Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

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Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

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Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.

 

 

Aster(ix) Journal: Forever Shifting

I recently moved back to New York after being away for a little while, and as I get reacquainted with home, I’ve also been looking through the archives to assess how much has changed and how much remains the same. 

When I search my memory for a time and space in which I felt completely at ease, utterly loved, comfortable and surrounded by serenity, I cannot conjure a single moment or geographical location. When people talk about home to me, a single woman, it is as if they are talking about marital love. They are talking about a space I have always yearned for but never found. They might as well be talking about their common experience in outer space.

But I think I know because of how I feel when I write, or when I run, or when I’m reading. These are things that keep my nervous heart from beating out of my chest when I’m afraid and anxious and I have insomnia. Or when I’m making myself dinner, and chopping garlic just so, and cutting up onions or slicing mushrooms. Or when I hear a song that reaffirms God’s love for me, or reminds me that my love really had chosen me just for me and we would be together forever until we weren’t. Home to me is something I still don’t quite understand except when I feel close to it. — From the Tierra/Home issue of Aster(ix Journal

A panel at Princeton, March 9th

I’m not the best at telling people where I’m going to be, because I’m not that into self-promotion, honestly. But it’s easier when other folks are involved, which is why I love panels, and in this case, really looking forward to being in conversation with these ladies.

If you like the Princeton African American Studies Department Facebook page  I’ve been told they’ll share a livestream.

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Mourning my country

I woke up to news that the country I was born in, that I love, that I have never seriously planned to abandon has decisively elected to the American presidency a racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic zealot. A man who has shown us the extent to which he is uninterested in an inclusive country. A celebrity who time and again wantonly displayed his open disregard for women, for African Americans, for Latinx while much of corporate, mainstream media leaned in to give him free publicity, to guffaw at his ignorance, to almost secretly admire his brazen hostility.

Reading the words “President Donald John Trump” evoked nausea and despair. It evoked sadness and rage. But mostly, it evoked exhaustion. Yes, I know that fighters do not give up. I am a preternatural optimist. I was born fighting. All I have known in my life is the stubborn will to continue to rise from the ashes of wildfires not of my own making.

But today I do not care about being a phoenix. I care about witnessing again the abusive relationship I have with my country and its democracy. Today, it feels like flags should be flying at half-staff. Not because democracy is dead, but because it is broken, and we have all watched it break and we have not done enough to keep it alive in a way that ensures an inclusive future.

I wrote this for Bitch Magazine, even though I still feel as speechless as half the country.

The Story of Our Talent for Survival

I remember exactly when I learned that reading in the hood is a revolutionary act.

It was at the heavy hands of Michelle, the largest sixth grader I’d ever seen, who was one of the Bronx girls around the way who liked to chase me to deliver a beat down as punishment for not letting her cheat off of my spelling test.

Reading was dangerous because it sent a signal to hood residents that you did not intend to stay, even if they were not considering a way out. Books seemed to suggest that even if your body was stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind was on the path to freedom.

That’s why I became a professional reader long before I was a writer. Books gave me hope when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. They helped me shape a future for myself that was beyond the limits of poverty, neglect and my mother’s mental illness.

Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Even the presence of the elegant, poised, brilliant President and First Family does not negate the long shadow of prevalent biases about all black people as subject to abject poverty and dysfunction. But that was the real life that I led, even if it wasn’t particularly attractive.

I read to cope. I found solace at the library. Especially from Michelle, because you couldn’t get in the West Farms public library branch without a library card and she definitely didn’t have one.

I inhaled whatever was in the new book section. Self-help books, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. Because as a third or fourth grader in and out of public schools in each of the five boroughs because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf fed my spirit. Resting my mind in black girl poetry and prose gave me hope when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born only came after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old — a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation.

I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer empathy and community to those who know what it is like to live with anything like a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless. We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors.

Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar — all variations of what I have heard. But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere.

This book is for her.

On Gloria Naylor and The Beautiful Darkness

When I was 16 or 17, I sometimes had the great privilege of riding with some of my high school classmates to author lectures at SUNY Albany. One of my favorite hobbies back then was attending readings, book signings and lectures. It was one thing to be obsessed with reading and writing, to escape in a world of words so frequently that the world sometimes startled me when I came back to earth. It was another to listen to writers, especially black women writers, share their experience in real life. Where I could see them and share with them my admiration.

So it was with Gloria Naylor, who I learned this week died recently at the age of 66. She was the brilliant author of The Women of Brewster Place, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. It was the former two that gave shape to the dream I had to humanize black women and render their lives in a way that was as beautiful as what I experienced in daily life.

But when I met her, she did not tell me what other writers always did. Keep writing your heart out. Send your work everywhere. Write everyday. Instead she looked at me in her poised, regal way and said, “Wait until your thirties to publish.”

“Well, I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer,” I said in response. I am nothing if not stubborn.

“You will not know your voice until you are older,” she said. She wished me well, then got back to signing books for the crowd that had gathered around us.

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans took me all of my twenties to get right, and still, I struggled with it as I entered my thirties. It was a memoir with a lot of different themes: running, stray cats. It was a memoir without a theme told from beginning to end, with no arc.

It was a memoir that many agents thought had potential and was beautifully written but ultimately they said they could not sell, or that I needed to fix and change to be more like name-the-hot-title. 

But there is nothing like watching the ones you love and admire most die while you try to find the best words to describe what their lives have meant to you. I no longer resent my resilience, but that doesn’t make it easier to live. 

I decided when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer in 2011 that I would write one last version of our story. My sister and my friends, thankfully, reminded me that I was depriving people who needed to read it of something significant that could help them.

I was reading a memoir that described winter elsewhere in the world as the beautiful darkness. And I thought immediately that surviving what happens to us in life is just like that. It is hard to see the beauty in what threatens to destroy us, but those things are still beautiful.

I have, in the past 15 years, written much about being self-parented, caring for my mother through our challenges with homelessness, her mental illness and poverty. I learned more about compassion and forgiveness for myself and my mother — both orphans in some ways — than I ever expected to working on this book.

As it happens, Gloria Naylor turned out to be right. It is a book that I could not have fully written or told in my twenties the way that I can now. The Beautiful Darkness paperback will be released later this month. You can pre-order the Kindle Edition here.

All City: A Novella

All City Kindle Ready Front Cover

Little Ray knows the Bronx better than anyone. He has been a proud train operator for many years. But while the Bronx has always held memories of his mother, Gloria, and his daughter, Lorraine, it also reminds him of the pain of losing the love of his life.

Jasmine Castro was the woman of Little Ray’s dreams. Beautiful and brilliant, she wouldn’t let anyone define or control her. But Jasmine does end up being controlled by something: her addiction. Now the vibrant woman Little Ray fell in love with is hardly more than a ghost. Little Ray is determined to raise their daughter on his own.

When Lorraine meets the impulsive street artist Jason, who’s determined to go “all city” with his work, she has to make her own decisions about life and love.

In this ode to the romantics and artists of the world, Joshunda Sanders has crafted a beautiful testament to the power of family. You can buy it here.