When I was a kid, after the late-night parties my parents hosted, me and my sister would sometimes watch New York Undercover. It was decidedly not a kid’s show but it held such intrigue for me; a black girl in suburbia. We’d watch Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo fight the crime and corruption of New York City. I always got a kick out of the fact that Yoba was inCool Runnings and DeLorenzo was one of the dancers in the Beat It music video.
I think I felt grown that I noticed this back then.
And I wonder if this was where my love for New York City was born.
Sometimes I joke around that the only reason I ended up going to military school for five years and being in the Coast Guard for eight is all because of how deep in love I was with New York City.
Recently, I sped-read through Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?The graphic novel/memoir had me all angsty, inspired, and scared shitless.
How do some writers and creatives bare so much without seeming volatile or the very definition of TMI?
I also have been listening to Mary Karr’s Lit on my 12 hour round-trip to NYC. Another finely written memoir with lots of references to a troubled mother-daughter relationship.
And then, I randomly picked up a book I’ve owned but never really delved into, Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Non-Fiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.
The opening of Gutkind’s book takes place in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, my current workplace and educational headquarters.
(I get it Universe, I get it.)
Speaking of the Self is not for sissies, not even in our celebrity-obsessed, here-are-pictures-of-my-lunch culture.
Every time I admit a personal truth, I cringe for days afterwards. I agonize over posting pictures of myself. I wonder if I’m being too transparent and the unholiest of gen-Y archetypes: A Narcissist.
There is a real push against the use of the word “I” these days in writing. My generation of millenials is constantly branded as the most self-absorbed, “me” generation to hit the planet. (Baby Boomers beware!)
In Are You My Mother? Bechdel’s own mother criticizes the genre of memoir. It is extremely suspect in her eyes. One of Bechdel’s questions to her mother in this conversation is, “Can’t you be more universal by being specific?”
This exchange stuck with me especially. I have my own Inner Memoir Suspect who scoffs at anything I write or express that isn’t transcendent or “universal”.
I have often wished I didn’t need to explain the world this way–through the prism of Myself. I would appear objective and intellectual. People’d think I was really something!
This is what I tell myself.
But, in this fact I am a true Aries: I am interested in the Self and selves to an almost embarrassing degree. I am in love with stories that are ripped straight from an actual life.
Once, a close friend of mine made some comment on the “navel gazer” aspects of writing these days (as if autobiographical writing just came to exist in the last couple of years lol). The remark stuck with me as I was sure she was referencing my blog. (Yes, I was projecting Big Time.)
I started wondering whether I should just stop with all my “confessional” writing about body image. I crushed my desire for Storytelling until it was a little squeak from the corner of my brain. I told myself that my interest in fashion blogging was vapid and stupid.
I should be writing about Catastrophe. Or War. Or the newest #Protest. Who gives a fuck about an outfit I wore or my inner ramblings?
Is the collective side-eye toward memoir or writing infused with “I” a symptom of the fear of close truth? Is it because many of the “I’s” that are emerging these are not old, bearded white dudes smoking cigars?
What are We so scared of?
Of course, there are the liars and the whiners. There are the TMI bombs and a million little pieces of questionable truth.
But, there is also beauty and vulnerability and The Liar’s Club, The Black Notebooks, With or Without You, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And of course Are You My Mother?
No matter the medium, there are limits to truth and what we can really express about our inner and external worlds. This is a fact that will always be.
I hope those of you looking to express real parts of your story to wider audiences continue to do so. Sometimes they are inspirational, sometimes they are just weird or fun.
Please know that there are people like me out there who live to read and observe your story.
I’m still making friends with my self-involved shadow sister; the part of me that has to dissect almost all events in reference to my personal worldview. Warning: You’ll be seeing a lot of Her here.
Today I had the opportunity to write with the Pittsburgh Memoir Project held at East Liberty Library. It was my first time and I enjoyed every second of it. (The Project travels to a new Pittsburgh location about every 6 sessions if you are interested.)
I heard many inspiring things today:
What would happen if we acted like magic really existed?
We are all living witnesses to history
A story shines when it intersects the universal, historical, and personal.
One of the prompts we were given was one on Appetite: How do you nurture your appetites? Name your hunger. Give it a color, a texture. Describe what appetite is to you with concrete images.
Here is what I wrote about Dance:
I would say it was red. The color of Aries, alive and pulsing under the skin. It feeds on blood and rampant desire. It throbs and electrifies. Spiky and crimson, shaped like a cobweb made out of Twizzlers. When activated it melts and relaxes neck muscles and itchy soles of feet.
Most of the time I beat it back, crumple it like a piece of wasted writing in the corner. Not now. There are people around. Not today, you need to clean the bathroom and take the clothes to Goodwill.
But she persists. Sending forth incessant images of burlesque halls and Spanish parties. The hearty thump of a character shoe. The undulating fingers of flamenco. The lively springiness.
And when I let her free. She thanks me. Emerges from the pores in colorless drops. She unwinds and bursts forth.
What kills her?
Worry over how my long body looks.
Does-this-look-right checks in hallway mirrors.
A red, seared hunger yes. Wide but spreading further and further until it is as close to me as a DNA strand. Twisting, attaching and holding on for dear life.
She is Life. If I will have Her. Buzzing Life. For-sure Life.
Pining for hours of uninterrupted dance floors and a steady drop-down beat. She is my friend but I treat her tangled self like the Enemy.