NaNoWriMo My Way

NaNoWriMo setupI like a challenge, especially one as gigantic as writing 50,000 words within a month. This is my fourth year participating in NaNoWriMo and I intend to win this year by reaching my writing goal. The first year I participated, I wrote about 25,000 words (24,409 words to be exact). For me, I was bothered by the fact that I did not complete the task of writing 50,000 words, but it was pretty amazing to have accomplished what I did on the first go around.

That year, I utilized all of the tools that were provided to help writers become successful. I attended the write-ins at my local Panera and participated in the virtual write-ins as well. They were both an integral part of my success. The Panera write-ins had leaders encouraging us to write, and they gave away small gifts like pencils and erasers. The atmosphere was wonderful: everyone was in the spirit of writing and it diminished the loneliness and isolation that the writing experience often creates. The virtual write-ins also worked because of the writing sprints that were used to push writers to accomplish their daily writing goals.

I remember falling off the writing wagon once Thanksgiving came around. Not only is this time of year hectic because of the impending holiday and all of the preparations that come along with making a family happy and full of turkey, but this time of year is particularly busy for college professors, like myself, who are busy grading papers and getting themselves ready to submit final grades for the semester. So, for those 2014 WriMo newbies, prepare yourself for the business of Thanksgiving.

I am not exactly sure what happened the second and third years, but the writing barely got off of the ground before I quit. This year, however, I’m in the game. I’m barely in the game, but I am definitely playing.

Da Realist 1 wrote a little bit about NaNoWrimo in her post, “Partners in Crime.” In the post, she says that writers are encouraged to write approximately 1,666 words a day. So, when I started writing on day 5, I was already behind by approximately 8,330 words!!

I had already prepared for the month by outlining, but life continued to get in the way and it prevented me from starting on time. I had a job interview for which I had to prepare, too many papers to grade, and my daily responsibilities of chauffeuring my daughter around from one activity to the next. I just could not fit in NaNoWriMo for 4 days.

On the 5th day, I contemplated giving up as I did the previous two years, but then I changed my mind and got in the game.

Somehow, this weekend, I closed the deficit by about 5,000 words. I decided that I may not make 50,000 words by the last day of November, but I will have started a project and a routine of writing that I will not want to give up.

The truth: fitting 50,000 words into your daily routine for a month is challenging, but there is something about having a goal in sight that promotes the act of writing for many of us. By the end of this past weekend, I realized that my ability to write is a super power, and that many people are not capable of doing what I did in one weekend.

Press on WriMos, and keep writing.

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For more information about National November Writers’ Month, click on this hyperlink for their website. They do a great job of preparing writers before November and encouraging writers all year round.

Writing with Courage

Harriet Jacobs, author of The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Too often, we allow our daily responsibilities to stifle our creativity. From the journal writer to the published novelist, I believe this statement to be true.

I often reflect on the writing of those who came before us, particularly women and people of color who wrote in the face of extreme danger and potential death. Writers like Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who wrote the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, addressed in her writing the harsh realities of slavery. The publication of Jacobs’ narrative, as well as others works like Frederick Douglass’ The Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, put them at risk for recapture or death, as well as risked the lives of the slaves who still remained in bondage.

Fast-forward more than a century to 1997: When I entered graduate school, I met a woman who we will call Janice. After raising her children, she decided to return to school to finish her bachelor’s degree. Over time, her husband became jealous of the time she spent in school studying and writing about literature. To show his dissatisfaction with her love for all- things literature, he burned her books and threatened to harm her if she stayed in school. Thankfully, she got out of that abusive relationship and eventually received a PhD in English.

Frederick Douglass, author of A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Though real, Jacobs, Douglass, and Janice’s experiences are some of the worst examples of how people have written (and in Janice’s case, still write) in the face of fear and danger. Although I have never had to write under such circumstances, I still know what it is like to write in fear. For me, like many of you, we write with the fear of failure.

I had a professor tell me once that I was not a solid writer (in words that were not thoughtful). At another time she said that I was so bad that she didn’t know how to work with me, so she would have to step down from my committee. While working with her, however, she criticized my writing (and in some cases me as a person) to such an extent that I felt incapable of constructing a coherent sentence. In many ways, my interaction with her silenced me as a writer.

It is this type of criticism of my writing that I often hear whispering in my ear every time I pick up a pen (yes, I still write drafts out!). I recognize that I do not write in the face of potential death as many people who came before me did. And, I do not write in the face of abuse as some still do today. It does, however, take courage for me to write. Each time I write a blog and hit the post button, it will feel as if I have taken one step forward to freeing myself from the negative academic past that has been an impediment to me finding peace and happiness in writing.

Write on . . .

Tell me, courageous writers, what are you overcoming to write?

For Jesse

“‘Was it hard? I hope she didn’t die hard.’ Sethe shook her head. ‘Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part.'”–Beloved

Jesse looking scholarly in the office we shared

Jesse looking scholarly in the office we shared

There is something final about committing words to the screen to talk about you, my friend. Writing this makes it concrete that you can no longer make me giggle at your antics. The irony in writing a letter is that, through the process of putting together the pieces of our friendship, I began to value that our words are immortal, but our flesh is not.

Speaking of flesh, I remember when you reminded me to love myself as Baby Suggs told a community of ex-slaves in Beloved. She said that “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” Through this passage, you taught me to genuinely fall in love with myself, accepting all the scars left behind by life’s experiences. I pray that you were generous enough to yourself to do the same.

I had a difficult time with your illness, believing and praying that it would go away. You wanted to talk to me because you knew I would not talk about it with you if you did not want me to. You knew that I would talk about funny things, like the time we were acting silly and I fell down a flight of stairs. We both ended up on the floor laughing at my clumsiness. Or, there was that one act of selfishness with me, when you wouldn’t share that grape soda. To be fair, you offered me my own, but you made that Fanta grape look good.

You were always so generous with your friendship, but I was selfish while you were ill. I couldn’t bear talking to you, knowing that you were hurting on the other end of the phone. So, we texted and talked occasionally about all the funny things we experienced together. I should have called more and reminded you of the time you went clogging down the hallway of our department. That story always made us laugh.

Your generosity extended to the days before you passed away. On May 14, only a few days before you left me, you sent a text: “Remember me clogging and drinking grape soda. . . . And laughing at the bottom of stairwells.”

Da Realist1, Jesse, and me in front of W.E.B. DuBois statue on Fisk University's campus

Me, Jesse, and Da Realist 1 in front of W.E.B. DuBois statue on Fisk University’s campus

Since you left me, I have had a number of well-meaning people tell me “what Jesse would want” and “how Jesse would want me to remember him.” I know you Jesse, and believe that you would want me to feel however it is that I need to feel. Sometimes, I feel like getting in the bed and pulling the covers up over my head. And, sometimes, I feel like reading a Toni Morrison novel to be close to you.

On the days that I can muster up the energy to do so, I rejoice in our friendship and I rejoice in your love. I am thankful to have known you, and I consider the pain of you leaving me the small price I have to pay for all the funny times we shared. Your love for your friends was thick, Jesse, because that was the only way you knew how to love. And, as Sethe said to Paul D. in Beloved when he told her that she, too, loves thick, “Love is or love ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

Activism through Writing: The Power of the Pen

The Runaway

The Runaway

Over the years, I have studied various slave narratives like the Narrative and the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Whenever I teach them, I remind my students of the purpose in which these narratives were written: to have a written account of their horrible experiences that would lead to the eradication of slavery. The authors of the slave narratives sought to tell their stories and the stories of those around them, but they had to do so while maintaining the anonymity of those still enslaved and those who aided them to freedom.

Being able to balance telling the story and maintaining anonymity required the authors to stealthily navigate the racial terrain of America, which included violence that was supported by the legislature. The Fugitive Slave Law, for example, created an atmosphere in which slaves attempting to escape their conditions could be found by bounty hunters who were at their leisure to brutally beat or kill them. This is the risk that Douglass and Jacobs faced when publishing their works. If they were found, they could have been killed. Yet, they risked their lives to tell the stories of the many slaves who were still in bondage, incapable of reading and writing, or who had no way to articulate their pain and suffering for the world to know. This is why they wrote.

They were brave and fearless to risk their lives to write about the pain they themselves endured, but they were compassionate to articulate and give voice to the pain of others.

I, too, write as a way giving voice to others. And, while I bet this argument may have been made a hundred times before, countless others are still rendered silent each day by the pain of their experiences. And, so the writer becomes the conscience of the people; the pulse, if you will, of the experiences that people encounter every day. Imagine what might have happened to the narrative of Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case, had writers of all types not come to her defense? She would have certainly been rendered silent.

I find writing as a form of activism, that works simultaneously with the work that I do. Change has always occurred with the aid of writers.