Though I wrote for and was editor of my high school newspaper, I didn’t start taking writing seriously until I enrolled in a nonfiction writing class at UCLA Extension in like 2010 or so.
Before that, all I did was ramble on MySpace and thecoloredboy.net (which became thecoloredboy.com), and it was just something fun to do. A round of applause for Beth Hoer, the most caring, most I-may-frustrate-you-today-but-you-will-thank-me-in-a-decade teacher I know, for suggesting I try journalism, and taught us how to engage people with words and be better humans. We were one of the last classes to really spend time learning about that damn inverted pyramid before dependence on standardized tests fucked everything up, limited class time spent on learning about the world through her quirky stories, interrogating and expanding upon written work, and trial and error and writing terrible words as practice. It produced years of underdeveloped writers who didn’t get to spend as much time learning how to use words more gooder and how to actually craft articles. Good times.
In class with Roberta Wax at UCLA, we tried all kinds of writing styles. We read work by “legends” like Joan Didion and Gay Talese. We wrote and workshopped the hell out of personal essays. The last assignment was to start a chapter of a memoir.
This was five years after lupus, four years after moving to New York to study dance, eight after being inspired Janet’s All For You Tour and forming my dance company. I figured I had a pretty cool life, but figured you had to be SOMEBODY or have done something remarkable to write a book about your life. Roberta dismantled all of that shit, and stressed the importance of each and every person’s story. For the sake of the class, I figured beating lupus was the best thing I’d done up to that point, so I decided to start there.
I didn’t know what I was doing, but it forced me to reflect on the lupus saga and consult friends and loved ones who witnessed it (I was in a coma for 10 days and missed that part of the circus). I found my journal from that time and just started reconstructing moments in The Year of No Pictures, Please and Thank You as vividly and honestly as possible.
It was hard to make a story about ugly shit like dialysis, spinal taps, chemotherapy, and suddenly having to get bathed by my dad something other than a tragedy-soaked sobfest. I did it, though. When I read it for the first time, some people laughed, some cried, some felt awkward for laughing at such a tragic story. The response and teacher feedback inspired two semesters of Joe Ryan’s Memoir Writing class at Los Angeles City College. That fantastic class—a mix of first-timers, people who just needed three credits, and published authors—inspired two more chapters. I struggled with my story beyond those pieces of life, so I put it down. I moved to Panama shortly thereafter in July 2011.
I haven’t touched it much since then. Last week, after struggling for years, I sat down on the train in Harlem and spit out the outline for my memoir. I expounded on that here.
To celebrate 32 years of rice-fed Blackness, I came to LA to decompress, get a break from hateful Winter-like nonsense, and breathe. And eat.
Just now in Denny’s, sitting in the same booth I sat in countless times with homies during my time here as a timid dancer, and fleshed out that memoir outline. It feels real. Doable. And then the title came. And I skeeted in my pants a little. And then I opened the Google Doc with the dusty outline for a book of essays and had a moment of exuberance in that joint right quick. Then I had an eight-second dance party and asked for the check. And the ancestors heel-toed in jubilee.
At home, I hadn’t been able to relax enough to pursue any personal, exploratory writing that wasn’t tied to a check or “work” in any serious way. Here these few days, there’s no endless hustle or slothlike crowds to drive up my pressure. No appointments, packed and musty trains, or rat bastard rheumatologists (who uses mucho omission and a one-sized-fits-all approach to prescribing life-ruining lupus medications) to harass my spirit. I’ve been writing like a motherfucker out here.
And breathing. And eating.
Finally, back where this writing thing really popped off (hey, Soulbounce), I finally feel ready to do this damn book thing. Like, forreal this time. The work terrified me mainly because I didn’t quite know what the work was, or what the result could and should look and feel.
There are at least three books that need to happen. Making one happen next year would be magnificent and would be a major victory in The Age of Rut Escaping. Two would be like extra credit. Three would mean I’ve unlocked my inner Oprah and that you should look out for the opening of the Rita Louise Watson Educational Center. You never know.
I’m working really hard to relax and allow myself to not be “on” all the time, which is also work. I’ve also been hanging out with my sisters and brothers from other mothers, and reconnecting with the closest thing I have to a little brother, one of the dancers from my company as he prepares to go back on the road with Ariana Grande. And I’m enjoying silence, which is not a in New York City.
This trip is a birthday treat at the end of a trying year. Having spent 2016 aggressively focusing on improving myself and encouraging everyone to check in with themselves and others, I’m glad I finally took my own advice and was kind to Alex and disconnected for a bit. It clarified the murky and tranquilized the beast. For the first time in ages, I feel light. (Not after that Denny’s, but you understand.)
Shoutout to self-care. And full-circle moments. More of this, please.
Alexander Hardy is a New York-based educator, mental health advocate and writer. Follow him at @chrisalexander_