Sharpening the word sword, again

A few weeks ago I found myself alone in Seattle, a luxury I wasn’t going to let pass without some revelry of the type suitable for a middle-aged mother the night before a work-related conference. I landed in sideways snow a somewhat sweaty-palmed adventure for a consummate Californian, who truly dislikes the unknown variable of white stuff falling from the sky. Icy flurries smacked the windshield of the car creating the illusion of a massive blizzard tunnel, but when I looked out a passenger window, I saw a peaceful flake flutter, a light dust atop evergreens and slick black highway. So weird how perspective changes everything.

I had read online that Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking at Benaroya Symphony Hall about two blocks from my old-fashioned hotel, of the style with glimmering chandeliers and effusive concierge. Surely this was a sign, a cue to tell me something I needed to know, as I had his book “Eight Years We Were in Power” tucked in my backpack, the edges of the jacket already curled up from wear and a bookmark at the last chapter. Plus, I had made no plans on purpose, hoping to find my way, as I used to before family and work-life carved me into a highly scheduled person. I’ve always loved coincidences, for a moment I start to believe there is something larger out there guiding my way, a personal message from some secret source of inspiration. Of course, Coates’ talk was sold out but I figured I’d try to grab a ticket like a teenage groupie waiting to see a glitzy rock band. I checked in to my cozy room and set about my mission, and as my feet crunched down salted sidewalks, I was dazzled to be alone in the crisp air, no distractions, nobody asking me for a thing, just my random plans. As I anxiously waited at the box office for standby tickets to be released, a beautiful black woman, like Diana Ross beautiful, with long natural hair scanned the crowd, she overlooked the tall man standing next to me who was also waiting for a spot but her gaze connected with mine and she asked if I needed a ticket. I said, yes, and as she handed it to me she said “Spread the love sista” and I swear she floated off into the crowd. The man next to me, raised his hand as if to say, what about me, but I didn’t wait to see his outcome and bolted off to grab my seat.

So, I gotta do it, spread the love! I had my marching orders and a solitary evening that didn’t make me feel wistful for any companionship. I wanted to be alone, listen hard to a writer that I feel is treading on some truth, using well-chosen words and research as his guide. I took notes like a rapt student listening to a master essayist, but more accurately he is an observationist, a polemicist, someone who is not going to back down from the narrative he formed through great personal energy and rumination. I find his writing brave, his ideas necessary as if he uses his pencil to poke at the beehive. His objective to write felt similar to my own, although I can’t say I have his level of experience and surely not his dedication, I could still relate. I had been feeling a little out of touch with my writer self all this year, distracted by activism, paralyzed by a combination of fear and hopelessness at times. Most of 2017 has been a horrendous journey into our worst anxieties about our country led by a bigoted, racist, and unfit president. But at that moment, in my singular space, in the balcony of a large symphony hall, surrounded by cozy Seattlite liberals who were in the thrall of Coates’ ideas and words, I could only think that spreading the love meant I must write more because it brings me closer to loving myself.

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I had figured that the night would be filled with talk of Trump’s election, the definition of whiteness, the politics of our age, and how we missed the signs of the racist backlash that was gonna smack us out of our Obama-fueled hope daze. I looked around the hall, and some semblance of positivity about the future filled me as I saw real-life humans, mostly white people, nod, some snapped their fingers in approval as they do now in universities and activist circles as Coates described whiteness, not as a genetic characteristic or ancestry, but a belief that these characteristics guarantee a place of power in society.  When he said such words, about how white supremacy works in his book and now on stage, it usually strikes me as a comfortable position, and for a brief moment I feel heard and understood as brown woman, until I realize how difficult it to really grasp, even for me, that some of us have an advantage on the backs of others loss. But nevertheless, on this evening, Coates and the moderator sat on two arts and crafts leather chairs, a small table between for resting water bottles and note cards, and an entire stage rimmed with glowbaby hand-blown glass candles, and I was taken back to little dashes of hope, a feeling that is hard to relinquish. I let my mind wander, and yes hope, that even if one person in the audience could begin to understand that we have to do more than just react to our current situation, that we have to build a plan that directs towards a vision of a country that is different than one we have accepted up until now that maybe we could actually do it. The vastness of this idea is not lost on me, I know it will be generational, but it has to begin, and the more I reckon with our white-supremacist, misogynist systems, and culture the more I am sure we need to find a different mechanism for change. And so listening to Coates, reading his work that is built upon research and actual stories of people in this country who have lived under the strains of our often merciless laws and regulations is an important step in the process. Coates’ work is footnoted and references many other academics whose work is just as important, researchers, and writers who have spent their lives dismantling the notion that our system is fair and just. Without this important backbone, and without Coates’ own narrative voice and personal story, I think his work would fall flat but he is wise enough to know that his pointing to the white supremacist structures will require that he as a black man, a college dropout, an author from Baltimore, will have to work triple time to make his point, he is afforded no shortcut in this area. This inspires me to great lengths, to build writing upon knowledge, interactions with people, historical context, an unacceptance of easy narratives and myths that we adore so much in our country as this way of life have often been my natural frame of mind. I’ve always been a contrarian, a debater someone who rankles at doing things because that’s how they’re done, and throughout Coates’ work I recognize this in him as well.

But what I wasn’t expecting was the night would essentially be a class on writing and as I looked around and saw I was one of the few (or only) people taking notes, I realized he might just be talking to me, and perhaps one or two others. For he admitted he compiled his essays so he could share his process and journey as a writer in the last eight years, and he wanted to come to Seattle to speak to all of us young writers, and I took young not to mean age but lacking in experience or audience. I took his words as a direction, just as I was told to spread the love, he also reminded me that writing is fighting, and we have to keep our swords sharpened, that we must wake from the dream and into the struggle. I wrote this and paused, that moment when I felt so aligned in exactly where I was sitting, at exactly the time I needed to hear exactly the words that were spoken, and I was open. He told me, that fear is a productive force, something I hadn’t heard enough, as I am surrounded by intellectual people who also say fear is a paralyzing force. That writing is a private act, that it’s how we feel, and an important part of writing is curiosity. He mentioned when people would throw out terms like The System or White Supremacy, he wanted to know more. What do those words really MEAN? So he set out to learn. And he would research a topic and think one thing at the start and after a while, he would think differently on a topic, that writing is about habit, a willingness to be wrong, struggle, and questioning. Ah, how I loved all of these ways, they do not shrink me, these insights encourage me, and even though I have little space for a full-on writing habit, I can make something happen with the time available. Because he also said writing is a process, and yet not stuck in amber. He wrote this book for writers.

Then he went through his process for writing, and he said his first draft is always really, really bad and I believed him. Because his brilliance is that he sticks with it, and rewrites that horrible draft until it transforms to really bad, to bad, to still bad, to average, to passable, to maybe he can share it now, to something that is a final published piece. And that was honest, it’s what I know every author has told me, drafts always start off bad, but it’s a start. Coates also said he just couldn’t sleep at night knowing he wasn’t writing and that’s the rub, for I have had many a sleepless night, only to wake and stand in the shower while my head is a swirl of ideas. If I’m lucky I write down a blurb in a notebook, or I do the lazy thing and post a ranty Facebook update only to get a like or two. And that can feel deflating, but I also realized that’s my problem, I’m choosing the wrong medium. And I struggle, do I write long posts or not, are they worth anything and then I force myself to stop, even though I’m dying to share. But it’s still writing, it’s still a tiny bit of sword sharpening, so as of now I feel less guilty about my posts. I’m reminded think of what Coates wrote about the defiance of being a writer:

This lack of expectation dovetailed with my writing, because writers too must learn to abandon appeal and expectation. Failure is the norm for writers–firings and layoffs, rejected pitches, manuscripts tossed into the wastebins, bad reviews, uninterested editors, your own woeful rough drafts, they all form a chorus telling you to quit with whatever dignity you still have intact. And if you are going to write, you must learn to work in defiance of this chorus, in defiance of unanswered pitches, of the books that find no audience, and most of all, in defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page. And so, in writing, I found that black atheism and defiance morphed into a general theory of life. No one was coming to save me, and no one was going to read me. My reasons for writing had to be my own, divorced from expectation. There would be no reward.

Of course, he goes on to say there was a reward for he became the Atlantic’s black writer, but I take his point to write in defiance of the chorus. My friends and followers on social media, they don’t regard me as a writer, yet I have to write for my own reasons and understand not everybody reads. I have to relinquish feeling sheepish for writing long facebook updates, blog posts with so few readers and reading poetry out loud amongst a clique of talented Berkeley writers. I have to stand my defiant ground when a friend cautiously asks me, not out of curiosity, but tinged with a sort of shorthand judgment, as to why I posted and shared so much on Facebook. That she didn’t “get it” should reveal more about me than her scrutiny. I got it and I know a few others do too but writers live in a very small world. If I think of sitting with Coates in Seattle, I did feel like one of the few who would take his words to heed. That should fill me with energy, not this diabolical fear, for not everyone’s mind is racing a thousand miles per minute, as I gorge myself with long-form essays, and hours a week writing drafts nobody may ever read.

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I had such high hopes to write about 2017 a bit more scrupulously than I have done so far. I had an aspiration to be a diarist documenting all the chaos around me and from what I see there is still time. It might even have been a good thing to step back for a moment. About a month ago, my brain lit up with a new realization that left me uneasy. This most horrific year had churned me up and left me by the wayside at times. I was unsure of my direction and where I had been placing my energy. Surprisingly, I felt frustrated that the resistance compromised my writing, although maybe I will see that it was fuel to be in the streets all this year. But I recognized my urgent on-call activism had taken up so much brain space that I had nothing left to give, even as my mind filled up with ideas, observations, and revelations. My notes app and journals are brimming with ideas and titles for blog posts, and there is a sizable amount of niggly little bits one could call bad first drafts, and this is not a bad thing. For most of these past months, I’ve been over-eating and under-creating, paralyzed by frustration and comforted with candy, bread, cheese, and wine. Hitting a wall is nothing new, and oh, do I know the drill. It was time to make a plan, start writing, start exercising, eat clean, and the big one, less news consumption, more reading, and more editing. As for the list, I can just check “start writing” the other stuff is more challenging but I know I will get there.

So I’m back at the Writer’s Studio again, creating persona narrators and talking about literature with other writers. I had started here a few years ago when I began to put more faith in myself as a writer. I already feel the limbering up has made a difference, I feel able to say that I’m a writer without feeling like a liar. My struggle about whether I should write or not feels less consuming. I know I have to do this and almost every day I stumble up little happenstances that reminds me to keep going. Most days I am clear, there is a place for my words, voice, and ideas. Coates reminded me that writing is a fight and I take it to mean one worth the battle. I also take away that the internet is a sword. It’s been so easy for most people to bemoan the toxicity of the internet, more specifically social media and its bots that allow for a constant stream of rhetoric and harmful propaganda. But Coates also pointed out, as well as other “under-represented” writers, that although the internet did destroy the gatekeepers, and this is perhaps why we see the fake news, those same gatekeepers also controlled ideas and who was eligible to share those ideas. Without the gatekeepers, writers like Coates and probably so many of the beautiful tide of diverse writers of color and women, wouldn’t have had the platform they do. It was a reminder not step aside and let the populace continue to slide into easy to digest soundbites about right and wrong, but that if I was to write, I needed the internet, and social media to be a healthy space for ideas. Even this small reminder, showed how easily I’m influenced because the toxicity online, and it does exist for certain, was also keeping me from taking on this blank page. If Coates is right, that white supremacy in all of its forms is also fueled by a shared body of knowledge and if my hope is that we work to fight for a new vision of our country, than perhaps I need to add my voice, narrative, and question ideas from my position so that we change what is shared. Coates has been labeled fatalistic, the oppositional point to Obama’s hopefulness, but I don’t see it that way at all. He said on that chilly November night in Seattle, to me that writing matters, it’s meant to be enjoyed, it’s an expression of who he is, and it’s pure. So perhaps it’s not hope in the way we’ve been trained to embrace it, but what Coates’ is asking is that we all make something worthwhile out of our lives, and for us, it’s writing.

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