National Poetry Month: Storytelling

I went to a poetry slam yesterday and mutilated a few high schoolers–as did my fellow spoken word compatriot who was preparing for an event he had coming up on Sunday–and I felt horribly for it.  I felt like a pillaging Viking snatching babies from their cradles.  Or an Egyptian soldier killing one and two year old babies for Pharoah.  It wasn’t even a competition really; more like a landslide victory.

Let me continue by saying that 1) I had absolutely NO idea it was a poetry slam.  I was told it was open mic and that was the only reason I was there.  2) I had no idea the program was put on by a high school English class.  It was held at a place where adult open mics occur all the time.  And 3) I do NOT, under any circumstances, make a habit of annihilating innocence.  Because I think that’s exactly what I did…

I’m not sure what stipulation this particular group had on slam participation, but all the high schoolers who entered were seniors.  We found that out at the end of the slam.  And their instructors didn’t feel one bit guilty about allowing them to parlay with adult poets who had been doing this for years.  They felt it was “good experience for them”.  Even a fellow poet of mine said the same when I told her what happened.  She said, “They need to step their game up.”  And that got me thinking: she’s right.  Because what I saw that night, both in the open mic section and the slam, made me feel these kids hadn’t been taught a thing.  So being the good Samaritan that I am…

1. Poetry gives the author a voice.  Pace matters.
My goodness, these kids who presented, out of nervousness or just academic zeal, read at lightning speed to the point you couldn’t hardly understand a word they said!  No pauses.  No breaks.  No connection with their audience.  Were it not for the title and author citation at the beginning, I would have had no idea what I was hearing.

Slow down.  Poetry is not a novel, or even a short story.  So read slowly.  Pace the words into sentences that make sense; the author has provided punctuation, stanzas, and lines to show you the places you are meant to take a breath.  Use them.  It forces the work to be read in the rhythm the author designed it, regardless of the way the words are organized on the page.

2. Poetry should be about something.  But please, don’t try to be deep.
The pretension in the room nearly stifled me.  We could tell the self-important, “we sit on the grassy knoll and contemplate the state of the world”, “the arts are my life” types the moment we entered the room.  And they reinforced that idea when they got up to the podium to present.  Consider the reason writing, artistry, music, theater, and dance are labeled artforms–because there’s an art to forming them.

These artists–in any genre–have something to say: about life, the world around them, nature, society, politics, love, themselves.  Art is about reflecting what may seem ordinary or common into a medium that is structured in a way that speaks to others.  It’s about placing those thoughts and experiences on a palette that is beautifully edible, digestable, and memorable.  Constructing poetry, or any artform for that matter, in a way that is deliberately complicated–with elevated vocabulary and snarky ideas–doesn’t make me think.  It makes me tune out.  Thereby defeating the central purpose of art: to be heard.

3. Poetry requires authenticity.  Only you could have said what you said that way.
A lot of comparison went on, especially once the slam part started and scores were assigned.  At the end, I heard a lot of “I can’t write like you”, “Your stuff was better than mine”, “I wish I could do that”.  You would be tempted to believe these are compliments to the other poet, but really it’s self-deprecating, and you don’t want to start teetering on that ledge.

Taking into account the first two points: if poetry is about giving the author a voice to say what they need to say about life and experience, who better to say it than that poet?  It’s true that you might not be the first person to write about love; these concepts occur to all of us because it’s experience we’ve all had.  But that heartbreak–or soul-wrenching love story–happened to you.  Nobody else can tell that story except you.  Even the lover you shared it with didn’t experience it the exact same way you did.  Your story matters.  Tell it the way you would tell it, because that’s the part that makes the telling worth listening to.

There will always be someone who can do what you do better.  Let that talent and skill elevate you, not discourage you.

4. Poetry is about connection.  But you are the only audience that matters.
I love to write.  I love to sing.  These are avenues by which I say the things that are meaningful and powerful to me.  And somehow, I’ve said them well enough that I’ve actually managed to get people to listen.  But I don’t write to sell books, and I don’t sing to get a record deal.  I write and sing because it allows for cathartic release, to say what I may not have otherwise.  I say it in a way that makes me feel connected to myself again, so that I get to learn more about me.  And you know what?  Now others know me better too, and they say, “I too have felt the sting of loss.  I too have felt the pain of heartbreak.  I too have been to the mountain.”  And so I have connected with them as well.

Artistry is about building a bridge between people.  Storytelling across varying mediums that allow someone a peek into another’s world so they can say “I’m not alone.”  Artistry is meant to pierce you at your core, to enlighten you, to bring you closer to an understanding of what it means to be human.  Because that is all an artist is striving to depict: their view of humanity.  Sometimes it is penetratingly dark.  At times, full of blinding light.  Either way, you should come away feeling connected to another’s view of the world, whether or not you were deeply affected by it.

This experience with young ones reminded me that I was once them.  I go back to my high school poetry and I can see how I was both pretentious…and then beautifully artful in my honesty.  I keep it all.  I’ve thrown nothing away, even the horrible stuff.  Because it still connects.  It still speaks.  Make sure what you write, sing, play, compose, act, draw/paint/animate does too.  Keep telling stories.  Somebody’s listening.

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Superwoman vs Wonder Woman: the Antithesis of True Love

I’ve seen a lot of single mothers, particularly around Father’s Day, promoting the Superwoman concept.  As single mothers, they are forced to do it alone, to be independent and conquer many challenges and milestones all by themselves.  Far too often, especially in African-American communities, fathers don’t stick around–they sire children and leave these newly formed families to fend for themselves.  A single mom is challenged to do and be both mother and father, which easily lends to the idea of a Superwoman or “Supermom”.  But for those same women to be looking for a man to spend the rest of their lives with…well, allow me to burst your bubble by saying your methodology is a bit askew.

The first challenge is–Superwoman, according to DC Comics, is evil; she’s the villainous counterpart to Wonder Woman.  She has had love interests–all villains–but with no particular desire for longevity in a relationship as she typically uses sex and her body as a weapon to get what she wants.  She is primarily concerned with overthrowing the Justice League and doing exactly what she wants to do when she wants to do it.  Although she appears to hate men and the tyranny she believes they stand for, she sees some value in them when they have something she wants–mostly sex and money.

Ultimately, Superwoman has no real need for a man, nor does she want one.  She’s career-minded, has no desire for children (although some story arcs depict a secret love child with Lex Luthor who grows to hate her mother for not attaining total dominance of the human race), and harbors a deeply seeded lust for vengeance.  Superwoman is single, ladies.  By choice, of course, and with ugly consequences.  If this is what you’re after, then you’re a Superwoman indeed.  But I’m willing to bet it’s not.

I’m hearing you now saying, “Fine.  Then I’m Wonder Mom.”  Okay, let’s look at Superwoman’s counterpart.

Wonder Woman is single, too.  She’s had love interests in previous story arcs with both Superman and Batman.  Both relationships were tumultuous as she tried to balance being a savior of the free world with a man who could–and was–doing the same.  The two story arcs where she successfully marries Superman end tragically with one of the two of them dying in some sacrificial way.  Two other relationships in the Wonder Woman saga include a male damsel-in-distress, (Steve Trevor, whom Wonder Woman frequently seemed far too dominant for with her being super and him being…well, not) and Aquaman.  Steve eventually marries a human woman, Etta Candy, and Aquaman later admits that he only agreed to marry Wonder Woman as a political alliance and never really loved her.  He leaves her for a merqueen, Mera, whom Wonder Woman later kills out of jealous vengeance.  Wonder Woman is powerful, accomplished, and capable.  But despite these things, her challenge in relationship always seemed to be the ability to yield the lead to her (most times super) lover, all of whom eventually chose other, non-super women to settle down with and marry.

So, let’s take a look at the women who eventually got these super men to put a ring on it.  Superman ended up with Lois Lane and Batman with Vicki Vale (see pic right). While both of these human women are obviously without super powers, they are not powerless nor without careers.  Both of them are successful reporters for prominent newspapers in their towns and are insiders to a lot of political contacts.  They are equally crusaders for truth, like their super-husbands, although on a less fantastical scale.  They are strong and independent thinkers, but do find themselves in need of rescue at times–and are appreciative of it.  Aquaman marries Mera, a queen no less; the title itself lends to all the other attributes of the previous two women.  While she is less outspoken than Vicki and Lois, she rules with a firm hand and quiet fire that earns respect without demanding it, especially from Aquaman, who she makes earn her hand in marriage through a long, sexless courtship.  Their story arc reveals that Mera refuses to even speak to or take messages from Aquaman while he was in relationship (even a loveless one) with Wonder Woman.  Talk about a woman with standards.

Now, let me establish early, ladies, I was a single mother.  Until I met my husband, I raised my son for fourteen years on my own with an amazing support system.  I am not, in any way, implying that your struggle is not real.  What I see, however, seems to be the Superwoman and Wonder Woman complexes: either you are so embittered by love that you attract men only interested in sexual dalliances or you are so dominant that you struggle with yielding the lead.  I was both these women, which is why I can call it like I see it.

Women were never intended to do it all.  We were forced into that role by societal shortcomings that made single parenting necessary and–let’s be honest–popular.  It’s almost “not cool” to co-parent, especially if mom and dad are not in a healthy relationship with one another.  Single moms these days tend to harp on the concept of being the primary parents and making all the rules; after all, every decision is yours because you are the one responsible for that child 365 days a year, especially if you’re trying to “co-parent” with a weekend/part-time dad who only shows up when it’s convenient for him.  Single motherhood has taught women not to compromise, which is counter-intuitive to the idea of being in a loving, caring marriage.  Because marriage takes both compromise and sacrifice.  As has been famously said by many so often that the originator is now unknown: “Do you want to be married, or do you want to be right?”

Trust me, ladies, I get it.  I was you, for a very long time.  And I suffered in other relationships because of it.  Like Wonder Woman, I was so super, I didn’t know how to let a good man lead.  Single motherhood had taught me, like it has so many other single mothers, to do it all for myself because no one else was willing or would.  When a good man came along and was both willing and able, I stole the reigns saying, “Nah, I got this.”  Then foolishly couldn’t understand why he left when I was just as good, if not better, than those Loises and Vickis who ended up with rings.  This made me bitter and angry, and I became Superwoman, deciding I didn’t need a man, which led to abusive relationship after abusive relationship with men who wanted nothing from me but sex and my undivided attention while they scampered off, sometimes right under my nose, with other Superwomen just like me.

It’s a vicious pattern that only you can stop.  Because it’s what’s in you that attracts the villainous Ultramans and Lex Luthors or causes the Supermans and Batmans to abandon ship.  Single motherhood does not demand an independent journey.  Children are best raised by villages, and the only reason a man would want to remain a part of that village is if you release your need for control and allow him to step into his place.  With all the Steve Harveys, Rev Runs, and Tyreses out there telling women what men are looking for, you should see by now that no man is satisfied with just being wanted.  Only a lazy, gluttonous person is satisfied at a job where they are paid to do absolutely nothing.  People seeking purpose want jobs where their responsibilities on that job matter to the greater good of the company.  People want to be valued, and that only comes from a need.

Men have that same need in relationships.  A Superwoman is so bitter she has no real desire for a man, so he takes what she’s willing to give (her body) and leaves the rest until he finds longevity elsewhere.  A Wonder Woman constantly demonstrating her own strengths and assets to her man ultimately emphasizes she sees no value in what he has to offer; he leaves because she is so wonderful, she has no need for him.  He can’t see where he fits in to what she has already established on her own.

I’m not saying you must lie down to some faux semblance of passivity and weakness.  And I’m certainly not saying the lioness A-type personalities of our world should “bow down” to a lion’s will just to be in a successful relationship.  If you believe that, you’re missing the point.  Men seeking a wife want a partner, someone to share their lives with.  If you can do that without him, what need do you have for each other?  What balance makes you successful?  Lucious and Cookie Lyon have made it very clear that two kings at the helm lead to the destruction of an empire.

Yes, there are exceptions to every rule.  I’m sure some Wonder or Superwoman somewhere is going to turn this into a sexist post and attempt to validate a woman’s desire to be everything to everyone at all times.  But I challenge you to see yourself in these archetypes.  If you’re reading this post defensively, it implies those Superwoman walls are still up, that Wonder Woman crown is still on, and you haven’t allowed yourself to see the truth in this.  Be honest with yourself: how well has that been working out for you romantically?

A crown on one’s head does not a queen make.  A woman who fashions her own crown and places it upon her own head and demands respect is by definition a dictator.  It is okay to be a powerful, self-sufficient woman.  But if you’re hoping to one day be a Mrs., you’ll need to leave the all-encompassing “super” part where it belongs: on the pages of a comic book.  Because let’s face it: when you’re as super as those two, who needs a partner?

No New Year’s Resolution

This is my first blog post of 2014, and in typical Raynetta fashion, I refuse to conform!  Everyone starts the year off with resolutions to which they are dedicated for merely a few weeks or months.  And by the spring, no one remembers what they set out to do, much less whether or not they actually achieved said goals.  This feels counterproductive to me.  It is also pretty cliche to tell myself I will set goals I can actually achieve because this feels limiting and doesn’t push my compulsive perfectionism to its brink (lol).  So instead, I’ve determined that this year, I will not make resolutions, but simply dedicate myself to being more functional in one specific area: my schedule.

I wrote a previous blog about scheduling that I found to be fantastically beneficial.  I had scheduled every required activity in my life, both personal and professional, to accommodate everything and everyone.  And for the most part, it worked relatively well…until I stopped doing it.  You see, I forgot to schedule time to schedule my time!  And before I knew it, I was winging my days again, wondering when I would ever find the time to do everything I needed to do.  And last year, my priorities swelled.  I added so many life changes–a new daytime career filled with busy little toddlers, renewed acquaintances, ministry obligations, a fiance and planning a wedding, and not to mention a moody adolescent middle-schooler.  I looked at my life and wondered why I felt I had accomplished nothing all day.  And then, during a productivity seminar, I was reminded how crucial (and advantageous) scheduling had become to my life.

You can always check out that other scheduling blog, but here’s a few other things I learned this year about managing my time:

1.  Maintain your schedule.  At the end of my week, somewhere between Friday and Saturday, I added time to my schedule to plan the next week’s time.  I schedule everything from phone calls to friends and family to writing and brainstorming time on my current work-in-progress.

2.  Be flexible.  I’m adjusting to the idea that things come up–like random “crisis” texts from your girlfriends that have to be addressed now, and the sudden realization that you don’t have all the ingredients for tonight’s dinner and now you have to go to the store which totally extends the time allotted for cooking and eating.  Roll with the punches.  It always works out.

3.  Prioritize.  I’ve color coded the items on my schedule.  Pink is for mandatory appointments or responsibilities that can’t be changed or rescheduled: like my daytime work hours and my continuing education classes.  Blue is for appointments and responsibilities that can be rescheduled but must get done at some point that day or week, like my writing and studying time.  Yellow is for appointments that can be rescheduled or removed altogether if necessary, like a club meeting or friendly phone call.  Green is my free time, and I try to give myself at least an hour of it every day.

4.  Don’t forget the “menial” tasks.  Often we forget to account for little things like commutes, meal times, adequate sleep and personal hygiene in our schedules.  If you’re running around the whole day, it’s easy to forget to eat! Or you find yourself off schedule trying to fit a shower in when you planned to study.

5.  You have more time than you think.  You will quickly realize when you sit down to do this that there is more unaccounted time in your schedule than you may believe.  Once you’re faced with filling your entire day span from the time you wake up until your anticipated bedtime, you’ll find that it really is hard to be uber productive every moment of your 15-18 hour day.  The space you don’t fill?  Consider it free time and bask in the opportunity to do whatever you like.

Here’s to being more productive and efficient in 2014!  Cheers to you, and rest assured: this is totally not a resolution 🙂

Tis the Season

Christmas is my favorite time of year!  I anxiously await the first of December each year, anticipating the excitement that comes with the holiday season.  My son and I enforce more traditions at this time than we do on any other holiday–combined.  And we spend more time together as a family in these few weeks than we do at any other time.

I, unlike few other parents (lol), am willing to admit that I spoil my son mercilessly.  He is my one and only, and I don’t have to share my income with anyone else if I so choose.  Therefore, he gets the bulk of my financial attention, especially at Christmas–even when he has been so inhumanely disagreeable that I balk at the idea of him deserving anything at all.  Which brings me to the point of this post…

Christmas, for me at least, has never been about deserving.  A difficult word deserving; it means to be found worthy, to have earned some semblance of reward.  And quite frankly, I just don’t believe any one of us–no matter how sweet, thoughtful or kind–can ever be deserving of someone’s love, affection or attention.  You see, love simply can’t be earned; it is only given–freely, completely and totally.  Christmas and its subsequent gift-giving is not about whether a child was “bad or good”, as the famous holiday songs jingle.  (Hence the reason I never taught my son to believe in Santa Claus, but that’s for another day.)  Christmas is about showing love to others through our giving, and thus, you cannot earn it.  It is my expression of love to you; it only requires that you gratefully receive.

My family’s practices, or traditions if you will, reinforce that concept, even down to the gifts we give.  What I’m looking for on Christmas morning is that ginormous grin that spans my family’s face that lets me know I got it right.  And whether I ever receive anything Christmas morning or not, seeing my family huddled under the tree, satisfied and happy, is what warms my heart.  It consequently makes me tremendously happy, even if that happiness is momentary.  It’s a small glimmer of hope in an unbelieving world, and no matter what you believe, hope is a concept we all desperately need.

Yes, Christmas has been commercialized and stripped of its true meaning.  We all know this: we’ve seen the Grinch steal the Whos’ packages and watched speechless as Linus stands in the spotlight on a stage with his little blanket.  We’ve repeated this process every year, and maybe only on a small level does it ever really sink in.  We get caught up in the Black Friday sales, which don’t even start on Friday anymore, and we’re scrambling for that new hot toy or electronic something that our child(ren) just must have or Christmas is a total bust.  But really, at the root of it, all that scramble and hustle and bustle is about one thing: love.  Because if you didn’t love the person who asked for it, as redundant and selfish and stupid as the gift feels or sounds, you wouldn’t be out there every Thanksgiving hunting and scraping and fighting to satisfy those meaningless requests.

There’s something about the spirit of Christmas that seems to set everything in my world right.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m still very aware of those who go without every year, those who are cold and hungry, those children spending the holidays in foster care with state-assigned “parents” who care nothing for them.  I see the hurt in the world, more than ever during this season.  The great thing though is that the Christmas spirit, if you allow it to, it fills you up to be the change, the hope, that someone is dying for.  Maybe those someones live in your house.  Or maybe those someones are the little children you sponsor at Good Cause or Salvation Army.  It doesn’t matter to whom you give that love, so long as you give it.

It’s more than a little cliche to close this post with a call to action, to inspire you to reflect and ponder on these “deep and moving” things.  I will ask you to do nothing of the sort.  All I ask is that you embrace whatever traditions you observe–even if there are none–and share these moments daily with those you love.  We all know too well that so many are gone too soon (RIP Paul Walker), and every second is much too precious to waste.

So Merry Christmas, my dedicated readers, and go spread the love!

What’s In a Name?

Today, I’m thinking about my name.  I’m not sure I like it.  For the longest time, I kept wanting to change it, to be something or someone else.  Interestingly enough, I got that opportunity when I wrote Barely Breathing.  I changed my name to Micah Michele, and then all felt right in the world–until family members kept telling me they couldn’t find the book.  I had to remind them I wrote under a different name, and then the repeated question was why?  When I got ready to publish The Grim, I thought I’d do it again.  Maybe not write under Micah Michele but fashion myself an even newer name that everyone was bound to love and remember.  It would be much better than Raynetta Stocks, and I’d live in infamy.
As good writers do, I asked for feedback.  I sent my family and friends several pseudonym options via email and said, “Which do you like best?”  This focus group turned out to be an exercise in disaster because no more than two people liked the same name, and of course, that exhausting question continued to repeat, “Why aren’t you writing under your own name?”
Honestly, I was so infuriated by the question primarily because…well, I didn’t have a legitimate answer.  I didn’t know why I wanted to change my name or what I thought I would accomplish by doing so.  I wanted my name in lights–so long as it wasn’t my real name.  And very quickly, that became a relatively ridiculous notion.
Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  I’m sorry, William, but I must beg to differ.  Our names have meanings, and if we bother to connect to those meanings, we’ll find something very beautiful indeed.  Take “Raynetta”, for example.  I looked it up and found that my name means “Law Unto Itself”.  Well, hotdog!  Here I was thinking my grandmother just made it up because my parents couldn’t agree on the two names they had picked out, and all the while God was whispering in my grandma’s ear: “Name her Raynetta.”  The explanation went on to describe very strong, accurate, and surprisingly positive characteristics about myself: a finisher, tolerant toward humanity, warmhearted, compassionate and empathetic, bold and independent, a freedom seeker.  I am all these things; they are the attributes I’ve struggled for the last three decades to see in myself every time I look into the mirror.
I can’t say that everyone lives up to their name, especially if they are never told what it means, but innately, I believe our names become the foundation of what we grow to be.  A prophecy, if you will, of the person our parents pray we become.  It’s the place we start from, the place we blossom from.  Yes, you could call a rose by a different name, and yes, it would still smell sweet–but that rose gained notoriety by its name not its smell.  Were it not called a rose, wouldn’t it be more difficult to recognize in conversation?  To search for on the internet?  To request in the floral shop?  Your name is your first definition.  It’s your first glimpse at your purpose.
How can I see any other name in lights besides my own?  If Micah Michele were plastered on a Times Square billboard, would something resonate in me?  By any other name, would my work be less good?  Perhaps not. But in some ways, attempting to rename myself simply disowns me from the dream I pursue.  Because if I ever achieved greatness with a pseudonym, that person would not be me.  I would not recognize her–and neither would the world.

Pages From My Diary

Pages From My Diary

I’ve been gone for awhile.  The writing process can be a bit solitary for most writers, and sometimes, you just gotta shut down and disappear for awhile in order for the muses to descend.  It happens.  I don’t deny, however, that I’ve missed you.  And in the time I’ve been away, I’ve found there was a lot I’ve been wanting to say.
This new blog series is not at all about my work.  It’s not about books I’ve read.  It’s not even about movies made from books.  This series is about me.  I’m going to be vulnerable, I’m going to be open, I’m going to be honest–even to my detriment, as those instances arise.  I want you to know me.  Because my work is a reflection of who I am.  And you can’t possibly understand that without my revealing a bit of myself to you.
My blog began as a place where I could share the many things I love about aesthetic entertainment, but in the time I’ve spent with you, it has become a medium to really connect and give you a piece of the writer, the person I am truly, and not so much the persona that comes with being an author and storyteller.  Being an independent author has it’s perks, but I don’t want to pretend.  As Sparkle so famously said, I want to give you something you can feel.
So, as always, I invite you to embark on another journey with me.  It’ll be fun; didn’t you know I’m a riot?
You can always find my diary entries on the sidebar under “Labels”.  Click “Pages From My Diary”, and happy reading.