Virginia Woolf once said: Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.
In fifth grade, I had a crush on Kevin O’Halloran. He was freckled, with hazel eyes and a gelled up cowlick. He had a shaky voice; which I can’t describe because I don’t think he has ever talked to me. At least, not on purpose. In retrospect, Kevin was every syllable of the word: unremarkable. But back then, he had two things going for him.
One: he was white. Which meant that he was not Black. And back then, all I wanted to do was be white. I wanted blonde hair and speckled eyes. I wanted a two-parent household. I wanted to live in Braintree; not have to get there by bus. I wanted the boys to like me, and the girls to want to be my friend; and not from pity, but from the honest desire of adolescence. I knew that there was nothing I could do to be white. But maybe if I could get Kevin to like me, it would basically be the same thing. The same level of validation.
Two: he was not interested in me at all. And apparently, that is my jam. That is my jelly. That is my whole damn preservative pack.
If I had to describe my crush on Kevin, I would have to say it was obvious, oblivious, and borderline obsessive. Not as bad as Joe from “You,” but not-not Joe. Another word to describe my crush is: useless. Kevin was not interested in me. At all. And not even as a friend. And me now, completely respects that decision.
First of all, I was the girl who cried on the bus ride to school because she missed home; and the girl who cried on the bus home because she was going to miss school.
Secondly, I looked and dressed and acted like a boy. If you were to look at my fifth-grade picture you would see a little boy with straight back braids and a complete black Celtics warm-up outfit. Paul Pierce, of course. And no. No one threatened me to put on the outfit. I asked for it. I cried over it. I begged my mother to let me wear it on picture day. And my father supported me, wholeheartedly. And, unfortunately.
But the most important reason, and I cannot stress this enough: I WAS BLACK. I was Black, and therefore I was not white. And at that age, porn, rap music, and older brothers hadn’t taught white boys to fetishize my black body. So, even if I was emotionally stable and wore a dress without sneakers once in a while, I would still have had no shot in hell. But dammit if I wasn’t determined.
It was a random night, I was home, and my body was buzzing alive inside of my mind. Whether it was a minor manic episode or puberty turning me out, I remember this metaphorical high became overwhelming. I needed to get my anxious thoughts outside of me. I needed out of the weight of need. The need to be loved, to be lustful, to be desired, to be white through association.
So, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And after writing well into the Nick@Nite lineup, I had five single-spaced white lined pages. I reread each word and punctuation until the five single-spaced white lined pages were perfection.
I didn’t plan for my first love letter to be five full pages, but I had so much that I needed to say. What was once a one-page confession, quickly became a five-page appeal. Every curve of every letter was a plea for Kevin to like me. For him to see me, and see something special. Something necessary. Something white.
Kevin never responded to the love letter. He never responded to my glances. And then fifth grade turned into summer and there were more boys to love and never hold.
Over the years, I have used my writing to trick men into my bed, convince them to stay one more night. Even if they didn’t love me. Even if I didn’t love them. But just because it’s all I have. It’s all I know. It’s all I can do. I have written so many texts and emails and “forgive me’s” with tears in my fingertips, and lightning in my eyes; desperate. And hopeful that if I just find the right words, it will all be simple.
It will all be happy; as it should be.
When you ask a writer, successful or otherwise, when they knew they were going to become a writer; they tend to say:
Oh, Oprah (or Conan & Andy, or Ellen & Twitch or Desus & Mero), I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was [enter inappropriately young age]. My parents [enter a description about how many books they had], and they would [enter a story about the familial love for literacy]. [Book title] was my favorite, and [well-known author] was who I wanted to be like.
I have to admit when people ask me the same question, whether it is in my head or otherwise, I always tell Oprah, or Conan & Andy, or Ellen & Twitch, or Desus & Mero, how I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was three. How my mother had two overworked bookshelves in our childhood home. One was for her reading pleasure. One was to show guests how smart and rich we were because we had a complete Encyclopedia set. And one was left open for me. How before we moved out of that house, I had enough books read and uncracked, to fill those shelves five times over. I would tell them that Little House on the Prairie was the first book I ever read, and how I always wanted to be like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
But the honest to blog answer is: I always wrote but never thought about becoming a writer. I thought about becoming famous. About becoming loved. Respected. About making enough money that people willingly overlooked my shortcomings. I thought about being interviewed on television and how I would always end an interview telling another ex or bully or loved one to fuck off.
But being a writer never crossed my mind.
Growing up, writing was a compulsion, a need. I wrote because I was sad, and lonely, and displaced. I wrote because I couldn’t maintain friendships or love interests. I was fat, and hated running, and excelled at quitting activities my parents spent money on without hesitation; writing was the only constant (besides eating). I was the only Black kid in my classes and it was becoming a metaphysical dilemma I couldn’t quite cope with. In retrospect, I was depressed, anxious, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But in the moment, in the deep dark, all I knew is that I went to bed wanting to die, and writing was on the shortlist of things that grounded me.
I wrote to impress people. To calm myself. To impress myself. I wrote to seduce people. To cuss them out because I was afraid of them and they were my parents. To confess unheard truths. To entertain myself. I wrote because it was the only thing I was good at (again, besides eating).
The first time I ever thought about becoming a writer was during junior year, when Mr. G-something asked me for a list of possible majors and careers. I blanked and panicked and blurted: ENGLISH.
He said, “Great choice. What were you thinking about for a career, JUHMILLUH?”
I blanked and panicked and blurted again: WRITE.
And then he said the same thing my father would one day suggest: “You should be a teacher and write during the summers. You know, until your career really takes off as a writer.”
I remember holding back tears in that small office and feeling as if I had been waxed in front of every boy I had a crush on. I didn’t cry because Mr. G-something dismissed my dreams. I cried because I realized that I was so untalented at everything else, that the only talent I did manage to have was to be a cliche: an English teacher who is working on her next great novel beachside at Houghton’s disgusting Pond. And somehow I knew, in the deep dark, that I did not have the mental fortitude to do not na’an one of those things.
To be honest, I wish I could go back to those times when I was writing to survive. Not financially or socially. Not egotistically. But when I was writing because I knew that pervasive silence was going to lead me to dick, drugs, and death. Before years of heartbreak. Before social media. Before I almost died during a “standard” c-section. Before Kobe and his daughter and her friends and those people died in a “standard” helicopter crash.
Now I have found myself writing for pure external validation, and it is painful beyond measure. Writing for acknowledgment has placed me in a permanent crisis that I cannot handle. Now, writing is not its own reward. It’s the eyes. It’s the shares. It’s the likes and comments and purchases. It’s the need for proof that I exist. That I matter. That I am special and important. That my parents were wrong about me. That everyone was wrong about me. That I was wrong about me. That I am worthy of being alive.
Recently, I made the decision to self-publish a small collection of poetry titled: than we have been.
While I was piecing and ordering, I boasted to my son’s father something along the lines of:
Once I finish a poem, I refuse to go back and read it or change a word or a line or anything. It would ruin the piece or how raw I want it to be.
And since he loves me, and has no true interest in writing at all; he was completely unaware of how loudly I was lying.
To quote Erykah Badu: I am an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.
Or rather, I am too vulnerable to revisit anything that I have written. I am afraid that I will go back to the poem and the words will be gibberish and the line breaks will be absent and the poem would be shit. And if the poem is shit then I am a shit writer. And if I am a shit writer then I am a shit person. And this line of thinking will either cause me to self-harm via food consumption or throw myself at any man I have convinced myself to lust after.
Sadly, the only thing I can tell you with an ounce of certainty is that the poems are all about sadness, depression, suicide, and pain. Because all of my work seems to be about sadness, depression, suicide, and pain. Because all of my life seems to be about sadness, depression, suicide, and pain. Or so I think; and so much so that the title, “than we have been,” is a nod to Virginia Woolf’s suicide note.
With the title chosen, I googled online publishing platforms and chose a website that was made to order and, therefore, cheaper for me. It took me one minute to design the cover which I kept simple with an off-pink background and black standard font. It’s a mock of several professionally published books I’ve seen on Instagram. I thought the cover would say to people:
“Here is an artist who is so true to her craft and the strength of it all, that she does not need a real cover page. Just this one will do because it’s the words inside that matter. And this is what real artists do.”
To be a writer who cares about her readers, I wanted to make sure, “than you have been” could be accessible and affordable. So I, a literal literary no one with awful social skills, created a ten-dollar physical copy and a five-dollar digital copy (both prices were halved in a matter of days). I published the link. Copied it. Shortened it via linktree. Posted it to my Facebook page and Instagram account. And waited for the likes, double taps, shares, and comments to roll into purchases. I waited for the interest and excitement around my chapbook, my unique perspective, my clear respectable ability as a writer, and, more importantly: me.
If I were to give you a nickel for every copy I sold and every copy I threw at people for free, you would not have enough to buy a Biggie Bag from Wendys. You would not have enough money to do one load of laundry at Jo D’s laundromat in Kayenta, Arizona. And, if I were to snatch back half of a half of a half of a penny for every DM, PM, text message, email, sub-post, story post, etc. that I wrote begging people to purchase a copy of the text, you would be left with what I have now: a doubt and depression that has left me fearful of my next birthday.
People do not want to read what I write, and either it is because I cannot write well, or because I’m me. I’m not sure. But I’m desperate to know so I can pretend to not give a fuck as I bend to the will of the people secretly. I can make myself more likeable. I can write happy listicles. I can give people whatever they need; but I need them to buy into me. If they don’t I am afraid I will lose writing. And if I lose writing, I will lose myself. Writing is all I have. It is all I have ever had. And I can feel the little piece of happiness slipping away from me. I can feel the depression nibbling at the hair on my toes. I can hear the audible silence after, “Oh, you’re a writer writer? Or, do you just write?”
I want to use the keys on the board to express my heartbreak. I want to tell you it feels like ripping out ingrown toenails. It feels like a needle shifting while it is in the vein. It feels like Kevin and his friends avoiding me. It feels like fifteen copies sold. It feels like retiring as a teacher at seventy years. But I can’t. I don’t have time, and chances are that if you’re a writer, you already know. And you know that I have a new idea and a new deadline and a new story cracking out of my clavicle.
And I have to, at the very least, just. Keep. fucking. Writing.
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