No Place Like Home

My cousin got married last fall. Like many weddings, it was an occasion for family and friends to reminisce, reconnect, and bond. The wedding reception found me tucked away in a corner with a few cousins, most notably, the beautiful, often elusive, V.  She inquired about my dissertation defense, mere days away, and my future plans. At that point I only knew I had to move. The sooner the better.

Home, Not Home
Athens had never been home to me, and Atlanta, although a great city in many ways, didn’t feel all that homey to me either. That I was born and raised there was immaterial. It wasn’t “home.”

V, a flight attendant, gushed about her love of NYC. It was her favorite city. She felt like herself there. Despite her world travels, there was no place she’d rather be. I wondered where my NYC would be. I knew it would be some place with a mild climate, near beaches, but that’s as far as I could figure.

Sunrise at Pass-A-Grille Beach

Border Crosser
I finished my Master’s degree 11 years ago. Since then I have moved seven times (four of those between GA and FL). Most of those moves were one and two year stints, and I usually knew they were temporary going in. I realized I was closer to finding home a year ago when I left St. Petersburg to return to Athens, and found myself aching for the luscious green grass, the humid, salty air, and the calming beaches. But even though there were many things I liked, even loved, about St. Pete, I still wasn’t ready to call it home.

A few weeks after the wedding, I graduated and found myself “in between.” I don’t do in between well. Job hunting and city hunting, I felt I had no clarity on next steps. Eventually it all took a toll on me and left me feeling kind of blah. Finally, I made some decisions, and in true form, the universe responded in kind. Within a few days I had a job offer, a clear path, and a new city to try out.

Where the Heart Is
This move was the first one during which I felt I were moving toward a new life. It felt permanent. Real. Settled.

I knew I was on to something when I had to visit my “hometown” (Atlanta) a few days after my move. Traveling to the airport, I was a child being dragged inside from the playground. No! Don’t wanna!

At the end of my three days there, I smiled inside, happy to be back on the plane heading back home, even though home was just a few days old.

Everyone who visits my new digs mentions how I seem poised to start a new life here. To them it feels like home.

To me too.

From One Writer to Another

After a multi-year drought, I finally have some time to dig into fiction again. Reading it has been refreshing and even restorative in surprising ways. A recent treasure was Tayari Jones‘ Silver Sparrow. It was a delicious, complex and emotional read, although the purpose of this post is not to review the book.

I met Tayari in person last night, as she read from her book and answered questions from fans and writers assembled at the Athens-Clarke County public library. She shared great nuggets and pushed back hard against the notion of a writer’s life belonging only to those of privilege.

Author Tayari Jones

The Four-Hour Writing Week
“People who work everyday have stories to tell too,” she explained. There’s a myth that “real” and “published” writers spend all day writing and have unlimited amounts of time to devote to their craft. This is false. A writer is one who writes. Tayari has a job aside from her writing (she’s a professor at Rutgers Newark). “You can finish a novel writing four hours a week,” she said. It may take you a bit longer – she estimates it takes her about two years – but it’s doable. “It’s like going to the gym. You have to find the time.”

No Aspiring Writers
Unpublished writers often call themselves “aspiring writers,” but in fact, publishing is not the mark by which “true” writers are measured. You should not call yourself an aspiring writer, she urges. “Claim it!” If you fancy yourself a writer, you are. “You can say you are an unpublished writer, but you are a writer.”

Dealing with Disappointment
Would-be professional writers have to be able to deal with disappointment. The truth is, a great piece of writing may not be published, or may take a long and windy road to get there. But don’t commit to the publishing, commit to the writing. As you commit to your writing, opportunities will open up. But it’s important to know, the writer’s life isn’t a glamorous one.

Writer’s Block Does Not Exist
Tayari doesn’t like to talk or think about writer’s block. It’s like insomnia, she explained. When you can’t sleep, you make it worse by looking at the clock, counting back the number of hours left before you must wake up, and so on. In reality, if you just relax, eventually you will fall asleep.

The same is true of writer’s block. We make a big deal about it. We name it. We embrace it. We complain about it. Tayari’s solution: just write anyway. Eventually, you’ll move past it. When you find it difficult to write, it’s usually in response to some external pressure, she explained. You’re worrying about what “they” may say about your writing, for instance. Ignore “them.” It’s your story to tell. Commit to it. Write anyway.

Nicole & Tayari in Athens

On Finding the Perfect Idea
Tayari compares finding the right idea to finding the right mate. “I spend a lot of time on bad dates with ideas.” She tries things out to see if they work or don’t work. She writes her way through them, sometimes committing countless pages to the effort. But once she realizes the idea isn’t working, she lets it go and tries anew with another. “But when I get a good one, I’m spoken for.” It’s better that way, she thinks. She loves the idea of waking up and knowing exactly what she’s working on for the next year or two. Coming up with ideas is for the birds, but committing to, and writing through a good one is the sweet spot.

Keep Writing
It was pleasure to meet Tayari in person. I learned a great deal from her talk and felt inspired and encouraged to continue my writing journey. Her new book, Silver Sparrow, really was a great read, but she won’t call herself a gifted writer. Instead she said, “I was given a story to tell and the means to tell it. I have to honor that.”

Every word on paper becomes a tiny step forward, so here’s to the next one.

What I Want My Words to Do To You

I want my words to move you.
Uplift you, inspire you, free you.
I want you to see things differently.
I want you to cry, to laugh, to be present.

I want you to go tell someone you love them – even a stranger – and mean it.
I want you to realize your divinity.

I want you to recognize yourself. Your struggles, obstacles, your victories. Your truth. Your secrets.

I want you to think, to question, to reconsider all that you knew before.

I want you to say amen.
I want you to nod in silent agreement, and then go do something.
I want to you walk differently in the world because you are different, because of these words.

Moms and May

A friend’s tweet about his mother’s passing triggered memories of my own. It feels selfish to talk about it, but I’m owning my need to write, so I am writing. I’m also challenging my fear of sharing, so I am sharing.

Mother’s Day does not bother me too much. My mom’s birthday does not either. Even Memorial Day weekend, the anniversary of her passing, doesn’t make me feel any kind of way. Rather it’s random things that make me think about her, feel her, miss her. Sometimes it’s a song, a picture, a saying… today it was a tweet.

Ours was an interesting relationship to say the least. By the time she died we had learned to express our love for each other in productive and traditional ways. We made it through the tumultuous years when I was filled with rage toward her most of the time. Genuine rage, even when I wanted desperately to feel otherwise.

These memories – snapshots of our complicated relationship – these are the things I’m exploring these days. When I mention writing as inquiry, or truth-telling, I’m talking about writing to understand why couldn’t we say I love you to each other. Why did I threaten her with bodily harm? Why did I think horrendous thoughts about her in the dead of night and how did we get past it? Why didn’t I hug or kiss her the times I wanted to? And why did distance, space, time, and indeed my writing, bring us closer?

We had a happy ending, but was it luck? Or the lesson I needed to learn in this lifetime? Or?

When the doctor announced she was brain dead, I was immediately grateful for the healing that had taken place between us. I was elated that rather than “stuff” for Mother’s Day just a couple of weeks earlier, I had given her laughter and time and love.

My mother was pretty fabulous in a million ways, but I can’t act as if our past didn’t exist. All of it – the good, the bad, and the truly ugly. On days like today, I swallow the lump in my throat and write, and think, and feel.  And I miss her, and I love her and I wonder…

They Will Find You

be still and let them find you/they will come when they are ready ~ruth foreman

So says Ruth in a poem featured in Flat-Footed Truths: Writing Black Women’s Lives. She is talking about your words, your stories. They come to you and through you at the anointed, appointed time. I am finding this to be true in my own life. It has been quite an evolution really – moving from wanting to write my life to becoming ready to actually do it.

The more I read from women who are unabashedly unafraid to narrate their lives, the more I feel the urge to do the same. This has gone through various manifestations over the past two decades:

  • I want to be a writer!
  • I should write, but I have nothing to say. (This one for 10 years).
  • I have things to say, but to whom?
  • I should write, just because…who cares who reads it?
  • I’m afraid to write.
  • I need to write to explore, inquire, and grow. (But I’m still afraid to write…).

This last place is my present positioning. I am beginning to view writing as a tool of understanding and simultaneously as a tool of empowerment. As we write, we have the opportunity to reflect, but also the chance to rewrite our trajectories. As we write the past and the present, we have the opportunity to also write our futures.

We have a say. Writing gives voice to thoughts and makes them visible. In their visibility they become tangible: A memory becomes a guiding light. An amorphous thought becomes a pathway, a next step. It becomes something I can touch and do. Through writing, thoughts can become action.

I found myself reading Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, and literally breathing in their words. They refresh me; quench a thirst I wasn’t sure existed. Why? Because they are me, only they are brave. They write about the complexities of their lives, being honest and open about things others of us would rather keep secret. They hold uncomfortable memories up to the light, turn them round and round and draw the truth out, painful (or joyful) though it may be.

When I read their words I always have to journal or jot down the memories I’ve pushed away. The secrets I’ve kept hidden. The lessons I’ve left unlearned or unchallenged. Reading their bravery pushes me closer to my own.

In 2011, I am fearless. And so it goes, one word, one page at a time.

be still and let them find you/they will come when they are ready ~ruth foreman