Sunday, August 21, 2011

On holding onto binders

I found two binders that I had shoved under my bed. The maroon one held my college days with one of the best professors I ever had. I grew as a writer with him and through my column with the Xavier Herald. I had a confidence during those years, that I have never had since. Reading my work and specifically my professor's comments brought tears to my eyes.

A few brief passages from a paper I wrote and read in class from that spring of 1998, "Not Having Anything to Say:"

"Many famous writers explore and explain the reasons behind their artistry in their work. One such writer Joan Didion,("Why I Write,") explains that a writer spends his or her most important hours doing what he or she loves: writing. Most often, I write from my heart, I try to write what my heart is telling me. But just because arranging words strategically on paper is something I love does not mean that I'm good at it. Didion's essay is telling me I do not have to be good or an "intellectual," because writing in its truest form is not about anyone else but me.


I do not try to be the bully that Didion claims writers become. I have no desire to manipulate anyone's thinking, shed a little light, well yeah, but manipulate, no. I just use the Herald as a vehicle to do what I love: write. But I do not want to write for the sake of writing, I want to write something that will be read. If I am the only one who thinks that I am saying "something" and in turn am publishing "something" not being read, then in actuality I am saying nothing.


This past weekend I called my mother and asked her opinion on my column; it was due in two hours. She told me not to write the column. All I could think was not write my column, the last paper of the year and not write my column. My mother told me that it was better not to write anything than write something that said very little or nothing at all. Troubled, I turned off my computer and did not write. For the first time I didn't write because I didn't have anything to say. I did not write and I felt good about it."

Looking back at my words from thirteen years ago reminded me of me. I've kind of lost that girl in some ways. I wish I could talk to her and tell her to avoid the pitfalls and stay secure and confident. I like what I read. In class, my professor said he watched my classmates nod and sit with rapt attention as I read. He wrote on my written version, "Yvette, I enjoyed reading this essay. It has a wonderful voice. It reaches readers with a modest grace, thoughtfulness and wisdom. You write very well because you're sensitive, observant, self-critical, skillful with language and smart. Keep on!"

I teared up thinking this older white man thought this way about this 20 year old black girl's writing. I didn't know that all of these amazing adjectives could describe me and my writing. He persuaded me to go to graduate school and pursue a PhD. And I did for five years or so. But it wasn't me. I'm not an intellectual; I'm a writer with a big heart, who lost herself.

I wonder if I had listened to Didion and myself where I would be now. At the same time, I know that all those challenges and triumphs came from listening to other people for a good portion of my life. Listening to others has helped me and hindered me in many ways. Maybe, I didn't lose myself, but took a much needed detour on cobblestone roads with bare feet in order to keep building myself.

The second binder was blue and dusty. The papers, from grad school, contained memories of someone I couldn't recognize. I took a class on Transnationalism in African-American Literature in 2003 and read complex scholarly articles like "Essence and the Mulatto Traveler: Europe As Embodiment in Nella Larsen's Quicksand." I kept this binder with articles and presentation notes from two really great classes while at University of Maryland. I even kept the program from a conference I participated in on African American Identity Travels.

My memories of grad school include never quite belonging and never feeling smart enough to be there. I'm shocked that I could even stand in front of big name scholars and read my paper on expatriation and transnationalism. She (the girl reading that paper) wasn't me, which is why she/I didn't go on to write a dissertation. I'm surprised I held onto those papers for so long. I easily threw away most of the articles, though I kept a few. I'm not sure what I'm holding onto as I slide them into the binder full of good memories from Xavier and my publishing days.

I don't know why we hold fiercely to the negative moments of our lives and allow the images of amazing moments to fade. Why do the hurtful memories, harsh words, brutal pain tether us to insecurity, anxiety and fear? Why when we throw out the tangible representations of those moments can't all the intangible feelings be drained from our being as well. I don't understand why I've listened to others' opinions of me or why I've allowed negativity to overtake me in exchange for embracing the amazing parts of me.
One binder is leaving this house and I'm going to work at getting rid of what it represents as well.

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