Saturday, March 13, 2010

Speaking Truth to Power

Last week I went to a luncheon where Beverly Jenkins was the keynote speaker. As soon as she saw me, she gave me a large hug and was genuinely pleased I was there. She called me a surprise. Now, I went in expecting her to be surprised and pleased to see me, but the genuine happiness with which she’d greeted me took me aback in a good way. I told her that I was working on my self-esteem, giving up the low variety for Lent (and beyond). That I cannot move forward professionally until I face the personal issues because those issues affect how much I’m able to put myself out there to accomplish the goals I’ve set for myself. Speaking this revelation out to her brought tears to my eyes and I almost started crying. She told me she was glad I came to that place and to remember “God doesn’t make mistakes” and that I’m not a mistake. She continued with some professional tips I should do and then the program started.

Knowing is half the battle, as the cliché goes. The rest of that cliché should be “it’s also the easiest part of the battle.” The doing is harder. It’s much harder, and because I’m so afraid of failing I’m afraid of the doing. Last week I fell back onto some counterproductive habits—dulling my own shine, cracking jokes to hide what’s really going down, minimizing just how terrified I am to go into this new territory of my life—of healing. I’m afraid to heal because I’ve gotten so used to this brokenness, I’ve figured out how to become comfortable on those cutting fragments. But that’s not really what it is, and only now can I admit it.

Healing means telling everyone I’ve been lying.

My laughter and my jokes were so I didn’t start crying about how unhappy I was—even though I had all these things going for me. They hid the guilt I had for feeling the way I did. They hid the shame I had for not using these gifts to the fullest. This world is very competitive, and when I went to Harvard especially, all I saw were people who had “better” gifts or knew what to do with the gifts better than I did. I remember freshman year, right at the beginning, and we were asking each other where we got in other than Harvard. When it was my turn I remember looking down and mumbling the places I’d gotten acceptances: Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale (and Duke was my “safety school”). Those were the only places I’d applied to as well. They all looked surprised and impressed and I shrugged it off like it wasn’t a big thing because it wasn’t “a big thing” in my house. If I hadn’t gotten into those schools I would’ve been a failure. I’d messed up. It’s only now, actually, that I own that moment. Hell, yeah, I was kickass academically and all these schools knew it. And then I found this choir that became my family, and I remember asking my dad was it okay that this choir felt like more my family than my actual family, and he said that was the family I’d chosen, not the family given to me. They give you what you need and there’s nothing wrong with that. I became a leader, and the more I became a leader, the more I felt unworthy for it. Bobby McFerrin came to do a brief residency and my choir sang with him. McFerrin was so impressed he invited us to sing with him at a music festival in Germany. The director said he was only going to choose the best voices to go with him, so I automatically assumed I wasn’t going to go even though I’d auditioned for the small subsection of the group and made it—the only freshman to make it. And not only that, the women in the group were apparently concerned about me, but the director said he saw something in me, the way I interpreted the songs, and his vote of confidence got me in. That “vote of confidence” actually shook me even more because I felt as if I’d only gotten in because the director said so, not because they wanted me.

I withdrew, and it continued. I was getting frustrated because the choir was changing and not in a way I thought it should, and that it was becoming a popularity contest and that even though I was one of the leaders, I didn’t consider myself popular. Basically, without Kuumba, Lord only knows what would’ve happened to me at Harvard. That school requires a healthy sense of self-possession and esteem. Without it, you don’t make it.

Such is life.

Part of my declaration to be a writer isn’t this lofty sense of “this is what I was born to do” but as an “F-U” to my fam who said the likelihood of my success was small. And when the prediction, as logical as it was, started panning out, that really beat my already fragile self-esteem. Rejection after rejection came in. I’d submit to contests and some of the judges would determine I had no talent. For years I didn’t say I was a writer. That was a secret. Even here on LJ and other places where I posted up my work (whether fic or otherwise), I didn’t get many comments whereas someone else would have hundreds or even thousands. I took that to mean no one was reading, although I can say I’d rather get no comment than a “this is garbage”! Even after Being Plumville came out, I still didn’t mention my work because I’d self-published it. I’d done it myself, and if I didn’t do it the “traditional” way, it doesn’t count. This notion is underscored by the fact the publishing industry still considers self-published works as stepchildren. It doesn’t help that many self-published works are low in quality and high in price, but I knew mine wasn’t that…even if it took me a week to actually open the box of books I’d gotten right after the book was finished. March is the three-year anniversary of Being Plumville and I’m proud of that story. I’m not ashamed of it as I had been—I can admit that now. I’m proud and I stay I’m a writer and that I have seven published works. I see the “wow” on people’s faces when I say that. I used to joke that I had no life and the characters came in and took me over. And while part of that it’s true, it was more I could escape there and have everything work out. I had control (even if I were under my characters’ whims; I knew they wouldn’t steer me wrong). I had no such control in real life. Things happened that I couldn’t control even despite my best efforts, and that scared me, so I withdrew. I also joke that writers are one of the few people who can say “I hear voices in my head” and not be considered crazy. But even with all those voices, the one that would always resonate the most was “You won’t win.”

Somewhere along the way, I began redefining what success was. I stopped looking at New York as the definition of success. It’s getting my book out there to as many people as possible. But beyond that, I started gaining confidence that I have something to say and that people are willing to listen. For so long, since I was young, I was told to be quiet, that I don’t have anything of worth to say, that I’m not making sense. When I first started singing in the choir, the leader of my subgroup was working with me on my first lead “Steal Away”. She couldn’t figure out what was wrong with how I was singing until she stopped, her eyes went wide, and she said “You don’t open your mouth when you sing!” Of course I looked at her as if she were crazy, but then she showed me how she wanted me to sing and she said “See!” and declared it much better. That’s what this writing journey has been—opening my mouth. And that’s what my personal journey has to be too. I’ve got to open my mouth and not just let faults and problems come out. If I can own the bad then I better learn to own the good. Own my awesome. Own that I have the right to accept the good things that are on the horizon for me, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty they’re coming for me. I should stop being surprised when someone says something nice about me and stop trying to deflect it. Accept the goodness this person has seen in me instead of trying to make things “normal” by pointing out the bad.

But mostly, stop lying to people. Stop giving them what I think they want and give them the genuine me. I can’t receive the blessings due to me if I don’t present “me” to receive them.