On the Urge to Check Yo(ur)self
This is not cool but I’ll confess it: Sometimes, staring down these blank pages in my black skin, I’ve struggled to get loose, to get free. Because not only is my inner critic hovering from the first word, but so is an entire audience.
Obviously, the most important people in that audience are the ones I intend to write for and about. They are my mother and father and all the ancestral branches above, the friends who’ve become siblings beyond blood, the lovers with whom I’ve found harbor, the children I used to dream of having. Mostly I worry about disappointing them — I might say too much, I might not say enough — but I know that in their eyes I cannot be reduced. When we’re together, we stoke a million stories. Our space is safe, sacred, and we spread out in it comfortably. “Girl, you ain’t company,” my folks down home will say when I ask them not to look at my mess. “You family.”
But I have been susceptible to occasional tingles of ambition. Realistic or not, I do mull the what-ifs of my work accelerating viral — and in those moments I imagine that the audience will fill in with people my family would consider “company.” To be clear, I’m not talking about those who are too lazy, elitist, or racist to make my acquaintance; they don’t get any sweet tea. I’m talking about the curious and polite visitors who have dropped by to pay respects. The people who bring open spirits and good intentions, but possibly no idea of how to navigate black spaces. And if they have no idea, then I worry that they will gaze at these things I’ve built with an expectation of learning something. In my nightmares I picture them as anthropologists with huge, peering eyes. Imprinting on every detail and, good lord, murmuring to themselves: “Ahh, so this is how they live. This is the cost, and that is the value. I get it now.”
The fears — of being misinterpreted, of reinforcing stereotypes, of being somehow damaging to those I love… They seize me. I think of Dave Chappelle abruptly walking away from that $50 million gig, his comic characters having morphed to haints in his head. “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling,” Chappelle said, revealing his burden to us via TIME magazine, and the white folks didn’t really get it, they thought he’d lost his damn mind, but we knew. I was just beginning to write stories and characters more seriously then, and felt duly warned.
In the decade since, dancing for me has meant achieving nuance through precision, so that none of my characters could be mistaken for avatars. So that yes, Jilly might be a black country girl who loves eating watermelon in the summertime (as all of my relatives in North Florida do) — but she sprinkles it with salt, and she has obsessive-compulsive tendencies that mean she’ll only eat it if it’s propped in her grandmama’s metal pie tin, so that the juice gets caught when it runs out, and so that on either side of the triangular wedge of fruit, the flesh of which she shaves with a butter knife, she can separate the black seeds from the white ones.
(But wait: Is it clear the seed thing is just a character tic? Or will someone think I’m hinting at Jilly’s worldview, her sense of racial order? IS JILLY TRAUMATIZED BY HER ENVIRONMENT? Hmm…)
You see how this goes.
On a productive day, when I’m happy with the truth and quality of what I’m doing and maybe even find it amusing, I could argue that paranoia has upsides. I feel like I’m still finding my voice but in working this way, I know what it’s definitely not: minimalist, or casual, or super-experimental. And constantly checking myself requires rigor, detail, accuracy. My characters often make me happiest — the strange, funny things I have them doing and saying so that they’ll pop from the page, specific and unique.
On a bad day, though? When I sit cramped at the computer, unable to type anything without immediately deleting it? These bugged-out meanderings into strenuous detail have made me feel inadequate. Impertinent. Toni Morrison, in an interview with Charlie Rose that made my pulse race under its indictment, laid it bare: To explain every action and motivation of a black character is to be writing for the benefit of a white gaze, and not with black people solidly at the center. Because it makes no sense for a narrator to explain certain things to people who likely already know them. Over-explaining fails white readers too, by indulging the entitlement that whispers to them, “Everyone else must come to me.” If I, as a black American child of the South, was once required to read James Joyce, to learn about Irish Catholic culture and slang in order to decipher A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then white readers can stand to be similarly baffled for a minute — or, better yet, they can ask questions, be studious, embark on supplementary reading in order to meet me where I stand.
In theory, all of this makes perfect sense. So why doesn’t the logic always click in daily practice? Why do some of us still agonize about being unclear or off-putting in our work? Personally, I realize I could stand to learn from my better millennial angels, those soaring flocks of Afropunks and blerds and art hoes who dazzle and inspire me, and rid myself of respectability programming — four decades steeped in this country’s pull-up-your-pants okeydoke won’t dissolve overnight. But also I want to bring up ambition again, because here is where dreaming anywhere outside of page can be a pitfall for a marginalized writer: The gatekeepers who edit, sell, and market the art we make — that is, the publishing people whose job it is to help a writer build an audience, and thus a sustainable career doing the thing they love — are still largely white. Meaning that if you aspire to join that system, you gotta trust not only a publisher’s ability to understand and appreciate your writing, but also take it to readers who will do the same. And if a writer, eager for traditional measures of success, feels they can’t trust in anything, including the strength and value of their own voice? Then there is the danger that before they even hand over the work, they are half-stepping into decisions they might not naturally make.
What makes me hopeful, though — what saves me from that trap, and what redefines the terms of success — is thinking about how writers in this digital age have new venues. I see the margins bursting, one day into the mainstream jugular, with brave writers who are exhausted from the effort of policing their voices and refuse to do it anymore, who are creating their own corners on social media or finding them via literary journals like this one. Nah, this stuff ain’t lucrative (at least not yet), but it does make for an environment where your family can feel at home and where curious company can grow into allies, absorbing collections of perspectives — not just the one or two that manage to break through iron gates. What a time to be alive: Anyone who claims to want a firmer grounding in the lives of black or Latinx or Asian or queer people has so many fresh stories to discover and no excuse, other than willful ignorance, for not seeking them out.
Just knowing these outlets are here for us, with doors open, helps me to grow as a writer and inch closer to the true creative freedom that remains my highest goal. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve eliminated all doubts and questions while I’m creating. But now I’m more likely to let them flicker and then fizzle, unappeased. I’m more likely, now, to let little Jilly live, savoring her sweet, messy fruit under the Florida sun.
Dawnie Walton is a first-year fiction student and Meta Rosenberg Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Previously she was fiction editor for Issue 7 of The James Franco Review, a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and an editor for several New York-based media brands, including Entertainment Weekly, LIFE, and ESSENCE.
Featured Image “12 Intrigues: (Video Stills)” © Natasha Marin: “I engaged in a 1 year social media experiment designed to stimulate infatuation between artists living thousands of miles apart. These are stills from videos from this project” (www.12intrigues.com).