I once humiliated myself at a writing workshop. It was a short workshop (less than two hours long) and I have a fairly robust poker face, so I like to think that I looked less humiliated than I felt. Still, twenty-plus years later the memory is a tangy one and when it comes to mind, my body vibrates with lowkey regret.
It wasn’t a workshop really, but rather a succession of talks. I remember that there was a novelist, a publisher and a literary agent and that when they opened the floor there were lots of questions about publishing – how to write proposals, create synopses and secure literary agents. What the younger me wants to know (and decides to ask) is how to develop as a writer when I’m not committed to publishing as a goal. I’m not sure that’s what I want, I say. It is I suppose, a kind of blasphemy. We are after all, here at a weekend event dedicated to black women’s empowerment, where we are being primed us to recognise our potential, define success and go out and get what we want. The basic assumption is that we should know what we want so that energies can be effectively applied to helping us get it.
My clumsy admission that I don’t really know what I want then, has the panel members looking sideways, perhaps hoping to offload my question onto one another. As the silence stretches on, their eyes roll into various corners, which could be locations for thought and equally could be places to rest while they wait for the awkward moment to pass. They are distinct and beautiful women, with different skills, and different stories of success, connected via their unanimous avoidance of eye contact with me – the person who has clearly shown up at the wrong gig.
At the wrong gig could be the title of my memoir (a second memoir – the first How the Hiding Seek) is already out.) I am frustratingly familiar with this odd-one-out, missed-the-beat, didn’t-get-the-memo kind of feeling of being the wrong person in the wrong place. It is a feeling I was born into and haven’t been able to fully shake off since. In truth, the world as presented to me has often been wildly out of sync with the world of my own experience. This has set up many more dilemmas (what to do, what to say, how to be) than I have space to write about here except to note that I have found myself hesitating to follow certain well-established dream pathways (e.g. write, publish, make money, get famous, make more money) because the logical sense of them hasn’t aligned with what my actual senses are telling me. People have asked if I am afraid of success, and I have had to agree that this is entirely possible. People I love and respect have reassured me that money and influence don’t necessarily corrupt, and can actually be positive forces used for good – evident truths that still left my soul unsatisfied. I listened but continued to hover in a corner (of the wrong gig obviously), waiting for someone to re-direct me – waiting to hear a kind and confident voice say ‘excuse me madam, I think you’ll find that the door you want is the one just down the hallway there…’
I have no reason to believe that the women in that workshop were not kind or confident. In fact, I’m sure that they were. I think they couldn’t answer me because they had no idea what it what that I was asking or where I needed to be. The fact that they couldn’t direct me intensified my sense of being placeless and lost. That this lost-ness was exposed – so publicly – intensified, in its turn, my humiliation. I held it down of course – styled it out in some way or another until the time came when I could carry my humiliation home. I added it to a growing catalogue of self-accusations entitled – ‘girl, why are you like this?’
And sometimes even a lack of direction is direction – an invitation to be with not knowing as a state of sensory openness. The state of unknowing that carries with it a capacity to see, hear and feel the way to go; the state of unknowing that is a magnetism, alert to the taste and pull of whatever is required. I didn’t know but I continued to write, albeit shyly and quietly. I began to encounter – in person and through their work – various writerly soul companions. In the soulful company of artists, writers, psychological practitioners, and academics, I developed a relationship to and with writing. This relationship offered deeper understanding of the power of writing – of what writing can be, and what writing can do. I began to appreciate why it was that I needed to put ideas of publishing aside in order to embrace the writing practices that supported my being.
Even now, when I have published work, writing remains for me foremost a technology for being. And this technology of being sustains me in a world that routinely tries to render my being – as a black woman – invisible, or to compress and flatten it inside stereotypes and single stories. I write to disrupt this – to disrupt it for myself as I become the reader of myself on the page, and also in the hope that this disruption is present for other readers too. I write my way into the imagination that bell hooks suggests is at risk when we despair at our marginalisation. I keep writing up against the lie of the blank screen and the desiccated imagination. I pulse, as Tisa Bryant1suggests, in the continuum…to conjure new senses of being. I conjure, and write spells for living and for imagined futures. I write to navigate difficult days, and to celebrate the days that delight me. I write as an expression of the life force that flows through me, and through my fingers, and onto the page. I write to breathe. I write for the ancestors who breathe through me.
I’m older now. I facilitate workshops for people interested in writing, specifically for those who want to write experimentally – as their blood beats2– and for therapeutic purposes. I also occasionally sit on panels, always with one ear open for a question from the floor from a once-upon-a-time me — someone who just writes, or wants to write, and doesn’t know why. It’s a question that hasn’t come yet, and I will admit that I sometimes feel daunted by the questions that do come – or perhaps it is just that I am in awe of the questioners, who seem so young for the perceptions and insights they articulate. Most times they ooze confidence and purpose, and hold themselves in ways that suggest not only that they are at the right gig, but that the gig was made for them. And I still speak to them about writing, because writing is not just a technology for the lost, but also a technology for getting lost – for finding the necessary locations of unknowing where imagination is free to weave possible futures. So, lost or not, published writer or not, if you are reading this I invite you to shake yourself loose from the myth of the door down the hallway. You are the door. If I have I redirections to offer they are these; Write. See. Feel. Know. Don’t know. Be curious. Seek soulful company. Write. Share. Write more.
1I borrowed these from Tisa Bryant. Her brilliant essay in ‘Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing’ is a must-read
2Tisa Bryant again – here drawing on James Baldwin’s advice to ‘go the way your blood beats’