The Story of Telling My Story

The-Story-of-Telling-My-Story

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The Story of Telling My Story

Panel 1

[Image] A black woman with short hair looking sad and nervous. She is holding a paper to her chest.

[Caption] In my first semester of grad school, I took a non-fiction writing workshop.
It’s nerve wracking, sharing a personal story.

Panel 2

[Image] Several people sitting around a round table, each with papers in front of them. A woman is holding her paper, and looking down at it, reading.

[Caption] One by one, people shared a story from their life.

Panel 3

[Image] A closeup of the paper against the black woman’s chest. She is holding it very tightly.

[Caption] And then it was my turn.

Panel 4

[Image] The next three panels are done in a softer style, to indicate the content of the story she reads out loud.

The black woman, wearing a jacket and and a backpack, staring at an empty road in front of a “closed” sign on doors behind her.

[Caption] Xmas day, when I turned 18.

Panel 5

[Image] A silhouette of the woman, in front of the airport. The road in front of the airport is deserted. There is no one else.

[Caption] I was accidentally left alone at a small airport.

Panel 6

[Caption] My mentally ill father – he was undiagnosed at the time – didn’t check if the terminal was open. I ended up hitchhiking home.

Panel 7

[Image] The black woman, seen from behind, faces the table of other students. Three women face her around the table, all with disbelieving expressions.

[Caption] What? They think I’m lying?

Woman 1: Wait, are you sure that’s how it happened?
Woman 2: I kind of don’t believe it. Why didn’t you know better?
Woman 3: Yeah I found it odd too.

Panel 8

[Caption] I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to scream. I looked down at my story instead.

Panel 9

[Image] A closeup of the sheet of paper the black woman is holding, still in her hands. On the paper is the following text:

Is it me and my writing? Did I not convey my father to be mentally ill enough? Why did no one else get these questions? Why would they doubt my own word for my own experience? My experience doesn’t fit into a typical black experience. Maybe that’s why they don’t believe me? Maybe my classmates don’t understand mental illness?

Panel 10

[Caption] I am bombarded by self-doubt. Historically, black writers have had to have white people vouch for their own stories to be taken seriously. Maybe that was part of it, maybe it wasn’t – but it’s what growing up black has forced me to expect.

I am plagued by this rampant self-doubt as I ask these questions: this is how I live with double consciousness, of thinking about how people see me along with how I see myself.

It’s an extra alter ego that my white classmates inadvertently evoked, and by which they will never be haunted.

 

I moved from Illinois to Florida to attend an MFA program in creative writing, where I received a fellowship to attend. I experienced some culture shock, going from a culturally diverse community to a white, culturally insular student body. I have noticed that as a writer who is also a black woman, there are questions that my white counterparts don’t have to face in this environment.

In my first semester of grad school, I took a nonfiction class where we had writing workshops. It takes a lot of guts to put your story into the hands of strangers for their critique. Yet this nerve-wracking experience can be a very enlightening, even uplifting experience.

I wrote and shared my painful experience of turning 18 on Christmas Day, where I was accidentally left outside in an unfamiliar, small airport terminal by my father. I ended up having to hitchhike home.

My mentally ill father didn’t check the terminal to see if it would be open on a major holiday. I didn’t consider him mentally ill back then – the illness was undiagnosed. So I just thought that his behavior was only eccentric and odd. That’s just who he was to me.

I felt the story was pretty universally understandable – a child dealing with a mentally ill parent, thinking that was just how he was, and believing that this was normal, healthy behavior.

What I wasn’t expecting was the reaction from some classmates. In a non-fiction workshop – where I wrote about a personal experience, and can’t change the facts – I was questioned whether my experience occurred the way that I experienced and wrote about it. Some classmates could not take my own word for my own past. Historically, black writers have had to have white people vouch for their stories (e.g. slave narratives) to be taken seriously. I don’t know if I was touching that third rail, or if they were. Either way, I was shocked by how closely they scrutinized my true story.

Then, a couple of my classmates blamed me for not knowing the terminal would be closed on a holiday. Even though it was my first time to this small airport, and even though I was a teen, according to them it was my responsibility to take care of myself. I was appalled and disappointed. My teacher chimed in, “Yeah, I found that odd, too…”

Inside, I was livid. How could they blame me, a child (at the time), for my father’s negligence? I sat in my seat, half looking at my classmates, and half looking at what I wrote, and shook inside with the abandonment, loneliness, and shame that I felt on that cold, wintry day. It’s like I had traveled back to that moment but now I had random strangers pointing their fingers at me. I didn’t want to cry — I wanted to scream. I was reliving that horrible day all over again, all cold with the wind whipping through my ears, my fingers going numb, feeling that heavy, existential dread. Except this time I was surrounded by unsympathetic strangers.

Most of the classmates expressed fear for the story “me”, hitchhiking on Christmas Day – as they should have. Yet it only took about three women, all white and above the age of 30, to ruin what would have been a decent workshop experience. Since then, my workshops, which have had mostly white audiences, have been challenging, although I have been able to grow as a writer.

A recent study has shown that people assume that black people feel less pain than white people. Basically, the black experience is already marked by injustice from racism, so how much more painful can being left outside on your birthday really be? My experience doesn’t fit into the mold of the typical black experience, so my classmates assumed that my pain on that day was somehow less than if the story belonged to someone else.

All of this is happening on an unconscious level. But when I write, I aim for universal truths that can be felt and understood by everyone. I am challenged to improve a story if readers don’t get it. So the lack of diversity in my program shouldn’t be a deterrent or obstacle. There may have been legitimate flaws in my story: it could have been that I didn’t show my father to be mentally ill enough. Or it could have been that my classmates are not really acquainted with how mental illness plays out in families.

I am plagued by this rampant self-doubt as I ask these questions; this is how I live with double consciousness, of thinking about how people see me along with how I see myself. It’s an extra alter ego that my white classmates inadvertently evoked, and by which they will never be haunted.

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3 Responses to “The Story of Telling My Story”

  1. Jane May 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm #

    You are the first person to describe this experiance so I am able to say “I KNOW HOW THAT FEELS!”
    I’m white as a white thing but my father has a list of illnesses as long as my arm, mental illness is high on his side of our family and in my husbands as well, yay!
    I was always frustrated trying to talk to people about experiances I had had and hearing things like “I’m sure they didn’t mean it”, “Oh, but what if…”, “Maybe they just…” and so forth, like I hadn’t understood where they were coming from and maybe if I was more understanding…

    After a while I started taking the deep breathes and not banning every-one from my life that said some-thing selfish, unintentionally cruel or microaggressive. One of these people is still in my life and is experiencing now at 30 what I did when I was in my teens and I love her so much I don’t actually have to restrain my-self from saying dumb things like “Yes dear, duh.”

    <3 <3 <3 <3

  2. L June 12, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    I’m so sorry you had to go through that. What a horrible lonely feeling that must have been even without the doubters questioning every line of your very personal story that you chose to share with them. Mental illness in a parent, or any loved one, is hard enough to deal with. Then bring in the insecurity of racial relations and you have a time bomb just waiting to go off. I realize that I am privileged by my race and can only imagine what others have to deal with on a daily basis. We all wear scars, I only wish that everyone had good friends to help sooth them.

  3. Mitchell February 11, 2016 at 12:12 am #

    I don’t know if you’re reading this still, but I hope you are still continuing to write with the same conviction that brought you into the MFA program. Even if people, even a majority may disrespect your writing and your person, I hope the knowledge that there will always be people who are receptive to your work will keep you going.

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