“Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.” Not the type of advice I would have expected from a mentor. Yet, that is what one of my mentors told me. I had enrolled in a certificate program at a nearby college after earning my master’s degree. I had begun to write poetry, yet had placed most of it in a desk drawer. I still wrote in notebooks, though, something I had been doing since childhood. But I didn’t see the writing as being central to my life. I knew I needed a steady job, one that paid a consistent wage.
I had grown up working class and Black in Brooklyn, New York, in the 50’s and 60’s. My father, trained as a carpenter, worked full time at a lumber exchange terminal in Greenpoint during the week and built bookshelves, cabinets, cabinets and various wood structures for relatives, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and friends of relatives, friends of neighbors, etc. evenings after dinner and on weekends. My mother worked in the public high schools with students and their families to help prepare and support them in reaching the goal of college admission. With these role models and those of my friends’ parents, I couldn’t help but gravitate toward, and worry about finding a full time job post graduation.
I’d held two or more part time jobs as I worked my way through graduate school, and knew it was time to find more sustaining and sustainable work. The dean of my college was surprised when we first met. “You have two part time jobs? Most people struggle with just one job!” Well, most people were not African American New Yorkers raised by two southerners who had grown up poor during the Great Depression. I was not most people. I am still not most people. I’ve learned to face this about myself.
I’ve never quite fit in with the demographic that I supposedly belong to, which is more accurately, the one that I am often placed in by others. This demographic placement is, of course, based on my appearance. Growing up within my nuclear family this meant I needed to suppress some of my ideas, my true feelings and my opinions. In other words, if I wanted to respond honestly to some things, I had to hide those responses. No freedom there. That was what I learned to do to survive.
So, I grew into an angry young woman. Except that I didn’t know I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to express anger. So, I turned the anger in on myself and it stayed buried beneath the surface during my teens and most of my 20’s. An angry teen isn’t an unusual occurrence. A teen with buried anger probably isn’t unusual either. Around my parents and the other adults in my life, my anger was hidden so well, that it was also hidden from me. Perhaps it wasn’t only my independence that drew me to hang out with boys who became my closest friends in high school. They were comfortable with anger.
I had plenty of help with suppressing my anger from the patriarchal behavior that my family and community operated with. The anger was buried pretty deeply and I didn’t discover it until I participated in a workshop, which used strategies and exercises from acting to support people in recovering their self-esteem. I thought that I would never survive the time that I felt ready to explore anger. I don’t now remember the details of the strategy that I was taught and which I used for this exploration. What I do remember is how much lighter I felt once I had come out the other side of the tunnel. Let’s call it the anger tunnel, since that’s what it felt like. Somehow, I emerged from the other side a lot lighter and able to laugh. My fear of expressing the forbidden emotion had encouraged me to dance around the anger until I could no longer stand it. There was nothing left to do but dive into the anger tunnel. Looking back on this now, I see just how brave I was to walk away from the socialization I had experienced and recover more of myself.
I discovered that I was angry with myself for holding back, despite the fact that I had done so in order to survive. It has taken me years to appreciate my strong survival instincts, which I believe are due to the excellent genes I’ve inherited. My parents, grandparents and all of my greats could not afford to express their anger outwardly as their lives could have been snuffed out as a result of doing so. The social systems of Jim Crow and slavery guaranteed this fact.
So, this no longer angry young woman decided to leave a private sector job and return to school for an interdisciplinary degree that merged religion, psychology and philosophy. She did this in her late 20’s and she was happy reading, writing papers, reflecting on what I was reading and what I experienced and doing research. And in the mix of all of her scholarship, she began to write in verse. This was a complete surprise and a thoroughly new experience. But when I finished my program and I graduated, I stuffed the verse into a desk drawer. I didn’t take it seriously and I decided to return to school again. But this return turned out to be not a good fit. This led to the conversation with my mentor that began this essay. The conversation during which he said to me: “Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.”
Poetry allows me to do just that. I step out there and make a fool of myself. I have no idea where I will end up as I begin to write. I just follow the stream or words and return to it later to pull out the words, themes and sounds that ring for me, the ones that I am intrigued by or drawn to. There is a lot of revision and wondering about what I intend to say, where I am going with a line or a stanza. The sense of wonder is one that I revisit over and over again.
To be honest, writing prose also allows me to “step out there and make a fool of [myself],” too. It brings me back to the writing I once did as a book and film critic, curriculum developer and education research writer. Writing prose allows me to stretch out in a different way as a writer. It reminds me that I have some flexibility and range as a writer. And that is like taking a good yoga class or having a fun session at the gym.
Yes, I really do find going to the gym fun (but still need to do it more often). And most of all, I am buoyed, nurtured and fed by the practice of writing. I am going to reconsider and more accurately call this work that takes care of me, in ways that nothing else ever has, the discipline of writing. Writing requires discipline and it is a discipline. And I am grateful for it.