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Michelle's Musings

Honest Dialogue

In celebration of Black History Month and amid the ongoing assault against teaching African-American History, one of my writing societies posted a list of works from African-American authors, approximately half of which I've already read. In examining this list, I reflected upon discoveries I've made in my own ancestry, beginning with the advent of the Slave Triangle to Emancipation; from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement. Those discoveries have provided what amounts to an in-depth course on African-American History that I wish had been available when I was much younger.

 

Many of my ancestors' stories, some of which are profoundly astounding and heartbreaking, are grounded in the founding of our Nation. In today's divisive political climate, it's difficult to comprehend the growing backlash to whatever progress has been made to right an enormous wrong that was the institution of slavery. We've come so far since those early days of widespread oppression, and yet we see attempts to repeat the worst of our misdeeds.

 

To flourish as a democracy, our society maintains and enforces certain ethical and moral standards. We're a nation of laws, and our democracy hinges on the enforcement of those laws. Yet it seems that some who previously called upon this edict to justify the unequal dispensation of justice to certain demographics now want to abandon it to advance their distorted agendas. Civil Rights, Racial Equality, Social Justice, DEI, to name a few terms, have been refashioned into "dirty" trigger words because they serve as uncomfortable reminders that disparities endure.

 

No matter your personal views, we are all members of the same Human Race. For those who are uncomfortable with discussions about the marginalization of Blacks and other communities whose indelible achievements have been intentionally suppressed for decades, I say take a few moments to put yourself into the shoes of those disenfranchised folks and imagine the discomfort they've endured. Adversity builds character, but no group should be subjected to selective application of our Nation's laws continue to persevere in spite of these obstacles. It is my hope that with ongoing dialogue, we'll eventually get to a place where we peacefully coexist in spite of our differences.

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Off to a Great Start for 2024!

My, my, my. Apparently, karma was at play when I wrote my last year-end blog about gratitude for my 2023 writing accomplishments. I placed a positive spin on the realities of the writing business in which rejection is the norm by discussing the significance of validation beyond publication or contest wins. I expressed optimism that, despite the sea of rejections, one of my submissions would be accepted. And lo and behold, within two weeks of posting my blog, I received a congratulatory email for a poem I entered into the 2023 Writer's Digest annual poetry competition. It was selected as a top-20 winner out of nearly one thousand submissions from around the world.

 

Karma, karma, karma!

 

It took a little convincing on my part to realize that the email congratulating me on my win was not spam. Even after opening it and reading it a couple of times, I wasn't entirely certain until I noticed the citation of my poem's title. After digesting this great news, I thought about potential reasons the editors found my poem compelling. I wrote about the Middle Passage as an exercise for my poetry class after I learned disturbing information in my heritage that affiliated me with the start of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle. From the 16th through 19th centuries, European goods were transported to Africa (first leg of the triangle) in exchange for slaves who were then transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. This second leg, known as the Middle Passage, was especially heinous. The third leg consisted of the conveyance of goods produced on plantations to Europe.

 

As I delved deeper into this history, I developed an overwhelming sense of grief for those negatively impacted by the atrocities of the Middle Passage. The notion of my ancestors playing a significant role in its success disturbed me to the point that I felt compelled to write this poem. I'd recently learned of the Writer's Digest annual poetry contest, and I contemplated submitting my poem for consideration. But I wanted to first get feedback from my fellow students.

 

Because of the backlog of class submissions, along with the imminent contest deadline, I ended up turning in the original piece to Writer's Digest before it was critiqued. Eventually, I read my poem in class and received positive feedback. While I was not enamored with making the suggested changes, I revised it anyway and set it aside for possible submission elsewhere. Meanwhile, I learned I'd inadvertently submitted for Writer's Digest's early deadline. Had I realized this beforehand, I most likely would not have turned in the original piece and instead submitted the revised one for the later deadline. All this is to say, the stars were definitely aligned in my favor.

 

A recent online forum from one of my writing organizations discussed the merits of the well-known adage, "write what you know." If I were interviewed about my winning entry, I would say "write what you're passionate about" because this is exactly the mindset with which I wrote this poem. If you are enthusiastic about something, let others experience that enthusiasm through your writing. If your work moves you, there's a good chance it will move others.

 

In addition to publication, I'll also receive a small cash award, which makes the win even more special. I'll provide updates when I learn the details of publication (around late spring/early summer), but I cannot be more energized about my writing ventures for 2024!

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2023: A Year of Growth

I'm not big on New Year resolutions because I rarely call upon them throughout the year. But I do like to reflect upon my writing progress, or lack thereof. If I'm honest with myself, lack of progress is not an issue for me as I've done lots in the way of advancing my writing. Still, it sometimes feels like I haven't done enough. That sentiment stems from not having achieved any writing awards or publication outside of my monthly newsletter column and this blog. While I'm genuinely happy to see someone else achieve a contest win or an acceptance for publication, sometimes we need to fall back on something other than peer recognition of our work to remain motivated.

 

Fortunately, I enjoy the solitary practice of writing; however, this past year I set out to expand my writing community. I'm currently immersed in the final weeks of three fall classes, although I'd fully intended to drop one or two at the beginning of the semester. The poetry class I added at the last minute was the likely candidate to be cut as I've not been a hearty fan of poetry. However, I'm learning different literary and poetic tools and styles that can only enhance my prose writing, so I pat myself on the back for hanging in there with all three classes.

 

I'm impressed with the caliber of writing by fellow classmates, which further motivates me to improve my craft. I even submitted work, including poetry inspired by a few prompts, to several contests and anthologies. The submitted poems hadn't yet been critiqued by my classmates because of imminent deadlines that I wanted to meet. But when I finally received feedback, I realized where my work could stand improvement. Of the submissions I've sent thus far (not just poetry), I've heard back from about half (all declinations). However, during a demonstration of the school's curriculum platform, my instructor (an award-winning, Pushcart prize-nominated poet) who teaches all three classes referred to his list of prior submissions. When I saw his accumulated rejections (probably in the hundreds), I was heartened to see that rejection doesn't necessarily reflect one's aptitude for writing, which renewed my optimism and energy to keep chugging along. I remain hopeful that one or two of my remaining submissions will be accepted, and I give myself kudos for having the courage to send in my work.

 

Earlier in the year, I seized an opportunity to write a story to be set to a performance in collaboration with a choreographer. By design, the grant did not provide for the four teams of collaborators to see their projects to completion—although we presented our works-in-progress to a sold-out audience. From that effort, my choreographer-partner invited further collaboration with me, and he's currently producing a dance performance based on a new piece I wrote. Our project will be showcased at his studio's upcoming 15th anniversary celebration next spring.

 

Several months ago, I responded to a call for volunteer/mentorship applications with a Los Angeles based writing organization (WriteGirl) that supports, empowers, and mentors teen girls with their writing. The application process ended up being more rigorous than I anticipated. First, I submitted a bio in order to be considered for an invitation to apply. A few months later, I received the invitation and underwent a thorough vetting process, including an FBI/DOJ background check. I then attended two mandatory three-hour training sessions, and I discovered that award-winning writer and poet Amanda Gorman who read her work at the Biden-Harris inauguration is an alumnus of WriteGirl, which now has global outreach. I attended my welcome session just days ago and will have more to say about the organization in a future post.

 

So all this is to say I really don't have much to lament with respect to my writing accomplishments for 2023. In spite of multiple rejection letters, I actually feel more energized about the paths I've embarked upon this year, and I look forward to an even more fulfilling 2024.

 

No matter how small your accomplishments seem at times, and no matter how many of your manuscripts are rejected, there will always be a place and a need for your voice. I hope you realize a rewarding New Year full of wonderful writing!

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Born to Write, part II

Writing requires in-depth research at times, and I find the more I research, the more I want to learn. When I come across an interesting character in my lineage, I find myself making a beeline for the google search bar. It's mind-boggling to encounter an entire encyclopedia of information on an individual in my family tree who turns out to hold a prominent place in history (and not always a good one). But I also enjoy immersing myself in the era during which that ancestor existed.

 

Last month I promised to reveal a surprising discovery from my ancestral tree—one with significant ties to the writing world. I recently unearthed a Bishop Dr. Thomas Cowper/Cooper (my 12th great-grandfather on my father's side), a Cambridge University alumnus born around 1517 in Oxford, England where he practiced as a physician. After editing and revising Bibliotheca Eliotae, a Latin dictionary written by then deceased Sir Thomas Elyot, Bishop Cooper authored his own dictionary titled Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (also known as Cooper's Thesaurus). Three more editions followed, although controversy remains about whether he "borrowed" from other works to compile his own.

 

I was blown away to learn about this well-documented part of my lineage, not to mention that Bishop Cooper was also a physician and an author. While I cannot cross-check my DNA with his, I've pored over several documents that are consistent with my descent from Bishop Cooper, including the fact that I share DNA with his other descendants. But wait, there's more!

 

It's well-documented that Queen Elizabeth I owned and was quite fond of her copy of Cooper's Thesaurus, ultimately referring to it as Cooper's Dictionary. Bishop Cooper's daughter, Elizabeth (my 11th great-grandmother), was the Queen's namesake and goddaughter. Elizabeth's daughter, Jane (my 10th great-grandmother), was the namesake for Lady Jane Grey, aka the Nine Day Queen who was executed along with her husband after being charged with high treason.

 

But that's not all. Through statistical analysis of Shakespeare's word usage, it's widely believed the renowned poet, playwright, and actor used Cooper's Thesaurus/Dictionary in the creation of his poems and plays. Who woulda thought?

 

It's an interesting question to pose: Is writing in my DNA?  I certainly feel this to be the case, that I really was born to write.

 

And, now, on to my next act!

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Born to Write?

If you had asked me five or six years ago whether our democracy would end up facing an existential threat, I would have said this country is just going through a phase. While I'm dismayed with our nation's current trajectory, this post addresses a completely different type of surprise.

 

During recent ancestral research, I uncovered tantalizing tidbits that would make good fodder for my writing. The problem is, I haven't figured out what type of project to pursue. Should I focus on one tidbit at a time, or is there a way to throw it all into one larger pot? I'm guessing the former is the way to go; I just need to wrap my head around a plan of attack.

 

While I contemplate the direction I want to pursue, I continue to unearth more mysteries, including the likely genesis of my interest in writing. After my father's recent passing, I received a box of his belongings that contained a fictional story and a screenplay he'd been working on. Because we'd been estranged most of my adult life, I hadn't known about his writing. However, after poring through the contents of the box, I recalled that in my teens he'd occasionally communicated with me through letters. And I'd responded in kind.

 

An additional surprising discovery that I pulled from the various creased, yellowing photographs and spiral-bound notebooks was a vaguely familiar orange weather-beaten pamphlet with a birthday poem I'd written for my father. I was probably six or seven when I took several pages of craft paper, folded them in half, and then bound them with knitting yarn looped through three holes made with a hole puncher. As with much of my childhood memories, I don't remember writing this poem, and I have only a hazy recollection of designing the card. But it apparently held special significance for my father given that he'd held on to it for decades.

 

Seeing that birthday card triggered my recall of another project I'd put together back in college when I was enrolled in a Children's Literature class. At the time, I knew I wanted to go into healthcare, so I designed an illustrated kiddie book about the digestive process using animated fruits and vegetables as my characters. I remember my instructor asking about the scientific soundness of my details. I'd done my research, and I was emphatic about its accuracy.

 

So here I am, decades later, contemplating the idea that my interest in writing started well before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. But I'm not yet done with the surprising discoveries. I recently unearthed a genealogical connection to a writing legacy that gives new meaning to the phrase "born to write." But as with any good suspense, I'm going to end this blog with a chapter break of sorts and leave you hanging. I'm hoping you'll return next month to learn the nature of this latest discovery because it's sure to wow you like it did me. For now, I'll provide this tantalizing hint:

 

"Lord we know what we are but know not what we may be." (From Shakespeare's "Hamlet" spoken by Ophelia.)

 

See you next month!

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Back to School, Again!

I cannot wrap my head around the fact that fall (and dare I say, the holiday season?) is nigh. I just read something about planning for holiday decorations and... Whoa! I'm still basking in warm summer days. But what really reinforces the advent of fall is that most kids are back to school, including me!

 

I enrolled in three weekly online writing classes that started at the beginning of the month. Granted, these are non-certificate courses designed for the—ahem—more mature writer offered through a local college extension program. But the nice thing about an adult audience is the presence of several knowledgeable editors and writers who provide valuable feedback to experienced as well as up-and-coming writers.

 

I re-enrolled into a revision writing workshop that I participated in this past spring along with a literary style workshop, mainly to contrast the two. The revision workshop focuses on feedback for works in progress while the literary style workshop focuses on writing prompts to stimulate new writing. The third course is a class on poetry.

 

I've recently posted that I've not been a huge fan of poetry, but last spring, at the behest of our instructor, I experimented during National Poetry Month (April). Surprisingly, I found the shorter format amenable to some of my writing ideas for which I'd not yet found a venue. After feedback from the class, I reworked my poem and submitted it, along with an additional poem, to a variety of contests and anthologies. I also subscribed to an email newsletter than drops one poem each day; however, I'm not a fan of most of what I've received. While I understand interpretation and appreciation of a poem require at least three passes, I find the language rambling and flowery most of the time. It feels as if some poets throw together a bunch of miscellaneous words to make their work appear literary.

 

I know this sounds ass-backward, but as I wait to hear back about my entries (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept rejections), I thought I'd learn more about what goes into composing a great poem by taking a class. While the genre remains a bit of an enigma for me, I'm anxious to see my inner Shakespeare awakened.

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I Tried It, and I Like It

I've never been a huge fan of poetry, especially that which requires a considerable amount of effort to parse and understand. Much of what I've recently read seems abstract, and I don't like to work so hard to find the definitive message in what I'm reading. Nevertheless, as a writer, I feel a little guilty about ignoring an entire genre of work.

 

In a recent writing workshop, our instructor, an award-winning poet, informed the class that a poem must be read at least three times before its true meaning is appreciated. Even then, interpretation is subjective. For National Poetry Month (April), he assigned different styles of poems to read, and we were then asked to emulate one of those styles and produce a poem of our own—a task to which I was not endeared. Almost in protest, I wrote two poems based on a memoir excerpt I'd been working on with the mindset that just about anyone can write poetry. One version rhymed and the other conformed to my interpretation of free verse or narrative poetry.

 

I was anxious to see which version my classmates preferred. Somewhat split in their partiality to one over the other, they noted a slight preference for the free verse format. To my surprise, a few classmates also found my work somewhat literary. Perhaps I received this accolade because I used a couple of Early Modern English terms for reasons not entirely clear to me. Though I haven't read Shakespeare in eons, perhaps my use of Early Modern English was a latent manifestation of a poetic voice I didn't know I had.

 

The free verse version happened to be my favorite as well because composing it felt similar to writing a short story. I enjoyed the hunt for a choice selection of words; but what surprised me most was my dogged determination to write two distinct forms of poetry. Enamored with the process, I even joked with my instructor about being a poetry convert. Amused, he shared how he ended up becoming a poet in a similarly serendipitous fashion. He also encouraged us to submit our poems to anthologies.

 

Armed with feedback from my classmates and a bit of inspired motivation, I revised my free verse version and submitted it to a few contests and anthologies. So far, I've received one rejection out of about six submissions. However, I'm excited to have discovered an additional creative outlet that seems to work well for some of my darker stories. Dare I say that I've already written another poem and researched additional submission venues?

 

I guess the moral of this story is, Try it—you might like it. Perhaps I'll add poetry to my list of writing genres!

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Collaboration A Success!

Last month, I blogged about a project for BIPOC creatives that entailed collaboration between four pairs of writers and choreographers in which I participated. Left to our own devices to come up with a product, we previewed our work before a live audience in an art gallery setting this past weekend. Because this showcase was billed as a "performance," I thought my participation would be minimal. However, a week before the event I learned that not only would I, your average reclusive writer, be an integral player, but my presence was requested for the question-and-answer session that followed.

 

After introductions by the project leader to a nearly sold-out audience, I ended up opening the show! I began with a synopsis of how I and my choreographer partner developed our project goals. I then read an excerpt from a personal essay that formed the nidus of my partner's movement concept. Interestingly, none of the collaboration teams knew how the other three teams had designed their projects, and we all ended up presenting a unique performance. The other teams consisted of a dancer and lyricist who sang a beautifully haunting a cappella solo as her dancer performed; a writer who recited a moving poem inspired by watching his two dance partners perform over two practice sessions; and a playwright and choreographer who switched roles and encouraged audience participation to devise words and movement based on artwork displayed on the venue's walls.

 

After our performances, the project director interviewed the collaborators, and then opened the question-and-answer session to the audience. When invited to expand upon the stimulus for our project ideas, I told of how I pulled out an incomplete manuscript for which I had no tangible venue of publication—a piece that spoke to my first encounters with racism during my preteen years. In contemplating this audience member's question, it dawned on me that my explanation was the exact motivation behind the project's theme—to give voice to creatives who are often marginalized because their work may not fit the status quo.

 

My partner reiterated his intent to develop a solo dance performance based on my writing to incorporate into his studio's 15th anniversary celebration next spring. So I'm currently brainstorming on something we can workshop together over the next several months.

 

Perhaps because of the unexpected ovation I received for my reading, but also because the audience seemed fairly impressed with our collective efforts, the evening showcase of our joint works exceeded my expectations. The freedom to express my sentiments was liberating, and I look forward to wherever this collaboration takes me.

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A Unique Opportunity to Collaborate

A few months ago, a professional dancer and choreographer reached out to me at the behest of a member of one of my writing communities to inquire if I would be willing to participate in a project funded by the writers organization. The project entails collaboration between BIPOC choreographers and writers and need not be completed by the designated performance date, as the emphasis is more on the collaborative process.

 

Puzzled about what would be expected of me, I asked whether I was to watch a dance routine and then write something based on that performance, or write a piece that would provide inspiration for the show. To my surprise, the specifics of the collaboration were left entirely to the participants.

 

Given my unfamiliarity with this concept, I did a little research; I found nothing to inform me about what might be involved. Given that my writers organization funded this program, I considered that my writing might be the nidus for the collaboration. Intrigued by the idea of two distinct creative types working together, I agreed to a preliminary meeting with the artistic director of a dance theatre company. Initially, I feared that my lack of a complete understanding of what the proposal entailed might lead the director to shy away from working with me—a fear I attribute to the imposter syndrome. Within the first half-hour, however, it became clear that he and I share a lot of commonalities in our backgrounds.

 

The director wants my writing to form "the inspiration for the movement." He's fond of "the spoken word," and he says he has no intention of critiquing my writing (imagine that!). The subject matter and format would be my choice, and he'd even welcome my suggestions for accompanying music. Additionally, he wishes to see our project through to its final performance under the auspices of his production company.

 

It became clear during the meeting that the stipend does not cover a completed project, but I saw this opportunity as one to rework an incomplete piece I'd filed away for a future time. After what turned into a two hour meeting, the artistic director and I agreed to proceed with the collaboration and parted quite energized at the prospect of what we could develop together. Currently, he has reviewed my submission draft and is motivated to finalize the project. We will meet again to incorporate his contribution in anticipation of the performance date set for next month. So stay tuned for what I hope to be an exciting update!

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Truth in Memoir

Since last month's post, I dug a little deeper into the differences between memoir and autofiction. My main concern was maintaining the truthfulness of memoir in spite of the absence of perfect recall. I was surprised to learn in my writing revision class that changing my characters' names introduces an element of fiction. Yet some reputable memoirists recommend doing so when needed for privacy concerns and protection from liability.

 

Depending on whom you talk to, you'll get diametrically opposed opinions on just how much liberty, if any, one can take in writing memoir. The concept of fictionalizing an autobiography (autofiction) is an intriguing one, especially in cases where memory recall is difficult. A key benefit with autofiction is the author can describe intimate or deeply personal experiences which might otherwise make them feel shamed by intolerant members of society. Since the emotional impact of a story may be more significant than its factual basis, autofiction appears to serve a purpose here. However, some writing experts believe autofiction should not be a separate genre.

 

I recently read We are Bridges: A Memoir wherein author, Cassandra Lane, imagined stories about her ancestors that represented her approximation of the environment in which they most likely existed. She was careful to weave into her narrative the fact that her recall was lacking or that certain specifics were unknown to her. Much of what she portrays as an unreliable narrator is speculation. Yet, her book title includes the word "memoir."

 

When it comes to writing about one's lived experiences, privacy is a priority for those still alive. I plan to stay with my first inclination to change names where necessary, prefaced with a disclaimer somewhere in the introductory pages. I'm not writing a revenge story, therefore, I'm not concerned about others being offended to the extent they'd want to sue me. However, I acknowledge that I have made and will make mistakes with my recall, and I plan to indicate when it might differ from that of others so the reader can trust that I'm delivering an honest product.

 

As a lifelong student, my perspective is not a rigid, hard-lined synopsis of everything I've digested. In fact, my most important take is that rules are meant to bend. To me, it's a matter of degrees. I'm writing my memoir as an example of journey, growth, and renewal that others may find useful for their lives now and in the future. My perceptions are my truth. If I stay true to myself, my story, and my readers' expectations for a resonating message, then I will be successful.

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