The Immortal Toni Morrison

It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.

And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.

Back?

Cool.

I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.

Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.

(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)

A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey HouseCat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.

But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.

There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.

And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.

A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.

“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.

I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.

There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:

Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”

Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.

Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.

“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.

It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:

“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”

I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.

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The writer on the eve of her 28th birthday

Congratulate me, folks. Barring any freak accidents in the next 12 hours, I’ve survived the 27 Club.

Years ago I wrote an angsty short story from the perspective of a singer on the night before her 28th birthday. She grapples with death, trying to decide what would be more beneficial to her celebrity: living another day or dying just in time to join the 27 Club, the group of talented musicians who all died at that age. That story’s not posted on this site, as it was written by a sheltered 20-year-old in the thick of mourning Amy Winehouse.

I was never at risk of joining the 27 Club — apart from the occasional boozie night out and ill-advised habit of jaywalking, I rarely do anything to put my life in jeopardy, and I’m one of the very fortunate ones who has never desired let alone contemplated ending their own life. I also have a no-food-in-bed policy, which rules out taking the Mamma Cass route.

(For those who don’t get the joke, the Mamas and the Papas singer was found dead with a half-eaten ham sandwich on the bedside table, or so legend has it. Also she was 32, not 27.)

But 27 meant something more to me. Last year I announced it was my “golden age,” as I was born on the 27th and my lucky number has unoriginally but consistently been 27. It was going to be the year of publishing and handstands, style evolutions and more cooking.

Now today I’m finding myself taking inventory. Omaha is still “in sub” with publishers via my agent, and I’m not as far along in Nobody’s Hero as I hoped to be by now. I still can’t do a handstand, though my crow pose is fly (heh). My hair grew out, I hated it, and I cut it back to the pixie I had throughout my early 20s. I bought Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and made exactly two recipes from it.

But then I think of what did happen. I did have a job change that plunged me into a new world of strategic communications during a turbulent time in our company’s history. I fell even harder for the Man with Time On His Arm. I spent 10 days in London, two of which I spent touring on my own and discovering not only the city but also myself. I bought my first pair of Vans.

So maybe the biggest lesson of 27 was to have goals, but be OK setting them aside to let other opportunities take center-stage. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Which is why I’ve decided to let the big things happen as they will and focus on a couple little, attainable goals for 28:

  1. Watch more documentaries, especially the kind that make me cry. I long for the same hopeful weeping I experienced during just the trailer for Knock Down the House.
  2. Get into Bruce Springsteen’s music. Like, wrapped in an American flag bandana, into it. Right now my phone has only “Hungry Heart” and “Pink Cadillac,” and I’m a disgrace to my generation and the one before it.
  3. Start being OK with mixing metallics in my jewelry choices.
  4. Admit publicly that I like Imagine Dragons and always have, from when they dropped “Radioactive” and played in our college street for free, to now when they make anthems for sports commercials. There. I did it. Check.
  5. Accept the fact that I will never watch every episode of 30 Rock, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother because there’s too many of them and I’m particular about my sitcoms.

In a year I’ll have to see just how many of these I achieved. Now I have to go learn all the words to “Born to Run.”

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Nightmare No. 8952: Hurricane

Last night I dreamt that I was in some kind of complex — it reminded me of the split-level Des Moines house my cousin, her husband, and my two second cousins lived in when I was about nine or ten. We visited a handful of times, and what I remember most about it was how even though there were few windows in the basement, it still felt bright because of how many blank white walls there were.

Maybe that’s not how it really was, but that’s how I remember it. White blank walls, white berber carpet that stuck to calices that formed on our heels from playing outside in our bare feet.

I wasn’t in their house, but I was in a house like it. It was bigger, one level. Lots of different rooms and empty desks. There were a number of faceless people — not horror-movie faceless, just unknown — rushing around, leaning mattresses up agains the few windows set within the blank, white walls as the wind and rain picked up outside.

We were all about to die, and we all knew it. 

As the rest of the dream cast yelled orders at each other and quaked at the creaks and moans the house was making in the hurricane winds, I had one objective: Get my phone to work so I could call my parents. But I couldn’t get my phone to work. I’d plug it in to get it to power up, and it wouldn’t have a signal. I’d unplug it and move around the house, among the hustling mattess-movers, and it would lose juice and go black. At one point, I thought my phone was working and yelled: “Mom, Dad, we’re not going to live through this. I love you” only to find that it had dropped the call moments after connecting.

All the while, walls started collapsing in as people around me ducked under the empty desks and mattresses to take cover from the storm. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to two of the most important people in my life.

I’ve never felt dread like that, both during and after. I’ve had my share of terrifying nightmares and stress dreams, but not in recent memory have I had one that made me wake up feeling not scared, but doomed. I was sleeping on my couch last night because of house guests, and I woke up shaking, my fingers clawing through the crocheted loops of my blanket. Despite the clock reading 4 a.m., I wanted to text my mom, just in case.

Never will I assume that having that nightmare last night counts as understanding the fear, sadness and hopelessness that fills people actually facing these certain-death situations without any chance to say goodbye — mass shootings being (despicably) the first example that comes to mind. If this is how my body and mind reacts to something in my subconscious as I sleep, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be wide awake and facing the very real threat of leaving life and loved ones behind.

A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.  

A Nyquil-loaded writer’s review of 2018

A fairly healthy 2018 has decided to bid adieu by deploying a nasty cold in its final days, so I’ve been spending the last 72 ours valiantly fighting it back in hopes that it raises the white Kleenex flag in time for my darling friend Hannah to arrive in Chicago tomorrow afternoon.

On the upside, this gives me plenty of time to write. 

On the downside, this also gives me a great excuse to rewatch seasons 3-5 of Archer because “I need rest.”

So forgive however this year-end recap turns out, as it is a product of Nyquil, procrastination and self-disappointment at said procrastination.

Last year I published several listicles highlighting my favorite 2017 write-spirations. Although this year came with an equal amount of creativity fodder, I grew so tired of reading other “best of 2018” recaps that I decided not to scream into the already loud fray. Yes, we all loved Killing Eve, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer was revelatory, as was her live tour. You don’t need yet another person telling you this. (Though really, Killing Eve is marvelous and available on Hulu).

Instead, I thought I’d compose a list that’s probably less SEO-friendly and certainly less replicable, unless everyone commits to selling out Sleigh Bells’ next tour and gets to stand up as a grooms-maid at a friend’s wedding. So here it is, a list of experiences I had this year that contributed to my writing:

1. This year came with a few steps closer to being a published novelist. I had a short story printed in Z Publishing’s Emerging Illinois Writers collection, which I remind myself is how Chuck Palahniuk started — having Chapter 6 of Fight Club appear in an anthology of Oregonian writers. 

I also got signed with TZLA shortly after that because one of their agents liked a tweet I sent out about my then-work-in-progress, Omaha. He has since started submitting it to publishing hoses and recently assured me that “2019 will be a great year!) I’m holding him to that, but I’m not slowing down. 

2. The Man with Time on His Arm, full stop. His creative sense of humor, patience with my complaints about writers’ block and generosity of ear (and input) to my half-cooked story ideas is worthy of a Booker Prize in itself. When I told him Omaha was going to be represented by TZLA, he hugged me and said he was proud of me, and honestly it meant more to me than if he had said “I love you.”*

*Sub-item: I built on my wealth of material for a romantic dramedy by saying “I love you” during the intermission of Dita Von Teese’s Chicago House of Blues burlesque show on May 18. I was very drunk on vodka. The timing was wrong, but the sentiment was not.

3. In June I spent ten days in Barcelona and Rome, and talk about inspiration. Not only did I see the palace that belonged to Livia — the wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus and poisoner of probably a hundred different people, all in the name of becoming a goddess (can you say diva, queen and legend all at once?) — but I also walked the streets where artistic revolutionaries like Botticelli, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway once walked. It sounds cliche, but you can’t escape the hope that some of their brilliance might come home with you on the soles of your fashionable Guess walking sandals. 

4. I was part of my friend Ryan’s wedding party and stood (though things got shaky for a minute there) in Louboutin heels and a tuxedo among some people he’s known far longer and better than me. More potential romantic dramedy material: however: I once was in a (weird, long-distance) relationship with the officiant, so naturally….everything was fine, and the lack of memoir-worthy hijinx was the only complaint I could make about the whole event, unless you count introducing a Missouri-bred bachelor party to Malort early enough in the evening so they would really remember it. 

Unfortunately, being this fresh off the Keelers’ nuptuals has led me to shelve my short story, “The Wedding,” due to an entire plot premise that could be terribly misconstrued for a reimagining of the ceremony and events leading up to it. Stay tuned in 2020, if not later.

5. Despite losing a toenail and being slightly bruised the next morning, I had the time of my post-apocalyptic life in the mosh pit at Sleigh Bells’ Chicago show. But I already wrote about that. Other life-changing musical events included seeing Elton John in the flesh and being just a tackle’s distance away from Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, as he sprinted past me on the main floor of his stadium show. The man knows how to wear thin linen pants. 

I was going to continue this post with a list of 2019 goals, but the Nyquil is really kicking in now, and the letters are starting to look a little wobbily. Remembering how my roommate in college posted four solid tweets of nonsense under the influence of the miracle flu-drug, I think I’ll sign off now while I stay coherent.

Foot.

Teddy bear.

Suitcase.

Four-poster bed.

Trigonometry.

Auld lang syne.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Post mortem: A landfill of chaos

I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been recouperating — in all aspects of life: sleep, social, day job, reading. Turns out devoting all of November to 50,000 words of a book really detracts from, well, everything else.

But here I am, 50,788 words later, with 2018’s National Novel Writing Month behind me. Goal achieved. Book…in progress.

Because that’s really all this year’s NaNoWriMo accomplished, really. By the middle of the month I abandoned my usual approach of “write with a few plot points in mind and the connective tissue will come together naturally.” Instead, I found myself writing blurbs, scenes, and conversations in roughly the order I expect they’ll appear in the final product. 

I gotta say, my first three chapters are super tight, and there’s some real filth that would make EL James blush.  

In 2017, I wrote Omaha, the book that I had been planning for three years, submitted a detailed synopsis for, and promised to an interested agent. With Omaha currently “in sub” (a term I learned from a fellow corporate novelist that means “in submission with publishers”), I was both blessed and cursed with lower stakes this year. And that allowed me more wiggle room to write whatever parts of the book I wanted. 

But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo, as most participants understand. Author Chuck Wendig has the best, or at least most colorful,  perspective on the 50,000-word, 30-daylong sprint:

“What once was an innocent tract of unbroken order is now a landfill of chaos….That, I think, is the guiding principle of National Novel Writing Month: you are here not for purity, not for innocence, not for perfection. You are here to ruin a perfectly good empty page. And that isn’t just the purview of this month — but it’s writing any story, on any day.”

In a different blog post, Wendig also points out that you don’t win NaNoWriMo by hitting the 50,000 word mark by 11:59 p.m. local time on Nov. 30 — you win when you finish the book. And I agree. Here I sit with 81 pages of everything from full chapters to quippy five-sentence paragaphs that have to eventually get strung together into somethign coherent, and I don’t feel like I jogged across the finish line triumphantly but rather scratched my way across it, breaking a few nails along the pavement.

(Apologies to anyone like me who still feels their sphincter tighten when they think about that shot from inside Buffalo Bill’s well in Silence of the Lambs.) 

So as I finally sit down with enough energy to do a post-mortem on my work in November, I recognize that I’m far from winning NaNoWriMo, regardless of the snappy e-certificate they sent me. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I eb in and out of excitement and dread at it. But it’ll get done, and I’m a lot further along than I was in October.

Now it’s just time to bring some order to the landfill of chaos.