by Felicia Rose Chavez, faculty, Creative Nonfiction
This article was originally published in Poetry Wales’ Spring 2022 issue under the title “Workshop: Facing Our Fear: Felicia Rose Chavez workshops fear and the writing process.”
Three years ago, I dragged myself to a professional development training, eyes burning from nights spent awake with my three-month-old son. The topic was networking, one in a series of trainings organized by Creative Capital as part of a year-long fellowship program. I was in the process of writing The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. This team of mentors believed in the project enough to fly from New York City to Louisville, Kentucky, each month to reiterate their mantra: “You have value.”
I took out pen and paper, poised to note-take on the thirty-second elevator pitch. The facilitator made a joke, something about sink or swim, and in walked twenty arts professionals, suits gleaming under the fluorescents (and me, oh god, in my too-big “I’m sad” sweatshirt).
Next thing I knew I was pitching my book, speed-date style, in five-minute increments. “It’s a teaching tool,” I stuttered. “For teachers.” I bobbed and weaved, spoke in code, anything to avoid calling out white supremacy to these white strangers. I’d spent every day of that year writing about racism, and yet I was afraid to speak the words aloud.
I was a woman of color who chose to pursue love and power in the name of justice, a woman who had just summoned that power to birth her second son, and still I cowered, because white supremacy works in silence. I knew that one cavalier comment about the manuscript could splinter under my skin for days. Better to protect myself, I thought.
Sometimes we have a tendency to talk about our experiences—especially if they are hard to confront—in language that is convoluted because the truth is hard to face head-on. We hide in vague words, big words, beautiful words. But the point is release.
In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron talks about an underground reservoir of creative energy that you can all tap at will. Beneath you is a river of permission allowing you to tell your story because your story matters. Cameron reminds us, “The reward for attention is always healing.”
Remember, you are contributing to the conversation for the love of yourself. Write when you need to write. Do it to be free of the fear of what will happen when you release the truth.
To help us surrender the habit of writing with fear at our backs, try this freewriting exercise inspired by Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark. The goal is to embolden ourselves to face what it is we need to deal with, or heal from, or celebrate. Every one of us has work to do.
First, separate yourself, the writer, from the internal censor that flares up as you write. Give the censor full voice on the page. What does it say, exactly? No one will ever read this. No one cares. You’re wasting your time. The more clearly you know the censor, the better you can ignore it. Set a timer for two minutes and write without stopping to reread or edit your language as you go.
Friedman confesses: “When I embraced imperfection, the silence dissolved.” Reflect on your own inertia or insecurities when it comes to writing. How do you silence yourself? I’ll only share it when it’s perfect. I don’t know how to write poems. Someone else wrote on this topic and they’re better than me. These are excuses for staying immobilized. Set a timer for two minutes and itemize a list of your writing fears.
Finally, review your list. Answer each fear with a mantra: “But I will write anyway.” No matter what your internal censor tells you, no matter what you concoct as an excuse not to tell your story, you have the answer: I will write anyway.
Out of this knowledge, you’re better equipped to make choices for beauty, kind consideration, and clear truth.
Some days, I don’t have the energy to be generous and mindful. Enduring the hatred of individuals exhausts me just as much as enduring systems of institutionalized oppression. But I choose to persist. I choose to be fully human in resistance to the constant invalidations of my humanity. I choose to exhibit a full range of emotions in a world that wants to make women and people of color two dimensional. I choose joy because I’ve been told all I get is pain. “Come celebrate with me,” poet Lucille Clifton prompts, “that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
Together we will meet on Clifton’s bridge “between starshine and clay” to shape ourselves more fully into three-dimensional stories.
To start, imagine yourself sifting through the pages of a memory album. You’ll discover that only a select few memories capture a vivid snapshot in time; others are blurred or faded. Just like old photographs, stories from your past have present-day power over you. The more colorful the story snapshot, the more engrossing your emotional response. These vivid snapshots, they’re the sort that represent personal growth, change, failure, moments of unique insight or unresolved conflict. Why not study them, learn from them?
Browse the album.
What do you remember about silence?
Identify one or more snapshots that burn brightest in your brain. One at a time, engage each snapshot with the goal of resisting the cultural imperative of a two-dimensional existence. Instead, celebrate multidimensional complexity, what Sue William Silverman calls “different depths of view.” Ask yourself:
What story does the story snapshot reveal?
What does the story snapshot fail to reveal?
What did you want to express at the time but didn’t?
What did you think in your head but didn’t say out loud?
If there is another person present in this memory snapshot, what do you imagine them saying or thinking?
How do you wish you would have responded if you could do it all over again?
What advice would the “you of today” offer the “you in the photograph”?
Resist the urge to hide, to hold back. This is an exercise in release.
Now that you’ve done the hard work of sincere reflection, you’ve opened yourself up to possibility. Using Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers” as guide, draft a personal letter. This exercise marries your earlier freewriting about fear and creativity with your hard-earned memory work.
The letter can take the form of poetry or prose, or an intersection therein.
Specify your reader in your title. Maybe you’re writing a letter to yourself. Maybe you’re writing to a specific subset of readers. Anything’s game.
In your letter, practice vulnerability by admitting your writing fears and insecurities.
Trace those fears and insecurities back to specific moments in your life by incorporating one or more story snapshots.
Layer multiple depths of view into your letter by showcasing reflective perspective: who you were then versus who you are now, how you have grown, what you have learned.
By exposing your own complex story, you prove that you are more than fear personified. You serve as mentor to others, encouraging them to claim their value, too.
Felicia Rose Chavez is the author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom.Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she currently serves as the Bronfman Creativity and Innovation Scholar-in-Residence at Colorado College. For more information about The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, visit www.antiracistworkshop.com.