I didn’t expect to cry. I was sitting in my bedroom in Dorchester, MA, watching on a crappy little black and white TV when Mandela was released from prison. I was excited to be watching history unfold. And then he was standing there, no guards holding his arms, waving to the crowd. I was suddenly overcome by these great heaving sobs. For so long he had stood as a symbol of the continuing oppression of African people worldwide, and yet somehow he had stood fast for so long, and something about the world had changed enough that he could be free. At the time, I was in my early 20s, and he had been in jail my entire life. He would go on to lead a nation and lead the world, but it was that moment, that turning point that brought deep tears of joy for what is possible for us in transforming racism and colonization in my lifetime.
I love smart women. I’ve written drafts of several novels and what they all have in common is that they feature smart women. Some are university educated, but my debut novel heroine has never set foot on a college campus. Yet, she’s a financial genius whose brilliant schemes manage to redistribute some of the wealth of Manhattan.
I love the subversive brilliance of women who are able to do what women are told is not possible, and to do it in line with their values and in service of social justice. Which is why I was so blown away by a workshop I went to with Literary Agent Sara Megibow.
She was really speaking a language of clarity and empowerment to women writers…maybe because she majored in women’s studies in college. In three hours, she gave me and a room full of women writers the clearest picture I’ve ever gotten about the literary industry as a business. In the context of recent debate about whether or not writers should write for free, she talked very directly about “monetizing” writing property. She is bold about being powerful and going after the money, which is often taboo for women. I’ve met many agents during my quest to debut a novel, and she is the first one that I can describe as a shark. She is a friendly shark from landlocked Colorado, but she is just the kind of agent I would want to have in New York gunning on my behalf.
She gave the talk at a meeting of the Silicon Valley chapter of Romance Writers of America. I’m not a writer of straight up romance, but my freelance editor has me studying romance so I can work some of the tropes into my work to make it more commercial. As a feminist, I’ve written in previous posts about my discomfort about writing romance and my commitment to find the angle on romance tropes of vulnerability and helplessness that still challenge gender roles and norms.
I joined the romance writers groupspecifically so that I could have Sara give feedback on the first ten pages of my manuscript. So worth it! She gave me thoughtful, positive comments, and I feel inspired and rejuvenated. So now, I am a card carrying member of a romance writers association.
Of course, Sara will never be my agent, as she only represents genre writing and I aspire to publish commercial women’s fiction. And from her talk, I even understood that better. When I love an agent who sort of represents what I write, it doesn’t make sense to see if they’ll just fall so madly in love with my book that they’ll take it on. Because agents have relationships in the publishing industry with editors and houses who publish particular types of books. Sara represents straight up genre fiction. She has relationships with those editors and publishing houses. She knows whom to call and they take her calls and have her send the manuscripts because her track record is so good. If she were to take on my commercial women’s fiction book, she’d have to start over in building her relationships and track record, and develop a new set of marketing strategies (the ones she had for genre were killer, inspiring). It was like a light bulb went on over my head, and I got it. She’s spent the last nearly ten years building a vehicle that can drive fast and fierce on a particular road. And make good money for herself and her clients. Why would she want to build a whole new vehicle to travel a whole different terrain?
Perhaps the metaphor on the author end would be about dating (or do I just love dating metaphors?) Straight women meet a guy they like who is clearly not offering what they want in a relationship, but they go with the attraction and then are upset when it doesn’t work out. I can see that when I was querying agents back in 2011, I would meticulously research an agent, see what they had done for other authors, and begin to imagine what they might do for me. If only I could get their attention. If only they would pick me out of the slush pile. OMG! I can’t believe she’s really reading my book! And then I would be so disappointed when they passed on the book, mostly because I didn’t fully understand that agents are best positioned for success when they are working on familiar terrain, where they have the contacts, the track record, and the experience to succeed.
For me, that means commercial women’s fiction with a genre hook, and it also means that I wouldn’t be the first “multicultural” author they work with. Ironically, Arab and Asian writers are not considered by many in the industry to be “multicultural” and African heritage and Latino authors are. I suspect this is because of what Edward Said calls “Orientalism” a certain fetishized fascination of the “West” with the “East.” Although a recent article in the Huffington Post notes how publishing industry racism targets Asian authors, as well. But as long as racism is alive in the industry, I need an agent who can navigate it, and knows how to sell Black/Latino books. I would be doing myself a disservice if I got representation with an agent who had no experience with “multicultural” books and just marketed my book with the same strategies they used for their last six commercial women’s fiction books that had white women protagonists, and were set in the Midwest. No matter how much she had succeeded with those projects, that success wouldn’t necessarily translate to me. The same is true of agents who represent “multicultural” literary fiction. I have pined for the prestige of having the same literary agent as So And So! But that wouldn’t actually translate into success for me if the agent only knew how to navigate the literary fiction terrain of the publishing world. Let’s face it people, I want my book in Target.
And that’s another part of what was so great about Sara’s talk, as well. She broke it down about how much people can expect for advances, how that grows over time, how genre groups series together, and what is an optimal number.
She also shared the gas station theory of marketing. If there’s one gas station on a corner, it gets 100% of the gas buying business. But if there are two gas stations, then people associate that corner with buying gas. Each station gets only 50% of the business, but the business may increase enough that the first gas station ends up making more. She debunked many of the myths coming out of self-publishing and e-publishing with clear numbers she could rattle right off her head, price points, percentages, market shares, how it worked for different authors, and how it has changed over time. See what I mean? Smart women. Above all, she explained that her job wasn’t to sit around all day with a mug of coffee and read manuscripts, but rather to strategize to get her clients paid.
So, kids, go tell your parents that that’s what you can do with a women’s studies degree.
Just over a decade ago, I wrote a spoken word piece about R.Kelly. I had witnessed with horror the revelation of a video of him having sex with and urinating on an underage woman, only for it to be greeted with huge numbers of defenders, apologists, and supporters of Kelly. I was filled with rage and sorrow, but no words came. Only later, when I read an article in GQ magazine that reported how he was allegedly molested by a neighbor was I finally filled with words, and I wrote this piece. As someone who has worked with GenerationFive, an organization dedicated to end child sexual abuse in five generations, I recognized the cycle of abuse that had played out repeatedly. Due to the misogyny, racism, and economic exploitation of our society, every attempt to interrupt the cycle of violence was derailed.
I’ve appreciated all the Black Feminist Discourse about R Kelly, including Akiba Solomon’s piece in Colorlines, and especially the #FastTailedGirls hashtag on twitter created by Mikki Kendall (@Karynthia) and Jamie Nesbitt Golden (@thewayoftheid) of @HoodFeminism, in which I participated. I also appreciated high profile black women speaking out on twitter like Melissa Harris-Perry and @JamilahLemieux: “You hipster clowns who breathed life into the rotting corpse of R Kelly’s career make me sick.”
So I’ll add my voice to the mix. In republishing this piece on R Kelly, I updated it only slightly. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant today. Video and text below. Needless to say, trigger warning.
This is dedicated to all the young black survivors of sexual violence in connection with R Kelly, including R Kelly, himself.
R Kelly is innocent! R Kelly is innocent!
Okay, so the GQ article says he was allegedly molested by a trusted man in his neighborhood. Can you doubt it? Or did you just think Black men were animals? Who else but the formerly molested could work up an appetite for vacant-eyed girl/children. The question isn’t whether he did it. Of course he did it. The question is when are folks gonna make sure he gets help!
And I don’t mean the traditional Black church. Shame-based sermonizing has only taught him to wax more pious and press sharper creases into the suit hiding semen stains of last night’s transgression; to say amen louder as the preacher shakes his own hypocritical finger at the congregation, talking about original sin? I’m talking about original innocence! R Kelley is innocent. Was innocent originally. He is looking for his lost childhood between the legs of someone else’s junior high prom date. Listen brother, that won’t bring your innocence back, won’t put your childhood intact.
And I blame the industry. Supplying high school freshmeat like fruit baskets and limos and champagne and a mint on the pillow. Our daughters are not fringe benefits for you to serve up to wounded men whose twisted artistry keeps you paid! The album shouldn’t have been called black panties. It should have been called white Disney princess panties. I want some jail sentences for the record executives and the lawyers who drafted up those settlement agreements where young women had stiff dollar bills shoved into their mouths to buy their silence. Let the suits do some hard time for conspiracy to commit statutory rape while R Kelly goes into some no joke rehabilitative program for sex offenders where he gets plenty of therapy that will help him make amends by transformative justice. Surround him with people who can hold him while he cries over what he has done and what was done to him—get the brother some help, and then he can donate all his money to set up the R Kelly fund for victims of pedophilia fund to get his victims some help too.
R Kelly’s not the boss musicmaker, he’s the groupie, giving up some ass to everyone on the tour bus, while record execs got him strung out on teenage pussy. R Kelly giving top forty mindless pop single jobs in the back of cars to rich record execs who don’t even remember his name.
But mostly I wonder, why you had to make the video. Did you want to get caught? A cry for help? Or did you need evidence for the case you’re building in your own head? I am the one in control, this time? I’m not the one on my knees, mouth full of urine, dick in my face. I am not the one young, vacant-eyed and frightened, needing you to love me, wondering if it’s something I did wrong? If I pleased you? If it means I’m gay? If cartoons will still be on when I get home.
Why did you make the video? Is it because that’s how you saw it before? Outside your body? Brown boy’s frame crumpled before the trusted man. Spirit removing itself to stay safe. Spirit floating outside and watching the scene like a camera, recording it all. Watching. Floating. Leaving the ground. Spirit removing itself. stay safe! Stay safe! I’m not here! This is not happening! Not to me. I’m floating. Just floating away. I’m floating away. Is that how come you believe you can fly?
Lately I’ve been feeling the mom blogosphere. Mutha Magazine, Beyond Baby Mamas, and MyBrownBaby, are among the many great blogs about parenthood. I have been thinking & blogging about mom stuff, maybe because I’m about to give birth to my Puffy Hair book any day now! Anyway, you can check my latest post about mama stuff on MyBrownBaby.
I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year (November is National Novel Writing Month). It didn’t make sense, as I have several novels in various stages of post-first draft completion, and my goals are to finish my children’s book Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity, and to get an agent for what I hope will be my debut novel. However, being on twitter for the first time this year, I still felt connected and involved in NaNo, and am able to reflect on it for the first time, without being exhausted from having done it.
I’ve been thinking about the NaNo hangover. As near as I can tell, there are two types and I’ve had both: The Victory Hangover, and The Defeat Hangover.
The Victory Hangover is when you are happily exhausted from the late nights, the adrenalized writing, the sheer volume of hours you’ve jammed in to make the 50 thousand words. And you made it! You crash into bed today feeling like a champion.
The Defeat Hangover may or may not include exhaustion, but may include the feeling of hopelessness (if I can’t manage to do it with all the infrastructure of NaNoWriMo, then I’ll never be able to do it) or a sense of distancing (obviously, I’m not meant to write a novel, never mind).
Whether we emerge into December feeling victorious or defeated, both hangovers call for the same cure: self-care, values clarification, and building a support system for the long haul if you want to keep moving forward.
The self care looks different for each group. Victory hangovers require sleep, fluids, and self-congratulations. Defeat hangovers require physical self-care, but moreso emotional self-care. For many of us, setting big goals is a serious breakthrough. We need to congratulate ourselves for the attempt to write a whole novel, even if we didn’t make it. As my partner says to my daughter all the time. “Wow! You really tried hard! Good for you!” If you set a goal and don’t meet it, you may need to do values clarification: is the goal unrealistic, does it have a realistic time frame, or do you just need more support? Also, is it really your goal? Did you get all excited about NaNo, or did someone else pull you in—come on, let’s do this together?? If it’s not your goal, then you can let it go. Also, writing will require sacrifices. If you weren’t willing to give up other leisure time pursuits (FB, tv shows, video games, pleasure reading) to work on your novel, you may not have the motivation. It’s great that you have tried it, and it’s fine to decide it’s not for you. But many of us know that we do have a deep passion to write and just can’t seem to make it happen. There may be a number of different reasons for this.
For many of us, we just haven’t developed the writing stamina to get through 50K. And writing does require stamina. Like if you’re not a runner and signed up for a 50K race tomorrow, you would understand if you didn’t finish. For some of us, we require training to be able to write in a sustained way, even in the intense NaNo context. For some, it will be an external issue. My first year of NaNo, I didn’t finish because I was a working mom with a small baby, and my writing time came out of my sleep hours. Halfway through, I was so exhausted that I was disassociating while teaching my college classes. I had to stop. But I know others who had a hard time finishing because they didn’t have the attention span to write that much in a short time. I know still others who have such strong critical voices that make it nearly impossible for them to get words on the paper.
For me as a working mom, the key was to do a very detailed outline, which I did the following year. The important thing was to make all the decisions, and outline thirty scenes. I answered all the important questions ahead of time. What is the character’s name? Where does the scene take place? Who’s in the scene? What is the conflict? How does it advance the plot? So when November 2012 came along, all I had to do was write, write, write. I didn’t have to stop to make any decisions. 2011 was a defeat for me, but with a strong outline, 2012 was a victory. Not everyone is the outline type. But it worked for me. Then again, I had stamina and no critic in sight.
For those who haven’t yet developed writing stamina or are battling the critic, you will need to take on those battles in the next 335 days to be ready for NaNo 2014. For stamina folks, do it like you would if training for a marathon. Develop a workout writing practice. A little each day. Build up til you have the attention to write for a couple of hours at a stretch. Marathon runners don’t do 26+ miles a day, they just develop the capacity to do it by running consistently and doing some significantly long runs.
For critic-battlers, this is emotional work. Whose voice is that in your head? A critical parent? A hostile teacher? A mean peer group? Were you the scholarship kid at your school and made to feel less-than? Were you a girl who was told her voice didn’t matter? Are you an immigrant who has always felt muted in your new country? Find the origin of the critical voice. It’s not your voice, but it’s the leftover recording of something that happened to you, and you need to find the name of that MP3 file so you can delete it (or at least turn the volume down enough that it’s more like the buzz of a fly, annoying but not in danger of derailing you).
Stamina-challenged people need to be on the lookout for the critic, as well. Part of the stamina problem may be that when you sit for too long the critic shows up. Your pattern of distraction may be a slick attempt to avoid having to notice the voice of the critic. If, in your attempts to build up stamina you hear a critical voice, or better yet, have an overwhelming urge to stop, consider what early experiences of criticism you may have had, or what messages you got about the importance of what you had to say.
Here’s the key to battling the critic: you can’t do it alone. You need other people to help you gang up on him/her. Writer’s support groups, writing coaches, therapy, or writing buddies/partnerships can all help you keep perspective and stay encouraged. For both critic-battling and stamina, these relationships are key in creating and maintaining accountability in the goals we set. If left to our own devices, we can all conjure a big “never mind, it’s too hard.” Writing relationships with others remind us that we really do want something here. Our goals do matter to us. I developed writing stamina by having a group of people I emailed every day to tell them whether I wrote or not. They didn’t even have to email me back. Just knowing that someone else would know if I wrote was enough to get me writing eventually. If we’re having a hard time, we can strengthen our support system, revise our goals to be more realistic, and try again.
And this is true for those who emerged from NaNo victorious. Tomorrow, many of you will go back to work at your job which is not titled “Novelist.” You’ll face those other projects you temporarily put off to make NaNo your big front burner priority this month. The NaNo pace is not sustainable, except for those of us who write full-time. You’ll have a crappy first draft that will need hours and hours and hours of work to make it publishable (if that’s even your goal). So the victors need a support system as well. What is your next step? If you want to move forward with this novel, I suggest that you put it away for 3-6 months, and come back to revise it when you have a fresh perspective. Then have a friend or writing buddy you trust to read it and give you feedback that includes a balance of what’s working and what needs to be strengthened. But in the meantime, don’t stop writing. Use the momentum you’ve developed to work on another project (you know you have one) even though you can’t steam forward with the same intensity of NaNo. Don’t let yourself lose the stamina you’ve built up.
I really missed NaNoWriMo this year. I think it’s because, prior to having a kid, I would often work at that intense pace. I miss the immersion in the world of my current novel-in-progress. But I would often feel isolated in the process. NaNo was a time where people all over were engaged in that same intense creative generation process. I loved the sense of camaraderie. As a mom, one month of that intensity was all I could manage during the schoolyear.
Although I haven’t managed to sell a novel yet, I’ve had a successful career as a poet, writer/performer, writing teacher, and hip hop performer. I’ve only ever managed to get anywhere as a writer by being a member of multiple artist support groups/writing communities/writing partnerships at any given time. We can’t rely on the Office Of Letters And Light to build our support system the whole year round. So take a moment to grieve or celebrate your 2013 NaNo, and then get to building the infrastructure you’ll need to move forward. And don’t stop writing. The best hangover cure is always a little hair of the dog.
It’s outrageous! A young girl in Florida was threatened with expulsion from school if she didn’t cut/straighten/change her hair. ”It’s puffy and I like it that way,” said Vanessa VanDyke. The school has backed down, and taken expulsion off the table, but I’m still furious. Earlier this year, we saw girls targeted by school officials for dreads and afropuffs. These racist attacks on girls are unconscionable.
This week, I’ve been stressed trying to get my Puffy Hair Project together in time for the holidays. I was feeling overwhelmed, like maybe I had taken on too much. But if Vanessa VanDyke didn’t back down, I’m gonna make this book happen. I usually post on Friday, but I’m posting today.
So if anything good can come out of this vicious attack on a young African heritage girl, let it be this:
1. the #livingwhilenatural hashtag on twitter (thanks to @brokeymcpoverty)
3. Vanessa VanDyke’s victory!
4.#HappyAfroDay on Ebony.com
5. my Puffy Hair Book is AVAILABLE NOW for pre-order in time for Black Friday, which I have decided to call #BlackHairFriday.
I’ve just had a post published on the fab site Adios Barbie “the body image site for every body.” My post deals with race, female ambition, and the pressure on women of color to change our bodies. The post also includes the bonus poem “Eulogy for My Ass.” Check it out here, or paste this link: http://www.adiosbarbie.com/2013/11/black-womens-asses-cosmetic-surgery-and-the-politics-of-ambition/
You might also enjoy an earlier body acceptance post on this same blog: Dear Media, Don’t Feel Bad That I Love My Body.