It is a quiet night in Brooklyn. We are sitting in the home of Keisha Gaye Anderson for the Calypso Muse Reading Series, which has bounced for twenty years between the living rooms of New York City writers. I have been up since 6:30am and traveled from uptown to far Queens to speak at a youth event, to midtown celebrating my Brooklyn Mama’s PhD program graduation, to here, sleepy-eyed on a comfortable couch awaiting the reading. Picture it: intimate and multigenerational, young and elder writers ranging from age five to sixty. And no one is cool. Which is how I can manage to ease into this space and let it revive my tired eyes and weeping mascara and my rough new poems read off page. No one is cool. So I don’t have to be either.
Well, that’s a lie. Everyone was “cool” in their own distinct way, of course, but none seem cloaked in the air of cool that hangs around the shoulders of new Brooklyn in a way that gives our city a bad rap. That cynical sharpness that pushes us to prove our cool in aloofness and pretenses. The word that used to drive my mother up the wall when I overused the adjective as a teen to describe my attraction to something she found juvenile. “Cool?” She’d strain the word out, “What is cool anyway? What does it really mean?” Here, in this living room, cool is warm, is hot, is welcoming, is expansive. Years ago I walked in the woods of Golden Gate Park with my father’s cousin Rick, who has become a dear friend, and he described the word cool being so foreign to him. Back in the day when rock n’ roll and soul was steaming out the speakers, hot is what everyone wanted to be. Cookin’. Sweaty. This makes so much more sense to me artistically, heat as a metaphor for art that stirs a soul up, gets us fired and kickin’ and moving up good inside. Heat brings the molecules to a frenzy. Heat pushes things out of their hiding places.
For years I have struggled to find my place in the great writing spectrum. I like to read on a stage and utilize my voice as an instrument in delivering words, but was disinterested in much of what was arriving from the performance community. Aside from the ever-critized, homogenous “poem voice,” I found that the writing often (though not always) felt so keenly crafted towards an audience, full of punch lines and strategies and tricks that it lost all its heat. The mac n’ cheese had gone cold, sitting out being admired for so long that no one had gone and ate it. And what good is cold mac n’ cheese when not in a hungry belly?
Today at the youth event I asked the audience what art was- and many beautiful answers arrived, but one so poignant and simple. A middle school student said, “childhood.” Picasso has that terrific quote, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” One of the hardest things we face once we grow up, specifically when getting a taste of an audience- now even more accessible to gather through Internet platforms- is to remain pure in the creation. To drop the underlying anxiety many of us have carried through small life traumas attached to not belonging, to not being cool. I suffer from the cool-bug, too, literally having to battle my own mind when writing, finding it increasingly hard to get into the space that once came so easily, where I wrote without intention of the future. I wrote for me. Eventually, of course, we want an audience to connect to our work and thus, revising is a crucial process. But in the initial stages of getting the first words fluttering on paper, they must be unfettered by the imagined audience to resonate. Feel me this way, the sun cannot touch our skin covered by our flyest outfit. We must strip down by the river and take the rays in naked and exposed.
So how do we return to this space where we are free, fully free, to express without counting out the potential accolades we’ll receive, the score we’ll garner in a slam, the romantic partner we want to find us broodingly sexy, the awards we hope to win.
1. Turn off the Internet. Do I need to say anything else? Your potential audience’s energy is just buzzing in your social media, begging your attention away. Your fellow artists work is so much better, so why bother unless your first draft is a Pulitzer Prize winner? Stop it. The Internet is a trap. Shut it down, check it later.
2. “Just know the first draft will be shit.” Take the pressure off yourself and make this your new mantra. My friend Demetrius said these simple words to me recently when I inquired about the dedication needed to complete a feature length film script. Somehow this simple advice felt so fresh in that moment. Duh! I have a journal that no one else reads. I can write anything in there. Even shit. No one will see it! Really! I can be as honest as I want. And then later, when I am ready, I can make it- hopefully- you know. Not shit.
3. Alter your mind state. No, I am not necessarily talking about following the cult of Kesey and taking the Kool Aid Acid Test. But I am advocating for practices that jolt you out of any routine that makes you feel too comfortable. Write in unlikely spaces. Naked in a room of mirrors. Or after a jog. Or a bath. Or after mediation. Or with your opposite hand. Or first thing in the morning before wiping the sleep from your eyes. Or to a new album of strange and awesome music.
4. Set time limits. Good art takes time. Contrary to popular belief, most good writing doesn’t just magically flow out. Yes, there are inspired moments where the words seem to arrange themselves in a bizarrely perfect poem on the page, but most of the time, you’ll have to work at it. Point being, suspend self judgement and enjoy your first drafts. They are your time to get lost in the act of writing. Let your self-censor worry later. We know this is hard to do, so take it in small steps. For the next ten minutes, this is your time to purge. After ten minutes, I promise, your anxiety is allowed to return.
5. And try it with a friend. For a month two winters ago poet Warsan Shire and I would cozy up together, usually cross legged on my bed, and randomly pick a line from a book of poems to be our prompt- and we’d set a timer and write. I didn’t have time to think about how Warsan would receive my words once the time was up, never mind the world. I just knew I better have something to read after the ten minutes were up. This accountability helped to catapult me into the physical act of writing, with little brain power available to waste time in fear.
Now crack open those notebooks and write.
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Transcribing the Journey is a series of journal entries where I reflect on the journey of writing- my trials, tribulations, growth and thought processes- to share in communion with you, dear writer! Follow along here, or on my website, and feel free to share out!