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Michelle's Musings

Lovely Performance!

My monologue titled "Ode to Jesse" was performed earlier this month along with several other acts in collaboration with Mounarath Powell Dance's artistic director, Spencer Powell, to celebrate the studio's 15th anniversary (see my events page). Accompanied by jazz instrumentals, my piece, loosely based on my half-brother Carlos whom I did not know well, was the only one set to words. Largely auto-fiction, the story centers around a Vietnam veteran who returns from combat only to find anti-Black racism is alive and well. Despondent, he joins the burgeoning Black Panther Party where he meets his soulmate, Cheryl. They have a son (Jesse); however, Carlos struggles with posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and resorts to self-medication with street drugs. The couple ultimately separate, but like any other father, Carlos wants a better life for his son. When he can, he attempts to instill in Jesse a sense of confidence and self-pride, though he senses Jesse's lack of regard for him as a role model. At the story's conclusion, we learn how Jesse really feels about his relationship with his father.


The performance for my monologue commenced with a trio of dancers, and then concluded with a riveting solo. Well-received by the audience, the dancers' enactment was quite moving. To my surprise, the soloist even thanked me for providing him inspiration through my words. In turn, I offered praise for his heartfelt interpretation.


After three days of performances in front of a full house, Spencer presented me with a beautiful floral bouquet (see photo on my event page). This collaborative effort was generated from an experimental project I participated in less than a year ago, and we're already talking about our next project to be showcased prior to the upcoming presidential election. So stay tuned!

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It's Open Mic Time

It's National Poetry Month, and I've managed to survive my first Open Mic poetry reading, which took place during the 2024 annual San Diego Writers Festival earlier this month. I'd signed up in advance, so I was one of the earlier speakers to read after presentations by the featured poets. Truthfully, I wasn't all that nervous leading up to the event, and I wasn't nervous during the reading, even though the attendance reportedly was larger than usual.


In preparation for my reading, I did a little online research. Not much surprised me—it helps to have a compelling poem, of course, and one should read with passion. The day before the event, I received an email from a writers' newsletter containing, of all things, an expert's advice on how to work the crowd during a poetry reading. (As is often the case for me, karma and serendipity were at play once again.) A few salient tips in this interview stood out to me. The expert mentioned making eye contact with the audience, and he addressed how some speakers are reluctant to emote for fear of appearing full of one's self. His counterpoint to that reluctance was poignant: Folks are in the room because they want to hear what you have to say. Thus, the speaker should put some energy into their reading to approximate the fervor with which they wrote the piece. This advice resonated with me. As I stated in a recent blog post, the imposter syndrome has been finding its way into my psyche of late.


So check, check, and check for what I anticipated were necessary for a good reading.


The expert also talked about similarities between reading poetry and acting. He even recommended that poets consider taking a beginning acting class. Indeed, there were some amazing "performances" at this Open Mic event, including one gentleman who recited three poems from memory in a most animated fashion. But as the featured poets read their works, I looked for some of the dos and don'ts I'd learned. A couple of the speakers did not make much eye contact or vary the inflection in their voices, which actually heightened my confidence. I rationalized it was really the words folks wanted to hear, that the audience wasn't so interested in the performative element (I've since concluded the performative element enhances a poetry reading). Overall, I found the Open Mic speakers' readings to be on par with that of the featured speakers.


Speaking of performance, I'm reminded of a recent comment from my poetry class instructor who said one of my poems sounded "performative." He spoke in a tone that suggested a performative poem was less than desirable. I've since researched the distinction between performative poetry and "regular" poetry and have not found anything disparaging about the former. I'll delve deeper into that discussion in a future blog.


To summarize, the atmosphere at my first Open Mic was welcoming and inclusive. And I think most speakers fed off that energy. I even signed up last-minute to read at another annual event two days later, also one that also saw record attendance. The humanity on display at both events was exhilarating. I'm already looking forward to my next reading!

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Expand Your Horizons

I recently read an Authors Guild post from a writer who received an offer for publication that was withdrawn after the publisher learned she had very few Facebook followers (at least for their purposes). She posted the Guild blog to ask the membership what it deemed a decent number of followers. Like many writers, I don't have an expansive exposure on social media platforms. However, I won a literary award a couple of years ago, which got me thinking that I might need to become more comfortable being in the spotlight. So I enrolled into Toastmasters International to sharpen my public-speaking skills, but I withdrew after a year due to a scheduling conflict with one of my classes. Though I've not yet rejoined, I recently dropped in on a meeting after several months of absence and was asked to participate. To my surprise, I was quite comfortable in front of a mixed crowd of old and new faces. While I'm still holding out on signing up for a Facebook account, it was a smart move to join Toastmasters.


Then last year, I broke down and opened an Instagram account, although I'm not sure how much this platform will increase my visibility among readers and writers. I subsequently won a poetry award, and I recently learned that one of my poems has been accepted for publication in the 2024-25 edition of the San Diego Poetry Annual. This got me thinking about how to promote myself on Instagram, particularly since the editors of the Annual invited me to participate in future poetry readings. I'm now slated to read at my first Open Mic next month at the San Diego Writers Festival.


But, wait—there's more! I'm collaborating with a choreographer who's developing a performance based on a monologue I wrote. Our joint effort will be presented on stage in May, and the producer/choreographer wants to promote my work and platform. I'm also being interviewed by San Diego Writers, Ink. So you see where I'm going with the networking and social media platform thing—I need to get the ball rolling!


As I attempt to leverage my writing successes, I'm expanding my horizons when it comes to self-promotion. I find that by putting greater effort into this venture, I'm generating more opportunities to parlay new and existing relationships into additional prospects. In the end, what excites me most, however, is my ongoing love affair with the written word.


In spite of multiple rejections, regularly producing and submitting work has heightened my confidence in myself as a writer—an award-winning writer at that! So for those of you who think success in this industry is tantamount to a crapshoot, I'm here to tell you that I happen to agree. But I also concur with Nike's famous slogan: "Just Do It".

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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. 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 to Europe of goods produced on plantations.


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? part I

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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