Welcome to my series in which I spotlight one of my followers. I’ve always had a deep fascination with people: how they became who they are, the struggles they won, and the hard lessons they learned over time. All of these scars and stories make up a person’s life. While I think it’s important to reflect on your own journey, it is also equally important to hear other voices and see diverse perspectives. In this series, the spotlighted blogger will be able to tell their story through curated questions I’ve asked of them.
October’s blogger feature is someone I greatly admire for her insight and candor. I love how she unabashedly expresses herself through her unique perspective. She is a prolific writer whose work has been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now (Black Women Share their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope), The…
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.
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?
If you blog on a schedule (i.e., every Tuesday at 11:00a), then you already use this feature. If you blog about one topic on a schedule (Writer’s Workshop), then that qualifies as a series as well. However, the type of series I’m referring to is the kind I shared a couple weeks ago reflecting on my travels. This type of series is more like Netflix. There are at least three posts, and they are serialized to come one right after the other. Once you’re done, you return to your regular posting schedule.
Here are three reasons you may consider this type of blogging style:
#1 Your post is too long. Most blogging “gurus” will suggest you write under 750 words. I agree. Anything longer, and you run the risk of losing your reader. The first blogging series I did was when my father died. I needed to write about my experiences with him; however, it ended up being a three-thousand-word document. I knew that was way too long…no matter how captivating I thought the story was. So, I broke up one essay into five and shared one a day leading up to his funeral. By that Saturday, people were invested in the narrative and genuinely offered me some much-needed support.
#2 You want to delve into a topic. Although I hate the phrase deep dive, deep diving aptly describes my purpose for blogging. If I want to remain surface level about a subject, then I use social media, like Twitter or IG, but when I wanna get deep—I blog. With the travel series, the only way I could fit everything in one post would have been to use bullet points with little explanation. Bullet points work, but the format wouldn’t have served my purpose if I really wanted you to lean into the story and the lessons with me. So, I opted for a series.
#3 You want feedback for a publication. I never write a series for this reason, but it is a thing. When I published the series about my father, another blogger provided some advice. “Flesh out your father’s character, and make him seem more multidimensional,” she said. Later, I had the inclination to publish this story in its entirety as a creative nonfiction work, and in addition to her feedback, a friend of mine also suggested adding some details to my father’s character.
Similarly, you can use the statistics feature that WordPress offers to understand which parts of the series garner the most attention. This may lead you to develop the best parts into a publication.
I know there are more reasons for writing a series that are focused on marketing (e.g., gaining more followers, etc.), but those don’t fit my personality or rationale.
Have you ever written a series? If so, feel free to share how it’s helped you in some way.
Who do you blame for not being the artist you were meant to be? That was one of the questions in The Artist’s Way.
It didn’t take long for me to come up with an answer. First, I blamed my parents. When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a book called On the Farm. My fifth-grade teacher was so impressed, she entered the book into a citywide contest either named after or sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve written about this before. I didn’t win; however, now that I’m a parent, I wonder why no one asked me about my interest in writing. As an adult, I realized it’s probably because it was the same year my mother received a kidney transplant. She was hospitalized 150 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin. So, her illness probably took precedence over my perceived art.
Next, I blamed my grandmother. The year after my mother died, I announced to her that I was going to write a book.
“About what?” she asked.
“About my mother’s death,” I said.
“You think you’re the only person whose lost her mother?”
I didn’t answer, but what I did do is stop thinking about writing … anything … for a very long time.
After writing something similar to the above in my Morning Pages, I closed my journal and I cried. That was October 2021.
But as I continued The Artist’s Way activities, a thought emerged. I can do the writer things I wished my caretakers would have. I can nurture myself as an artist in ways I wished my parents would have. I can speak positively about myself as an artist in ways that I wished my grandmother would have. I’m an adult, and it’s up to me to live the life I want and to be the artist I want to be.
a cover letter explaining why I wanted to come to Monson, Maine and what I’d be doing while I was there,
a writing sample,
a website, and
The first time I applied, I didn’t get it; however, the director encouraged me to re-apply in 2022, and if I did, he’d waive the application fee. I did, and this time, I was awarded the residency.
Cue the Prosecco!
I’ve been quiet on the blog because I was in Monson from March 27th to April 7th being the artist I always wanted to be.
For twelve days, I lived in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a housemate. During that time, I received free breakfast from the General Store and lunch and dinner from a trained chef named Lou Lou. Lou Lou bought fresh groceries daily to prepare meals for us, like Ahi tuna tartare, pork belly, and congee with saffron. The intentionality of her meal creations was surreal. I had my own writing studio in another house that overlooked a lake with a view of the mountains. At the end of it all, I received a check for five hundred dollars. They paid me to be there. I was literally nurtured as a writer.
I have to repeat that. The nurturing I wished I had, I received from this writer’s residency, including being safe, secure, fed, and paid.
With nothing to worry about, I wrote no less than six hours a day, and with that, I was able to finish a draft of my second memoir.
I’m still in awe that I was even there. But I hope you see what I’m saying. I will always advocate for drilling down to the source of how you became who you are. After all, each of us is a product of our environments. But if you’re dissatisfied with the outcome of your upbringing, it’s equally important to take the reigns of your own life and do the things that will allow you to be who you desire. You’re the only one who can do that 😉
Next week, I’ll share the lessons learned/reinforced about myself while I was in Maine. Until then, let me know what you think in the comments.
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.
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?
Sometimes, I feel as if I haven’t done anything. It might sound irrational, but it’s true. I stood in the middle of my room a few weeks ago and wondered what I’d really accomplished this year. It sounds like this: What have you done? Can’t you do more? So what you published a book? This happens frequently. I know where these “not good enough” thoughts come from, but I won’t be sharing root causes today. I mean…if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, then more than likely you can fill in the blanks.
Instead, I compiled a list. Initially, the point of the list was for me to see how ridiculous my “not good enough” thoughts were. It was supposed to be like a tangible pep talk for myself. But then I figured you may want to read one of these essays, too. So, here goes:
The year began with a publication with my colleagues. Aside from being proud of myself for leading this project, it shows the both/and space in which I’ve begun to live. I can be both a scholar and a personal blogger. I don’t have to choose.
Life continued with one of my proudest essays. I’d been thinking about generational patterns, how we oftentimes unknowingly pass on ways of living that don’t suit our children. What are the effects of passing down generational patterns? How does it affect the child as an adult, who then becomes a parent? This was the purpose of There’s Strength in Softness.
Shortly after, my essay Good Enough (that’s ironic, huh?) was published in the well-known Chicken Soup for the Soul (CSS) series. To be honest, I didn’t think anything about it at first, mainly because publishing my feelings about being an Affirmative Action hire in a special edition of Black women writers actually showed what I was saying (another irony). But then, a blogger friend, Shira D. tweeted “Thank you for speaking for us all.” And boy, did that shift my thinking. I really hadn’t even thought about it that way. The CSS franchise has only had a special edition of Black women writers once before, twenty-five years or so ago. Being selected as one of 101 writers is a big deal.
If you’ve been following me for a while, then you probably remember reading a piece I wrote a couple years ago called What it Actually Means to be Pro-Choice. It was first published by PULPMag, which not only advocates for reproductive rights, but also freedom of sexuality, in general. I was excited when my blogger friend, da-AL wanted to re-publish it this year, especially given the current conversation and actions on abortion rights.
I mentioned Shira D. earlier. I promised her some time ago to guest blog on Educating for Future Democracy Collaborative. Because the site is focused on democracy, and because democracy in the United States seems to be quickly waning, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the role critical media literacy can play in the twenty-first century.
Do you follow the hot goddess? If not, why? How can you not follow someone who is a self-proclaimed HOT goddess? Anywho, she asked me to answer one question: What is happiness? My and others’ answers can be found on her blog.
Oh, and I started another blog focused on all things menopause (and midlife). Aside from myself, several contributing authors have shared their own journeys with this global community. If I haven’t said it before, thank you to those of you who’ve written for the site in its inaugural year, and thanks to those of you who have liked, subscribed, followed, or shared something from it.
Keisha over at The Real Perimeno deemed me a menopause advocate! That was surprising. But I’m here for the new title. My interview with her about Navigating the Change can be found on her site. Also, she and I will be bringing an essay contest to fruition very soon.
Lori L. Tharps invited me to be a guest on her new podcast, My Bloody Hell. After listening to a few episodes and googling who Lori is, I was more than excited. My episode aired on November 3, 2021. I can promise you a whole lot of laughing and girlfriend-type conversation about perimenopause.
Quite honestly, I think this was the best way to end my writing year. I went from not knowing wtf was going on with my perimenopausal body, to being able to tell you what hormone is currently affecting me and how to alleviate the shift. Tera’s invite to write a top 10 list about midlife couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
Julia Cameron said, “the antidote for shame is self-love and self-praise,” and I agree. I used to be really good at praising myself whenever I accomplished a task. Somewhere along life’s journey, I stopped. But I’m reclaiming that practice. When you do good work, you should be proud of yourself. I should be proud of myself. In 2022, I plan to be more intentional about celebrating myself when the process is complete. I know there’s a fine line between hubris, confidence, dismissiveness, and humility. But this year, I’ll be pushing those boundaries to find my own sweet spot. Strengthening my self worth has become a priority for living a full life.
What are you working on for 2022? What are you proud of from 2021?
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?
Sometimes I jot down a note and it’s very negative. When that happens, I re-focus and make it a positive post, like this one.
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 WritingNow 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 WriteI 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 HeardProbably. 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 Wifehave 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 ThinkIf 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.