I’ll be back in May 😉
My first blog post was “Why I Refuse to Judge Any Mother.” In it, I describe my observations of a friend’s mother, juxtapose her mother with how I felt about my own mother, and then explain how I hope my own daughters will see me as a mother—when they eventually begin to reflect.
Out of all the texts I received, I appreciated my journalist friend’s the most.
“Kathy, this is good,” she said. “You have what they call voice. In grad school, they used to always talk about how you should have voice in writing. You have it.”
Whenever I write, I want the reader to experience exactly what I was thinking or feeling.
But how do I do this?
I may tell you something that goes against what you’ve been told before:
I pretty much write how I talk and think. Even that last sentence is an example. I promise you a grammar program will tell you to remove “pretty much” because it’s unnecessary, but I left it in because that’s how I talk and think. If we were together, and you asked me how do I write? I’d say I pretty much write how I talk and think.
What is also helpful is my brain’s duality. I was raised in a family that valued so-called standard English, so I grew up learning the syntax appropriate for news personalities and job interviews. However, I was also raised on the west side of Chicago, which by all accounts is the hood. I quickly learned how to switch the verb “to be” around or to insert a cuss word so as not to be accused of talking like a White girl. I’m not special. Many Black people know how to codeswitch in this way.
What this means for my writing is I can create a sentence that appeals to White folks and Black people…or should I say Black folks and White people. You see how just interchanging those two words—folks and people—shifts meaning and tone?
I also want my writing to be accessible. I want to have a conversation with you. In order to do that, I have to write how I would talk if we were together having a latte, green tea, or Caipirinha. So, sometimes I stop, and address you directly. Maybe I’ll add a question, like what do ya’ll think to invite you into this conversation we’re having, while also throwing in the Southern dialect I’ve acquired from living in Florida for over two decades.
Most of my in-real-life friends who read my blog say, “Girl, I could hear you saying…” And that’s what I want.
To reiterate, if you’re concerned with developing voice in writing, then you have to determine what “vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax” you want to use and why. Only you know what that is.
And remember, voice, kind of like personality, cannot be imitated because it’s something only you possess. (Full disclosure: I sat here for five minutes flip-flopping between the word possess and own).
Do you worry about voice in writing? Does it matter?
Ever since I graduated with a PhD in August of 2010, I felt like a failure. This isn’t to say I awoke every day and beat myself up about my lot in life, but rather, every time the academic year would begin, I’d be in a physical and psychological slump. It was an energy thing.
It began when I attained my first job at Georgia College and State University in Middle Georgia. Though the actual job was ideal, the location and circumstances were not. Middle Georgia is racist, both explicitly and implicitly; living there was like a step back into the 1950s or 1850s; take your pick. Also, my degreed and experienced husband was never able to get a job there, so we agreed to live apart and see each other on the weekends.
Two years later, a colleague sent me a temporary job at Florida State University, which I applied and interviewed for and took. They “loved me so much” there that they eventually hired me for what I thought was my dream job, a tenure track, assistant professor position in English Education. The problem was again two-fold: institutionalized racism existed and I’d chosen to commute 360 miles so that our family could live together.
Some people can deal with blatant institutionalized racism; I am not one of them. Three years later, I’d decided all of it was too much. I accepted a job elsewhere making twenty thousand dollars less and teaching more classes that weren’t in my niche. The first day of orientation I sat in the bathroom stall and cried. Then, I went to take my ID photo. To this day, my picture shows me as a red, puffy-eyed, hot-ass mess.
I’d failed. But I kept doing all things academic.
At first, I presented at conferences and published in academic journals just in case. I knew I’d need to show my scholarly worthiness just in case I wanted to attain another job at a different type of institution.
“Are you sure you’re done with academia?” one of my colleagues emailed after asking if I wanted to be nominated for some national platform situation.
He and others ignored my answer and continued to co-write and push me on the path we’d all begun.
I published at least once a year and eventually became the chair of a special interest group.
You may be wondering, like my cousin, how someone like me could feel like a failure. Let me tell you. It’s easy to do when you have a strict plan for your life.
When I graduated in 2010, life was laid out. I would find a job as an English Education professor at Prestigious X University. Five years later, I’d be associate professor. Five years after that, full professor. All the while, I’d be publishing my ass off and presenting research all over the world. It’s easy to let yourself down when you’ve got your whole life figured out.
So, each year I wallowed in a slump, while preparing for a just in case situation.
Life became clearer around November 2018. That’s when I met three ladies at a conference in Houston. We each presented our work, which was related to sports media, critical literacy, and diversity.
Afterwards, one of the women said, “We should write something together.”
In January 2019, Lexington Books emailed me with interest in turning my presentation into a book idea. I want to repeat that. I didn’t seek them out. They emailed me. Consequently, I suggested to the other three women that this be the “something” we write together: a book. That led to us creating a call and inviting others to join us.
This month, our book, Stories of Sport: Critical Literacy in Media Production, Consumption, and Dissemination will be released.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Everything is made up, and we can do ourselves a disservice living within made-up rules. Part of the reason I felt like a failure was because I couldn’t see any other way to be a scholar other than what I was told and shown. Those made-up rules clouded my judgment and created my own idea of so-called failure.
Everything is made up, and we can do ourselves a disservice living within made-up rules.kegarland
I didn’t need to work at X University to attain a book deal. I didn’t need to follow a specific trajectory to publish as a scholar. All I needed was to trust my path and do what I enjoyed…writing.
Oh, and I secured tenure at my current institution. It turns out that’s not as important as I thought, either.
There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.
But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?
Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.
Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.Tweet
So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.
A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.
A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.
A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.
A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.
There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.
Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?
Tupac had a song called “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” I remember when I first heard it. I was alone in my dorm room.
It starts like this:
I hear Brenda’s got a baby
But Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name.
I don’t know if it was the soulful harmony that preceded these words or the actual rap, but I was captivated.
The song goes on to describe how she didn’t know her parents. One of them was a drug addict. But here’s the kicker. Her cousin became her boyfriend and she ended up pregnant! And guess what? Brenda was twelve.
I remember being glued to the black and white video. Tears streamed down my face and I hadn’t even gotten to the worse part. Brenda had her baby, threw it in the trash, and then became a prostitute.
What in the entire…
Anywho, it was too much. And I remember it all. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried as if I knew Brenda personally. Even though I didn’t know anyone remotely close to a “Brenda,” I remember feeling the pain of being a twelve-year-old, who was pregnant with her cousin’s baby. And then I felt the pain of being a baby thrown away in the trash.
That’s how I’ve been my whole life.
Some may say I’m an empath. I’ve never claimed it. But I do admit to being empathetic. It comes naturally.
It doesn’t matter if I know your backstory or not, I have the ability to listen to what you’ve told me, recognize, understand and share your thoughts and feelings.
My problem, until recently, has been realizing that not everyone has this ability, which coupled with my (sometimes) judgmental nature, caused problems.
For example, when my father died, my cousins wanted my stepmother to pick them up from the train station. It was remarkable to me that they would ask a recent widow to do something more equipped for a Lyft driver. I couldn’t wrap my brain around why they couldn’t put themselves in a grieving woman’s place and sense she may be a bit too sad to function normally.
I recognized it again when my goddaughter brought her godson, Mark to our house a couple years ago. We were decorating Christmas trees.
Mark bounced around helping each person with their ornaments. He danced when we turned on some music, and when we watched Frozen, he belted out a song as if he was Anna herself.
But when it was time to go, he shriveled up like a roly-poly pill bug and sulked around the house until it was time to go.
And I felt his sullenness.
Without my goddaughter telling me parts of his homelife, I sensed that wherever he was going, there was no joy. For some reason, he was crying on the inside. He was more than just disappointed because he’d had a good time at our home. His sadness held an untold story.
“I feel sorry for him,” I said out loud.
“You always feeling sorry for someone,” a friend of mine replied.
I couldn’t understand how she or any other adult who witnessed the same Mark I just did, didn’t feel similar. Aside from my goddaughter, why didn’t anyone else feel his sorrow?
But now I get it…kind of.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this information, though. On the one hand, I understand we can’t all go around crying over music videos and lyrics. On the other hand, I do wish people were more empathetic. It seems more empathy might create better families and communities…somehow.
So, I’ll end with the above thought and let you decide. Will empathy weaken or strengthen us?
More often than not, I have a little bit to say about a lot of things. I thought I’d share a few in the month we’ve reserved for love.
If we treated our girlfriends half as well as we do men, then women relationships might improve. Three years ago, I visited a friend in Sarasota. After the four-hour drive, I did as I sometimes do, stopped by her home first to pick her up for lunch. When I got there, she’d just finished her workout.
“Are you about to take a shower?” I asked, giving her athletic gear a once over.
“No! All I did was walk,” she said.
“If I was a man, you’d take a shower,” I replied.
She agreed but didn’t shower, and the above thought was born.
Why do we (sometimes) get all dolled up for the opposite sex but show up any type of way with our girlfriends? Is it comfort? Value? Societal teachings? For me, how I arrive depends on the event, not necessarily the company I keep, but in general, I show up freshly washed, with a nice outfit no matter if it’s the love of my life or a good friend.
If you love someone, then you’re implicitly saying you accept who they are. You can have acceptance without love, but you cannot have love without acceptance. For example, Dwight fully loves and accepts who I am. He encourages me to be myself, even if that means as he says it, “cussin’ a —- out” because he knows I’m fully capable of that behavior. But that doesn’t stop him from loving me.
People mistake how love and acceptance can show up, though. I have a cousin who lives with a mental illness. I love her like a sister, and I accept this part of her, but because I know her mental health can be overwhelming, I carefully choose when and how I will interact and be with her. Sometimes we forget we can choose how to be in people’s lives, and these choices have nothing to do with how much we love or accept someone.
Why is it we want our partners to have character traits we don’t? Why is that? I know people who desire vulnerability but have trust issues. I have friends who want a specific level of intimacy but don’t seem to know how to cuddle, show affection, or open up. I wonder if, when we seek a romantic partner, we’re seeking to fill a void of something we think we don’t have.
When Dwight and I first met, I wasn’t as self-aware, and consequently, I didn’t know how to be myself. He, on the other hand, seemed very confident in who he was and clear about what he would and wouldn’t do. Did I unconsciously seek someone who possessed the very things I needed to develop? I also wonder if helping one another to grow is more of the point of relationships, as opposed to racking up and celebrating years of companionship…like a prize. Maybe our friends and romantic partners are there to mirror who we are and to reflect who we can be.
Maybe our friends and romantic partners are there to mirror who we are and to reflect who we can be.Tweet
Let me know what you think.
Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.
Writing is no different.
A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.
Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:
My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)
As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!
Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:
I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.
This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:
- Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
- Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
- Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.
Ultimately, the introduction became this:
I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.
This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.
There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.
Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.