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?
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?
Last month, I presented on the benefits of journaling to a group of Black women creatives. I thought it would be helpful to share here, too.
In preparation for my presentation, I learned the difference between a diary and a journal is that a journal is meant to be reflective, as opposed to simply listing the day’s events. So, this one is specifically a reflective journal. The inside of the journal shown here is separated into sections. I’ve dedicated each one to a different subject that I can reflect on. For example, the forgiveness section is filled with short letters written to people I’ve needed to forgive. Contemplating on past entries shows me if there’s been growth. In the tarot section, I ask a question and then pull my cards and write down the answer. I compare last year’s answers with this year’s to determine if there’s been a change.
The second kind of journal I keep is a gratitude journal. I’ve maintained one of these every year, for the past ten years or so. My process includes the following: lighting incense, sitting in a quiet place, and writing those I AM statements I told you about. Usually, I affirm the same three things: I am love. I am adequate. I am important, unless I have something I’m working on, then I might add a new one, like I am abundant.
After I’ve finished affirming myself, I write five people, experiences, or things for which I’m grateful. I recently modeled this behavior for thirty days on social media as a way to disrupt negative news cycles and also as a way to remind myself there’s always something or someone to appreciate.
When I’m not writing in either of these bounded beauties, I’m journaling on my laptop or digitally. I first realized the power of simply sitting quietly and pouring out thoughts when my father died. That was 2015. We were in what I thought was the middle of repairing our strained relationship when he passed. I still had unresolved, unprocessed feelings that had to be released. So, I sat in my stepmother’s spare bedroom and wrote about the beginning of our dysfunction to the end, his death. I blogged these entries each day leading up to his funeral, creating a seven-day series. The global blogging community grieved with me and it was comforting.
I’ve also used a digital journal to capture and sort through unexpected emotions, like when I was traveling to a conference and TSA frisked my afro. I was compelled to write about the event immediately to capture the events and my feelings. I had no intention of publishing anything, until I posted about the situation on FB. One of my flight attendant friends told me searching hair was illegal. When I arrived at my hotel, I researched the topic and found out one woman had sued TSA for a similar experience. That’s when I turned my journal entry into a For Harriet publication.
Finally, most of you know I keep a cell phone journal. I use my iPhone Notes section because it’s more convenient and less ceremonial than the other ways I’ve mentioned. Thoughts occur if I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, while I’m scrolling social media, or when I awake and fall asleep. During these times, I write a quick note. Other times, I’ll journal several paragraphs. The length depends on how deep my thinking is at the time. At any given moment, there are about 200 notes on my phone. If I can’t get the thought out of my mind, then the public gets to read it…as Monday Notes.
Here’s how I journal and why. Let me know if you keep any type of journal. What’s the point? Does it help?
I’ve written since I was in elementary school, fifth grade to be exact. However, I didn’t consider myself a writer until six years ago. Once I accepted this part of my identity, I started observing and listening to writers and “aspiring” writers. I’ve determined if you want to be a writer, then this is what you’ll have to do:
Start Writing Now that my writing is public knowledge, people confide in me. Cousins, the man at the Florida Writers Association conference, and the woman who asked me to ghostwrite her novel each want to write. But when I ask them what they’ve written so far, the answer is nothing. I advise each of them the same. Start writing. Whether it’s a public blog or a private diary, the first step is to begin.
Make Time to Write I often thought my job was getting in the way of writing. That wasn’t the truth. And because no one was going to offer me more time in the day, I had to shift my priorities. Instead of watching the Today Show every morning, I wrote for two hours. Then, I began my regular day. Where could you shift your priorities so that you can make time to write?
Take Time to Edit After you’ve written something, consider that your first draft. All writers have first drafts, and second, and thirds, and…you get the picture. As a former English teacher, rarely have I seen a masterpiece written in one fell swoop. When you take time to write, that means you might find yourself pondering over the use of the word stroll, saunter, or walk because you know each one of those words will change the connotation and flow of your sentence. So take the time to think about the words you’ve written in a meaningful way.
You Think Your Stories Have Already Been Heard Probably. I mean an infinite number of books have been written and read. But not yours and not the way you can write it. Comments about The Unhappy Wife have validated this concept. Recently, Story Teller Alley approved me to sell my book on their site. One of the reasons it was accepted is because of originality. A reviewer said,
Although stories of unhappy marriages have been told before, because these are all true stories and each person is different, the stories are all different.”
I’m glad the innovation shone through. Sometimes people read the title and assume they know what’s inside. But it’s a false assumption. Likewise, if I would’ve thought these were trite narratives, then I might not have written the book. So my advice? Don’t worry about it. Somebody wants to read it the way you’ve written it.
You’re Worried about What Other People Think If you follow my blog, then you know I write about many things that have happened in my life. Stories include family, friends, and people I barely know. I couldn’t write half of what you read here if I stopped to worry about someone’s hurt feelings and reinvention of history. Initially, an Anne Lamott quote helped me forge ahead with authentic writing, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That quote changed my entire creative nonfiction writing life. The other part that has helped me write the truth is to separate fact from emotion. For example, it’s a fact that my dad packed up my belongings in the middle of the night while I slept. Consequently, I felt abandoned and pushed aside because of what occurred. Stick to the facts and make clear when you’re describing an emotion.
I hope one of these sparks the writer in you. Trust me. Someone, somewhere is waiting to hear your voice, even if the someone is you.
I’m sitting on my patio, watching a little brown boy in a white shirt and gray shorts. He’s riding a hoverboard on his knees. First, he goes straight all the way to the cul-de-sac, where he whirls around and comes back towards me again. Then, he twirls in circles, one, two, three times, until he’s facing straight again. Music is playing but not loud enough for me to hear the melody or words, just enough for me to know he’s listening to something while he spins in circles, passing the time.
To his right are two squirrels. I’ve been watching them for twenty minutes. One sits close to a tree, eating something between his paws, probably a nut. I’ve always known squirrels were skittish, but I never noticed how much. It seems he can hardly enjoy whatever he’s nibbling in between sporadic looks toward distracted noises. He scurries up the tree and sits on a branch and I briefly think about making a squirrel house, with nuts and such. Who am I kidding? I don’t even want to help my husband build things for our own house, much less build a whole home for a hungry squirrel, who seems to be doing life just fine without my interference.
Now, my across-the-way neighbor has come out. He and his wife are in the at-risk age group for coronavirus; his white hair tells me so. Friday, he washed his patio screen with a hard-bristle brush while the trees on his Christmas pajamas danced. I drowned out the repetitive grating during online yoga. Saturday, I saw him drive a two-seater sports car for the first time. His wife slowly backed their white SUV out of the driveway, making space for him to zip into the one-car garage. Today, he’s semi-dressed for an outing: light-blue, short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirt, navy casual shorts, barefoot. We have an automated sprinkler system and rain has begun to drizzle, but for some reason he’s decided to water the bushes.
Two hours have passed. There’s a father-son duo riding their bikes up and down and up and down the street to the same dead-end hoverboard-boy glided towards. This is the fourth time I’ve seen them. I wonder if the father is wearing a helmet to model good cycling practices for his son, who looks to be no more than five years old, or if he wears it because he really believes it will protect him, should he fall on this short jaunt. I also wonder where the mother is. I always question mothers’ whereabouts when I see fathers and their children. It’s probably a result of my own social conditioning. Here they come again, a fifth revolution.
I’ve sat here long enough. I know because hoverboard boy is back at it, this time a bit more dare devilish with his twirls. I glance up to see him belly down on the concrete. He’s limping back to his garage. He returns with his bike.
I wonder if anyone heard me cackling with my sister for hours the other day or if neighbors watched my husband and I eat waffles, sausage, and eggs in our PJs this morning. Is someone sitting in their home office, peering out their window at the brown woman, wearing glasses, trying to preserve her final month of contacts, while tip-tapping away on her orange laptop? Are they guessing what I’m writing, creating a narrative about why I’ve been sitting here for three days? Or, have they assumed as I have that we’re all creatively sheltering in place?
P.S. I wrote something similar three years ago from Starbucks. It’s funny what can change in a short amount of time. While I realize I cannot go to Starbucks and people-watch, I can make my own coffee, sit on my screened-in patio and create a similar experience. Adjustments. We all have to make them and function according to our current circumstances.
I had first written a piece about having an abortion over twenty years ago, then fifteen years ago. Each revision a nuanced version of the previous one, reflecting how my thoughts had grown throughout the years. One idea remained, and that is the procedure itself didn’t bother me. What vexed me was keeping it a secret from specific friends and family. I don’t mean to say that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but there have been many times when I wanted to insert it in a relevant conversation, like, “so when I had an abortion…” to support a point.
Here’s what I mean. Thanksgiving 2019, I was with my cousins. One of them works for his state’s health department. He was recalling how difficult it is to tell parents that their children have an STD or worse, HIV, mainly because (according to him) suburban housewives don’t want to admit their children are having sex, even after he tells them about their child’s sexually transmitted disease. One story led to another and we ended up on the topic of abortion and how that same woman demographic is pro-life. And that’s where I wanted to say, “so when I had an abortion,” but I didn’t.
It’s so taboo and it doesn’t go well with turkey and dressing. But, it’s because of this taboo status and made-up social rules that I believe many of us choose to remain quiet, instead of opening up authentic dialogue that could offer another perspective on issues that impact us all.
I imagine some people won’t relate to what I’m about to say, and I’ve made peace with this part because everyone can’t connect to everything, but for me, it is very important that I can be my whole self with people, no matter what. Being myself includes being able to open up about nearly everything. But, like many other things in my life, I’ve not only kept having an abortion a secret, but also my unashamed feelings about it. Both secrets were tucked away on a digital drive, until February.
That’s when this personal essay was published. It was finally time. It was the opportune moment for my thoughts and writing to align with the era. Twenty years ago, wasn’t the right time. Sure, people were discussing abortion; they have been since it was legalized, but there wasn’t a full-on assault on the practice. Even with the novel coronavirus taking up much of our attention, abortion clinics are closing, and doctors are being fined and jailed. The actual abortion practice is shifting.
Had my article been published twenty years ago, it would’ve just been another story. Currently, the narrative is integral for women’s rights and for reproductive rights.
So, *here it is. Of course, I’d love for you to read it, no matter your political beliefs or whether you agree with my stance or not. My point is not to achieve consensus on the topic, but rather to start a conversation that begins with, “so when I had an abortion,” in order to humanize this event.
Because guess what? We’re never going to progress if we continue to keep experiences locked up in a proverbial closet.
*The referenced piece was first published on PULP, a sex/uality and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil.
The past 11 weeks, I’ve been busy. Remember when I silently reflected and meditated for 14 days? Remember when I said I needed to figure out how to generate more money? Welp, shortly after, I attracted several clients.
Since mid-June, I’ve edited 12 manuscripts. This means each week, I’ve pored over a different person’s dissertation or self-published book. While I’m grateful for the business, there have been repercussions.
My dry eye flared back up. About two years ago, the optometrist diagnosed me with this condition. To remedy it, I use eye drops; I only wear daily contacts (the kind you have to throw away after one use); and I take frequent screen breaks. Usually I can keep it under control, but staring at the computer, while reading 200-page manuscripts every week caused it to return. Sometimes this meant my right eye felt a little itchy and dull; other times it meant there was a bit of pain right behind my eyeball.
Writing was not a priority. This really bothered me. During the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to write. In fact, I’d created a goal to write a new piece and submit for publication every two weeks. This was impossible. It turns out that it’s challenging for me to read other people’s works, while writing my own. I don’t know about you, but I need time and space for the writing process to unfold. By the time I turned off my clients’ work and decompressed, I was tired and only wanted to sleep. This was a bit frustrating for me because I value writing above all else.
Reading blogs shifted to an even lower priority. I found myself not wanting to read as many blogs, which is unusual. Even when I’m on a social media break, I take at least one hour every day and read other bloggers’ material. But after editing thousands of words for hours, I didn’t want to read anyone else’s. It didn’t matter how inspirational, uplifting, or funny the blog was, I couldn’t make myself read for 60 minutes and meaningfully engage.
Editing 12 manuscripts in 11 weeks reinforced a few lessons:
- Know your priorities. While I know that priorities shift depending on the circumstances, I think that your main priority should always remain number one. For example, writing is important to me. I actually felt bad that I didn’t want to exert the energy to express myself, even though I had the words piling up in my brain.
- Know your limits. Prior to taking on so many clients, I already had a sense for what was reasonable for my lifestyle. The number is two. I can edit two manuscripts per month and maintain a sense of calm. Anything else is too much, and I won’t be wavering on that moving forward, unless I hire help.
- Be ready for what you’ve requested. I asked for an increase in income, and I received it. But I wasn’t necessarily prepared for some of the consequences. As a result, I’ll be fine tuning how I co-create my life because after all, I’m in charge of myself and my choices.
So, tell me…how have you all been? What’s been going on? Have you ever gotten a little more than you bargained for? If so, how did you cope?
When I first began blogging, I was nervous. I didn’t think I had enough words to sustain a blog. My husband is reading this laughing. My newly acquired sister is going to screenshot this to me with a comment like in what world do you not have enough to say? My friends are reading this statement with wrinkled noses and confused faces.
I do talk a lot. But I didn’t know if what I had to say would be enough to maintain a blog that would keep email subscribers, known and unknown, returning and commenting.
It’s just recently that I realized what it might be.
I’m pretty authentic. I remember a blogging friend, Leslie, once commented that she admired how I “told my business without really telling my business.” I understand what she means now. I do let you in, the same way I let people into my life in person. If you ask me how my marriage, kids, or business is going, then I’m going to tell you. You might not know everythang, but you will know enough to feel as if you know.
I like connecting. When we first met, Dwight said, “You speak to everyone like you’ve known them forever!” He was absolutely right. That’s because I feel as if I’ve known you forever, even if we just met. You’re my friend. Period. He’s also told me that I seem open to connecting to people. I once argued this point, but he’s right about that too. I want to get to know you. Other people look for differences; it’s part of human nature. I look for similarities. Essentially, we’re all connected, and when we meet, I’m trying to understand how.
I like conversation. My comment section says comments are welcomed. And they really are. I want to talk to you about whatever you wanna talk about. If you are an adopted mother and I’m an adopted child, then I want to hear your perspective…for real. If you’re married and I’m married, I want to know how our marriages are similar or different and why. If you live near Philadelphia (I see you Neil), then I want to talk to you about my three visits to the City of Brotherly Love.
My blog is an extension of my real self.
This was made clear to me when Dwight and I hung out with my sister and her family. We mistakenly took a 3-mile walk to a tourist destination. Along the way, everyone decided to take a break at a 7-Eleven. I opted to sit outside. On my way to rest my buns and feet on the nearby sidewalk, a man, sitting in an old, beat-up car saw my OM tattoo.
“Do you know what that means?” he asked.
I told him I did. As I explained, I inched nearer and nearer to where he sat, in the passenger seat, with the door wide open, while his girlfriend braided his dirty blonde strands. I looked in his eyes during our five-minute conversation. I examined the track marks on his pale arm as he explained his religion, Dolphinism. Heroin, Cocaine, Adderall? His erraticism showed that at least one was his drug of choice.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Professor,” I answered. It’s always my first answer.
Shame overwhelmed him and he did as many have in the past, explained why he hadn’t attained his educational pursuits. He couldn’t believe someone with a terminal degree would want to talk to him. And as I eyeballed the clothes, papers, and plastic bags that filled his car, I explained to him that he was a person, just like me. I told him that it didn’t matter that I was a professor and he was who he was. All that mattered was this moment, where I held space for the two of us to have a conversation.
And that’s exactly how I feel about blogging. I don’t know who many of you are, but I know one thing. We’re all here seeking something similar. I see you the same way you see me.
I love supporting people and their endeavors. I also love supporting authors, especially if they are independently published. Over the past three years, I’ve read approximately fifteen self-published books. Five of these were just since January. And most of you know, I’m also independently published. So, I feel confident in offering a few suggestions for those of you who are almost ready to click that publishing button on Amazon, Lulu, Ingram Spark, or Create Space.
#1: Please pay for an editor. I know firsthand that editors can be costly. For The Unhappy Wife, I paid a little under $300 and for Daddy, approximately $700. But, I will tell you what. Not one person has approached me asking if I had either edited. This is important. When readers open your book, they are expecting quality, especially if they’ve spent over $10. They are not expecting to trip over misspelled words and syntax errors. In fact, for avid readers, this can be a turn off, not only from finishing the book, but also from trusting you as an author whose work they should read in the future.
#2: Please pay for formatting. I’ve read a few indie books that looked as if the person just uploaded their Word document to a platform for sale. This is a no-no. Sometimes the editor you paid from #1 can also format your book. However, be sure s/he understands the nuance between formatting for a printed book and formatting for an eBook. There is a difference. For example, an eBook has to be reflowable; this means the book reorganizes or reformats itself, no matter the device. It’s the reason you can read a book on your tablet or on your cell phone and it looks the same. Conversely, your printed book has to be created as a static version, and depending on the size of your book, there are also specific dimensions you must adhere to. An editor who knows formatting can help you with either of those.
#3: Proofread your book prior to publishing. I know you’re probably like, KG, I already paid the editor all this money. Why do I have to proofread? Because I said so, that’s why. Just kidding. Let me tell you what happened to me. With Daddy, I paid someone to format, trusted her, and ordered 50 copies. I opened up the book and it was all kinds of terrible. Spacing was off. Words were missing for some reason. It just looked unprofessional. On top of that I had just wasted a couple hundred dollars ordering the books because I was not about to allow that copy to be purchased by the public. I ended up finding someone else and the book looks like the version you have in your possession.
If you’re looking for affordable formatting, Fiverr is a reputable site. I’ve used it before and paid no more than $25. The editor I trusted for Daddy is named Christine Schmidt at True-Blue Editing. Finally, I also have a business that offers proofreading, copy and line editing, called Writing Endeavors®. I’d love to work with you.
Best of luck if you’re planning to self-publish! If you have any other advice for these types of authors, then please feel free to share in the comments.