Write Until It Hurts: The Art of the Personal Essay

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I've been a journalist -- either as an intern, a full-time reporter, or a freelance writer -- for ten years. I've seen my byline in The Seattle Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, several other newspapers and even in a few national magazines. But something was missing. Never had I seen my byline in one of my favorite publications, skirt! magazine. For years I'd submitted essays to be considered for inclusion in the print publication but only to receive that polite but still heartbreaking rejection email. 
This summer that all changed. My essay  A Darker Shade of Brown was published in the July 2011 issue of skirt! magazine.  

Recently, I sat down and took a look at that essay and compared it to others I'd submitted to the magazine to figure out what I finally did right. Here's what I've come up with:

Listen to your English teacher. I always tell my students that the introductory paragraph is like an advertisement for your essay. I tell them that one way to hook your reader is with a great anecdote. So when writing an essay on colorism I did just that. I started the piece with a story of a woman telling me I was pretty despite my dark brown skin. 

Tell a story that only you can. That's one piece of advice authors Emily Giffin and Claire Cook both gave to us women writers at the skirt! Creative Conference. I believe my essay filled a void. Colorism isn't talked about much even in black publications let alone those for a predominately white audience. This was something that needed to be shared and I could be the person to do it. 

No pain, no game. When it hurts to write, I know that's a story worth sharing. Reliving all the insensitive things people that I love have said to me about my complexion was not fun. But seeing my name in skirt! magazine made it worth it. 

How a Broke Blogger Goes to Fashion Week

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How does a broke blogger go to New York Fashion Week?

You could find a company looking to work with bloggers during fashion week that can offer you access to shows. Or you could get dolled up, walk in like you own the place, and just crash. 

But since I live in Birmingham and can't afford a flight to New York, neither of those would work for me. 

So instead this weekend I headed to the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival for a special screening of The Tentsa documentary chronicling the history and evolution of New York Fashion Week

The 72-minute film begins exploring Fashion Week's humble beginnings of overcrowded shows in downtown clubs and SoHo lofts that broke all sorts of fire codes. Then the documentary details The Council of Fashion Designers of America's organization of the event in Bryant Park in 1993. They decided to pitch a tent, literally, setting up makeshift marquees in the park. Eventually the event would be taken over by  IMG and later become the blowout Mercedes Benz Fashion Week we know it as today. 

Despite a few annoying technical difficulties, I enjoyed the film and loved learning about the history of this event through interviews with top designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Tommy Hilfiger, and Donna Karan. 

And while sitting in the auditorium I even came up with an idea for a blog post.

In my next lifetime I want to be a fashion blogger.  

Like most people I wake up asking myself What am I going to wear today? Unlike most people I tend to obsess over this question. As soon as I know I’m attending an event I can’t stop thinking about what outfit I'll don for the occasion. 

This may sound shallow, but give me a break. I am a Southerner and down here dressing appropriately for an event is less about vanity and more about good manners. Show up under-dressed for something and it's considered just plain rude. 

I used to give myself a hard time about being so concerned with fashion. I’m a writer, I told myself. I have a master's degree from UC Berkeley, hippie capital of the world; I shouldn’t care about such superficial things. But I do care and now I realize that’s OK.

As I think about all the wonderful ladies I’ve met and all the uplifting events I’ve attended through Birmingham’s natural hair community, it reminds me that the world of fashion and beauty can truly unite people.

Fashion can be used to raise money for great causes and fashion can inspire. You can’t see Betsey Johnson’s bright, vibrant designs or watch her do cartwheels down the runway at the end of her shows and not be motivated to have more zest for life.

And I’ve found more ideas for blog posts and more tips on how to improve my blogs from the website Independent Fashion Bloggers than I have anywhere else on the web.

So yes, I am a writer, but, as the description for this blog reads, “I have some stories. I want to look good while I share them.” 

Chasing Pavements, Chasing Dreams

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shades Creek Greenway a.k.a Lakeshore Running Trail

"Bend your knees more and stay light on your feet," she says. "Relax your arms a bit." 

I whisper her instructions to myself in an attempt to etch them into my muscles and my mind. 

It's a Saturday morning and I've been up since 6:15 a.m., sacrificing sleep for the chance to get a step closer to finally feeling like a real runner. 

Thanks to the Birmingham chapter of Black Girls RUN, I can finally say the words, "I'm meeting my running group," which I did for the first time this past weekend. One of the group organizers, Olivia, was kind enough to work one-on-one with me Saturday, helping me improve my stride and giving me tips on how to run up and down hills, and teaching me that slow and steady really does win the race. 

I spent many mornings this summer, before the Alabama heat became unbearable, pounding the pavement of the Lakeshore Running Trail, one of my favorite places in town the world and surprisingly I've learned lessons about life and about writing along the way. 

I can do this. I've never been much of a runner. Sure, I can out dance you in a hip-hop aerobics class, but I've never had a gazelle-like run and I'm as slow as Christmas. I even have a doctor’s excuse for not running thanks to a connective tissue disease I was diagnosed with in 2008. But one day while walking beneath the beautiful canopy of trees that covers much of the path at my favorite trail, I simply decided to run. And just as I can run despite achy joints (and bad shoes) I can make my writing dreams come true despite the dismal stats on the success of blogs and the sad state of journalism. I can do this. 

Stay in your lane. Most folks know the basic and most important rule of a running trail: stay to the right and pass on the left. But the phrase “stay in your lane” means much more to me. It reminds me to stop comparing myself to others, to not worry about the cute blonde in the cute sports bra with the perfect abs and perfect stride. Likewise, I need to stop eyeing another blogging babe's number of page views, followers, and unique visitors; stop envying another woman writer's book deal. As I run the path I’m on, one that I hope is leading me to the life I want to one day live, I must be careful not to get off track by coveting someone else’s pace.

Believe in the buddy system. Thanks to Olivia and my new running group, on Saturday I pushed myself as I never had before at the trail. My running partner is usually my pink iPod Nano and with it I typically walk for one song, run for one song, repeat. But on Saturday we ran for three minutes and only walked for one. I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep going with such a brief recovery time. But I was wrong. I did it! Or I should say, we did it, because I never would have tried had it not been for my new running buddies. Writing, even blogging, can be a solitary endeavor, but it's important to build community. That's why I started See Jane Write and that's why I hope to create an online community for fellow writers here on this new blog. 

Breathe and keep going. When I started running I was convinced I needed walk breaks every 60 seconds. Then one day Madonna’s hit “4 Minutes” came on my hopelessly girly music device and I decided I’d try to run for the entire track (which is, cleverly, four minutes long). I did it. And one day I ran for seven minutes without a walk break, and then nine. When I’m running there’s usually a moment when I want to stop and walk, but then I tell myself to just breathe and keep going. Sometimes I get fed up with writing because Georgia Mae's readership isn't growing fast enough, my freelance gigs aren't paying enough, and I can't seem to write a book to save my life. Then I remember to just breathe and keep going. 

A Blog of Her Own

Monday, August 22, 2011

Young Woman Blogging, after Marie-Denise Villers

"A woman must have ... a room of her own if she is to write..." -- Virginia Woolf

If you read my blog Georgia Mae you may find it strange that I’m attempting to build a second home for myself in cyberspace. But even though Georgia Mae is named for my grandmother and covers women’s issues, it is a blog I share with my husband.

I love working on a creative project with him. It’s incredible. And that blog isn’t going anywhere. Team Bowser is still in full effect.

But Virginia Woolf was on to something. I believe that to truly reach my potential as a writer I need a room of my own, even if it’s just a virtual one. So that’s what I intend this new blog to be. I need a place to think out loud and I need a place that, should the feeling hit me, I can decorate with flowers and other girly things without worrying about running off the men who drop by to read my husband’s musings on hip-hop.

Here I will write about a few of the topics covered at Georgia Mae such as natural hair and fitness. But, primarily, I will chronicle my adventures in writing as I attempt to get my big break (whatever that means) and snag Carrie Bradshaw's wardrobe without leaving the South. (And, yes, ladies, this means you can expect a few fun fashion posts too.) 

I also hope to build an online community here for other babes who blog. Visit the Welcome page for more on the purpose of The Writeous Babe Project. 

I hope you’ll come with me on this journey. And away we go…