Curses and Blessings, reprise

What can happen when you’re given time and space alone with your ideas? When you’re sent off to a little cabin and someone else is cooking your food and tending to the day-to-day management of your comfort and well-being? When you’re told that the only thing you have to do is whatever you want to do?

Well, any number of things can happen, I suppose. I’ve had very different experiences with writing residencies and retreats. The similarity across all of them — the DIY and the formal ones — is that I’ve come back to my “real life” changed in some way, come back with some new understanding of the writing I went away to work on, which is precisely what I go away for. So … excellent!

How that realization or understanding happens isn’t at all similar. My first DIY retreat, I spent all day every day writing out one character (I was mostly a fiction writer then). I wasn’t working on the story that character was part of. I was digging into his history, trying to understand how he became the man who showed up in the story I wanted so badly to finish but which I couldn’t finish if I didn’t understand that man.

In the end, I wrote so much about him that I realized he was the main character, that the story he’d stepped out of wasn’t the central story at all, as much as I love my original protagonist. That was definitely not the place I’d imagined finding myself at the end of the retreat. Not even close. But I learned a lot about how I feel my way into a story and how to work with story elements and more formal tools to shape a successful arc and land sure-footedly at a conclusion.

At my first formal residency, I’d planned to write scripts for my comics project. I started a script, and it was a solid start. But, but the end of the two weeks, what I’d done most was learn more about how comics work, how sequential art moves with and without words and that some of my ideas were feeling awkward and clunky because I was writing scripts that were at odds with the medium I’d chosen. I did a lot of drawing, which I hadn’t expected, and learned some things about my drawing and what I want from my artwork.

And now …

I came to Alaska with a plan. I decided a while ago that I want to turn my “Fat Talk” essays into a collection. I had an outline of what pieces were needed to complete the arc I’d imagined for the collection. All I needed was time to really sit and focus, time to start building those missing pieces.

Except that’s not what my time has been here at all. I’ve been writing, yes. I wrote a whole new essay that is at least a strong skeleton for what I want the finished version to be. I’ve done some bits of other, not-part-of-the-collection writing. I’ve read through all of the existing essays and made notes for things that need revision, places where I need to go deeper or where I need to steer back on course.

So … productive. But also … not. Everything has felt a little off, a little not quite what I needed to do.

And then Sunday happened. Sunday, I ran up hard against the wall of: what even is this project? what’s the point? what am I trying to say, anyway?

It’s not an unfamiliar wall, but slamming into it is never welcome. And, to be clear, this isn’t La Impostora creeping up on me. She’s always lurking, but this question, this wall, is different. It’s more the realization that I don’t have the clarity about the project that I thought I had. Similar to the realization during that first DIY retreat that I’d been focused on the wrong character, that I was supposed to be writing a very different story.

What do I do when I run into the wall? Well, this time I did some good and some annoying things. I slept. A lot. I hung out on social media. A lot. And then — finally — I started journaling, writing out the conversation I needed to have to get answers to the questions the wall was asking. I made notes. I made lists. I asked and answered the same questions a few times. I just kept writing.

Slowly, and then more quickly, an answer — the answer — began to come clear. I fought it a little, falling immediately into the control freak role that sometimes creeps into my writing, trying to force things to go the way I want them to rather than the way they actually need to. Because, if the answer that was taking shape was really the answer, most of the writing I’ve done has to be undone and then rebuilt in profound ways … if it’s usable at all.

So here I am, halfway through my residency, with a project that’s totally in shambles.

And this, this is what can happen when you strip away the distractions of work and daily life and spend oceans of time with your ideas. This right here. The curse and the blessing.

Time to pick up my pen and get the fuck to work.


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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

March Madness

Another month of slices comes to a close. March goes by so fast (SO FAST!!). And every year I have the same realizations. I remember how much more I write when I focus on writing every day. I remember how easy it is to post to my blog regularly. I remember how fun (and sometimes stressful) it is to find a slice every day. I get a chance to check in with other slicers — catch up with returning folks and meet some new folks.

I also am reminded of how quick I am to cut back on sleep and how that adds up to me being completely exhausted by the end of the month. Case in point: how many times have a dozed off while writing this slice?! And every year I promise myself I won’t be in this situation next year … and here I am. Oy.

And now it’s time to start April’s challenge: a poem a day for National Poetry Month/National Poetry Writing Month. I have gotten nervous about taking on the Ghazal for the month, which tells me that I should definitely take it on. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve used a form with a rhyme scheme, so that will be an added challenge. I always kind of balk at rhymes.

Last notes for March:

I’m out of town tonight, having come south to visit my family and celebrate my sister’s birthday. It’s my first visit since Christmas … which you should read as I’m still pissed at Covid for keeping me from seeing my family every month.

The moment I saw the notification on my phone about second booster shots being approved, I was online signing up to get mine!

I have just a few weeks to set myself up for my residency. While I’m taking this mini-trip to see family, my cat is having a trial run being boarded so we can see if he can stay there while I’m in Alaska. (And oh my goodness, this should probably just be a slice of its own! I really had no idea what a nervous, fussy cat parent I am or how hard it would be to leave him at the boarding place!) So far, so good — because of course I’ve called them twice already to check on him and make sure they’re on top of his meds schedule. It’s either the kennel (that’s what we call “boarding places,” right?) or the hospital connected to the vet’s office. The kennel is a much nicer option. So, fingers crossed.

My desktop computer with its wonderful, giant monitor, has died. This is the computer I set up during the second week of quarantine in 2020 … and that shocking and unhappy event fell exactly one week after the service contract expired. Naturally.

I am having fun reacquainting myself with my hair at this new short length. I still catch myself doing things that would only be necessary if my hair was as long as it was three weeks ago. And I’m wearing earrings that have been out of rotation for years because they would get tangled in my hair, a thing that’s not an issue now. It’s like all these old faves are brand new again.

And there we are: the slicing challenge is an old fave (I still can’t quite fathom that it’s really 15 years!), and every time I participate, it’s brand new again. Thank you to everyone who has visited and commented. Thank you to Stacey and the team at Two Writing Teachers. And thank you to my own dogged insistence that I participate year after year!


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Reply All

What was I thinking?! I left a comment on a public post — a post made by NPR — on FB. And now I am renewed in my understanding of why I never do that!

Damn.

Several years ago, because of my job, I locked down my social media: mostly anonymous on Twitter, just about entirely PG on Instagram, all the don’t find me if I don’t already know you security measures on FB. It doesn’t create an echo chamber exactly because I’ve left some problematic characters in there, but it does mean I’m not out in the general fray every minute of the day.

Why on earth I would choose The Slap to be the thing I’d comment on in such a crazed forum as the open comments on an FB post? Obviously, I am nuts. Just fully nuts.

I got off easy, though, I’m sure. A whole convoy of people telling me I’m stupid and clueless and reaching and “making everything about race” and defending violence and embarrassing myself. No hate speech, no out and out ugliness.

One man accused me of infantilizing people with the way I responded to comments. When I get all preachy-teachy in here, do you, my readers, feel infantilized? If that’s real, I want to do something about it.

Was I a little snippy with some folks? Yes, I definitely was. Mostly with white people who couldn’t seem to accept that I might think or feel something different from them, who basically told me that if they didn’t see it, it hadn’t happened. I don’t really have time for that kind of nonsense, and I said so. I was polite about it, but clear.

Mostly, it’s really interesting for me to see how willfully people will not hear you — or in this case, not read what you’ve written. People would read my comments and then accuse me of saying something else entirely. I would say, “I’m not talking about alopecia,” and people would come back at me with all kinds of information about alopecia, telling me that if I understood it, I’d know it had nothing to do with race. Um … ?

Oy. Lesson learned. I’ll be keeping my thoughts … well, not to myself (as if!), but keeping them out of the comments sections!


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Playing on Repeat

Early in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Janie’s grandmother tells her that Black women are the mules of the world. From everything she’s seen and lived, Black women exist at the lowest level. Any load no one else wants to carry is handed off to the Black woman — white men give the load to Black men, and Black men pass it off to Black women (you’ll notice who has no burdens in this scenario). She tells this to Janie for any number of reasons, not least of which is letting her grandchild know where she stands in the hierarchy so she can be prepared for life, so that she’ll understand her place.

And, of course, there is Malcolm X’s statement: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s character in 1937 and Malcolm X in 1962 were seeing the exact same thing. The world hasn’t changed all that much since either of those times.

Yes, that’s an exaggeration. It’s also true.

Oprah Winfrey, a singularly powerful and wealthy woman, is racially profiled in a clothing store, told she can’t afford the expensive accessories that are on display.

J. Marion Sims conducted medical experiments on enslaved Black women without their consent and without anesthesia, believing that Black women couldn’t feel pain. And in 2020, half of this country’s white med school students believe Black people have thicker skin and don’t feel pain as acutely as white people.

Britney Griner, an Olympic champion and professional basketball player is currently imprisoned, being used as a pawn in a political conflict and her plight gets little to no coverage in the media.

In 2019 a Black woman in Chicago is dragged naked from her bed when police raid her apartment. She isn’t allowed to put on clothes, but is handcuffed, naked, and left standing exposed as numerous officers search her apartment … which is across the street and down the block from the apartment of the person they were searching for.

Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time, is dismissed when she is in physical distress after giving birth to her daughter.

Police officers in Arlington, Texas put their guns to the head of a young Black woman they say “fits the description” of the older Black man they are looking for. And when they determine that she is, in fact, not that man and holster their weapons, they tell her the incident that could have ended in her death is a learning experience and threaten to arrest her when she responds to their treatment with anger.

A first-grade teacher stands one of her black students in front of the class and cuts off her braid as punishment, and encourages the other students to make fun of her.

Sadly, this is a very short list pulled from an endless one.

*

Obviously, I’m still thinking about that “joke” at the Oscars. I saw many crazypants comments about it today. A lot of people are leaning hard into the belief that Chris Rock didn’t know about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. One person told me I would have no choice but to believe he didn’t know because — wait for it — Steve Harvey and his team didn’t know about the alopecia. What? Is Steve Harvey the Great and Powerful Oz of Black celebrities’ health conditions? And if he doesn’t know, no one knows? Um … but … tons of people knew, so how does Steve Harvey figure into this as an excuse for Chris Rock?

Besides, as I said last night, the alopecia isn’t actually the point. Yes, it makes Chris Rock’s joke skew to a different kind of meanness. But the joke was already plenty mean.

It’s still the misogynoir for me. A Black woman was mocked in front of an unfathomably large and majority-white audience. She was mocked about her hair, in front of white people, when it is the anti-Black racism of white people that created the reviling of Black people’s hair in general and Black women’s hair specifically. She was mocked in such a way that the white people watching wouldn’t know how significant an insult was being thrown at her, making her look unreasonable in her pained reaction.

And she has to keep navigating this very public mess because her husband’s reaction became the entire news cycle for two days (despite a month-old war and a Supreme Court spouse trying to overthrow the democratically-elected president of these United States).

Ugh.

I am not claiming there aren’t many, many things wrapped up in what happened Sunday night. Of course there are. We aren’t single-issue people and we don’t reach our 50s without having all kinds of baggage. So yes, there is a lot to unpack from that moment. But the willful insistence that Rock’s joke wasn’t all that bad and couldn’t possibly track back to the hatred of Black women’s hair is annoying af.

I’ll say it one more time for the folks who haven’t been paying attention: it’s never “just hair” when it’s Black hair, and that is emphatically true when it’s Black women’s hair. It’s okay with me if people don’t understand that. I don’t need them to understand, necessarily. I need them to listen to Black women. I need them to understand that this isn’t their area of expertise and maybe they could sit down and let other folks have the mic for a minute, folks who know what the hell they’re talking about.

Maybe folks could record it on their phones and play it on a loop as they go to sleep, make it a mantra: it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Dope Slap

While I am repeatedly on record talking about how much I love a good smack, I’m not a fighter, not a fan of violence, and I have never smacked anyone in my life. I’ve thrown a couple of punches, but I think I can be forgiven for those since the target of my punches was trying to rape me.

I make a lot of jokes about smacking people. I totally stole and adopted “dope slap” from Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Car Talk guys. I loved it the moment I heard it. It fit so well with my love of the visual of doling out a well-deserved smack. But again, no actual smacking has been meted out by these hands.

*

I don’t want to be #TeamWill or #TeamChris. Mostly because that hashtag-team shit is diminishing and stupid when discussing real things. And also because I couldn’t possibly be on Chris Rock’s side of this mess. At the same time, I can’t … quite … exactly … fully … condone that slap. But really, anyone who knows me even a little has to know I’m not mad at Will Smith.

And I’m not not-mad at him because he was “defending his woman,” as so many have praised him for. Jada wasn’t in physical danger, in need of someone to jump to her defense. But I can empathize with the anger that would have been triggered by Rock’s comment, and I can imagine not thinking all the way through my actions if I chose to get up and slap him.

People keep talking about how Smith was laughing at first and how that shows he wasn’t really upset by the joke and thought it was funny. I suppose there’s a version of this story where that can be true. What seems more true to me is the version of this story that is more like what we saw Venus and Serena Williams do at the Critics Choice Awards when Jane Campion went full White Woman on them as she accepted her award. Serena laughed and clapped, while Venus kept a desperately-full and painful smile on her face while her eyes widened and she leaned forward to look hard at Campion and tried to absorb that hideous moment. Both women knew they couldn’t respond as they might have in private. To show any displeasure at that completely disgusting comment would have made them the bad guys. Articles about the awards show would have focused on how “angry” they were, how incapable of taking a joke, how much they had overreacted. They had to swallow every response they might have liked to have and give a show of gracious good humor or at least acceptance.

Will Smith knew that he was supposed to be amused by Rock’s joke. That was his job in that moment. That’s always his job. He’s made a whole career out of being a smiling, gentle man. But his ability to laugh at jokes at his wife’s expense — or his own expense, or his children’s expense — isn’t as unlimited as his smiling face has allowed us to believe because (SURPRISE!) he’s human. But he knew he was supposed to laugh. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Even Pinkett Smith tried to shrug it off in the first second or two.

But it hurt. They were in that audience for what could be a huge night for Will. They were happy and excited and probably thought they could be safe from ridicule for the time they sat in that audience. And then they weren’t.

*

But I’m not here to defend Will Smith. That man has the money and the staff to take care of his current situation and a lifetime of other situations.

I’m here to talk about the joke.

I’m here to say a solid “fuck you” to everyone who has ignored what happened to Jada Pinkett Smith last night.

I’ve spent a lot of time this month talking about my hair, about Black women’s hair, about the denigration and pain and insult and violence that gets braided and twisted and pressed into our hair. I said very explicitly that it’s never “just hair” for us. And last night was all about the truth of that.

One of the ways that Black women are shamed about our hair is about length. Having super-short hair is held against us. We are called bald-headed when we wear short hair, and trust me that it isn’t meant to be funny or endearing. It is meant to let us know that we are unattractive and unacceptable because “good” hair is long and silky and flowing, not short and nappy and close to our heads.

Plenty of Black women (more every day!) choose to wear short hair and revel in their hair. That doesn’t mean they can’t be insulted or hurt by microaggressive comments about their hair.

Jada Pinkett Smith has worn short hair at various times in her career, so short hair isn’t a surprise on her. She looks lovely with short hair, and she looked fabulous last night. But she has been public about her struggle with alopecia, and public about her current look being a result of that struggle.

For a woman, and particularly a Black woman, to feel comfortable stepping into the spotlight bald, to attend an event that will be aired around the world, has to be difficult and stressful. But you know you’ll be surrounded by friends and colleagues, so that probably helps you feel a little more at ease. Then this man — a Black man who made a whole-ass documentary about Black women’s hair in which he acted like he learned something and felt something akin to sympathy if not empathy — this man on the stage looks at you and decides that he will use your baldness for a cheap, out-of-date reference joke. And you know you are supposed to laugh it off. You know you are supposed to laugh because this night is about you as the glamorous and proud plus-one, and you are supposed to keep your mask in place and show the façade that has carried you through in the past.

But what you feel is exposed. Exposed as if that man had pulled up your skirt and pulled down your panties in front of all those people and all those cameras. A Black man looked at you and called you bald-headed, an insult that has been hurled at countless Black women by countless Black men. A Black man with his very specific knowledge of our history and our hair made a joke that wasn’t a joke, a joke that he knew you would hear in a way that many people watching wouldn’t.

I’ve read so many takes today saying Chris Rock made “a so-so joke,” “a bad joke,” “a joke.” Each time, the writer has wanted to make the point that, even if it wasn’t a good joke, it was “just” a joke, it was “just” about her hair. Nothing to get so upset over.

But even Chris Rock knew better than that. He knew it the moment he finished the joke. And I don’t mean because of the slap. Even before Smith left his seat and headed for the stage, Rock was trying to minimize the damage. He makes the joke, then he tries to brush it off — literally brushing his hands in front of himself as if he is erasing it from the stage. And then he tells us that the joke “was a nice one,” as if he can speak that wish into reality. But by then Smith is on his way to the stage and the rest is history.

But Chris Rock knew. Even if he didn’t know about Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, he knew he’d said something that wasn’t quite as okay as the other jokes he’d made.

And I just keep coming back to Jada and how she must have felt when Rock told that joke.

*

I dealt with alopecia areata as a young woman. I lost my first patch of hair when I was 25. I didn’t know what was happening, just knew I suddenly had a bald spot where I hadn’t had one before. I went to the ER — I don’t recommend this for a lot of reasons, but I was new in the City and didn’t have a doctor yet. I went to the ER and the doctors made fun of me. One teased me about having ringworm. Another said I should hope that all my hair would fall out because that would be an improvement. When I began to cry, they told me I was overreacting, that they had been kidding around and I should toughen up, get thicker skin, learn to take a joke.

That first patch grew back, and it grew back brown — because there is always the possibility that your hair either won’t grow back or that, if it does, it will be grey. Over the next dozen or so years, I lost patches of hair again and again, sometimes I’d have a couple of patches at the same time. My room mate helped me figure out ways to hide them, but I was constantly aware of them, constantly aware that I could lose all of my hair. Those ER doctors were assholes, but they certainly weren’t the only people who were rude to me. A man on the subway told me I shouldn’t even be outside, exposing everyone to my ringworm. The whole car of riders moved away from me and people yelled at me to get off the train at the next stop.

Ayanna Pressley and Jada Pinkett Smith are stronger women than I am. I don’t know what I would have done had I lost all my hair. I don’t think I would have had Pressley’s courage, releasing a video to introduce myself to the world without my hair. And I don’t imagine I’d have made it to the Oscars or been able to keep anything like a game face on after being mocked in front of the world.

*

If Will hadn’t slapped Chris Rock, we might have spent today focused on the poor taste of that joke. I think most of that focus would have been on Pinkett Smith’s alopecia and the cheapness of making a joke about the visible manifestation of a medical condition. I think there would have been some people who would have zeroed in on the misogynoir — because Rock’s joke had the weight it did because of race and racism — but the louder conversation would have been about the alopecia.

And I still keep thinking about Jada, about how it must have felt to sit in that moment with the world watching, knowing she had to keep her face right. It’s never “just hair.”


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot