Some of you may have heard me tell this story before and if so, please bear with me for a spell.
Every since I was old enough to understand the purpose of a pen and paper, I’ve been writing stories. My very first novel was written somewhere around the 7th grade. My mother was so proud of that effort that she took it to work with her and painstakingly typed out every word on her office Olivetti. I’m pretty sure I still have that story tucked around somewhere.
At one point in high school, I finally got the nerve to expose my stories to the world. I submitted a short story to local, school-sponsored contest. The final prize would be publication in the local paper.
I was psyched and my brain took me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, excitement, nervousness, regret, oh my, but I was a mess.
One week before the announcement of finalists, I was approached by the editor of the paper, the school sponsor and my favorite English teacher. They thought I should pull my story from the contest. The topic and content of the story, they said, was too “explosive” and “controversial” and they did not want to “expose” me to any potential backlash if my story was published.
Those words reverberated through my head, my blood, my entire body, nearly drowning out the remainder of their meaningless platitudes. I couldn’t believe, I didn’t want to believe what I was hearing.
My story “Riverside Park” told of a teenaged romance. The girl was black and her lover, her first, was white. The boy breaks her heart by refusing to acknowledge their relationship in public and then humiliates her in front of his friends. I was 15 years old, maybe 16, a virgin, and since I was a late bloomer, I had no interest in either boys (regardless of race) or sex. In fact, I challenge you to find a child more naïve and innocent than I was at that age.
But I was a writer. The story was a work of fiction.
I didn’t have the words to express or stand up to the adults who were working so hard to look after my best interests. The very people who encouraged me to climb out of my shell, to share my soul with the world, were now telling me to shut it down. The humiliation of that moment still resonates.
For those of you hearing this story for the first time, I probably should mention that I was a student at a private boarding school when this event took place. For the duration of my enrollment, I was either the only or one year, one of two black students on campus. The entire faculty was white, most of the town was white.
Even in my naïveté, I recognized that the “explosive” and “controversial” aspects of my story was the interracial romance. I also recognized that the only interests that were being protected were those of my school and the community. My teacher pulled me aside after the meeting and encouraged me to identify the name of the boy who had . . . mistreated me. To this day, I don’t think I convinced her that the work was entirely fiction.
But I was 16. And I bowed to the pressure, and I pulled my story. I never spoke of the incident, never allowed my loud and extremely vocal mother to stand up for me, I never expressed my disappointment and rage at the unfairness of it all.
I regret that but the damage was done. I never wrote another word.
Fast forward to the present. My only writing in the intervening years was limited to a sporadically maintained journal. Sometimes, it was the only outlet to help maintain my sanity.
In 2008, a spark of life returned, I caught a germ of an idea that mutated into a character and potential story conflict, until it became a full on virus that took over my imagination and sleep life. And my second novel was born.
After that, the flood gates opened and I now have more stories that want to be told than I have the time to tell them. I have been working at developing my craft to avoid letting basic things like grammar and POV get a stranglehold on my art. But I feel trapped by ghosts of the past. There are times when writing the stories of my soul, my former editor and teacher reach forward and censor the characters in my head. I’m aware of it happening and it frustrates the hell out of me because I don’t know how to make them stop.
But I got some great news this morning. I am so honored to share that my application to the Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) Foundation/Miami workshop has been accepted.
VONA/Voices is a 3-day intensive writing workshop for writers of color. Since 1999, the workshops, originally conceived at The University of California Berkley, have strived to nurture developing writers of color. And at this point in my life, this time of transition, from hobbyist to professional, they are like a drop of water to a starving man. My soul longs for the nurturing, the fellowship, the inspiration . . . the understanding.
So, I’m ready y’all, ready to soar! By the time I get back from Miami, it’s gone be on! Look out world.