Archive for the ‘writing life’ Category

“If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.” -Lao Tzu

imagesI just sent this quote to a friend who’s in a funk; as someone who grapples with depression and anxiety, I find it useful and thought he might too. But then I read this response on “wisdom and foolishness in social media” (which questions the quote’s authenticity) and it reminded me of a post Neesha Meminger shared earlier this week about managing depression and responding to depression in others. It’s a serious condition and one that has no quick fix. I’m fortunate that depression (thus far) has had a limited impact on my life; in fact, I think my symptoms were most severe when I was a teenager, before I even knew what depression was. In my twenties I started reading books on the subject and I discovered that a number of my friends were struggling with depression too. We started checking in on each other and we reminded one another to eat right, exercise regularly, and follow the doctor’s orders—in our little community there was no shame in taking medication and/or seeing a therapist to manage depression. And it was okay to admit when we had fallen into “the abyss.” By the time I reached my thirties, anxiety had become the bigger issue for me and I learned that staying busy kept me from dwelling on situations over which I had no control (the cause of most anxiety). I never knew my mother also had anxiety issues but in the years since her retirement from teaching, I’ve witnessed her world getting smaller and smaller as she has more time to dwell on and/or avoid the things that stress her out—like driving on the highway or traveling alone. I look at my mother and see what my future could be, which makes me vigilant about managing my own symptoms NOW.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways anxiety and depression affect my writing. The past few weeks have been a little bumpy—I finished The Deep in early March and had a week of post-partum blues before immersing myself in a demanding post-doc application. Once that was submitted, I started revising an old conference paper that some editors would like to include in a new anthology. Now I’m trying to make some progress on Judah’s Tale. The semester’s winding down; I’m preparing to go to Ghana for the Yari Yari conference in mid-May. When I get back, final grades will be due and then the summer will begin, giving me close to three months to write. That prospect should fill me with joy, but there’s a part of me that worries about having so much unstructured time. I plan to conduct research in the Caribbean and I have a conference in St. Lucia in early August, but the idea of waking up day after day with nothing specific to do is a little bit terrifying. In part because I know that if I’m not focused on a writing project, I’m likely to succumb to bouts of anxiety about the future or depression around my past. I had a dream about my older sister last night—we barely speak and though I do wish things could be different between us, I know I wouldn’t be thinking about her if I were immersed in writing another novel. So do I use my writing to anchor myself in the present? Or do I use writing as a way to avoid the unresolved issues in my life? Maybe both.

Today I’m going to see a bit of fluff—that new Oz movie. I’ve been quite social lately, which is another way of filling up my free time so I don’t sit and ruminate. A trip to the garden might be in order too…

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imagesI’m beginning to lose myself in this novel. This morning I woke up with an image of the cover in my mind—black with a picture of Nyla in profile: shaved head, purple tints in her faux hawk, her many facial piercings done with silver foil. I keep a notebook next to my laptop and every few hours I stop to calculate my word count so I know how much progress I’m making. My goal is to write 10K words this month. The Deep is a novella like Ship of Souls, so it won’t be much longer than 30K words. In London I wrote over 2000 words and since the new year began, I’ve written an additional 5000. This past week I’ve fallen asleep on the couch more times than I can count, waking at 4 or 5am not sure what day it is, but with a scrap of dialogue ready to be written down. I love writing and it feels good to pull a chapter together—for more than a year I’ve been taking notes and writing bits and pieces, and now I’m finally filling in the gaps. Unfortunately I’m eating WAY too much sugar—I went two days without cake and in its place ate a bag of caramels purchased for $1 at Target, and then yesterday I woke before dawn and baked cookies. I have a sugar problem. But when I’m in the middle of a writing tear, I’m disinclined to make any drastic changes to my lifestyle. I went to the doctor on Thursday and she gave me a list of foods I need to avoid; half the items on her list aren’t even in my diet but the rest certainly are—no more chocolate! No orange juice, cranberry juice, peppermint, or tomato sauce. Today I’ll go for a run since it’s supposed to be a bit warmer, and my agent has advised me to start each day with 12 men’s pushups. “Don’t worry about how long it takes you,” she said, “just keep going ’till you get to 12.” My friends and I have agreed to try to have healthier food for our weekly Downton Abbey tea—some cakes, some scones, but fruit and sugarless options as well. I can’t afford to add a pound for every thousand words I write this month!

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Today began with a migraine but ended with some great news—I found out that I’ve been accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program, which will enable me to spend the spring semester focusing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. Around noon today, when I could bear to sit at my sun-soaked desk, I scanned and printed out an illustration by Leonard Weisgard from The Little Island. Now, up on the wall, I’ve got an 1871 map of Nevis, an 1817 slave register, the logo for my future Black Dog Arts Center, my partially-completed family tree, and this image:

I spoke with my aunt in Nevis this morning and learned some good and bad news. The good news is that my citizenship application was approved—on my birthday! So I am now a citizen of Nevis. The bad news is that my aunt’s doctor found a mass during her colonoscopy and she has to have surgery next week. I hope to hear soon about a grant I applied for that would fund a trip to the Caribbean in January, but I’m thinking I should just go ahead and book the ticket now. Until I get there I’m sending love and prayers and positive vibes across the sea…

Are you wondering what to get that special someone for the holidays? Why not support Hands Across the Sea, a nonprofit that provides books for Caribbean children? Sonita Daniel, Director of the Nevis Library Service, let me know that Hands Across the Sea has selected Nevis to receive donated books this year so any amount you give will help to provide books for children in Nevisian schools and community centers. I’ve got a school visit early tomorrow morning and think I’ll put the honorarium towards the Steel Pan Band package, which includes a “Selection of 35 hardcover titles from well-regarded Caribbean niche publishers.” Other packages range from $10 – $2500.

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Yesterday I took a break from writing to watch Serena Williams win the US Open. What an inspiration! As I post my word count on Facebook every few hours, I’m surprised at the number of people who express admiration for my sense of discipline. I’m not sure that’s what drives me…I feel like I have (or am) a sponge, and I spend most of my time soaking up ideas; writing then is simply the act of wringing that sponge dry. It’s the easy part, in a way. Last weekend I wrote 2450 words and another 120 during the week; so far this weekend I’ve written 2300 words, which puts me at 4870–below my 900 words/day quota (7×900=6300). But the day has just begun…
I have some exciting news to share: And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems came out on September 4th! The book’s first review, which came out on Labor Day, is posted here. The ebook version (PDF file) and the paperback version can be purchased at www.friesenpress.com/bookstore. Folks are also welcome, of course, to order the paperback version of the book from local independent bookstores. The paperback version will become available on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk later in September. Libraries/bookstores can order the collection from Ingram Book Company.

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I haven’t blogged in a while because I figured out that I have 22 non-teaching days in the month of September, and if I write 900 words on each of those days, I’ll have the 20K words I need to finish Judah’s Tale. I got off to a good start last weekend, but this weekend I’ve fallen short—instead of writing 2000 words yesterday I wrote 200! But that’s because I spent most of the day completing a grant report (500 words) and working on an application for a faculty publication program (1350 words). That’s one thing about my job—you constantly have to apply for things. Still, it’s a pretty great opportunity—you get paired with a writing mentor, you meet eight times with other writers within your field, and you get 3 hours of course release for the spring semester, which means one less class to teach. My classes are going fairly well so far, but I’m reminded—once again—of how impossible it is to turn your brain off when you teach. It’s not like a 9-5 where you clear your desk at the end of the day and go home to dwell on other things. With teaching you’re always making a mental list of the things you need to say and do and plan and fix. And then there are the endless emails asking for help; I’m not a medical doctor but I do sometimes feel like I’m on call! It’s part of the job, and I do love to teach, but maybe I’m not being realistic about finishing Judah’s Tale this month. My (pipe) dream is to finish two novels this semester, which would free me up to start The Hummingbird’s Tongue in January. A friend and I are considering London for Xmas, which means I need to budget carefully so that I can do London in December, Nevis in January, and Ghana in May. My travel allowance is $450 so that means I need to get really creative…counting words and counting pennies!

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I need to reboot my brain. On Thursday morning I submitted my chapter on magic in NYC parks—it still needs work, but it was time to let go so that I could turn my attention to the five other projects I hope to complete this summer. On Thursday afternoon I ordered a final proof of One Eye Open and started the e-book conversion process. I’ve had “coming soon!” on the Rosetta Press blog for over a year now, and I think it’s finally time to let the book live, warts and all. That night I started working on my slideshow for The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I’ve been invited to attend the inaugural Nevis Book Fair on July 27, and this time I’ll be presenting before children and adults. The director of library services kindly helped me find a guesthouse in town, so I’ll be spending another week in Nevis at the end of the month. That got the wheels turning—I’m supposed to be working on The Deep (Nyla’s story), but instead I’ve been designing a logo and blog for Black Dog Arts. Ultimately I hope to open an arts center in Nevis, but for now I think maybe I’ll start a nonprofit and try to collaborate with existing institutions on the island. Yesterday I heard from the SKN Culture office and my request to participate in the UNESCO Slave Route Project has been forwarded to the minister of education. Maybe I can meet some administrators while I’m in Nevis later this month. Once I get my letter of good conduct from the NYPD next week, my citizenship application will be complete—another thing I can do while I’m there. And since my friend Rosa will be in Antigua at the same time, I may be able to fly over from Nevis and inquire about my grandmother’s alleged institutionalization there. More digging…

Now I think I’m ready to turn my attention back to The Deep. Though I just started reading Leonard Pitts Jr.’s Freeman, so maybe it makes more sense to work on Judah’s Tale. The summer ends in six weeks! I was fussing and fuming about that fact yesterday, but it makes more sense to just get busy and make the most of the time that’s left. And accept that everything I hoped to accomplish this summer may get done later rather than sooner.


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Pushing back against a migraine this morning. I’m still working on this essay, which I said I would submit on Friday. I hate missing my own deadlines but know this paper needs a couple more days to cohere. I finally figured out which voice to use. That sounds odd, but I can’t write anything remotely academic until I establish who I am and where I stand in relation to these texts in this particular moment. Somewhere in the footnotes I’m going to have to admit that contributing to this anthology is preventing me from finishing my latest novel—which pisses me off. But it’s my own fault for saying yes when I should have said no. The paper is a bit like “Hot Mess” in that I’m writing about incongruity, incompatibility, and nonbelonging…which sets the stage for magic.

Did anyone see the Audre Lorde film that was screened at Weeksville last night? They posted this photo on their Facebook page and I just had to post it here:

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I woke up this morning with my introduction written out in my mind. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to turn to black feminist writer June Jordan, and thinking about my favorite poem of hers reminded me of the James Baldwin quote I used for the title of my dissertation: “the terror of trees and streets.”

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up

like this

Which bodies belong in which spaces? Our age, race, gender, and sexual orientation too often determine where we’re able to find sanctuary. I’ve read almost half of Ruth Chew’s books and won’t have any trouble comparing hers to mine, but need to begin with a consideration of the way African Americans relate to nature. In Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, editor/poet Camille Dungy reflects on the trauma of enslavement (and lynching) and its impact on the way blacks engage with the natural world:

    African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land into the country we know today. Viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or an asset in a banker’s ledger, African Americans developed a complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation in American culture. (xxii)

Given the active history of betrayal and danger in the outdoors, it is no wonder that many African Americans link their fears directly to the land that witnessed or abetted centuries of subjugation. (xxvi)

Even during the most difficult periods of African American history, the natural world held potential to be a source of refuge, sustenance, and uncompromised beauty. (xxv)

I’ve got a few more articles to read on the development and design of urban parks, and the memorialization of the dead…writing an essay is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Not exactly fun, but challenging and—if it coheres—satisfying. Scheduling a midday break at the museum…


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Just—say—no! Easier said than done, right? After I finish this essay I am taking a break from academic writing. I had my end of year evaluation at work this afternoon and my director actually told me to slow down…great advice! I want to finish two novels this summer, but that’s probably not realistic. As she said, there’s no point pushing yourself so hard that you’re burnt out by the time the fall semester begins. So if you’re thinking of asking me to contribute to some fantastic project, think again. Please. Help me help myself…

Yesterday I had my film date with CUNY TV—I’m going to be featured on their show, Study With the Best, and so we spent more than three hours at the African Burial Ground yesterday (three hours of footage they’ll have to edit down to *five* minutes!). I pulled on my top as I dressed that morning and swore I could still smell the sea—even though I hand-washed that shirt the night before. I came home from the film shoot and mailed more books back to Nevis. I’ve got my 1871 map of the island on the wall above my desk, and my growing library of books on Nevis will require me to buy a new bookcase this week—despite what I said at ChLA about books being designed to circulate and not to reside in the home…

I’m doing research for this paper on NYC parks and it’s reminding me of graduate school when I did one of my exams in the field of urban studies. I’m trying to build momentum but Dr. King’s words are still ringing in my ears. If you haven’t read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” lately, do take another look. I had lunch with a friend today and we marveled at those PoC authors and editors who jump up and insist that publishing is a level playing field—how else to explain their individual success? Dr. King shared these pearls of wisdom 50 years ago:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. (my emphasis)

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I had a moment yesterday when I wanted to quit teaching. As soon as I submitted my grades, the whining began…no matter how clear you are about the course requirements, no matter how many opportunities you give to earn extra credit, there are always a few students who think you owe them something more. I love teaching and I hope to teach for the rest of my life, but I’m wondering if there’s a way to build a life that lets me do what I love and discard all the rest. Yesterday’s meeting with Terry Boddie was great—I can’t imagine what I’d do without the support of fellow artists! Artist/professors who teach, and grade, and deal with ridiculous demands, and yet still manage to get their work out into the world (Terry’s got FOUR shows up right now). Giving up the academy would mean working as a teaching artist and supplementing my income with grants. I’ve gotten three grants so far this year, and right now I’m applying for a fourth. It’s a different kind of hustle but the good thing about writing grant proposals is that the process lends clarity to your work. Why do I do what I do, and what does my writing offer the world? I’m still working on my project summary but thought I’d share what I’ve got so far. This is Nevis book #1:

The Hummingbird’s Tongue

This nonfiction book—a blend of memoir, genealogy, and mythology—will attempt to trace the life of my paternal grandmother, Rosetta Elliott. Born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Rosetta was institutionalized approximately ten years after the birth of her two children, George (my father) and Ilis. Both children were removed from Rosetta’s custody when they were quite young; George was raised (alternately) by his maternal and paternal grandmothers, and Ilis was raised by her biological father and his wife (though his paternity was kept from her until adulthood). Stripped of her children, my grandmother continued to live in Nevis until the mid-1950s when she began having “fits” and was committed to an asylum in neighboring Antigua where she allegedly died.

Shortly after his mother’s death, my father emigrated from Nevis to live, for the first time, with his father in Canada. Fifteen years later, in 1972, my father returned to Nevis with my mother (who was pregnant with me at the time). They visited the asylum in Antigua and found no record of Rosetta Elliott. In his unfinished memoir my father implied that Rosetta was involved with prominent men on the island; I plan to investigate this claim and others, including speculation that my grandmother’s “fits” weren’t caused by epilepsy but by obeah (so-called “black magic”). My grandfather once worked as a policeman in Antigua—did he use his professional connections to make his former lover “disappear”? Was the news of Rosetta’s death prior to his departure for Canada a lie designed to sever my father’s connection to the less reputable side of his family?

I have lived with depression and anxiety since my teen years, and suspect that my father battled depression throughout his life as well. Fortunately, I evolved into a black feminist writer, though my commitment to self-expression led my father to call me “a stranger in the family.” I feel a strong sense of kinship with the woman for whom I was named, though we never met and I have not even a photograph of her. My great-aunt once told me that Rosetta had “hair down her back”—a significant feature for a poor black woman. Was she beautiful? Was marriage unavailable or uninteresting to her? Perhaps my grandmother traded whatever assets she had in order to survive.

If my grandmother did indeed suffer from some type of mental illness, I would like to know what symptoms she exhibited and what services were available to women in the eastern Caribbean at that time. Could any “undesirable” be institutionalized? Was Rosetta truly a danger to herself, or was her sexuality deemed dangerous to an insular, patriarchal society that expected women to know and stay in their “proper place”? The 2009 study of Nevisian girls, Pleasures and Perils by Debra Curtis, reveals disturbing patterns of coercion and early experimentation with sex; my book will consider contemporary conditions for women in Nevis and will offer strategies to ensure that girls have the tools they need to recognize and resist exploitation and marginalization.

Green-Throated Caribbean Hummingbird

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