I went to the opening of Fiber| A Tribute to Black Femininity at the Orange Mound Gallery last night. It was a fantastic event and a great opportunity to see familiar faces again. It has been a while since I have done anything truly social–excluding the dating auction and we are definitely excluding the dating auction. Everyone asked what I’d been up to and all I could say was: “Writing. Working and writing.”
I’ve submitted a few poems for publication, but most of my writing is still in here with me—in my apartment. Chillin’ in journals and skipping around my laptop. My mom says they might as well still be in my head. That is a hard truth to accept, but she is right. Such effort and energy and it never goes anywhere.
At this point, I feel like Gollum roaming about my cave cradling my Precious. I write it. Rewrite it. Polish it. And hide it, protecting my precious words from exposure and criticism. Hissing at anyone who comes near.
But the irony is my writing will never improve until I do expose it the type of informed criticism that will hone and refine it.
So that is what I’m doing now, crawling out of my cave with my Precious in-hand. Squinting at the light.
In 16th century Italy when a merchant could not pay their debts, the bailiffs would publicly destroy the merchant’s bench so he could not do business any longer. It was considered financial and social death.
I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild and Other Stories.” I’ve read “Bloodchild” several times as I work on my own short stories. But there is something special about reading the collection. Butler, a confessed novelist, but her short stories are masterfully clear, engaging, concise and impactful. She relays the most graphic and disturbing content as if they were announcements in a pew bulletin.
Butler also wrote with freedom. She wasn’t bound by tropes, rigid structure or “approved” content. She wrote HER stories her way and waited for others to experience the brilliance.
Upon reflection, I can see the cowardice in my own writing. I write in anticipation of readers’ questions or desires. I spend a tremendous amount of time on description, backstory, and minutia that really don’t approach let alone advance the plot.
It’s like making pasta sauce, but letting your dinner guest pick the ingredients, proportions, and timing, whether they can cook or not. I can’t even imagine it! I don’t even let people IN my kitchen when I’m cooking, so I do I let strangers all up in my stories when I write?
In short, I’m not telling MY stories. I’m trying to get readers to affirm that I am a good writer –this is artistic cowardice at its finest.
Good writing is about the work, not the writer.
I regret not reading Octavia Butler earlier in life. But I am grateful for the opportunity to feast on the results of her talent, hard work, and the ZERO fucks she gave when they tried to tell her what should be in her sauce.
I get out of my car and open the truck to retrieve the first draft I want to review while at the doctor’s office. As I close it, a sister in a blue shirt and jeans walking down the street flags me down.
“Hey” she said, as I take my headphones out of my ears. “Might wanna adjust your dress. Your whole ass was showing when you got out of the car.” I pulled down my dress with gratitude. No one else is in the parking lot.
I love black women. We’ll tell you like it is, and help you cover your ass at the same time.
Please accept my deepest and sincerest apology for the discomfort and inconvenience I will probably cause you by doing the speed limit and only the speed limiton the streets and highways of our fair city moving forward.
I got a speeding ticket last night, and I accept responsibility for it. Since moving here, I began to drive like a Memphian as a matter of survival. But as any transplant can tell you, following established, reasonable traffic safety rules in Memphis can be hazardous to your health.
Signal before changing lanes? Cars will speed up to ram you! Trying to merge onto the freeway? Prepare to be cursed out! Driving at a comfy pace? Better speed up or get ran the f@ck over by an 18-wheeler.
I won’t even get into the hazards of being a pedestrian.
So it’s Drivin Ms. Eryka time. White gloves and everything.
Prince died Thursday. I thought it was a silly rumor at first, but when the Associated Press confirmed it well, you have to believe it then, right? Aside from the standard tears, shock, and disbelief, I felt like I had swallowed a millstone. I slept most of the day. Something was off. I just couldn’t deal.
The next morning, I threw up that millstone along with decades of memories, expectations, disappointment and shame. Prince was more than a role model; he was the touchstone for my creative life.
I first encountered Prince in 1984, with the release of Purple Rain. My brother and I went to see it at the shiny new mall in Aurora, Colorado. I’d heard his music before, but Purple Rain was…everything.
You see, I was an *unusual child* as they say. Different. I was highly creative, my clothes neverlooked right, I understood things I shouldn’t have, talked to plants and animals, and I wrote strange stories that worried the adults on more than a few occasions. These were aspects of my personality – not a phase or anything. It was just who I was.
I first felt the weight of conformity in 1984 as I began my journey into womanhood at the age of 12. It was now time to grow up and act right. I had been indulged long enough. I didn’t understand it back then, but in hindsight, being a Black girl in America was challenging enough; adding oddness to the mix seemed dangerous.
But in that darkened theater in Colorado, when I saw Prince rolled up to First Avenue on that motorcycle, I saw possibilities that gave conformity the middle finger.
Let’s examine that more carefully: aBlack man wearing makeup, high-heeled boots, a fabulous press & curl, a silk suit and ruffled shirt pulls up to a nightclub on a purple motorcycle in 1984.
What?!? He’s not supposed to do that. That isn’t what boys do. I was learning the grown-up rules, and THIS went against damn near all of them!
As the movie progressed, I saw people wearing underwear in public. They had on masks, furs, and psychedelic makeup but more importantly, they were all making incredible music.
Then there was the puppet. Nestled in its velvet purple cone, popping up when Prince needed a confidant. What, he talked to non-people too?!? I can’t tell you how badly I wanted that puppet!! Magic did exist in the world, and that purple cone was the fount from which it poured.
If he didn’t have to follow the *supposed-to-be,* grown-up rules, then why did I? It gave me hope that there was a place in this world for someone like me after all. Prince MADEhis own rules and transformed the world in the process. He didn’t grind down his uniqueness to make others comfortable. He provided them with an opportunity to examine their discomfort and grow from it.
But let’s imagine for a moment that Prince followed the rules. Let’s say he listened to the adults in his life in his early years, gave up his music, purple brocade jacket with stylish silver buttons, and makeup. Put on a pair of Dockers and a Polo shirt and worked in an office until it sucked the soul from his marrow. Where would we be now? Thirty-seven years of music, cultural influence and humanitarianism traded for a regular paycheck and benefits.
Yesterday, I realized that I hadn’t followed the blueprint. But I am trading my millstone for a touchstone. Prince.
His legacy will shape artists and our culture for years to come.
So, I drove to Jackson, Miss. yesterday to get fingerprinted for work. It was a three-hour drive to the facility, and the fog was thick along the way. When I arrived, knitting in hand, I was surprised that the entire process took less than 10 minutes—not a single purl. Three hours of driving for a 10-minute appointment. Yep.
Not looking forward to spending three more hours in the car, I stopped at Eudora Welty’s House for a quick tour.
Standing before Eudora’s books, on Eudora’s sleeping porch, in Eudora’s house I saw the truth of my life.
It was so fascinating to be in the house of one of the writers who inspired me back in my college and grad school days. I wrote so much back then, but life slowly crept in, marinated in the constant reminder that “I couldn’t make a living as a writer.” Slowly but surely, I put down my pen and started using my computer for watching videos, online dating, and countless revisions to my resume.
But being in Eudora’s house…
I remember standing in Eudora’s living room listening to the docent talk about various pieces in the room and what they meant to a woman who left a mark so deep on my soul, I don’t remember anything I read by her, but I grew considerably while sitting at her knee.
Yet, I was anxious to get to the dining room. Then in the dining room, I couldn’t wait to get to the kitchen. I was disconnected. Removed from what was in front of me and, of course, this is how I live my life. Waiting for this to be over to get to the next thing. The next thing that may bring joy, happiness, or the chance to show society or whoever is watching, that I have value.
There in Eudora’s dining room, I forced myself to be present. I listened to her as she described how Eudora and her guests used the gigantic dictionary in the dining room to unravel dinner debates. I absorbed the beautiful, hand-painted Haviland china and the chest of drawers build for her father without a single nail. Marvelous. And of course, there were books. In the dining room bookcase, on the sideboard, and on the table. Everywhere.
Being in Eudora’s house brought it all back. The excitement and fearlessness that women writers have, which left untapped turns to bitterness. I started to see again. To feel all the beauty of being truly alive. For a moment, I had a taste of what it was like not to fret, to live boldly—excuses and caveats be damned! My fearlessness was still there—not quite suffocated.
Eudora Welty lived on her own terms. She wrote, painted, took pictures, gardened and cooked. She went to parties, gave lectures, and socialized with her famous friends. But at home alone, she sat in a comfy wing back chair next to large airy windows looking out on the street, and she read.
Thousands of books on shelves, on the sofa, in trinities on the floor in just about every room in the house.
There were more than 15,000 books in her house when she died. The historical society moved all the books she acquired after 1985 to the education center next door, yet the house vibrated with literature.
Upstairs, I had the great privilege of seeing a row upon row of her own novels in English, German, Japanese and many other languages. I wanted to weep. I felt thrilled at her accomplishment and ashamed that I had given up on my dreams and goals so easily because they didn’t come with a parade.
I gave it up for what was to be an easier path—consistent income and societal approval—conformity, a broken spirit, and debt. I gave up my dream for a safe path in modern America, and it has nearly killed me.
Standing before Eudora’s books, on Eudora’s sleeping porch, in Eudora’s house, I saw the truth of my life.
I left Eudora’s house with thoughts of writing, books, camellias, and scrubbing away the bitterness. I am to write.
BTW, The Welty House and Gardens are amazing!! I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the house for archival preservation reasons, but please visit if you get a chance. It is so worth it!!