “civilizing” nonwhite people can be seen as cultural erasure. Reference.com
At first I was like, “cool, someone valued my work enough to quote a chunk of it.”
But where’s my name? Why wasn’t I given credit by name? This sure feels like erasure.
I wondered if I should address it.
Should I just be happy that my words were quoted and not my name? Is this my ego? Am I just being difficult?
I checked with my FB fam:
Serious question: If your essay is quoted in someone else’s essay, do you think you should be named in said essay? Just saw my essay quoted and I’m not sure how I feel about being referred to as ‘a writer you know on Facebook’…
There were 90+ responses. The consensus was: yes, you should be cited. More than few mentioned the irony of erasure in an essay on race.
I reached out to the writer, used the word “erasure,” asked her to share her thought process. She apologized profusely, said it was a “style” decision, offered to give me credit in the comments section on her page. We went back and forth. I held a mirror to her: “How would you feel?” The result? The essay was updated later that day to include my name and a link to the essay. But the accent on the “a” in Mártir was missing. I questioned myself again. Should I bother? I mean, they did give me credit, but that’s not my name. I pushed through my self-doubt and contacted the writer again. The change was made.
I was left thinking about why I even questioned reaching out to the writer. Why did I hesitate? What is it about my dynamic with white women that makes me not trust myself and question whether I should defend myself? Me, a woman who is normally so quick to talk back and defend herself without hesitation…what is this silence I’ve internalized? Where does it come from? Why didn’t I consider myself and my work worthy of carrying my name? Why was “the writer you know on Facebook” enough at first?
I reached out to my friend D who went to NYU and works at NYU and whose daughter recently graduated from NYU. She shared stories of “me too”—the white female professor who gave her a dirty look; having to ally herself with people who would use her for what she could do for them…there are so many sacrifices we make to survive in white spaces.
I thought about that AWP15 essay again…
I confess: I searched out fellow writers of color at AWP. I gave them extra love when they came over to receive their AWP bag during the hours I was volunteering. I tried to make eye contact when I saw one walk by. I smiled and gave a head nod. I hoped they read my “we in this together” face. When someone walked over to the VONA table, I sold the program with gusto. I am a walking VONA billboard. I’m proud of that shit. Why? Because this shit is hard. Because being in these predominantly white places is hard. Because we get reminders of it when we see a black body stepped over. When we go to readings and not one of the 28 white writers mentions the killing of black men and women by police that has been all over the headlines for the past year. Because silence is a political act.
My silence is a political act. Is this who I want to be? How I want to show up in the world? Acid settled in the back of my throat. It burned.
I pulled out my journal and started writing what I now know is an essay that’s going to take me a little while to complete. I started:
What is it about white women that makes me, a normally very outspoken, quick to defend herself woman, get quiet when challenged or dismissed by them?
Then I started listing the white women who have silenced me, tracing it back to when I was just a thirteen year old girl from Bushwick trying to get an education.
There was my guidance counselor my first year of boarding school in 1989 (I’ll call her Ms. G) who reminded me every chance she got that I was too much, I needed to be tamed, quieted, the Brooklyn bred Latina taken out of me, by force or shaming if necessary.
When I talked too loud or laughed too loud or showed excited too loud, “Hush,” she said, shaking her head.
The keys that dangled from my hip jingled too loudly. “Take those off and put them in your bag.”
“It’s want to, Vanessa, not wanna.”
“You only speak Spanish in Spanish class, Vanessa.”
When she looked at me, she was tight lipped, nose turned up, her eyes scanning me, looking for something else to correct, to make right, to contain…
There was that professor at Columbia who after a challenging semester told me I was irresponsible when I showed her the doctor’s note excusing me from taking the final. When I went to take the make-up exam, she glared at me and slammed the exam onto the desk. “You people…” she said as she walked out and yanked the door behind her. I wondered what she meant by that. Did she mean you people of color, you spics, you hood girls?
There was the CEO of the nonprofit I worked as an editor who referred to me in an article about the organization for Fast Money Magazine as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my education or publishing credits. No mention of the work I’d done for the org, helping them rebuild the website by writing and overseeing the content creation. I was the stereotype in her eyes. No more. All those accomplishments didn’t matter. I was still just a spic…
There was my partner’s (now former) friend who we visited a few months ago in Minnesota…who antagonized me, treating me/us like the help. I spent the morning of my first day of what was supposed to be my vacation, helping her get her house ready for her housewarming, where she was debuting her new house to people. I did it and didn’t complain though I admit to feeling a way about it. That night, after a full moon ceremony, when I shared that this was the first of two consecutive full moons in Sagittarius (June and July of this year), she leaned forward and said, “No, that’s not possible. Let me tell you how this works…” and proceeded to go on her spiel where I was wrong and she was right. This happened repeatedly, where I felt antagonized and condescended, until I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out of the house for good, returning only to gather my things and leave.
The thing is: I didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t take her task for talking down to me. I simmered. I seethed and said nothing.
The list goes on for pages. The truth is I could spend days listing the microaggressions and episodes of blatant racism and erasure that I’ve experienced. I could quote friends and essays and books. I could talk about how it took me weeks to read through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen because it made me cringe and cry (I may have even thrown the book across the room once) because I saw myself in so many of the same situations, in boarding school, in college, in corporate America, just walking in the street or riding the train …
Like that time on the downtown 5 train when an older white woman kept shoving me. The woman could barely walk but she thought it was okay to push me because like her, I’d asked people to make room for me to enter the train. There was enough room for both of us but how dare I take up her space. How dare I insist on making space for my brown body? After the fifth or sixth shove, I stared her dead in the face and said, “Imma need you to stop pushing me.” She sneered, but she stopped pushing me.
Today I’m looking at the ways we internalize those episodes and quiet ourselves, shrink ourselves as a result.
The purpose of erasure is to make us doubt ourselves, feel like we’re buggin’, like we’re the problem if we speak up, if we dare to defend ourselves. Someone thought my words were insightful enough to quote my essay, but my name was not worthy of recognition. Even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention, I’ve been down this road enough times to know what erasure tastes like. I deserved to be cited. Me. By name. And asking for that isn’t too much nor is it confrontational. And, no, a note in the comments is not enough.
We should feel worthy enough to demand that much respect for the work we do, that we labor and lose sleep over. And we shouldn’t feel bad for that or worry that we’ll be labeled problematic or angry.
In the essay, I was labeled “defensive” when I was annoyed by a writer who asked me to translate the Spanish in my essay. Why is it “defensive” of me to expect a reader to do her homework? No, I’m not translating for you. Do. The. Work. I’m doing it. So should you. Word.
*An essay a week in 2016.*
Today I am tired. I’ve had two days of being this tired. I can’t say it’s a specific thing. I can say that this week I went into my stories and sat with them and made connections and had epiphanies. I can say that this past weekend was interesting for so many reasons including a letter sent to my partner from a former friend of hers who insists she’s spiritual and loving but behaves to the contrary.
I want to believe that we’re all good. I want to believe that we all come from a place of love. My mind goes to a meme I found on FB.
I’ve been guilty of being led by my wounds, probably more recently than I even realize. The thing is I’m all for looking at my shit and owning it. Not one of us is perfect or free from blame. What I’m not here for is for people who are so busy pointing the finger that they don’t take a moment to look at themselves…but that’s not what this post is about. This, I’ve decided, will be about me owning who I am, all my fierce and all my beauty. To do this I decided to share nine things I know about myself. Why nine? Just because… Here it goes:
* I can be really judgmental. I’m working on it but I know this about myself. I wonder sometimes if it’s my intuition speaking to me that sizes people up and makes decisions about who they are, but can you truly know someone fully? All of their layers and contradictions? I know that my intuition speaks to me loudly. When I haven’t heeded her call, I’ve paid the price. I am learning to tell the difference between when it’s my spirit speaking to me and when it’s my ego/my wounds. I will say that my intuition is spot on. She ain’t ever lied!
* I have some pretty strong triggers that send me reeling and ready to flip. I don’t like being condescended. That shit pisses me off. I have been known to read people who do this to me. That or I simply walk away because sometimes that shit is just too exhausting to even try. I don’t like people touching my face. Someone did that in jest this past weekend and it took everything I had in me not to get Brooklyn on her. It helped that she apologized profusely and owned up to being wrong.
I can trace both of these triggers back to childhood. My mother didn’t respect my face. I can’t count how many times she struck me in the face out of rage. She also made me feel small and incompetent. This was reinforced in boarding school and at Columbia when I was treated badly because I’m a woman of color. The times I was mistaken for a janitor or serviceperson because they couldn’t imagine me being a student at an Ivy League. Or just yesterday at Trader Joe’s when a man who overheard a conversation I was having with a writer I ran into (what up Caroline Rothstein?!) told me I should consider going to a conference. “Have you ever heard of Writer’s Digest?” he asked without waiting for an answer. He said I had the personality that could get me an agent and my manuscript out of the slush pile it was certainly headed to. His assumption was that I, a woman, a brown woman, a Latina, couldn’t possibly know anything about conferences or residencies or agents or the publishing world. I could have told him how wrong he was but I didn’t bother. I just smiled and walked away. Mansplaining: don’t do it.
* I am hella sensitive. I always have been. I was made to feel ashamed of it for much of my life. My mom has often said: “Ay, a ti no se te puede decir nada.” As if what she’d just said wasn’t biting or cutting or cruel. For a long time I was ashamed that I feel everything so profoundly. These days, I embrace that side of myself. My daughter knows that no matter how many times we’ve seen the movie Stepmom, I will cry a quiet, I-get-it cry. Just today, I saw a video of a man who collapsed with emotion when he was reunited with his mother who he hasn’t seen in ten years. I wept as he whimpered over and over, “Mama, mama…” My sensitivity comes from my thorough belief in love, my insistence that love is the answer and sometimes the question. As the Sacred Rebels card I pulled today said: “Love is the biggest deal there is. What else is worth being so sensitive about?”
* I’m just as tough as I am sensitive. My life has made me this way and I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t have survived what I have were I not this tough and no nonsense. People have made me feel ashamed of this too. They’ve told me I should be softer, more tender, more gentle. Of course it’s men who’ve said this to me. My ex would say: “You think you’re a man.” What they’re telling me is to be meek, weak, don’t stand on my own two feet. It’s a man’s job to be that, not mine, a woman. How dare I? My response then and now is: Fuck that, no. Meekness didn’t get me this far, relentlessness did, so Imma keep going me and you who disagree should stay out of my way.
* I am positive to a fault, or so I’ve been told. I’ve been called an idealist, the word hurled at me as insult. I was not then nor am I now offended by this. I am a positive person (though, yes, I do have my off days). I believe that in the end things do indeed work themselves out. I believe in my ability to get shit done and I believe that the universe conspires in my behalf to make my dreams come true. I wouldn’t have been able to quit my job six years ago to live this writing and teaching life did I not believe so fiercely and thoroughly in this. I wouldn’t have had the courage to create the Writing Our Lives Workshop and led more than a hundred writers through the journey of writing the personal essay. I believe now more than ever that this is important, necessary work, and can’t no one take that from me.
* I’m a sucker for apologies. I have had people do some trifling shit to me, but when they’ve apologized (if they have), I can let it go and forgive them (or I usually can, with some exceptions J) . My mind goes to my sister. During 9/11, my mother had everyone convinced that I worked in the World Trade Center (I didn’t, I worked all the way up on 57th and 10th Ave). It was impossible to get in contact with anyone as cell phones weren’t working so I couldn’t contact them to tell them I was okay until late that night. When I went to see my family the following evening, my sister threw her arms around me and through blubbering tears apologized for being such a bitch to me when we were growing up. She admitted to treating me horribly, to not being a good big sister. I cried along with her, shocked by her admission. See, I respect people who can apologize and own their shit. This marked a shift in my relationship with my sister. We aren’t close. We never have been. But I know she sees the damage she did and that right there is everything.
* I am stubborn. My partner calls me testadura. I know she’s right. When I make a decision, it’s hard to get me to change my course. This has pissed people off. It’s gotten me in trouble. I won’t apologize for it. I did say that I own who I am, right?
* I am tough as nails, yes, AND I am also incredibly loving and giving. I go all out for my friends and my students and even people I don’t know. I will hold space for you and walk with you as you release and cry and share your pain. I will also hold you accountable. I believe that being loving means calling people out when they do wrong or slip up. People get confused and misconstrue this as being unloving or cruel. I disagree. I had a former student tell me in an email that I was like “brillo” not too long ago. All because I called her out on not keeping her part of the unwritten contract when she decided to take my class—she didn’t read and critique the essays of her classmates as she was supposed to, and though she promised that she would, she never did. That behavior is unacceptable and I told her so. So, if I’m brillo because I hold you accountable then so be it. Someone has to. Being loving does not mean I am to be fucked with. Let’s not make that mistake again.
* My power sometimes intimidates people. As my mentor Mat Johnson told me, “When you walk into a room, people take notice.” It took me a long time to own that, and, to be honest, sometimes I still struggle with this. As an unmothered woman, I lived a long time with a love-me-please-love-me wound that made me seek love in all the wrong places. I wanted people to accept me. I wanted that more than anything. So, I would try to shape myself into who they wanted me to be (here I see an image of a contortionist) just so they would do just that—love and accept me. Of course this didn’t work. You can’t control what people think of you. They will accept you or they won’t. Recently, at a spiritual ceremony, a man told me: “People are often intimidated by you, but when they learn that you are just as beautiful inside as you are on the outside, they get comfortable.” He told me that their being intimidated is a sign that they don’t belong in my life. He said I try to please people and be kind to them when they don’t deserve it. “Just keep it moving,” he said. He’s right. This is something I’m still working on. I am not for everyone, and that’s really ok.
*An essay a week in 2016*
“Cheated.” That’s the word I used this past Friday in therapy. “I feel cheated.” I didn’t let the tears come but they were there.
Have you ever wondered if water cries? ~from a poem an acquaintance shared this weekend
The same thing that crushes us is often the reason we survive and are resilient. We learn early to reinvent ourselves. We learn to cope in different ways so when life throws us a swift uppercut we can pick ourselves up off the canvas and push through.
I’ve often thought that the first time I did it was when I was thirteen and went away to boarding school. I was trying to save my own life. But as I sit with my stories and reflect on my own resilience, I see that I started doing it when I was five and first climbed that plum tree in our backyard and started telling myself stories. Story was how I initially started saving myself.
I reinvented myself again when I graduated from college and learned that no matter what I did, it wouldn’t be enough for my mother. She would never love me the way I needed and wanted her to. A few months later I left an abusive six year relationship and started anew.
I did it again when in my mid-twenties I found out a love had betrayed me with someone I thought was my friend and everyone in our crew knew about it. I felt stupid and played. I bounced and started a new life. (Reinvention number 95.) That’s when I met my daughter’s father and shortly thereafter got pregnant. It was during my pregnancy that I turned to writing again. My daughter was months old when I quit corporate America for good and wrote my first novel. Not a year later, I left my daughter’s father and became a single mom. There were so many reinventions during this era in my life.
I floundered for a bit but eventually landed an editing job, my first real, full-time writing gig. I helped rebuild their website and even co-wrote a practical guide for young social activists in the three years I was there. Then, six years ago, I left that job to live this writing and teaching life.
When my brother died, I knew this grief could take me out. I’m in the middle of a new reinvention that comes as a result of sitting in that grief and confronting my life and the grief I’ve been carrying over being unmothered.
Who is this more whole and healed Vanessa? I’m discovering her as I live and love.
It’s ill when you realize that the same thing that haunts you is the reason you’re so resilient.
I had a conversation this weekend where I was reminded of the belief system that says you choose your parents. The woman shared that we choose our parents for a reason—for our souls to grow in this lifetime. I could understand what she was saying. I could receive it all while still owning that a part of me feels cheated. And I know (hope?) I won’t feel like this forever but right now, that’s where I’m at.
My daughter’s grandmother (her father’s mother) passed away two weeks ago. The memorial was this past week. That’s when my mother reached out. She was open, said she wanted to see me. I didn’t trust it, her. I didn’t see her. When she reached out to check on my daughter, saying she was worried for her, I grew pissed off. I let myself feel what I needed to feel because I’ve learned that ignoring your feelings does nothing to help the situation. My mother hasn’t checked on my daughter in months. She’s done this repeatedly throughout my life (40 years) and countless times since my daughter was born nearly twelve years ago.
When I finally responded a day later, telling her my daughter was fine, she wrote: “I know you’re a good mother…” I froze as soon as I received the message Friday morning. It soured my day. It was what my therapist and I dug into in my session later that day. And it was in therapy that I discovered what the anger was about: that I feel cheated and I resent that I can’t trust it when my mother reaches out. I don’t trust her to be gentle or tender. I expect her to be who she is: unreliable and unpredictable and downright mean.
Do you know what it feels like to not be able to believe your mother when she’s tender or kind?
My mother has never told me I’m a good mom. The closest she got to it was years ago, when my daughter was around 3. She told me one day, “I thought you were going to be a bad mother. You like to party and hang out. A ti te gusta la calle…but no, I was wrong.”
She’s never told me she’s proud of me. Not when I graduated from an ivy league university, not when I published my first book, never. She’s called me irresponsible and immature. She even accused me of being an alcoholic a few years ago. I know my mother is not well. I know she’s grieving and traumatized and I’m convinced she has undiagnosed mental illness… I try to be compassionate, but I still feel cheated. This weekend I let myself own it and feel it.
My partner’s family had a huge BBQ on Saturday. There were so many people, related by blood and not. They drank and laughed and talked and danced and shared. I watched and smiled and longed. I watched my partner defend her mother when someone acted out. And it wasn’t until last night, when I got snippy with my partner for no real reason that I realized what was happening—I was longing for that, the connection with my mother, and seeing my partner with her mom brought that up, though I couldn’t name it at first. I don’t resent her for it. Their relationship is something to aspire to with my daughter…but it would still be wonderful to have had that, to have that now…but that’s just how it is.
I remind myself that I am resilient. I remind myself that I’ve reinvented myself so many times and I will be able to do that again. I remind myself that I am relentless. Perhaps what’s made me this woman has also traumatized me and hurt me bad, but as Celie yells to Albert as she’s leaving the farm in Shug’s car: “I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.” (from The Color Purple)
*An essay a week in 2016*
When discussing my resistance to organized religion last summer, my mentor and friend Chris Abani, who I mention often in my work because he’s had that powerful an influence on me, said, “It’s not religion you resist, Vanessa, it’s orthodoxy.” I’ve been sitting with these words this week as I dig into my memoir.
Google defines orthodoxy as: “authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.”
I have studied the craft of writing at length. I have dug into memoirs and novels with the eye of a writer, looking at structure, at why the author made the decisions she made, at story arc and the way the story is put together. It is said that memoir has to have a structure. In her book on craft, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of a book, then tell the story in a straightforward, linear time.”
At Tin House this past February, the facilitator of my nonfiction workshop, Lacy Johnson told me, “You have the stories. You have to think about your structure, Vanessa.”
I walked away from the book for a bit to consider this: How am I going to structure this memoir? I became obsessed with it. I couldn’t get past how I was going to start this memoir and structure it in a way that makes sense. Sense to whom? I got caught up in the reader. I got lost in the question and forgot about the story. This week, after lucid dreams where my brother visited me, I remembered: I’ve been writing this book for ten years. I already started. I had to get out of my own fuckin way.
In the dream I had this week with my Superman, he’d been murdered and I had the chance to go back in time to help find the assailant. When I saw my brother, I threw my arms around him and we both cried. Of relief. Of loss. Of I miss you. We stared at one another intently. Into each other.
I hadn’t felt him like that since shortly after he passed in 2013. In that dream we were in the ocean water. I saw a giant wave coming at us. My heart pounded so hard I felt it in my ears. When I looked at my brother, he said, “You know this is a dream, right?” I nodded. “I know it is…because you’re dead.
I had both these dreams in the early morning hours after a sleepless night of tossing and turning. This week I was up because I kept thinking about the book. How am I gonna start? What’s my structure? How will I tackle the questions the memoir attempts to answer: How have I and how will I continue to live without my mother? How is it I’ve been resilient in spite of (because of?) these ghosts that haunt me, while my brother and my dear friend RD were taken out by them?
I wrote a list of the stories I had in my iNotes. I wondered, doubted, questioned: Can I really do this? I took the summer off to finish this shit. Oh shit! That means I have to!
I went and sat in the park, my safe place where I can feel Mother Nature below me and around me and above me. All around. I reached out for love—my bruja sis Lizz, my homegirl Gabby. Then I went home and started pulling the stories up on the screen. I remembered that I’ve been working on this book for ten years. I have these stories. So many of them. I found stories I’d forgotten about. And right before my eyes, the book started coming together. My book. A Dim Capacity for Wings: A Relentless Journey by Vanessa Mártir.
Yesterday I printed it out. All the stories. I am carrying the manuscript around like I did my first and second novels. I am praying over these pages. I am reading and making notes. Seeing what fits and what doesn’t. Where the holes are. I am resisting orthodoxy. I am writing the way I do and love: collaging.
Merriam-Webster defines collage as: 1 a: an artistic composition made of various materials (as paper, cloth or wood) glues on a surface; b: a creative work that resembles such a composition in incorporating various materials or elements <the album is a collage of several musical styles>
What do I know? That I am writing this book and I am going to write it the way I want to. I will let the structure find me as it always has, in my essays and my books and the way I tell my stories to my Loba pack, in my kitchen, after a meal I cooked for them (baked chicken and arroz con fideo with a salad); we are sipping bourbon and loving one another.
Grand Valley University defines collage essay as “a form of lyric essay that depends on fragmentation, imagery, juxtaposition, and metaphor to get its work done. It creates multiple sections, each of which is a little piece by itself.
About.com says: The collage essay (also known as discontinuous essay or patchwork essay) generally forgoes conventional transitions, leaving it up to the reader to locate or impose connections between fragmented observations.
In her fantastic memoir The Chronology of Water Lidia Yuknavitch also resists structure. It was her book that gave me permission to do the same; to write this book the way I want to. “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 pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.”
Why am I sharing this? During my journey of trying to write this book, I searched for this: a record of the journey of memoir writing by memoir writers. I wanted to bear witness to their experiences, the rollercoaster that is memoir writing. I needed it to understand what I was feeling: the guilt, the anxiety, the worry, the call to write memoir. This memoir. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I found interviews and essays and articles about the journey after the memoirs were done and out in the world. I wanted to read documentation of the journey while it was happening. I couldn’t find any, so I decided to chronicle the journey myself. That is what this blog is, and ultimately, I see now, what the Relentless Files attempts to do: to show you, the reader, my roadmap, which is in no way linear or easy. It just is.
I’ve been told that I shouldn’t share this. That people who do not wish me well, who do not want me to succeed, will give me mal de ojo. They will wish me failure. They will roll their eyes and purse their lips and say, “She can’t do it. She won’t do it. She ain’t shit.”
Today, as I sit here in my partner’s backyard, I made the decision to share this because someone out there needs it and I need it too. I am an open book. And I am protected. I am doing this with love and honesty and hope, relentless faith that protects me and this work. So if you are out there, wishing me ill will and failure, I send you love. And I remind you: I am relentless. I have my wings. I am flying and will continue to. If you are inspired in resistance of me and all your pursed lip shade, then so be it. The point is that you too fly.
I am a woman who believes in herself. I am a woman who wasn’t meant to survive, but here I am, not just surviving, but thriving, and so can you. Yes, YOU!
Earlier this week, when in the thick of worry over the book, I posted this FB status: “Writers who’ve finished books, I have mad respect and admiration for you. I’ve written three, published two, but that feels so distant right now. So so far away. Another life. Another person. Another me. Dios mio, this writing books life requires some serious dedication and relentlessness. Yes, I got this but there are moments, yo, like earlier today, when I’m not so sure… Ay!”
People responded with love. Reminded me of who I am. Reminded me that I can do this. Reyna Grande, whose memoir, The Distance Between Us, I am currently reading, commented: “échale ganas!”
People read a final product and judge you by that. They don’t think about what it took to get there. They don’t think about the training it takes to run a marathon or finish a portrait or write a book. I am one of those people who is willing to share the journey. This is how I show you my humanity.
In her TEDTalk on shame, Brené Brown said: “The most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
This is how I say, “Look, me too.” This is my healing journey. Take from it what you will. Do so as I do, with mad love.
*An essay a week in 2016*
(still playing catch up…bear with me)
At Tin House this past winter, Lacy Johnson said: “A memoir tries to answer a question. It’s not about answering the question but about the journey of trying to.”
I could hear the Pacific crashing into the shore just outside the window. A seagull cried out. I looked at the bookshelf behind her head. Lacy, who was leading this Nonfiction workshop in Nye Beach through Tin House. Lacy, who had just dug into my chest cavity and put a defibrillator to my already beating heart, making it thrash…
I heard the question right away. The question I’d been trying to get at in the ten plus years I’d been trying to write this memoir.
Lacy even saw it in the essay I workshopped. She couldn’t understand why my mother was absent in the piece. I tried to explain it away but I knew why… I went back to the question I’d been running away from:
How will I live without my mother? How have I up to now?
They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered woman.
It was my brother’s death in 2013 that made me really look at all the grief I was carrying. The grief over losing him sent me reeling into the darkest place of my life. That grief had the potential of destroying me. I knew I didn’t want that. I had a kid to raise and a life to live. So I picked up a chair and sat in my grief.
“It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue.” ~Cheryl Strayed, “Heroin/e”
I had to let grief kill me a little so it could give me life. What’s come out of it is A Dim Capacity for Wings: A Relentlesss Journey… This story where I finally confront what this memoir has always been about… what I was afraid of writing: my story of being an unmothered woman.
When did I start to see it… I’ve traced it back to when I was five.
I was so little I had to climb onto the toilet seat to look at my reflection in the mirror. The blue plastic shower curtain framed my body. I pulled up my flimsy white t-shirt and stared at my torso. The left side of my rib cage was dotted with red splotches, where Mom had pushed the knife in. Not hard enough to break skin but hard enough so I that it hurt. Hard enough to terrify me and break capillaries. Hard enough that I thought she was going to kill me.
I don’t remember what caused Mom to flip out that day. Maybe I walked in front of the TV while she was watching one of her novellas that played on Channel 41 and 47. The ones she watched every night, sin falla.
Maybe I’d broken a glass, tripped and dropped some food on the floor. I’ve always been clumsy. And Mom couldn’t stand it. I got beat so many times. I fell. Scraped a knee. A hole in a pair of pants. “Es que tu cree que yo soy rica.” Slap.
Or maybe it was my mere presence that set her off. I was so often the target of Mom’s rages.
She used her hands. Or a belt. A coffee mug with hot coffee hurled straight at my head. (Thank God I’ve always had good duck and weave skills.) An extension cord a few times. But that day Mom took her anger somewhere else.
I don’t remember where she got the knife. Or how. But I remember clearly how sharp it was. It was a small knife. Like a paring knife Millie used to peel my apples. Or an orange peeled into a long curled string that I carried around until it was hard and cracked. But this knife was pointy. I felt that point push into my skin.
I didn’t dare look at Mom and I didn’t dare cover my ears. I heard her tell Millie, beg her, “Atréveme que yo mató a esta desgracia’.” That’s when she first poked me. I bit down on my tongue. I couldn’t yell. Couldn’t say anything. That would make it worse. I pushed myself into the couch. The rips in the plastic pinched my arms and scratched my back. Dug into my thighs.
No te muevas que te mata. I was so scared Mom would plunge that knife into me. Over and over. She kept poking and daring Millie.
I stared at the oil stained walls of our living room. The pictures of my family. Us kids, me, my sister and my brother. My parents, Mom and Millie. I stared at Mom’s ceramic figurines on the wall unit. The capias from sweet sixteens and baby showers. Her porcelain Honduran flag. I looked at Millie. Pled with my eyes. Begged her to save me. My Millie who I met when I was two. Who took me in as her negra. Millie, the butch who taught me love.
“Dejala. ¿No vez lo que le estas haciendo a la nena?”
Mom just kept begging her. “Atréveme. Atréveme.”
“Mommy, please.” Mom’s face was twisted. Wild. Her lips were pulled back over her teeth. She looked like the demons I’d seen in so many movies that had kept me up so many nights, peering through the length of our railroad style apartment, I fought sleep until I saw daylight break into the kitchen window. Only then would I let my eyes close. I thought the demons only came out at night.
“Cállate!” she yelled and poked me again.
When I told my mother years later that she’d held a knife to me when I was five, she told me I was crazy, that I was making it up. “Yo no soy capaz de hacer eso.” I don’t think she’s in denial. In her mind, she never did this. This was her first psychotic break that I can remember. It wasn’t the last.
Mom didn’t kill me that day, but she spent much of my life trying to break me. And that day I learned that Millie couldn’t protect me from my mother. No one could.
I came up with ways to save myself before I really knew that I had to. One of the ways was climbing the tree in our backyard.
I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile of rubble. It was the early 1980s, at the tail end of what’s known as the Fire Wars, a period of fifteen years between 1965 and 1980 when over a million fires ravaged the city. The South Bronx is most notorious for the aftermath of that but Bushwick was just as devastated.
We lived on the first floor of a run down three floor tenement. The crumbling walls gave me and my brother asthma. Our apartment was infested by the kitten sized rats that lived in the junkyard next door. Still, my mother tried to make beauty of what we had.
The summers I was six and seven years old, my mother took it upon herself to clean up the backyard to plant a garden. The yard was partly paved. A fence covered in chipped red paint separated the paved area from where mom planted her garden. This area was separated in two by a paved pathway which led to a red ladder that went all the way up to the third floor. Clothes fluttered on the clothes lines that stretched from the ladder to the apartments above. On the left side towards the back was the plum tree I started climbing when I was five. I’d stretch out on one of the thick branches and watch mom work.
Mom wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat, gloves and gardening apron. She was third world, an Hondureña from La Ceiba. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here. She planted in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt stained with sofrito and dirt.
Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected from the yard over the falling apart plywood fence into the junkyard next door. It took days for mom to weed and till the soil that had been packed by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. She then used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg, she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
The right side she tilled right up to the gate that separated our yard from the yard of the building behind ours. The left side she toiled up to the base of the plum tree.
Then mom went out and bought the seeds. I don’t know how she figured out what she would plant or how she would arrange the seeds, but she was deliberate in her choices. I watched from the plastic covered couch in the living room, pretending to watch TV. She laid the envelopes of seeds out on the wooden table my second mom Millie built and lacquered when we first moved into the apartment when I was three. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into the holes and packed the soil down with her palm. She did this softly, handling the seeds with a tenderness I envied.
The herbs and flowers went in the rows closest to the gate that separated the garden from the paved section of the yard. The vegetables followed. Tomatoes first then the peppers, squash and pumpkins.
In the mornings, Mom stood by the window, staring out at her garden while she sipped her coffee. She cursed when she saw garbage thrown out the window by a tenant. “Estos desgraciados. Por eso es que no tienen na’.” Then she’d climb out the window, picked up the trash and tended to her garden.
Some days, when the sun beamed down hard and rain didn’t come, Mom connected her long green hose into our kitchen sink and pulled it out the window into the yard. She’d water her plants herself, screaming at me to lower the pressure if the water shot out too hard.
I watched her smile as the tomatoes and eggplants came in. When she turned them over in her hand, I imagined her talking to them in her head, encouraging them to grow and flourish. The sunflowers grew so tall, mom got old shoelaces and tied the stalks to the fence to keep them from toppling over.
One day, mom was making dinner when she sent me out to the yard to get tomatoes and peppers. “I need them to make sofrito,” she said. Small piles of onions and garlic lay on the cutting board. The day before I’d noticed that the tomatoes were red and green. I turned to see if mom was watching before I touched them, turning them over like I’d seen her do. They were firm to the touch.
I gasped at the scene that greeted me. The rats from the junkyard next door had feasted on mom’s vegetables. Peppers and tomatoes were scattered about, bitten into in chunks. I could make out their teeth marks on the flesh. A few hung limply on the bush. I gathered what few I could and climbed back into the apartment.
“Mami,” I said almost in a whisper. “The rats ate them. These are the only ones left.”
Mom slammed down the knife she was using to chop cilantro and stomped out to the yard. She cursed and yanked up some of the bushes. I ran to the room and hid. I didn’t come out until she called me for dinner.
After two years mom brought her plants into the house where she could protect them.
If you’re like me, you were raised to believe that seeing a therapist/psychiatrist/any sort of mental health practitioner meant you were crazy. “What I need that for?” my mother said when I recommended one after my brother died. She waved her hand as if she was swatting a pesky insect. What I’ve learned is that therapy can (and has) saved many including my own life.
On Friday, in my therapy session with K, I uncovered some things about my grief over losing a dear friend just a few weeks ago that I probably wouldn’t have been able to see were I not digging into my past and the ghosts that haunt me. The themes of the session have been on loop for years, since even before my brother passed though it was his death that caused me to face them: resilience and reinvention.
My therapist noted that I have an ability to reinvent myself and make beauty of my trauma. When I spoke about my friend and the sadness he carried, K said: “there’s a sadness to you too.” I cringed visibly and said, “There is…” This is what I know: I channel that sadness; I use it to survive and thrive and keep fighting the good fight. I’m no longer scared of that sadness that as a child propelled me up that plum tree in the backyard. See, I’ve been using that sadness since way back then in Bushwick when I learned that something was wrong with my mother and no one could protect me from her… Those climbs up that tree, that scraped my knees and scuffed my sneakers, were the beginning of my attempts to save myself.
I told K about the conversations I’ve been having with friends about how the traumas can feed you and your work, your creativity. They can drive you but they can also be the monster that takes you out. K asked: “Do you have a monster?” “I did…” and I told him about the moment I decided I wanted to live.
It was the spring of 2014. 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 through the brown. You smile because you know what’s coming—life.
I was on the B train crossing over the Manhattan Bridge. I was reading yet another essay on depression. When my brother died, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief and depression. Books like Unholy Ghost—Writers on Depression and Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction. I read essays and articles and studies. I was trying to make sense of the darkness I’d sunken into.
That day, 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. That day I decided to face my monster… I’ve been doing it ever since, and so this book has taken on a new life. Yes, it’s about my journey of being unmothered, but it’s also a study of why and how it is I’ve been able to use my pain to drive my work. An added question to drive the book: How is it I’ve been resilient and been able to use this pain as fodder for my work while my brother and my dear friend RD were crushed under the weight of theirs?
This weekend I watched my partner with her mother. Her mother who smiles whenever she sees me. Who just a few minutes ago gave me a bottle of lavender bubble bath because I told her yesterday that I love all things lavender. Who has a specific way of doing things in her kitchen that I completely respect (don’t mess with a woman’s kitchen!)—water with detergent in the sink for washing the dishes, a paper towel to wipe them.
I watch mothers with their daughters all the time. I feel it dig into me often, the longing for that. I wonder if there will come a day when I won’t hunger for that bond that I’ve never really known. The one I have with my daughter… It’s one thing to offer that to my daughter. It’s another to want and not have that for myself…
We’re back in September for a new nine week class—9 weeks of instruction with Vanessa Mártir! Y’all ready?
FREE One Day Writing Our Lives Class:
September 10th, 12pm-5pm
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.
Nine-Week Writing Our Lives Personal Essay Workshop
September 17th & 24th
October 1st, 8th, 22nd
November 5th, 12th, 19th
Tuition/Cost: $620 — Payment plans are 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—ie. 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 fall scholarships.)
Project: A maximum 1250 word essay is due on November 26th at 5pm. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, December 3rd. More details will be provided in class.
The Story of Writing Our Lives
I created Writing Our Lives back in 2010 and taught my first class in winter of 2011. Over the past five years, I’ve led several hundred writers through the journey of writing personal essays and memoirs. Many have gone on to publish and attend reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.
There was so much going on in the country and in my life when I created the class. It hadn’t been a year since I quit my editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. The climate of the country was contentious, to say the least—Prop 8 had just been ratified, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation and the Texas Textbook wars were gathering steam.
In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop and I walked out of there knowing I wanted to help bring our stories in the world. Stories by 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.
Recent events continue to fuel my belief that it’s time we write our stories, that we write them in our voices and we do so unapologetically. The massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the reality that Trump is actually a candidate for the presidency (like, for real?)…all this has served to convince me even more that the we need, the world needs our stories.
I’ve been enamored with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books (which I know now are very problematic but was too young to know that then), reading the series at least three or four times, but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia 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, which I’ve reinvented several dozen times and am now making into a nine week class.
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. 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’m adding three weeks.
As per usual, I offer a one day FREE five hour workshop 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.
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 1250 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 one more time for good measure:
FREE One Day Class: September 10th, 12pm-5pm
Nine-Week Writing Our Lives Workshop Dates*: September 17th & 24th, October 1st, 8th, 22nd, November 5th, 12th, 19th, December 3rd
*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, public speaker, educator and mama. . She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings: A Relentless Journey, and chronicles the journey in her blog: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. 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 (unpublished), 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 worked with Lacy B. Johnson and spent enough time with Dorothy Allison that she wishes she was her grandma. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna.