Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Se Sentir Bien dans Sa Peau*

In high school, when it was time to pick a language to study, I chose French. I suspect this was out of some misguided notion of French making me more … polished? sophisticated? Something. As a kid, I’d always imagined studying Latin. Who knows where that idea came from, but there was no Latin on offer in my high school. Only French and Spanish. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? It would certainly have served me better in my eventual career. But alas, I chose French.

French class was mostly comical. Talk to my brother about it. French was the only class we were ever in together, and I think it might be one of the things that helped us start being friends after an unfortunate period of sibling disaffection. Tony can still recite the ridiculous dialogue we had to learn in our ridiculous textbook. (Poor little Philippe LeDoux. I wonder if his problems were ever resolved.) French class was also one of the places my school’s single non-English-speaking student was warehoused. That kid needed ESOL instruction … and instead, he was put in French class!**

But I learned a little bit. And I made a yule log one year. And I got a good recipe for beef burgundy that my family enjoyed the hell out of. I got to go to Montreal, which was a great trip. I had fun in French class. I didn’t finish my four years of study with anything even vaguely resembling command of the language, however.

Then I was off to college. No French for me freshman year, but in sophomore year I had a sudden interest in maybe actually learning another language. I was cocky enough to think a strictly-beginners class would be too easy for me … but not cocky enough to think I could find my way through an intermediate class. As luck would have it, there was middle ground available: an advanced beginner class!

Course enrollment at my college included a step that I now find fascinating but which at the time I mostly found intimidating. Students have to interview instructors before they can sign up for a class. This went pretty badly for me every time. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember some of those awful interviews. Ugh. My interview for French class must have included me speaking some French, me forming some opinion of the woman who would be my instructor – other than that she was beautiful and much more stylishly pulled together than any other instructor I’d met. Somehow, we both saw and heard the right things in that initial conversation, and I signed up for the class.

My instructor was Gisele Barrau-Freeman. She was French, and I was surprised to realize that it had never occurred to me how much sense it made to have a native speaker teaching me the language. In high school, my teacher certainly know more French than we did, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Gisele was a great teacher, and I discovered that I liked learning languages. I even got to practice creative writing, working over several weeks on an invented memoir about my childhood (about a childhood, not in any way mine): “Quand J’etais Jeune.”

In the spring semester, two things happened. First, Gisele encouraged me to participate in a theatrical showcase the French club was putting together. This seemed like a crazy idea – act? In French? – but also seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I wound up taking on two parts: a scene from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Socrate est un chat.), and a monologue from our textbook, a grande dame talking and talking and talking and revealing herself to be quite ridiculous. Both scenes were funny, so I was taking on comedy in a language I barely understood. Right. Sure. No sweat.

Gisele worked with me to help me prepare. I remember her giving me hilarious tips on how to play the grande dame. She did a fabulous impersonation of one of her older relatives to give me the idea of what to aim for. She didn’t have any doubt that I could pull off both performances. She took my success as a given. Remembering that, I realized all of the teachers I’ve written about this week – and the ones I’ll write about for the rest of the week – have this in common. They all believed in me without question. They all took my intelligence/talent/skill/whatever as a given. And that is simple, but it’s also magical, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up hearing consistently about how skilled and fabulous they are. And then there are the rest of us. Some of us have had some positive reinforcement from time to time. Some have had none. For us, the gift of having someone take your ability as a baseline, the starting fact of who you are, is just about earth shaking.

The performance went off pretty close to perfectly. All the things I’d worried about came to nothing. I remembered my lines, I remembered Gisele’s tips on playing the grande dame. I can’t swear that fund times were had by all, but they were definitely had by me.

The second thing that happened spring semester was that Gisele pushed me to apply for the junior year abroad program in Paris. She’d overheard me talking about wanting to take my junior year off campus. I’d been thinking small and shallow – my college had very few men, and even fewer heterosexual ones, and I wanted a break from all that manlessness, so I’d been looking at colleges that had lots of men, more men than women. Gisele pointed out that there were, in fact, men in Paris.

Applying to a study abroad program would never have entered my mind. Leaving the country? Leaving the country for a year? And, while I was learning French and I wasn’t the worst I could be, I certainly didn’t speak well. How was I supposed to navigate France in French? And how would I ever afford such a thing? My family, by just about every measure, was poor. Unquestionably-poor. Ultra-poor.

Gisele listened to my concerns, but she asked me to set them aside. She assured me that my French was better than I thought. She pointed out that, whatever my French proficiency, there was no better way to improve it than living in France. Money was an issue, yes, but I would still have my scholarships. I wouldn’t have to pay for a year’s worth of expensive room and board at our expensive college, and that would make room and board in Paris affordable. And she reminded me that an application wasn’t a commitment. If I was accepted and couldn’t manage the costs, I wouldn’t go. If I didn’t apply, there were no options at all. She kept encouraging me to apply until I finally did.

For people who’ve read this blog for more than a minute, all my crazy travel stories? They only exist because Gisele talked me into applying for the Paris program. I had never traveled alone, had never thought seriously about going to Europe or anywhere else. My year in France opened something in me, showed me another way of imagining myself, gave me permission to see more possibilities for myself.

In the spring of junior year, Gisele came to Paris and we spent an afternoon together. We had lunch, then poked around the stalls at the Clignancourt flea market. She bought me a pretty scarf and a pair of small chandelier earrings. She called me out a little for hiding behind my baggy, non-descript clothes, wanted to show me I could have another look, could have other looks. It felt too difficult, too scary, to take that on in that moment, but I held onto it – and the scarf and earrings 00 and when I finally decided to stop trying to erase myself, her voice was in my ear, encouraging me to see who she saw, encouraging me to step into the light.

Gisele taught me French, yes. But that was the lesser of the things I learned. She told me what she saw in me: I could be funny, I could take center stage, I could take chances, I could do things no one expected me to do, I could embrace myself. And then she held up a mirror and encouraged me to see myself, too.

As with Mr. DeBlois, I have no idea how she saw what she saw or why she chose to push me. She must have done this for plenty of other students, but I definitely felt she was making a special effort to lift me. And I am grateful for it. Thank you, Gisele. You encouraged me to see a broader world, a broader range of possibilities for myself, a broader version of myself. I was slow to some of those lessons, but I learned them. Thank you.

_______________
* Feeling good about myself
** The insanity of this, boggles my mind to this day. I’m pretty sure my school had no services for non-English speakers. It wouldn’t have occurred to the administration to create such programming. But once they were faced with a student who needed to learn English, how could they ignore that need and schedule him into classes in not one, but two languages he didn’t understand?! Seriously, WTF?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Being Seen

It’s day two of Teacher Appreciation Week. Yesterday I was thinking about third grade and the two great teachers I worked with that year. I noted that the haven I found in that classroom was short-lived, that I found myself in a very different kind of classroom the following year.

The next important teacher for me was my English teacher in my last year of high school. Yes, the gap is that big: third grade and then skip ahead to senior year. It’s a long way, but it could have been longer, so I’ll count myself lucky.

Skipping to senior year is particularly interesting because I had that English teacher, Mr. DeBlois, for ninth grade English, too. He wasn’t a bad teacher in ninth grade — though I will admit that all I remember about that class is being made to watch the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” followed by In Cold Blood, and having to fight my way through The Old Man and the Sea.

I cannot remember who I had for English in 10th grade, so that was clearly a scintillating experience. I had a pretty awful but ultimately easy 11th grade English class and then back to Mr. DeBlois for senior year.

What made the difference in my experience between 9th and 12th grade? It’s surely true that Mr. DeBlois went through some changes of his own in that time, but the primary change was me.

I started writing “for real” when I was about 11 years old, started showing my writing to other people when I was 12. Back then, I was pretty certain I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poetry. Correction: I wrote a lot of painfully, aggressively BAD poetry. A lot. But people liked it. In junior high I won some local newspaper’s youth poetry contest. I’d written an awful thing about loving yourself for who you are — as if I was anywhere near doing that at that time! My poem won for my age group and was “published” in a mimeographed anthology with the other win-place-show writers. It was a very big deal for me.

So I was definitely already thinking of myself as a writer when I landed in 9th grade English with Mr. DeBlois. I don’t think I let him know anything about my artistic delusions. I kept my head down and did my work, I responded with predictable horror to the Jackson and Capote films (and with the additional, unexpected horror of seeing how funny my male classmates found the murder of Nancy Clutter). There weren’t any occasions I can recall when sharing any of my glaringly awful poetry would have been appropriate.

But in 12th grade Engish there were plenty of opportunities. I wrote a contrived short story about violence in the Jim Crow south. I wrote some sing-song-rhyming poems about God only knows what. I wrote a Dr. Suess-style story about some creatues (the Bushelbracks) that lived in the bushes behind my grandmother’s house. Whatever.

(The fact that I remember any of this is terrifying, but it is also not very surprising. My mother, who has always been the number-one fan of my writing, kept all my work. Eventually, these works would be collected and stored in a green and yellow plastic bag from my favorite clothing store: Tempo Fashions.

You really cannot make this stuff up.

The Tempo Fashions bag would come out from time to time and we’d pick through its riches, reading some bits, laughing at others. For a bunch of years we thought that bag of fabulousness had been lost. That green and yellow pattern was pretty loud and distinctive, and it couldn’t be found anywhere. My mother solved the mystery: the bag had been replaced! She found all the writing, just in a different container. We can all rest easily now.)

Rather than point out that my work, even at its “best,” was pretty bad, Mr. DeBlois encouraged me to keep writing. He didn’t just grade my assignments, he wrote comments and questions as if we were in a writing workshop and my wacky offerings were worthy of considered critiques.

No one had ever responded to my writing in that way. People were nice about my work — even people who weren’t my mother — but no one had ever taken the time to have something to say about it, suggestions for how I might do more, might improve. Mr. DeBlois treated me as if I was a writer. And that unquestioned acceptance was beyond powerful for me.

What did he see? It was most assuredly not good writing. Really. That’s not modesty or La Impostora. The things I wrote that year were awful. The strongest piece I turned in was a poem I stole from my little sister!

So, he didn’t see talent, exactly. What, then? It could really just have been my energy for writing. I don’t remember anyone else in that class being as into the creative writing assignments as I was. So maybe he wanted to support me in doing something I was passionate about.

Whatever his reasons for giving me the time and attention he did, I am grateful. I wrote jokingly about my Tempo Fashions Collection, but having someone take my efforts so seriously was invaluable.

Yes, it’s true that the very next year brought the start of college and the awful poetry workshop experince I mentioned in yesterday’s post. And it’s true that I shut down after that workshop. I was still writing, but I stopped sharing my work with anyone. I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and started saying that I liked to write, that I wrote a little but wasn’t a “real” writer. That was surely the year La Impostora became my constant companion … BUT … I didn’t stop writing.

How many people do good teachers reach? How many of their students have that special experience that changes something about them? How many other students in my high school did Mr. DeBlois see something in? There have to be others, plenty of others. Because he taught for years and because I’m not that special. In what ways is the support he gave them still meaningful in their lives?

Mr. DeBlois isn’t the only or the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, but he was the first, the first to make space for it to be okay for me to be a writer. That was almost 40 years ago. Thank you, Mr. DeBlois. I was on this path before senior year, but you set me more firmly on it, gave me some sturdy, comfortable hiking boots to carry me through. Whatever you saw in those crazy assignments I wrote for you, I’m grateful for it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Learning to Learn

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. Sunday’s Humans of New York was a young man talking about a teacher who changed his life. It’s a beautiful story. I’m sure many people have great stories like that: a teacher who made the difference in their ability to process information, see themselves more clearly, envision possibilities for their future that were well beyond what seemed expected or obvious. I have a couple of stories like that, too.

I also think about the people who’ve had not a singe positive experience of education, not a single teacher who cared enough about them to be that one beautiful story. I think about the poet I studied with freshman year of college who regularly belittled us. She told me I was a greeting card poet. She asked us to critique a Roethke poem and then told us we didn’t have the writing talent to be allowed any opinions about Roethke’s writing. Sigh.

But this is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m going to set those unfortunate stories aside. Who have been the stand-out teachers in my life?

The first answer to that question is easy: Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, my third grade teachers. They co-taught the experimental class I was lucky enough to be placed in. We had lots of options for learning through lay, for self-directed learning, for small-group activities. Our classroom was the school’s old cafeteria, so it was huge. We had stations all over the space — with books, with toys, with tools, with animals (which I enjoyed until I was bitten by the gerbil) with big floor pillows.

I’d worked with Miss Rittenberg before that year. In first grade, I’d been sent to study reading in her second grade class because at that point I’d been a reader for almost three years and many of my classmates were newer readers. And then she was my second grade teacher. So I got the wonderful experience of working with the same good teacher three years in a row. She knew me, knew how I learned and what I liked and how to draw me out of my painfully shy silence. Such an incredible luxury, finding a teacher who liked me, saw potential in me, encouraged me, knew how to support and inspire me … and then to have that teacher year after year.

loved my third grad class. I loved the non-traditional shape, size, and set-up of the room. I loved my teachers. I loved the freedom I felt in that class. I’m sure I wouldn’t have known to describe it that way, but that’s the overarching color of all my memories of third grade: I was free, I was in charge of … my brain, I guess. I wasn’t being pushed to do what everyone else was doing, I could move ahead in a book or stay behind to repeat something over and over if I wanted to. Freedom.

To this day, my favorite way to learn things is like third grade. I never had another learning environment like that, but it has been at the base of my thoughts about education ever since. When I read Mosaic of Thought in the late 90s, I was far from third grade. I was already an adult education teacher, working with emerging readers, adults reading between first and third grade level. I spent a lot of my time back then trying to remember how I’d learned to read, trying to remember how I’d learned to read for meaning. Though it wasn’t really the answer to those questions, one of the first things I thought about was being sent to Miss Rittenberg’s class as a first grader, being given the chance to read closer to my level rather than being made to wait for my classmates. And that wasn’t not about learning to read but was about facilitating learning, about acknowledging that people take-in information differently and that it’s possible to meet learners where they are and encourage them to keep pushing forward. I remembered how good it felt to not be held back, how good it felt to discover books.

Reading Mosaic was an incredible gift for me as a teacher. The book resonated with me on so many levels. The description of the ways to help learners come to reading, come to books, felt entirely familiar, felt like third grade. I didn’t know how those ideas of teaching would translate to the adult classroom, but I was instantly ready to try. (And so, happily, was my teaching partner and our bosses.)

Some things were definitely not going to be transferable. I wasn’t going to hold a student on my lap during reading time, for example! But there was so much to think about in the “simple” question of how to we become skilled, thoughtful readers?” And again I thought about third grade. What I remembered from my experience in Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa’s classroom was part of what I was trying to create in my adult literacy classroom.

Almost immediately after I started blogging in 2008, I stumbled onto Two Writing Teachers. The creators of the site — Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayers — taught children, not adults. Reading their posts, I quickly realized they were my modern day Rittenberg and Felepa, that their ideas about teaching connected with my Utopian memories of third grade. Amy of the teachers whose blogs I’ve read as a result of finding TWT have given me that same vibe.

Third grade shaped the way I envision classroom learning, and that’s huge, but it’s not the only thing I got from that year. I think it set me up for trusting my own mind. A lot of the learning I did in that classroom centered around things I chose to work on, things I chose to explore. I have no memory of anyone ever telling me there was one clear “right” way to do the work or find the answer.

After third grade, I was shoehorned into an uber-old-school classroom with a teacher who was nothing like my third grade teachers. We had moved to a new town and I didn’t know anyone. We knew nothing about my new school, so my parents couldn’t advocate for my placement in a classroom that might have suited me better (which is probably how I wound up in that experimental classroom in the first place … and, too, I doubt my new school had any classes that resembled third grade even vaguely).

“Freedom” was definitely not a way I have described fourth grade … or fifth or sixth or seventh … All the same, I made it through with my dream of third grade in tact. I made it through with my understanding that learning could happen in a lot of ways, not just with the teacher standing in front of the classroom telling us what to know and how to know it.

I was a weirdo in a lot of those classrooms, letting my third grade brain show out in some of the projects I created or the work I turned in. For the most part, my “weirdness” was tolerated, though sometimes only barely, and I was allowed to keep moving forward.

The things I learned about learning and about my own ability to think was made strong enough by what I experienced in third grade that it was able to survive the rejection of independent thought, self-direction, and creativity that I faced in the classrooms that followed.

I stayed shy and meek, and in some ways those traits gave cover to my weirdness. My thinking and learning were mostly silent endeavors. I looked studious, and I was, just not always in the ways my teachers might have imagined. And looking the part could be enough for teachers who weren’t interested in investing too much time or energy in their students — or, as the case sometimes was, in me specifically as the lone Black child in the sea of white children who “belonged” in the room.

So I’m kicking off Teacher Appreciation wee with a hearty thank you to the first teachers I ever had (outside my family) who saw and cared about me, who helped me start learning how to learn. Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, I honestly can’t imagine who I would be — as a person or an educator — without you. Thank you.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Some dust has been bitten.

Another year of the Slice of Life Story Challenge comes to an end. I didn’t do as well this month as I’d hoped, but I’ve made it through to day 31. Having surgery early in the month knocked me for a much harder loop than I’d been anticipating. I missed posting a couple of days — which, considering how sleepy and silly some of my posts were, is probably more a gift to blog readers than anything to be sorry for. Much more importantly, I was supposed to be welcoming new folks into the slicing ranks by reading and commenting on their posts every day, and I deeply regret how hard I fell down on that promise.

I participated in this challenge in 2008, the very first year. That was also my first year of blogging. I’d only had my blog for a month when I stumbled onto the TWT blog and into this challenge. Such a lucky thing that I did! I absolutely credit that first challenge with pushing me across the line from maybe-I’ll-have-a-blog to being a blogger. So grateful to that original group of slicers and to all the great folks who’ve jumped into the challenge over the eleven years between that first run and this one.

What my blog is and how I use it has morphed fairly dramatically since 2008. It’s interesting to look back at early posts and see the ways my voice has changed, the ways it has stayed the same, how some of the more embarrassing posts still sound totally like me. I clearly have a voice (“a Voice“), and it’s interesting to hear it over time.

I’ve come to think of March as my blog-iversary because of this challenge. No matter how absent I’ve been from this space, I always find my way back for Slice of Life in March. I exhaust myself with daily posting … and then I’m ready-not-ready to dive into April and writing poetry all month. March reminds me why I like having a blog and primes me for the rigors of National Poetry Month.

Thank you Two Writing Teachers, for another excellent slicing challenge, for giving me the chance to read such an interesting cross-section of blogs and for getting me reacquainted with my own little corner of these internets.


It’s the final day of the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Hundreds of folks have been participating. If you haven’t been one of them, maybe next year will be the year you’ll join in!

All I Want for TKD …

It’s the first frigid days of 2018. A new year. Where I’m sitting, the “real feel” temperature is -30. Yes, if I step outside, it will feel like 30 degrees below zero. There is so much wrong with that, I don’t have time or energy to describe it. But … where I’m sitting, it’s beautiful, and it’s quiet and calm, and I have a gorgeous space to myself for a few days of writing and dreaming and staring at the snowy landscape and organizing my brain.

This is a gift I’ve bought myself, these four days of contemplation and work. The drive up with my friends yesterday was lovely. The first moments of walking into this glorious space and seeing just how fabulous it is was lovely. Waking up to see sunlight creeping over the mountains out my window was lovely. Remembering that the only things I have to do are the things that I want to do was best of all.

These few days are the third DIY writing retreat I’ve made. Each retreat has been very different, and each has been just what I needed. In some version of a perfect world, all of my time would be like this. But I don’t live in a perfect world, so I have to create my moments of perfection when and where I can.

It’s Three Kings Day, the day Melchior, Balthsar, and Gaspar presented their gifts to Mary’s new baby. What gifts would I have of the Magi this year? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are nice, but my needs run a little different from those of the newly-born Christ child.

  1. Energy. I have a lot of plans for myself this year. If I have any hope of getting through even half of them, I’m going to need lots of energy. Lots of it.

These plans I have for myself run in all kinds of directions. When I set my new-year intentions before my birthday (the official start of the new year for me is my birthday, so January is a time for me to review first quarter success and re-up for the rest of the year), the primary focus of all my goals was my health. I’ve had a few years of non-stop crap, and I’m more than tired of it. So I started working on the most pressing items and focusing on maintaining the gains I’d already made. Dealing with the healthcare system and with healthcare providers exhausts the mess out of me, however. That’s one place the need for energy comes in. Pushing back against a system that wants to blame all my ills on my weight, insisting that providers actually listen to the things I tell them are happening with my body, fighting with my insurance company so that care I need is paid for … it’s a job of work.

I need physical energy, too, however. I have some clear and intensive goals around strength training and getting my body ready for the trip I’m planning in the fall. I need to be stronger, need to be a little less fearful of injury and pain, need to have a little more trust in my physical capacity. So, speaking of jobs of work … yeah.

And there are some things that need to be done, that only I can do, that I have no desire to do. I need to find the will to power through them, day after day after day. If I can’t do them, most of the rest of my plans for the year will have to be set aside, and I’m not here for that possibility, so I have to step up and get those things done.

  1. Pigheadedness. If you know me, you know I can be annoyingly stubborn sometimes. That’s true enough as far as it goes. But I struggle with not being stubborn enough to hold onto things that are for myself, things that feel selfish because they are just about me. I let plans for myself fall by the wayside all the time. I regret those falls later, but that regret doesn’t bring opportunity back. So I want some selfish stubbornness, I want the ability to keep my needs as my primary focus and direction this year. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore other people and their needs. It means I want to stop putting other people and their needs ahead of myself every time. I want to be pigheaded in my belief that I am worth that focus, that my needs are important and deserve my time and attention.
  2. Confidence. This one may be the most important one of all, the one that gives me the ability to have the other two.

I struggle with Impostor Syndrome on the regular. There are times when La Impostora is my constant companion. She is far too good at keeping me down, keeping me back, keeping me in a box of self-doubt. And I’m sick unto death of her power over me.

I wanted to say that the third gift should be “Wakandan pride.” And maybe that’s still right. Wakandans know they are the shit. I have never had that fierce a sense of myself and my value … and I want some of that. I’m not getting any younger. What am I waiting for? Mother Toni said it right in Beloved. I am my best thing. Me. I am. And I need to see that and know it and believe it and live it. And I need to start right this instant.

*

And so, Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. There are my wishes, my gift requests for this Three Kings Day: energy, pigheadedness, confidence. Work your magic, magi. Come through.

Opening the Door — SOLSC 30

I am notorious for letting excellent opportunities pass me by. I hold myself back. Shyness, fear, shame, lack of confidence … so many reasons for not saying yes to so many things.

But when I was asked to interview Natalie Baszile, refusal never crossed my mind. And thank goodness for that. It introduced me to Baszile’s beautiful debut novel, Queen Sugar. And it gave me the chance to have a great conversation with a thoughtful, generous, intelligent person.

I’ve done a couple of interviews before this one. First, I jumped into the Great Interview Experiment and interviewed Jade. Next, I interviewed my then co-worker (and today’s birthday girl!), Heidi Sabertooth, who was in the middle of very Slice of Life-like project: writing, recording, and posting online a new song every day for 100 days. Yes, Slice of Life on steroids!

So I’d done a couple of interviews. And I’d struggled mightily with both, but I still didn’t pause to think before agreeing to interview Natalie. And again, thank goodness for that! Because I learned something. I like doing interviews. I still struggled mightily, agonized over whether my questions were “good enough,” over how to start and end the interview, over how much of her time I was taking up, over whether I had to ask her permission to record our conversation so I could transcribe it later … over just about any and every thing I could think to agonize over. But despite all my stressing out, I so enjoyed myself!

I’ve been waiting for the interview to go live on the VONA newsletter page, and this morning it did, so now I can share it here. It’s quite long — Natalie was stunningly generous with her time. And if you haven’t read Queen Sugar yet, I definitely recommend it!

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Why Is Everyone Black? – Finding Home with Natalie Baszile

Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, unfolds over the course of the sugar cane life cycle — planting to harvest — charting those months in the life of Charley Bordelon and her adolescent daughter, Micah. As we speak, Ava DuVernay is turning Queen Sugar into a series for Oprah Winfrey/OWN.

I fell headlong and heart-full into Queen Sugar. From the first beat, I wanted to know Charley and Micah, wanted to go where they were going, see what happened to them. The novel isn’t all southern charm and endearing characters, — though it has plenty of both — and I struggled with the way it caught at my heart and wrenched me. I saw myself and my family in every character, and struggled with my emotions as I read. But for all that, I didn’t want the book to end. I could have read Charley’s story for years.

Baszile, a 2012 memoir alum, sat down with me over Skype, and we talked about character development, process, politics, and the power of VONA.

STACIE: First, I have to say how much I loved Queen Sugar.

NATALIE: Thank you.

STACIE: It’s an amazing book. It was also, actually, a very hard book for me to read. Right away, from the very first moment we meet Ralph Angel, I had a pain in my chest –

NATALIE: Ah.

STACIE: And I had it for the rest of the book … which is not a bad thing, it just made reading difficult at times. One of my co-workers asked if it’s easier to read stories like the story in Queen Sugar if it’s fiction rather than news. And I want to say yes, but that’s a lie. Because the pain I’m feeling is just as real because what’s happening in the story feels entirely real.

NATALIE: I’m glad about that. (half laugh) I mean, I’m sorry

STACIE: No, no, don’t be sorry! I hadn’t actually thought about it until he asked that question. I know it’s easy to think of reading fiction as being kind of escapist, but no. Some fiction, of course. But not this.

NATALIE: Right. That’s such an interesting thought. I can see how fiction hits you differently than nonfiction or journalism. When we watch these things on the news, we read about them and we know that they’re real, there’s no filter. If that same reality is surrounded in some kind of poetry, I think it does hit you differently. It comes in through a side door, you know?

STACIE: Sticking with Ralph Angel, I was surprised that a lot of the reviews I’ve read describe Ralph Angel as a bad person. One reviewer actually described him as a “ne’er do well.” I was surprised because that’s not how I saw him at all. And I was wondering how you respond when you hear those descriptions of him.

NATALIE: Ultimately, I always go back to what my desire was for him, and what my intention was in creating his character. I’ve lived with the book long enough at this point that I’ve come expect a range of reactions. Some readers say, “Oh I hate him,” or “Oh, I don’t like that character.” I’ve gotten that from some readers. But I’ll say this: soon after the book came out, I also had people coming up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’m so glad he’s in the book.” They seemed to get the heartbreak, and they really connect with that deep sorrow, which is what I always thought about. There’s also a kind of sweetness about him, you know? He’s not a ne’er do well at all. I am most gratified when readers have come to me and said, “I know somebody like this.”

STACIE: Yes, yes. Because that is, of course, why the pain is in my chest. Because Ralph Angel is my older brother.

NATALIE: And that’s what I was going for, something more nuanced. Not the villain, not the antagonist. Nothing that’s that straight-up cardboard and one-dimensional. A real human. With real humanity. That’s what I always go back to. I take comfort in those moments when readers tell me how deeply touched they were, even in the pain of reading about him, that they really tuned into his humanity. That’s what I always wanted.

STACIE: That’s why I’m so surprised when I read these descriptions because I think, “Well, did you actually read the book?”

NATALIE: Exactly.

STACIE: I know it took you 12 years to write Queen Sugar. First of all it would have taking me that long just to do the research on cane farming because – oh my God so much to know! – so I assume part of it was research time, but was it also finding your way to the story?

NATALIE: For me it was two things. It was finding the story and honestly, just figuring out how to write a novel. I was certainly that person who sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a novel,” without any idea of what that entailed. I think that was a blessing, because if I’d known up front what I was up against, I don’t think I would have continued. I don’t know; maybe I would have. It also took me 12 years because I had to find the story. For the first five years, the book wasn’t even called Queen Sugar, wasn’t even set in sugar cane country. The story had nothing to do with sugar cane. For those first five years it was really just the story of this young woman and her daughter who were going back to this little town in south Louisiana.  It was more about the family dynamic.

But there was something so deeply flawed in those early drafts. I found that people didn’t understand why Charley was going back. I remember someone even asking me, “Is she running from the police? Is that why she’s leaving?” “Is she on drugs?” She was by far the most difficult character to write. It took me five years to figure out why was she going? And it wasn’t until I really got that piece that the novel really fell into place. Before that, the book was really episodic. It just didn’t have the feeling I felt in my heart.

Plus, I had part time jobs, and two little kids. I remember hating summers because the kids were out of school, and it was like, “Oh my God, now I’ve got to take this little kid to summer camp and by the time I drop them off, and they cry, and I sit with them for a little while and finally get home to my desk, I’ll have to turn around.” So, there were years when I wouldn’t even bother to write during the summer. I would think about the book; I would do little revisions, but I couldn’t really sink in until school started again. On top of all that, I went back to school. So, even though I was pretty much at the desk all the time, there was lots of life happening.

STACIE: Thinking about Charley and why she would leave LA. I didn’t question why she would leave, I was interested in how completely able she seems to be to leave California behind. She calls her mother once, but she doesn’t contact friends. I get why she’s not calling Lorna [her mother]. But she doesn’t stay in touch with anyone, and that was a surprise to me, made me wonder if she’d been that alone while she was in California? Because in that case, it makes even more sense that she would go to Louisiana.

NATALIE: Honestly, I think I was struggling to hold the whole universe of this book in my head for so long and was trying to develop the characters and make the story rich that, I could only focus on Charley. And it’s funny because I’ve actually never thought, “Wouldn’t she have friends in LA? Wouldn’t she have connections?” On a creative level, it took all of my energy to hold those four characters together. I think to add another relationship, say a best friend who she’d call back in California, would probably have driven me over the edge.

STACIE: I wondered – I mean, I know this is not the story of your life, obviously – but do some of your family members see themselves in characters in Queen Sugar and did worrying about the possibility of that give you pause in any way while you were writing?

NATALIE: Miss Honey, the grandmother, is absolutely inspired by my grandmother. No question. Some of the characters are more composites of people in my family or people I met along the way. There are seeds of real people in all of the characters. Did I worry about it? Not so much. What I did worry about were the bigger questions. When I would allow myself to sit back and fantasize about the reader’s reaction, that’s when I got worried. Especially with Ralph Angel, I worried about how are Black people, specifically Black men, were going receive him. With Charley, too, I was very worried about dodging all of these cultural stereotypes about Black women. I’d think, “So I’ve got this single mother. Oh God. And then I’ve got this single Black father who has some addiction issues. Oh my God. How are Black people going to receive this? Am I going to be criticized for this?”

I was more worried about Black men’s reception than Black women’s because I knew there were a variety of Black women characters in the book. I got to the point where I was so worried about how I was portraying Ralph Angel, that I was paralyzed. It’s impossible to write a character when you’re worried about everyone’s expectations. I finally confessed this to one of mentors from Warren Wilson, David Haynes, who really watched over me during those early years. I remember calling him and saying, “How am I going to write this?” And he finally said to me, “Natalie, just write the book. Stop worrying.” And I realized he’s right. I had to allow the characters to be who they are and not craft them in a way that I was anticipating somebody’s reaction because then they wouldn’t be fully realized. So, no, I wasn’t so much worried about family members as much as what my imaginary readers would think. That was on my mind.

STACIE: Taking a detour away from the book for a second. Do you by any chance listen to the podcast Another Round?

NATALIE: Yes. Not often. But yes.

STACIE: There was something – I don’t remember if it was Heben or Tracy who said it – early in the show. They were talking about things they were interested in reading, and one of them named it their FUBU Book Club reading list – the For Us By Us reading list. So what’s on your FUBU reading list?

NATALIE: Recently, it’s been, of course, Ta Nehisi Coates’s book. Between the World and Me.  And Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.  I loved that book. Painful, intense, but so powerful and inspiring. Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Loved, loved, loved that book. I love Roxane Gay, of course. Those are the most recent ones. . I have not read Marlon James, [A Brief] History of Seven Killings, but I heard him speak and was just totally like, “Oh my God.” So, those are the people who are on my radar screen at the moment. I have another book on my bookshelf, The Fisherman by [Chigozie Obioma], which I actually bought months ago, that I feel myself circling around now. It’s rising to the top of the stack.

STACIE: Going back to how the book came to you, I just got through reading the first three installments of Marjorie Liu’s new comic, Monstress, and after the first comic, she talks about where Maika, the central character came from, and she said that the character just appeared to her – this angry young woman standing on the edge of a battlefield – and she had no idea who she was, what the story was, and couldn’t figure it out. She said Maika just stayed with her until she was finally able to see, oh, here is the story this young woman is supposed to be telling. And I’m wondering if characters come to you first, does the story come to you, how does that work for you?

NATALIE: Characters first. And always a single image. So, with Charley, what I  first imagined was that opening scene with when she and Micah are making their way over the border from Texas to Louisiana into sugar cane country. It’s an image I saw from above.

But I have to say, even before that, the image that came to me was of a father and a son sleeping in a car in LA. That even pre-dates Charley and Micah, and of course those two characters turned out to be Ralph Angel and Blue. I was living in LA at the time, and I was taking a writing class at this little community center on La Brea. Just as I walked under this overpass, I got this image of a father and a son in a car. That’s what started it. So, character always comes first. An image, some flash of a picture. I’ve never written a story in first person so there’s always a little bit of distance between me and the character. I always see them from the outside. I don’t hear their voice at first, ever. It’s always visual.

STACIE: I like that for both Charley and Ralph Angel that the car was connected, that sense of movement away from LA or through LA. That’s interesting.

NATALIE: That is interesting. I never thought of that before.

STACIE: I read Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago – an amazing, amazing book – and I had this really weird head-smack moment about midway through, where I was like, “Oh wait. I’m a child of the Great Migration! How have I never actually made that connection before?” I had been to Louisiana a few times and was surprised by how connected I felt there, even though I wasn’t vising family. Why would I feel at home? Not only am I completely a northerner, I am also a bit of a northern snob. How am I feeling at home in this place. And it wasn’t until I had that moment with [Wilkerson’s book] that I was like, “Oh, maybe this is what that connection is.” Because this is where my mother’s family comes from. And I’m wondering if that’s part of what makes you feel that connection to Louisiana, the fact that it’s in you, even when you’d never lived there.

NATALIE: Definitely. No question about it. As a matter of fact, just like you feel very much like a northerner, I feel very much like a westerner. My dad was from Louisiana, but my sister and I did not know Louisiana growing up as kids. It may as well have been a foreign country.  I think it was because my upbringing was so suburban and so … white, in the sense that we lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, that when I started interacting with my southern family, I just loved how warm and welcoming they were, how forgiving they were. That’s the thing the really surprised me. No matter what you did, you were still family, and you always had a place. I really love that. My dad’s people are real salt-of-the-earth folks, not people of means at all, but their devotion to each other and their willingness to welcome me and my kids was really striking. It was such a welcome contrast to the fairly antiseptic suburban experience – loving within my household, but otherwise antiseptic – that made me feel connected. I was tremendously grateful for it, actually.

STACIE: There’s a line that Micah says early in the book when she’s voicing some of her frustration with being in St. Josephine, and she says, “Why is everyone black?”

NATALIE: (laughs)

STACIE: Which is the best question. That’s so great that she says that, because there’s so much in that question. And I haven’t heard anybody talk about it in any of the things that I’ve read about the book.  I found that so powerful. In that moment, there’s clearly no space for Charley to unpack that with her because that’s not where they are – but I was hoping that somehow it would come back, and that we would get to see how Charley navigates that with Micah. I mean, we get to see other ways that that comes back, just not that direct conversation. But I have to say that I really loved that that question was there, and I hope that it plants something for other folks who are reading the book, too.

NATALIE: Thank you very much. It’s funny. You remind me of a story: My husband and I have two girls. One year when they were in middle school we took the to New York for spring break. In San Francisco – where there are hardly any Black people anymore – we had been telling them, “Okay, look. When you see another Black person on the street, you don’t just walk past that person. You acknowledge them. Say hello, give them the nod, something.” So we took them to New York, and we rented an apartment in Harlem, and naturally, you walk outside and … everybody’s Black, right? So our kids were walking on the street literally saying, “Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi …” to every Black person they saw, and we had to tell them to pull back.  It was hilarious.

STACIE: In moderation.

NATALIE: Exactly. So that moment with Micah really reminds me of the experience of learning those unspoken – I don’t want to say “rules” – cultural mores, and begs the question, how do you give that to a child if they’ve never had that opportunity. Micah’s just such a little devil that I thought it was funny. In that scene I was seeing the world the way she would see it. And it seemed like yeah, she would wonder what’s going on here? What have you brought me to?

STACIE: I loved that. I was like oh, okay, Micah. I feel you. I know you’ve done a few different residencies. How has that been helpful to you?

NATALIE: I have found residencies to be invaluable. They are an opportunity to just climb inside of my work and live in that world I’ve been carrying in my head.  I love it.  I haven’t gone to a residency in a few years because after the book came out, I was busy doing book stuff, and it hasn’t been until recently that I even had new work to apply with. But I always found that even if I just went away for two weeks, I was three times more productive that I could be at home. I actually sat down and calculated it.  At a residency, I typically work 14 hours a day. Multiply that by seven days a week, times two weeks or three weeks. That’s the equivalent of two or three months of work at home.

I have a writing office at the Grotto here in San Francisco, but by the time I pack my stuff, commute down there, walk to the office, set up my stuff, work … the day is interrupted and segmented in this way that it’s not at a residency. Even at The Grotto, I rarely have the experience of being totally lost in the work. If you can do it. If you can afford the time, I think a residency is the best gift a writer, or any type of creative person can give to herself.

You’re there with so many other interesting people. They may be visual artists or musicians or some other kind of creative type, but just being in that atmosphere is so inspiring. I remember going to Ragdale and meeting a composer. I knew nothing about music, but I remember being in his studio where he shared his composition with me. He showed me a place in his score where he’d erased so many times that the paper had worn thin. I was like, “Oh, I totally know what that is.” I knew exactly what that experience was like. It was so mind blowing that, there he was in a totally different medium, and yet we could connect over that experience of revision. It was great. I love residencies.

STACIE: Which of course leads me to a VONA question. What was the value for you of going to VONA, what did you get out of going to VONA?

NATALIE: I’d heard of VONA, and I’d thought about applying in other years, but something always came up, or the timing wasn’t right. By the time I actually applied, I’d already sold the Queen Sugar manuscript, so I ended up taking Faith Adiele’s Memoir class, which was so different for me. It blew my mind. I had never written any nonfiction before that but I was interested in personal essays. The rules were completely different, and that was refreshing and inspiring.

And then there was the community. I really loved  being with my people, with other people of color, and comparing what was on their minds as artists versus what was on the minds of residents of other programs and residencies. I loved that there was clearly a political question or a political thread – something personally political – running through so many of the conversations and so much of what people were writing and exploring in their work. I knew I had my own personal conversation with these larger questions, but it was so inspiring, and comforting to be with other writers of color who were grappling with these same questions … or questions I hadn’t even thought of. It just felt different.  I’d always found these residencies to be inspiring, but there was a different kind of richness at VONA that I had not experienced before. I feel like I missed out on a lot of that richness because I went to VONA when they were still at UC Berkeley. My kids were home, so I didn’t stay on campus. I commuted for Faith’s workshop, maybe hung out a little bit, but I had to get back home. So I feel like I missed out on some of the really good stuff. What I was able to get was totally different and nurturing in this whole other way that I was really grateful for.

STACIE: What would you say to POC writers who are thinking of applying to VONA?

NATALIE: A place like VONA is important because once you get onto that writing circuit, and you start going to a bunch of other residences and conferences … how do I say this? The value of VONA becomes even more apparent. Other places have certainly have things to offer. There are residencies that are all about the community of women, not necessarily women of color but women, and I think that’s important, too. But in my experience, I found that VONA was a different kind of a conversation. The people there, the atmosphere, the work, was saying something slightly different that I had not seen. I had not seen people come together at other residences and operate on an unspoken frequency about why we were there.  Sometimes, you go to a lot of those places and it’s all about jockeying and positioning, and the ego, right? And some of those places can be terribly hierarchical in a way that I think is really destructive, especially for writers who are just starting out. VONA is one of the few places where people come, and that sense of wanting to support each other and celebrate each other takes priority. That’s what you’re there for. You’re there for connection. It’s not about posturing to see who has the most books published, or who has the hottest agent.  I think that that allows people to relax and connect in a way that can be challenging at other places where you have writers gathered. I’m not discouraging people from applying to other residencies and conferences. I think they all offer something, but knowing that you have VONA in your back pocket is a good thing. It gives you perspective that you won’t have if you’re out there on that circuit. You can carry that feeling of home with you. You need to be able to do that. So that’s what I would say to someone who’s thinking of applying to VONA. You meet people and you carry those people with you. So that, no matter where else you go, you know you have a home. VONA grounds you. You know you have people backing you up.

But, this is a conversation that people have been having for years, right? Junot Diaz’s essay, and the whole question of the dominant voice, the dominant perspective at MFA programs, that’s a huge issue. If you’re a young writer and you’re in an MFA program and the tone of that program, the writing in that program, the direction of that program, which experience is more valued, which voices are more privileged . . . it can be challenging.  So VONA is a counter balance to that. I think you need that. Because this writing life is tough. It’s tough, and it can be isolating, and so to not have some kind of anchor, can really be challenging. That’s why I would say people should apply – as they should apply to Cave Canem or Kimbilio, you know you have a place that’s going to offer you a warm embrace, so you can get out there and duke it out.

STACIE: You were talking about people who were dealing with different political questions. I’m just wondering how what’s happening in the news is impacting what you’re writing. And even if it’s not the painful stuff because … yeah, that … but even like … Beyonce’s “Formation” video and the crazy, America’s-mind-is-blown reaction to the “Formation” video. How is that filtering in?

NATALIE: I’m so glad you asked that because it is top of mind for me. And it actually has caused me to switch – I had an idea for another Louisiana novel and I’d started it, but recently I switched to something else.  The rage that I have felt in the last year has totally changed and informed my work.   There was a point at which I was feeling so much rage that I actually couldn’t write because my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Last fall I was reading Between the World and Me, and I was reading, Citizen, I was looking at Kara Walker’s work, and I felt my whole chest collapsing under the weight and the intensity of those works. I felt this searing pain that was difficult but essential, and it totally changed what I’m thinking and writing about. What I’ve had to do is allow – I can’t even say allow enough time to pass because we’re still in the midst of this – I’d say it’s say only been in the last few months, since like … January 1st, that I’ve been in a place now where I can actually start to think critically and somehow translate that into fiction. I’m not a nonfiction person, I mean, I’ve written a couple of personal essays, but for me it’s all about fiction first, and it’s taken me all this time to figure out how I can possibly begin to explore these questions in fiction and not be shouting all the time.

STACIE: It’s so amazing that you just said that. I am first a fiction writer, but I do also write a lot of nonfiction. And in the last … year and a half … I have felt myself moving further and further away from my fiction. Whereas my nonfiction voice has been this really angry voice. But in the last month or so, I’ve been feeling frustrated because … where are my stories, where’s the fiction that I feel so close to but now I can’t seem to write. And I feel like what you just said … I haven’t given myself that time because I’ve just been so angry and in so much pain.

NATALIE: I’ve never felt anger that has just penetrated my entire, my soul, my spirit, my physical body before. It’s a searing rage. I love books, I love the physicality of books, I love book stores, books are my refuge, my sanctuary, my comfort – but last fall, for the first time ever, I remember looking at my bookshelf last fall and thinking, “some of these books don’t have any meaning for me whatsoever.”  I tossed out a lot of books that I’d been holding onto.

It’s something, I tell you. I have no choice but to sit with it; to try to figure out how to live in that place of rage and deep hurt, and I don’t know what else, and try to be creative in that space. That’s been the real challenge for me. I think I’m there now, finally.

STACIE: The anger in my writing has been too challenging for some people, and they’ve pulled away, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, but this is me. All of those things before were me, but this is me, too.”

NATALIE: Absolutely. I think that is critical. It’s what inspires me about the books that I’ve named, you know? They’re just saying it like it is. Unapologetic. Unflinching. Bam, that’s it. And that is so inspiring to me.

STACIE: I’m curious to know what were the books that came off your shelves?

NATALIE: Mostly novels that I had been hanging onto thinking that I would read one day and finally decided, you know what? I’m not going to read them. Novels that I’d outgrown or that spoke to me at a different time in my writing life.  A lot of times what happens is a book gets a lot of attention, and I run out and I buy it because I think, “I need to read this.” But even as I’m buying it, I know that that author has a different set of concerns. A lot of times this happens with the young, hot, writer of the day. But I’ll still buy that book, knowing that it does not speak to me. And sure enough, that book just sits on my shelf, even though they didn’t have the weight of the staying power. Those were the books I finally decided I didn’t need.

STACIE: And finally, what brings you joy? How do you move your brain away from all the pain?

NATALIE: Oh, so many things. My children are a great source of joy for me. I have two girls, and they are just fabulous in their own right – which has nothing to do with me as their mother. I love watching them move through the world. That gives me a tremendous amount of joy. Of course, books give me a tremendous amount of joy. There’s nothing better for me than losing myself in the world that somebody else has created, you know? That, and being in the work. Spending time with friends, traveling whenever I can, getting out of here and having my eyes opened to a different kind of life, a different kind of experience. This is a challenging time. No question, but I think … day to day, for me, it’s the connections that I have with people that make all the difference. That really does it for me. That’s it.

STACIE: Thank you so much!

NATALIE: Thank you, Stacie. It’s been really fun. I enjoyed it.


The Slice of Life Story Challenge of 2016 is almost finished! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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