Last Friday, I had the opportunity to read at the 5-year anniversary of the Boundless Tales reading. What I read, and submitted, was a portion from my short story collection. Yes, the one I've been working on longer than I like to admit though not as long as I guess warrants complaint to some.
If I'm honest, I haven't looked at my fiction, let alone this collection, since I was at VONA in June. For the most part I've dedicated myself to writing a lot of nonfiction this and much of last year. When I returned from VONA I was tired, dehydrated, hot (read: irritable), and stuck on what to do to fix my work. This is par for the course, at least it is for me. You get a lot of feedback and suggestions. You receive some blows and some praise you have to sit with. Plus, your mind is filled with all this (potential) material as you return home from priorities you briefly escaped and now have to deal with.
I think a form of escape for me has been nonfiction because it ties to a reality and I can better report that story. It's a different way of thinking but there are correlations to fiction and fiction writing, hence the genre tags of narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction. I have professed I am not a "fast" writer. It takes me a long time to get it “right.” I feel dejected that the output isn't generated as quickly nor is what seems complete actually done.
For more than two plus months I put this collection aside. I figured, as I have before, perhaps the collection is not the work that will be my debut. Perhaps this is not the tome that will land the agent or the publishing deal, despite the requests for full when it’s done, despite the intrigue on faces when I describe it. Perhaps I have a lot more work to do elsewhere to help me get to where I want to be. In my most recent podcast interview with my friend Rion Amilcar Scott he said that spending years on something "unpublishable" isn't the worst thing that can happen. You learn from it. It's its own form of education.
But then, I went to Friday’s reading. I had applied to be part of the anniversary reading when I was at VONA, before my work got critiqued, when I thought I may actually finish it in fall. I was the last reader of seven. It was a small, hot space with a packed crowd. I was glad to see three friends in the audience and several familiar faces. I waited and listened to local poets, playwrights, and fiction writers read their work and applauded them all. I looked around before I went on and whispered to my friend, "I am the only reader of color on this roster." She gave me a slow nod and said, "I know."
I wasn't so much worried about how the audience responded, but I talk about racism, I talk about a mother almost losing her child in a store, I talk about insecurity and identity in a span of 6 pages. We'll see how this goes, I thought.
I went up, a camera was on me from my right and another directly in front of me. I made a few quips about how wonderful Queens is but don't move her because my rent is low (for NYC), please and thank you. Then I read. I got laughs when I didn't expect it, gasps on certain (very descriptive) lines, and I saw when I panned the audience people paying close attention. When I finished there was applause, but it felt different in a way, it felt like they hung on to every word and truly grasped the trepidation of Mikayla as she almost lost her child.
When people grasp your hand and tell you they appreciate your exploration of humanity, it means a lot. When people give you a hug and say "Are you a mother? Because you got that spot on," it means a lot. When people stay back to tell you they really enjoyed their work, it means a lot. When someone emails you that they taught one of your published stories in their writing class, it means so much. And it especially means a lot because—what you don’t admit out loud—is that you doubt yourself. When I read Mikayla’s piece to the audience, and later again to myself, I was reminded how much I loved it, how much work I put into it, how it was successful in many ways. This was one of those times I needed a reminder. And sometimes those cues come just when you need and least expect them.