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Coming up at Mile 40:
Writer Experiencing Gray Hairs, Growing Pains, Fluctuating Fat, & Inevitable Reinvention
in Herself and Her Writing
My back is against the wall. Life wedges its foot deeper into my chest. The weight of it against my clavicle is an avalanche of bricks. My breathing becomes labored and ragged. Guilt, fear, anxiety, regret, and abandoned dreams and goals, the harbingers of middle age, circle around me.
The Type-A personality in me wants to file each threat in a neat compartment and regain control. My self-competitive streak tells me I have failed because I didn’t stay on that golden brick road of mobility and success. I’m turning 40, and I am not where I wanted to be.
I am also not the writer that I wanted to be.
A high school writing award sits on my dresser. It reminds me of my old writer self : the stories I wrote daily ever since I was a child, the creativity I weaved into literary analysis essays in AP English, the imagination that ran wild. It taunts me, as if to ask the question: What happened to you?
I guess the road bumps of life are situations designed to interrupt life, experiences tossed into the flow in order to pull us toward another direction, whether we are willing to go or not. It’s funny how those setbacks—or in a positive light, those setups for change—can be compared to dashes.
In rhetorical grammar, dashes are used to interrupt the sentence with information. They make the reader pause and reflect on the impact of the new idea being inserted. Writers mainly employ them when they want to emphasize a point or detail. I think of the dash as a diva because it demands attention and commands respect.
For example, look at the way the presence or absence of dashes alter meaning in sentences from Hawa Allen’s essay, “When Tyra Met Naomi: Race, Fashion, and Rivalry” (published in Gerald Early and Debra Dickerson’s book, Best African American Essays:2009):
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is because sisterhood is so important to me. I feel like women hate on each other—we’re jealous—and it has to stop.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is because sisterhood is so important to me. I feel like women hate on each other and it has to stop.”
The story had all the elements of talk-show-pathos—the tears, the accusations, the confessions of emotional agony—but, to her credit, Banks refused to make the story purely a personal one.
The story had all the elements of talk-show-pathos but, to her credit, Banks refused to make the story purely a personal one.
She could have easily made Campbell the sole villain—given the model’s history of petulance, anger-management issues and resulting lawsuits, most of the work was already done for her—but instead she chose to focus on both systemic racism in the modeling industry and internalized sexism among women.
She could have easily made Campbell the sole villain but instead she chose to focus on both systemic racism in the modeling industry and internalized sexism among women.
Like the dashes, isn’t funny when we think if certain situations didn’t happen we would be better off but without them, they add a different layer of meaning in our lives and our growth?
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I realize that my experiences have spun their own tale, a tapestry of wisdom, missteps, baggage releasing, and growth. No, I am not the eighteen-year-old who could compose a story on her old typewriter in fifteen minutes about an old woman she saw on the city bus earlier that day. Yes, as a teenager, I could render a character, her setting, her plight into a reader’s imagination. Now I can add depth to the story, thanks to experience.
Here I am, swinging at the onset of middle age, but I cannot fight change. It is inevitable. Growing older is a part of life. Instead of fighting it, I must embrace it.
I’m trying to run away from the woman, the writer I am destined to become.
I must weave the uncomfortable experiences seamlessly into the fabric of my life. They emphasize areas within me that need to develop in order to become that middle-aged woman. But I should not let them stop me and back me into a corner. I must acknowledge them and keep living my life.
They are only parenthetical times in my journey.
With parentheses, the author taps the reader gently on the shoulder and guides him or her to the emphasized point. I think of the parenthesis as the mediator who is trying to achieve harmony between the sentence and the information it is presenting or like a friend who is whispering his or her commentary while the reader is reading. Here is another example from Allan’s essay:
Though the Tyra episode ended with the requisite apology from Campbell (“However I’ve affected you or you’ve felt that I’ve affected you, I take my responsibility. I must say I’m proud of you. You’ve been a powerful black woman. . . Please continue) and tears from Banks, its real strength was that Banks framed her enmity with Campbell as a result of the larger institutional and social forces that pitted the two models against each other in the first place.
Though the Tyra episode ended with the requisite apology from Campbell and tears from Banks, its real strength was that Banks framed her enmity with Campbell as a result of the larger institutional and social forces that pitted the two models against each other in the first place.
I guess Tyra didn’t let those larger institutional and social forces serve as setbacks or interruptions in her career. She gleaned what she could learn from that situation and pushed forward.
Now it is the time for my reflection.
J. Victoria Saunders tweeted a link to her Tumblr page recently that addressed 35 nuggets of wisdom she has learned at the age of 35. (http://jvictoriasanders.com/post/41215634293/thirty-five-in-honor-of-35-the-mid-thirties-sounds.) She inspired me to come up with my own 40 for 40. It is a work-in-progress.
Things I Have Learned About Life & Writing While Approaching 40
- Revenge is a dish best served by karma, not by me.
- Stay in my lane.
- Listen to my intuition.
- Every adversity deepens character and perseverance breeds strength.
- There is a reason why I can’t change my past: Everything was supposed to happen.
- Learn to deal with being outside of my comfort zone.
- My mind is my Achilles heel.
- Stop being my worst inner critic.
- If I feel like crap on the inside, people will treat me like crap. That crap will also color my perspective.
- I define what normal is.
- Beauty truly does come from within.
- Don’t internalize the actions of others into your stream of consciousness.
- Cherish the ones you love while they are still here.
- If it is true love, it will always come back to you.
- There is a time and place to burn bridges.
- When opportunity knocks at the door, always answer it. It may never present itself again.
- Everyone has a purpose. Be prepared for it to change during different times in life.
- My thoughts and actions sometimes create my circumstances.
- Always look at a situation from someone else’s perspective.
- Forgiveness frees you from unresolved anger growing into outward manifestations of illness and unhappiness.
- Unforgiveness changes you, and usually that change is not a positive one.
- The path that helped you run away from your problems will always lead you back to them.
- To have peace, I must relinquish control.
- Being sensitive is not a sign of weakness.
- Making it real and being realistic in my writing are related. Strive for sentiment instead of sensationalism.
- Don’t imprint on my characters and writing too much. There is a difference between writing for self and writing for others.
- Writing is an ongoing, lifetime journey of learning and discovery.
- Let the muse reign.
- Do not pimp out your muse. Stay true to your style of writing.
- Every masterpiece, written or human, has its own imperfections. They add to the composition’s beauty.
- Ground my reader into the concrete instead of the abstract. Let my nouns and verbs, not my adverbs and adjectives, carry the narrative.
- My writing is not my personal cache of words I know. Use clear word choice to convey understanding to my reader, not the long, sultry affair with Webster.
- If a character is the narrator of the story, he or she cannot die at the end of the story. If the character begins the story, he or she must end it.
- The creative and the critical can exist in the same written discourse.
- Honor the process of writing in truth in order to be of service to my readers.
- Reading and writing are symbiotic processes. You must read extensively and study professional models of writing in order to hone your writing.
- Back story should be woven seamlessly into the narrative.
- Write and order each sentence with care. Each sentence should be able to link the reader to the larger narrative just like a piece of yarn remains connected to its skein.
- The placement of a punctuation mark can modify the meaning of a sentence.
- Do not be afraid to reinvent myself even if it means rebuilding my life.
Being a writer, at any age, involves reinvention and letting go. Our experiences drive our creative process. We must transition throughout our lifetimes even though the process seems more amplified.
Additional information about punctuation as rhetorical grammar can be found in Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.
What lessons have you learned about writing and/or life?