On the Saturday after I spoke on a panel at the Schomburg, I attended the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators conference here in NYC. I supported my friends Julia Torres and Cornelius Minor as they gave a framework for authors and artists to ingratiate themselves to PK — 12 educators. After the spot-on workshop, Elizabeth Acevedo graced the ballroom keynote stage. The voluminous curls on this gracious Dominicana can be seen a bodega away (in NYC, we have them on every block or two, right?). I carried de lo mío’s book The Poet X in my bookbag for the last couple of weeks. I am both exhilarated and infuriated that this young adult novel with a core identity of a poetry anthology exists.
The poet in me, who once read at the now defunct Cornelia Street Cafe and still yearns to do so at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, dedicated what little free time I have to this decorated, venerated tome.
Near the apex of her speech, she speaks about her insecurities and how she came to the conclusion that she would write for her very specific audience. The shift from “trying to write for everyone” to “putting the onus on audiences to move to her” is underrated. She’s literally putting the onus on the literary world. Its inhabitants would either embrace her writing and the people who would hold it in the light or leave her alone.
In a room full of white people, many of whom influence the bookshelves for major publishers and partnering districts, this was the ascension of a queen telling the court that the food she decides to serve will be the main course. She wrested this power from the gatekeepers much to their amazement. For Julia, Dulce-Marie Flecha, and I, it’s also the story of our survival in predominantly white spaces.
Then, she prophesied, “It didn’t matter how many stickers were on my book because, no matter how many awards and accolades I got if I didn’t believe that I was a writer.”
That jabs so many of our sides, too. I have the uncanny ability to believe exponentially in other people’s power even — especially — when I don’t believe in myself. I remember asking Luz (my wife) to write me a piece as part of a series on my blog. She had ideas swimming in her mind, but didn’t think of herself as a writer and kept pointing at me. I said, “Well, OK, but I believe you can bring a much-needed perspective for some educators.” When we published it, the piece was one of the more popular pieces on this site ever. She’s a writer. We both knew it, but eliciting it from others is a far easier venture. Because of the way writing works, much of what we know about the ethos of writing is baked in greatness, and our seeming ineptitude to reach the mystical apex.
Maybe we’re afraid that, once published, the piece won’t become an instant hit or people may disagree with the entire idea of us writing. Maybe we’re afraid that the piece will receive hateful and inauthentic commentary about our work. Sometimes we’re afraid that, if people love our work, we’ll drastically exceed our own expectations.
Insecurities are tricky. As fate would have it, I mingled with some of my favorite writers on the planet as well on the same Saturday. A few years ago, the idea that I could even share space with this set of luminaries tightened my chest. Now, after a best-selling education book, over a thousand blog posts, thousands of followers on any number of platforms, dozens of speaking engagements at some of the largest conferences in America, and a website that until very recently was blocked from some of the largest school districts in the nation, I still have a hard time using “writer” as an identifier. Writing is reserved for people with strong first drafts and national acclaim from influential circles.
Yes, I live in Harlem. I could aspire to the greats. I, a reader, have been exposed to them profoundly. I, like so many of us, refrain from calling myself a “writer” because of great writing. Perhaps.
For years, I’ve also had the fortune of playing editor for a few education writers and speakers, each time reading for voice and approach. Grammar is fine, but I prefer big ideas and stories told differently and thoroughly. I don’t shape others’ words so they look like mine. I give comments in hopes of eliciting more of what’s already there. I offer this as part of my mentorship suite to those willing to take the leap of vulnerability in this education work.
More recently, I and a few others get to preview Dulce’s work. Educators who aren’t subscribed to her Medium do themselves a disservice. My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist. This piece approaches a conclusion with us watching Acevedo wax poetic about believing in herself as a writer. It continues with me telling my other fellow Dominicana that, despite her best objections, she communicates new ideas that pulls people into a new understanding about her and us, too. She doesn’t have to aspire to Acevedo, Reynolds, Gay, Coates, or any number of contemporary flame throwers.
She got this; she totally does.
Imitation sounds sincere but our biggest competition looks back at us in the mirror. I tell Flecha she’s a writer. My own writing threatens to call me out.