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From "How to Write...notes that saved a woman's life"


Experience is synonymous with identity. I started writing poetry to visualize the Black Chinese woman that I and no one else could see. My vocabulary was limited, my sentences were blunt like a cheap knife. They sawed across white fences disrupting quiet neighborhoods. I had no lovers to embrace, and no lover was embracing me. Mixed marriages disappeared on roads under construction. I didn’t have the tools to smooth the pavement.

I clung to my poems even though they were ragged. They were edgy, zigzagging their way into black holes. I owned them. I collected them. I honored them. I wrote more poems. I escaped gated neighborhoods and small minded, fearful neighbors that lived there—including me. I entered communities where my poems could breathe, where metaphor banished the girl and bridled the woman. Where I learned that commas and semi-colons slowed the narrative, periods meant stop, take a deep breath. Where no punctuation meant the poem was continuous unstoppable energy.

The problem with risking new communities is sometimes they might have too many rules. Rules that may not take the whole community into consideration. Sometimes one can be caught up in believing the community should embrace you because diversity can only make the community better, so there can be fewer rules and more opportunities. So you give everything you are to the community, while the community sends messages in codes that you can’t decipher. Until one day, you’ve earned a degree, but learn from the gossip of gurus that you can’t write. So you don’t write. You stop writing.

Yet, you are a writer. Stamina embraces you on the outskirts of literary streets. You find the women and the men that look familiar to you. The writers who speak in tongues whose poems are smart. Most of them you don’t find in the academy, though they are educated. They have learned craft, but have enhanced the notion of it by creating a vernacular that double-speaks. No one can dismiss the accuracy and loveliness of their words. Because you have stamina you begin to write again.

I don’t write every day, at a particular time or in a particular place. I write whenever a muse beckons, and sometimes when I can find no other excuses not to write. Mostly I don’t write because then there will be nothing for critics to scrutinize, myself being my biggest critic. Honestly, I also don’t write because I am lazy. And because it is easier to have this and that take precedence; most of my energy goes to relationships. But stamina is a lover I can’t release.

So I hang on to my life with an invisible pen. I capture my hot heart in memory. Identity masquerades in loose fitting clothes. Metaphors become mantra. I chant words and phrases and titles until they became story. I let the stories into the world. Give them life beyond the page. Sometimes they dance. Sometimes they sing. Audiences are mostly friendly, pat my back and stroke my imagination. It is scary to be vulnerable and risky. Some say I am angry. Stamina lurks.

My mother died of a leukemia blast. Her body was covered with black and blue bruises. The bruises became larger the closer she was to heaven. I was haunted by the bruises, so I turned them into metaphor. The bruises became larger than bruises, larger than my mother, larger than my egocentric self. They became answers to questions I had stopped asking. They became poetry and stories and books.

The responsibility of the writer might be to tell the truth. Truth-telling isn’t easy. Truth-telling takes courage. Truth-telling is exhausting. Sometimes I don’t want to write. Sometimes I can’t write. Rules to be a writer demand discipline. They are rules that don’t work for me. My writing process like my life is not accommodating to rules, however stamina is necessary for survival.

Excerpt from How To Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

Sherry Quan Lee

Suicide Note Number Two, Self-Esteem

Dear Self-esteem,
Today I am writing to destroy the lack of you. Today I am going to dress you in fine recycled clothes. I am going to wear you, the royal purple of who you are. I am going to take you out in the middle of winter and promenade you. I am going to stand you on your head and turn you inside out knowing the snow angel in the front of my house is real, her halo is my halo and every speckle of grit that garnishes our diamond textured garment is invisible glue that has sewn us together.

I know what it is to be invisible. There are people who can’t see me, people who don’t want to see me, people who see only the parts of me they choose to see. I am all of those people. I don’t know why I am so self-effacing. I don’t know why I recognize ugly, stupid, inarticulate, and shame. Furthermore, I don’t know why I defend this lack of self-esteem to the detriment of lovely, witty, confident, and smart.

How do I write away this woman who renders demons gods and devotes daily rituals to damning glory? Why do I scrub my face to cover it in thick makeup? Why do I paint my silver hair red? Why do I contradict compliments with self-pity? Why do I hide my words in stuffy rooms that could use some freshness? Why do I play the role of martyr when martyrs have no choice but to die?

I will not get rid of her. I will not write away her experience. I will not deny her existence. But I will sever her sadness and wash the blood from her knife.

The angel in the snow has no shadow. There is no outlying grief. I see the angel herself rising. Slowly. Each proclamation, elation. Perhaps you will see her flying. Perhaps self-doubt is a cloud that will release her, all that pent up steam.

I am trying to write this suicide note, trying to kill off my lack of self-esteem. I am trying to make sense of why I dislike myself. But it is not a letter than can be written by one author. There are others that must give their approval. There is the mother, and the father. There are siblings. There are children. There are husbands and girl friends. There are beauticians. There are ministers and there are professors. There are governors and presidents. There are Christians; there are missionaries. There are white people. There are alcoholics. There are rapists. There are women and there are men. There are Catholics and there are Lutherans. There are rich people. There are slave owners. There are academics. There are father-in-laws. There are brother-in-laws. There are characters in books.

I am a character in a book that will save me. She will teach me how to write and how to live. I am the angel that has always been on my shoulder. There are others. We are writing beginnings for endings. We are passing notes to each other, sharing our stories; there is too little time to rewrite the world.

Excerpt from How To Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

Sherry Quan Lee


Here's a link to the story about Patricia Williams' Sept. 27 appearance at Hamline University:

Books I talked about at the last Women of Color Writing Workshop:
Movement in Black by Pat Parker
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Other life-saving books:
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Allison Bechdel
The Big Mama Stories by Shay Youngblood
New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature by Abraham Chapman
Homemade Love by J. California Cooper
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas
Growing Up Black: From Slave Days to the Present-25 African-Americans Reveal the Trials and Triumphs of Their Childhoods by Jay David
Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair
Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
I will eventually place my Goodreads book list on my website: http://members.iphouse.com/athenapm

Going against the flow means I am a sinner, no doubt about it. Not proud of it, not ashamed about it. Just a fact. I have sinned in societies' eyes by living, breathing, and not trying to go with the flow. Some say it's thinking outside the box. Nope. For me it's going up stream against a strong current.

And the current is everywhere. From my co-workers, to my friends, to my family, all telling me - you are not right. You are a sinner by not turning around and going with the flow. You should be happy you have someone in your life. You should be thankful you have a job. You are privileged to have an education. But for me to tell the truth, they stare blankly and wonder what to do with me.

I am happy I have someone. Yet some days we click and other days it's like shoving a square peg in a round hole. Hard and hurtful. I am thankful for the money that comes from the job but it means I have to leave 1/3 of who I truly am at home. Hang her up or get hung out to dry. I am privileged to have an education but the education that's helped me is not the one I learned in school and college. It's the one that I live daily.

I am a sinner because I dare to think, say, or write these words...

Lori Young-Williams