Since I’ve been staying in my home town with my mom for the holidays, I’ve had exchanged pleasantries and had brief chats with many people I haven’t seen in more than a year. The question I hear most frequently: Are you still writing?
The inquirers—usually people who are or were at one time members of the church I grew up in or members of the church I’m still a member of—have no idea their question embodies simultaneously some of my greatest comforts and deepest fears about my life and career as a writer.
From 2009 to 2014, I wrote op-eds for the Courier-Journal, first as a regular-but-freelance columnist for Velocity Weekly, then as a whenever-I-had-something-to-say contributor to the C-J’s opinion page. In the latter time, my opinions—and a photo of me next to them—often made the front page of the forum section, before the fold, on a Sunday. Anyone who subscribed to the paper or bought it on Sundays only was likely to see my face.
I’m proud of the work I did at the C-J (and at Business First, The Lane Report,Who’s Who Publications, and Underwired Magazine). A blog and a generous recommendation from an outgoing columnist got me the gig at Velocity, and that gig—plus an award from the Society of Professional Journalists—gave me the confidence to approach the opinion editor at the C-J and ask for a column there. I didn’t get it (hence the seemingly weekly, but really whenever nature of the columns), but I had a professional writing award in my hands; I was determined not to let Velocity’s end silence me—especially since, by 2011, I had some political things to say that didn’t belong on a blog that was then all about my personal family history.
Louisville’s public university hospital was about to merge with Catholic Charities and stop offering contraceptive services. There were debates about narcissism, bootstrapping, and how America’s hyper-can-do attitude was destroying the country. Occupy Wall Street was happening. Michelle Alexander was coming to speak in Louisville, and most of the city didn’t know mass incarceration was even a thing. Doctors were recommending Plan B be sold over the counter to girls and women age 12 and over. And the following year, we would see both the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King beating and another presidential election.
It wasn’t the time to go quietly to my blog.
So I went boldly to a print publication. And print subscribers, people who bought the Sunday paper, and those who paid attention when I posted links to articles (and managed to catch the article within the seven-day free-access window before the pay wall went up), read them. Some readers sent me hate mail and posted comments that upset my mother. Some stopped to talk with me or at me at my YMCA or the grocery store. Some stared at me on airplanes, certain they’d seen my face somewhere before. One wrote to me from prison. People on my usher team at Actors Theatre hugged me. Some tried to sell me discount tickets for the public bus (I know you are, scribe. Need a ticket?) A young black man wearing a wife-beater and smoking a cigar as he rode past my mom’s house on a bicycle way too small for him one day turned around, stopped, shook my hand and said, “I’m enjoying your articles. Good job.” A cousin in jail at the time said he read them; he and other inmates thought I was making a lot of sense. My pastor sometimes gave me shout-outs at church announcements time, and church members said they looked forward to seeing me in print every week. On the rare occasions—a wake, for example—that I saw people who still attended the church of my youth, they said the same thing as my new church members. And that they were proud of me. One even said she cut out every article and saved it. A cousin still in the early stages of learning words would point to my picture next to my op-eds and say, “Mariam.”
I had resonated with people. I had made some people angry. I had made others think. I had reached people I had never thought I would or could reach. I had made my community proud. I had built a following. I had done it all in print.
And when I found full-time work and decided to reduce my submissions to the C-J to once a month; when the editor decided the work was Wednesday-worthy rather than Sunday-worthy; when I entered grad school to take advantage of my full-time job’s free education benefit and cut back on submissions even more; when I shifted more attention to my blog; when I left Louisville; the vast majority of my readers did not come with me.
Granted, I built my readership in a small city and as an active member of several loving communities, and it would be hard for anyone to pack that into a U-Haul and unpack it in a new city. I live and work in Philadelphia now. I am enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing. This has been my life for a year-and-a-half now. Yes, I am still writing.
I am a regular columnist for National Catholic Reporter. I have been since 2013. Within the past year, I’ve published in Salon, Bozalta, and Cosmonauts Avenue. I sporadically blog. Yes, I am still writing.
But as I confessed to my VONA fam in our essayist group this summer, I don’t want to write in obscurity forever. Being unknown has its benefits; I can open myself up to experimentation, and the risk of Twitter trolls threatening to rape or kill me is low. But so is the chance of selling books, of being asked to speak at a conference, or of getting my byline into a more widely-read publication. No shade to NCR, Salon, Bozalta, Cosmonauts Ave or very precious space where you read this essay, a space I started cultivating in 2009. I’m proud of my work in each publication. But as a professor I hate to agree with said last year when I shrugged off her suggestion to submit an op-ed to the New York Times (my objection: I already have a place that has let me say anything and to experiment as a writer, and I have that place’s readers), NCR and the others (minus Salon), will never get me the readership and perhaps the name recognition of the Times. And perhaps more importantly, the voices of the people who were proud of me won’t be heard or reflected in the more obscure places.
I worry sometimes that I’ve silenced myself by dropping a good job in social justice (those exist!) and leaving a small pond to enter an environment focused on improving me as an artist (and that employs exactly one professor interested in seeing students make money from writing). I fear that I’ve done the marketing thing wrong. That I built the wrong audience—people whose best access to news and opinions are in print journalism. That retweets from cool kids on Twitter will never come. That I’ll write a kick-ass book proposal (I did, by the way), and an agent will say, “Yeah, but your platform…
I also fear that even within that loyal print audience, I’ve pigeon-holed myself, type-cast me as a political/opinion writer. After the election, I sent a letter to people who have supported my writing unwaveringly for many years now. I told them how much the election results had demoralized me, so much that I was unable to write. A few wrote back saying, “We need your voice now more than ever.” I know they mean the voice that fearlessly speaks truth to power. I think that voice will always be needed, and I am honored people—some of them scholars and activists I admire greatly—see me as that voice. Nonetheless, I don’t always want to have to be the one using that particular voice. I also want to use the voice that’s been trying to figure out for more than a year now exactly what a lyric essay is and how to write one well, or the voice that submits poems about laundromat observations to Callaloo.
The polemic informs my aesthetic, true, but in the projects I’m working on now, I’m taking the polemic to the level of fine art. (Another professor doesn’t believe this is possible. He has somehow overlooked how “the masters” were influenced by one of the most polemical institutions of their and our time: the Church. Guess there’s an essay forthcoming about the MFA experience.) I can see myself as a go-to cultural commentator or public intellectual—a Britney Cooper, Roxane Gay, Darnell Moore, Marc Lamont Hill, or Candice Benbow, an Audre Lorde or James Baldwin—but I also see myself as a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, or MacArthur Award winner. As the accolades received by Baldwin, Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates make clear, the two are not mutually exclusive. But they are both impossible without readers.
And so I write, here and at NCR and in workshop and in thesis. I submit to journals and contests only academic literary communities would know about and to websites on my publishing goals list but that my print loyalists without internet access will never see. I write my way out of my impostor syndrome, and I hope readers will follow.
Author’s note: This essay is part of the #52Essays2017 series. Every week in 2016, Vanessa Mártir published one essay on her blog. After a phenomenal year of challenges and growth as a writer, she invited other writers in various communities she’s a part of to join her as she endeavors to write weekly, relentlessly, again in 2017. I’m in on the challenge because I saw how very little space I gave personal reflection in 2016. This is my thesis semester, and I expect some challenges and growth as I write it. The weekly essay challenge provides a space to document that growth (though I’m already thinking I might screw with the genre a little).