In memoriam: Dori J. Maynard

The last time I saw Dori, she was in D.C. for a UNITY meeting, looking flawless as ever, dishing with me about her Scandal addiction. I remember that she insisted on having dinner and glass of wine with me before she hopped on a train to New York City. She was always in between places, on her way back from some business, on her way toward some business.

“OK, what have you been doing?” She asked.

I was still freelancing. I was looking for work. She nodded. We had been having this conversation for a couple of years at that point.

The only thing that put a wrinkle in our conversation was the fact that my cell phone rang unexpectedly. Someone was calling about a position I had applied for.

Dori was my journalism guru, a lighthouse of wisdom. Before I considered newspapers as a viable, real choice for me after graduating from Vassar, Dori was part of a committee that read my clips and selected me for the Hearst Newspapers Fellowship. I did not know very much about her until I met her while I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle. This is how she operated. She had power and influence, but she wielded those the way a queen does: Measured. Self-assured. You didn’t have to know about it. She knew. The people who mattered knew.

Anyway, the Chronicle was doing a diversity audit. That was around 2004. It can’t have been the first time I met her, but the thing about Dori is that she made you feel like you had been friends forever the moment you met her, so I don’t remember the first time, exactly. All I knew is that when I decided to leave the Bay Area, Dori gently suggested that I consider not leaving newspapers to become a librarian. “You’re a good writer. Maybe go to another Hearst paper.”

She surprised me by taking me to visit a psychic in Oakland. She was very nonchalant about it, and I thought it was the funniest, most memorable thing that anyone has ever done for me. (The psychic turned out to be right about my next step, by the way.)

I next encountered Dori when I was in Austin. She had the aura of a fairy godmother or an angel. When she appeared in my life, I knew something amazing was about to happen. This time, I was working as an education reporter at the Statesman. Dori wanted to me to take a day-long trip for business to New York City. She put me up in the Algonguin hotel. I was there for 24 hours. I did not feel like I belonged there, but I said some things around some influential people about what it is like to be poor and attend public schools in New York City. It was what Dori wanted, so I delivered, because she had done so for me.

She cared for the work so deeply, and she cared for others so deeply, that when I left the industry, I could tell I had disappointed her but it was what I needed to do. Instead of pushing back and saying I had made a wrong decision, she put me to work, writing pieces for the Maynard Institute. It kept my lights on. It allowed me to feed myself and my dog. It gave me an anchor when an ocean of grief threatened to sweep me away from myself forever.

We presented at South by Southwest together. She was poised and practiced and on point. I was in awe, sputtering a little, being too hammy. I was nervous. She was a pro. It was an amazing education, like so much of our friendship.

When I began working on the book that will be published later this year, on racism and sexism in traditional media, I asked Dori what books she would recommend that I read, people I should reach out to. She, of course, had a very long list. Was there a book about the Maynard Institute, I wondered, that codified its pioneering and incredible work? “Well, when your book comes out, we’ll have that,” she said.

Talk about pressure. That was straight up Dori-style. Lightly applied, delivered with a feline smile.

I did not know she was sick. I only had an inkling something was amiss when I emailed her to follow up about the book in recent weeks and didn’t hear back.

The thing about Dori is that she touched so many lives, so you will hear and read many stories just like this one. We only realize in retrospect just how profoundly moved and changed we are by people like her. I learned so much that I can’t possibly explain it all or say it nearly as well as she would.

What resonates now is that I learned that being a great leader requires great service.

I learned that what makes a woman unique, what makes her stand out, is an incredible gift to others, whether she recognizes it or talks about it, or not.

I also learned from Dori, just today, just in these moments as I process her death, that we just never know when this great journey of ours will be over.

I already miss her deeply. It is the sign of a life well-lived and a woman well-loved.

Coming Soon — All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color

My life is now complete with the possibility that Junot Diaz actually may have possibly read my work to come up with this blurb. But even if not, I’m thrilled to have my short story, Sirens, included in this amazing anthology. (You can hear an excerpt at my friend Stacia’s great Bellow series link.)

Here’s more info about the collection, and the amazing company I get to be in:

All about Skin features twenty-seven stories by women writers of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors, including John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Flannery O’Connor Award, and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories and O. Henry anthologies. The prose in this multicultural anthology addresses such themes as racial prejudice, media portrayal of beauty, and family relationships and spans genres from the comic and the surreal to startling realism. It demonstrates the power and range of some of the most exciting women writing short fiction today.

The stories are by American writers Aracelis González Asendorf, Jacqueline Bishop, Glendaliz Camacho, Learkana Chong, Jennine Capó Crucet, Ramola D., Patricia Engel, Amina Gautier, Manjula Menon, ZZ Packer, Princess Joy L. Perry, Toni Margarita Plummer, Emily Raboteau, Ivelisse Rodriguez, Metta Sáma, Joshunda Sanders, Renee Simms, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Hope Wabuke, and Ashley Young; Nigerian writers Unoma Azuah and Chinelo Okparanta; and Chinese writer Xu Xi.

My Writing Process: Forget what you hear about writing

Nicole D. Collier, one of my favorite members of my virtual writing tribe, asked me to participate in the blog tour. Since I love to read and write about writing (in lieu, sometimes, of actually writing) and I’ve noted that some other writers I admire and respect, including Tananarive Due, Tayari Jones and Daniel Jose Older have all participated, I thought I’d add my humble thoughts and impressions to the mix.

1) What are you working on?

I am working on a book about how racism and sexism have contributed to the demise of traditional journalism and how people of color (and organizations, websites and companies that recognize their value) are changing the media landscape in important but often unacknowledged ways. I have also written a memoir in progress (excerpts have appeared in Huizache, Gawker and TED, among other publications) and every now and then, the poetry that I love comes back. I have worked for years on a short story that turned into a novella about the daughter of a train conductor and the graffiti artist she loves in the Bronx that I know will be published in some form someday.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question and frankly, not one that I think too much about. I am willing to admit that not thinking much about it might work to my detriment. Because there are so few people of color who are published and promoted well for work that is for people of color, in that we are the main audience and about people of color that also includes class diversity and is concentrated on the African-American experience, my creative writing and poetry are different from others’ in the sense that I am tacitly aware of internal and external geographies, their impact on how and when and where we tell our stories and how those stories are positioned or excluded from mainstream and popular cultural narratives about people of color — specifically black women. I hope that my reverence, appreciation and empathy for the intersections of my experience are reflected in the work.

The same is true for nonfiction. The main difference in my nonfiction writing is that I am fully aware of the power of the truth, or a truth, to change a life because it is how I was shaped as a young reader who dreamed of being a writer. I love that saying that the creative adult is the child who survived — that is the internal location or spiritual location I write from.

It helps that I have a wealth of traditional newspaper reporting experience, which gives me the power of knowing how to completely own a deadline and the discipline of structure while also giving me the confidence that comes with having failed and made mistakes and learned that failure, or whatever is subjectively considered failure is not the end of the world. There is always something more to write. I think my nonfiction is different from others’ who write memoir, essays and other nonfiction in that I seek to offer information for others to investigate or parse through instead of as a definitive statement or argument.I try to be authoritative without being obstinate and lyrical without trying too hard. I also try not to be too hard on myself when I fail at either of those.
3) Why do you write what you do?

One of the things that brought me a lot of comfort and joy as a young woman and a budding writer was reading elegant, beautiful and clear work about people of color who are traditionally not given models of ourselves in literature that have these elements. I write about women, women of color, the poor and working class and other people of color so that I can be a part of creating the beauty in the world that is otherwise missing when it comes to these groups. Perhaps because of postracial and postfeminist rhetoric, to some people it seems to be redundant and outdated to state and restate how important it is to be committed to writing about black women, especially those who are the least visible in classical or predominantly white canons, but I know how significant it was for me to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, for instance, while I was self-parenting and supporting my mother in ways that were beyond my young years or to read bell hooks and Cornel West in seventh grade before I understood what they were even talking about in Breaking Bread. The same can be said of the multi-volume memoirs of Maya Angelou who showed me that while it took courage, confidence and grace to be a Renaissance woman (she was a tall black woman, too, like me — and Octavia Butler!) it was possible to overcome a lot of internal and external resistance to do so.
4) How does your writing process work?

I have multiple processes and I think all creatives do. I write all the time. I write on my phone. I write little notes in a notebook that I usually carry around with me. I prefer to write longhand, which is slower than typing, and to transcribe. I love to write longhand when something is particularly meaningful to me or requires the kind of granular detail that I need to retain. (The most recent example of one piece I did this with is this blog about leaving Austin.)

I don’t necessarily write everyday anymore but I used to, faithfully, for many years. I think you build writing time into your life in a way that is completely natural for you. Do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel like so much work. I actually love work and am addicted to work, so for me, working doesn’t carry a negative connotation in the same way that say, relaxation does (No pun intended, I am working on that. I realize that I ain’t like everybody that way.) But the main problem new and/or young writers seem to face related to process is that they associate writing with work. I say do whatever you need to do to get rid of that mentality and get out of your own way in whatever way you need to to go from being a person who has always wanted to write to being a writer…because writers write. I value my work and the luxury and privilege I have to do it so much that I approach the page as a way to share the gifts that were bestowed upon me and to honor the many different people I’ve known who wished that they had the luxury of sitting down at a page to write.

Writers write but they should also read. I read everything, which is a significant part of my writing process. I believe heartily in taking notes. For nonfiction, I take copious notes. Everywhere — in the book, in a separate notebook, on Post-Its.

I write at all hours, but my best writing gets done when I have the least distractions which is either early in the morning or in the middle of the night. I try mightily to get every last bit of doubt or concern about anything else out of my head while I’m writing a draft and then go back to it when I have some sense and some energy and I can revise. Revision is the heart of my work and the most enjoyable and the most irritating part of being a writer. I revise most things I write a half-dozen times — even blogs — before I am satisfied with word choice and structure and order. Outlines can be really helpful for big projects, but I am not wedded to them.

On June 9th, two of my favorite writers and favorite women are going to post on their blogs about their writing process. Both of these ladies are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and their support has helped to keep me writing during some of my lowest points. I hope you’ll read and share their work widely.

Jo Scott-Coe is a fantastic nonfiction author, fellow tall woman and excellent teacher.

Juanita Mantz and I met at VONA in 2012 and her work has been published at xoJane and elsewhere.

 

 

Poem: For writers

Do not wait for validation

the language at war with currency.

Feast instead on self possession

& poems:

The stories of the ones before us,

The dreams of our descendants.

Narratives that remind our hearts how to soar.

 

No one is coming to proclaim your talent rough or refined.

You are your only true nemesis,

a house divided against its productivity.

 

Do not wait to write.

Not for love, nor money;

Not for attention nor glory.

 

Do it to heal &

because you are compulsive &

because the story claws at your attention &

because those words weigh down the gut,

& wring them from your core

until you can’t do anything but devour experience

or starve for want of stories

to give your language life.

 

Live deeply in moments that give to you

the broadest horizons

& make for yourself worlds that

delicately remind us

how powerful it is to reach beyond the limits we

dream for ourselves while we are yet

never sleeping.

 

Finally,

Forget this advice

& anyone else’s.

You are the best author of your destiny,

after all.

This, too,

is noise you’ve read

to keep from writing.

 

Genuflect only at the altar of creation.

 

Not a single thing

will ever match the importance of

your devotion.

4.29.14

 

Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama

The Internet is now an essential part of academic life, but anyone who has ever spent hours arguing with anonymous commenters or days managing positive or negative responses to his or her work knows cultivating a presence in cyberspace isn’t without serious drawbacks. Just like in real life, there’s always more than enough online drama to go around.

For women, though, things can quickly shift into dangerous territory offline. “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” journalist Amanda Hess describes rape threats directed at her for simply being a woman with an Internet connection. She notes that 72.5 percent of people who reported being stalked or harassed online between 2000 and 2012 in one study were women. For women of color, the online complexities are even worse.

Two of the most extreme cases involved high profile women of color providing commentary on controversial topics. In February, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper received death threats and an onslaught of racist, sexist vitriol in response to a piece she wrote at Salon about a Florida jury’s failure to convict Michael Dunn, a white man who was charged with shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Last summer, Salamishah Tillet was attacked even more viciously after she appeared as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and talked about the intersection of racism and the anti-abortion movement.

Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, was mentioned in a segment on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” — and then the first wave of attacks started. “I was flooded by letters, emails and phone calls all the way up to the Provost of my University,” Tillet says. “My faculty colleagues and president were all contacted, and then we heard from alumni and television viewers. (Bill O’Reilly’s) viewership, at least the people who contact you, is a machine. It’s really a lot.”

The strangest manifestation of the attacks on Tillet, though, might have been the 80 magazine subscriptions that she had to individually write and cancel, she said. “Because my credit was involved, that was more effective than the harassment. But online, people were calling me a wench, and I had to contact the police and on campus security. At least when people go after you on Twitter, you experience that as a norm,” Tillet says. “But I was unprepared for both. It was really frightening.”

Sometimes the scale at which women of color are attacked is not as visible. In October, biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University Danielle N. Lee declined an editor’s request to blog at his site for free and was subsequently called an “urban whore.” Lee contributes to Scientific American where her Urban Scientist blog amplifies diverse aspects of the sciences and offers the rare perspective of a black woman conducting research while also drawing on hip hop culture. In the wake of her interaction with the editor, identified only as Ofek, Scientific American deleted her blog post about the interaction, then restored it to the site with a lengthy explanation of why it was removed. Lee also made a YouTube video in response to the incident and posted a response blog on her personal site.

“The whole thing got conflated,” Lee says. As for what academics might learn from her experience, she says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring that out. What I’ve learned so far is that the crap doesn’t end because you reach some level of success. The crap continues.”

University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong has also noticed that the more visible her work has become, the more of a target she has become for all kinds of online drama. When Leong writes about online harassment leveled at women, as she did in a four-part series of blogs at Feminist Law Professors, she points out that “Internet harassers focus on identity rather than on ideas as a specific strategy for excluding women and people of color from online discourse.” (Leong has also created a Cyberharrassment Bibliography as a resource for others and further discussion.)

Leong teaches constitutional rights, criminal procedure and judicial behavior, among other things. But the fact that she’s photogenic combined with her Native Hawaiian heritage has set off self-identified men on the Internet. This was amplified after she wrote an article published in the Harvard Law Review entitled “Racial Capitalism” but it got even worse when she started to blog about the other things that were happening, including someone creating a fake Twitter account using her name, her cell phone number and address being posted publicly and the address of her parents being posted online.

Instead of garnering her colleagues’ support, Leong said that she experienced a lot of victim blaming, particularly from white men. Her experience was so far beyond anything they experienced, she said, that they weren’t able to empathize. “A lot of my colleagues said stuff to me like, ‘You made this worse by speaking out about it,'” Leong said. “In other words, ‘If you had just gone about your business, then a lot of things that happened on the Internet wouldn’t have happened.’ As academics who work in the world of ideas and presumably care about what we research beyond what academics think about it, I thought it was important to raise awareness about the harassment.”

What else should academics facing online drama do?

Decide how you will manage the situation.

Tillet, who is a sexual assault survivor, said it’s important to understand that for women, the barrage of attacks can be a trigger for re-experiencing other violence – particularly for women of color. “The victim blaming that happens…you start going through that cycle again. On a personal level, it was important for me to shut down communication for two days. I was communicating with people who were helping, but I didn’t take any phone calls.”

Online attacks, excessive trolling or worse can take up huge chunks of time and energy that should be devoted to your work. Christopher Gandin Le, chief executive officer of Emotion Technology, which works with policymakers and web companies to promote mental health online, says it’s important to know how you’re going to handle yourself during and after online drama. “I haven’t found anyone who has created something for after something blows up on the Internet. It just goes away. There’s no learning experience for anyone.” In the absence of online mediators, targets of online harassment or attacks can seek short-term therapy on or off- campus in order to process the event. “Even when you create something really amazing people love, what do you do next, managing expectations and understanding that this stuff happens — basically, living your life is really all we can do.”

Delegate monitoring your professional presence online.

Though every individual case will differ, Leong says it is helpful to have a friend, ally or colleague who is not going through the same thing to help remove some of the emotional and practical burdens that come with being targeted online. That person can set up a Google Alert for your name to give you a heads up when something derogatory or defamatory shows up under your name. “You don’t have to be the person who sees that and putting forth the emotional energy to deal with that every single day,” she adds. Tillet said that she was helped greatly by supportive colleagues and friends. It helped that she gave over email access to the head of campus security to sort through to determine if any physical threats had been sent to her. She also kept a file of emails that were harassing and threatening.

Take screen shots of everything.

Both Lee and Leong documented their experiences extensively because misconduct online and other potentially controversial exchanges can easily be unpublished or deleted. Lee was wise to have screen shots of her exchange with the Biology Online editor; Leong has documented some of the online harassment on her blog. “Sometimes convincing a law enforcement officer requires handing them a stack of papers and saying, ‘It’s in here.’ I file everything in a folder in my computer, buried so that I don’t see it every time I log on to do research,” Leong says.

Remember that sometimes silence is better than a response.

Lee says that the weekend the incident with the Biology Online editor became public she went into radio silence. A number of people emailed her to tell her that by doing so, she taught them how to deal with a situation well, but she says she didn’t do it intentionally. “I was at home unable to eat. I was a mess privately. I don’t know what else I could have done. I was in no position to make a public statement,” Lee says. Instead, because she didn’t publicly react to the fall out from her exchange, she found that she was able to keep herself from saying something rash. “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself and live with the aftermath of what happens next. I didn’t want anything out there that I couldn’t manage later. It’s easier to put something out that you can’t come back from.” Tillet also says of the two days when she didn’t engage with the public that “It was important for me to shut out the noise and come up with a strategy for a plan of attack.”

If you’re not experiencing the harassment but know someone who is, try being supportive.

Leong says: “When people say to a woman who has been harassed and decides to speak up about it that she’s making things worse, it’s not a supportive thing to say. A better thing to say is, “It’s unfortunate that the harassment intensified, but it’s an important social issue and it was brave of you to do that.” Tillet said that her colleague Anthea Butler supported her by offering more strategies to decrease her visibility — or “create a more complicated path to me” — like changing her email address. Because online drama can be relentless, Tillet says go into your advocacy or writing on controversial topics “knowing who you’re standing with and with an infrastructure put in place to protect you and keep you safe.”

 

Salon: When leaning in isn’t enough

“…Economic status has a huge impact on whether women are willing or able to take risks at work. Generally, women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Things are unsurprisingly worse for women of color: African American and Hispanic women make 64 cents and 54 cents to every dollar made by a non-Hispanic white man, respectively.

Right now, economic progress also seems concentrated in the ranks of women who have working, well-paid partners — women who can afford to take risks like leaning in so far in that they might fall flat on their fired faces. Were they to get fired, after all, they have the money to fight discrimination and bias — or to tide them over while they look for another job.”

Salon: When leaning in isn’t enough

Breaking Up With Your City – Next City

When I became a journalist, I realized that I was in love with wandering as much as the thrill of the chase. I craved monogamy — in love and in a city — but I was greedy, too. I wanted all of the sprawling urban wild of Houston and the quiet hospitality of East Texas and the seafood with a view of Mount Rainier from Seattle. I wanted San Francisco to be as black and beautiful as Oakland and for the whole Bay Area to offer housing as affordable as the South. For minutes at a time, I could stand tracing the lines of the New York subway system on a map like they were veins in a lover’s forearm.

My Valentine’s Day piece about breaking up with Austin, which I’ll always have a special fondness for. You can read the rest here: http://bit.ly/1mg0i3h