My Memoir Writing Journey

What exactly am I working on now? A lot of things but mostly my memoir. Now that Keep Yourself Full is on its way out, I really want to get this done and I will have to deter a lot of projects to do it. At least until I finish the first draft and then I can work on other stuff and just work on the memoir from there.

This is the hardest writing job I’ve ever undertaken. I have deleted everything I ever sent my email list as a sneak peek two years ago (can’t believe I let you in on that *insert eye-ball roll*) and have started over. I am fifty pages and nine chapters into the first draft so it’s not so bad considering starting over. What I don’t want this memoir to be is an autobiography. I’ve always wanted to write an autobiography, but that’s before I learned the difference between the two.

I learned memoirs differ from autobiographies. Memoirs are popular because they center on one theme and read like novels, making them much more interesting than the chronological format of the autobiography.

Theme

One thing I am working on is not making this psychoanalytic, if that’s the right word. While I’ve endured much trauma in my life, I don’t want this to be a dark history of my crazy. I don’t want this to be a therapy session. This is difficult because I’m not a sugarcoat type person and neither is my mother. I gotta keep it all the way real. I gotta be honest. How do I do this without going too far?

My title is “I Wasn’t Built to Break,” so my theme is to take all the things that have been obstacles and challenges in my life, that could have broken me physically, mentally, and emotionally, but didn’t. This means that I will not go into every single detail of my life but I will focus on certain significant events, starting with growing up in the Robert Taylor Projects.

Anyone who grew up in any of Chicago’s projects is a survivor in my eyes, a warrior. It meant they not only escaped the drugs, violence, poverty, neglect, and gangs, but they also escaped literal death. Perched above the high-risers of Robert Taylor and Cabrini Green, snipers (aka Gang Members) with high-powered rifles would sit on a top floor (in a vacant apartment) and shoot their rivals. These bullets though, often hit innocent bystanders, mostly children. I remember my Uncle coming to school to get us early because the buildings were shooting, and we had to run to our building. When I say it was a Warzone, I mean that literally. And none of us project kids ever got counseling or therapy for the things we saw. Not even the classmates of the seven-year-old Dantrell Davis from Cabrini who was shot by a sniper on his way to school in 1992 in front of his mother, teachers, police officers, and classmates.

Historical

Writing a memoir is no easy task so my approach is to research and write this as if I am writing a Historical Fiction novel, except everything is true. Since I enjoy writing Historical Fiction, I’ll use history as a buffer. Instead of focusing on my experiences only, I want to take us back into the politics of some of what was going on in the world I did not have knowledge of as a kid. There’s my world where I can only see what’s in front of me and around me. As, a child my view is limited not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. I can only understand my current surroundings and circumstances from an eight-year-old‘s perspective (which is the timeframe I am focusing on in the beginning of the book). Then there’s the world at large. How did the decisions of others affect me, one of 21,000 children growing up in what became known as one of the poorest urban communities in the United States, a concentration of poverty they called it, the Robert Taylor Projects?

I want to go into how the projects under the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) replaced the Chicago Slums, the discriminatory policies like redlining that kept blacks from purchasing homes in their own neighborhoods, the kitchenettes and one-room basements blacks lived in during the 30s, 40s and 50s, the beacon of hope the projects promised as a replacement, the mixed-community that was there (because whites and blacks both lived in the PJs!), the racial riots that never made the news, and the racist policies that caused many white families to move out of the projects and into the suburbs. Also, the Plan for Transformation that demolished Public Housing and replaced them with a mixed-income community of condos and townhomes and what this cultural mix meant for former public housing residents. (There is even history behind the name Robert Taylor. He was a black man on the board of CHA who opposed building the projects on the same land as the slums. He wanted to spread them out, so they fully integrated blacks throughout Chicago. After CHA refused, he quit. To name a building after him in the same location he worked against was disrespectful and an insult to his memory.)

I hope that if I do this, it will be a much more enjoyable read. I want to incorporate both history and personal testimony with the testimony supporting the history. I remember for instance that whole “Homie the Clown” Scare of the early 90s. I remember that because I had nightmares of the clown coming into our apartment and chasing me around the couch. In 1991, rumors surfaced that a man who we called “Homie the Clown” was riding around in a van kidnapping and killing kids. “Homey the Clown,” was the name of a character played by Damon Wayans on the early 90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. The character was an angry black ex-con who carried a sock for knocking bad kids upside the head. His catchphrase was “Homey don’t play that.” Our “Homie the Clown” was allegedly dressed as a clown and went around kidnapping kids. Rumors said that he rode in a van and liked to stand next to mailboxes eating bananas. This sounds silly now, but it was serious back then, just like the recent clown scares. We got let out of school early and children were afraid to walk by mailboxes. It also didn’t help that Stephen King’s IT had also just come out.

Community

It wasn’t all bad though so I want to talk about the close knit community that existed there too that never made the news. Generations of families grew up together in what is rarely seen today. My mother’s friend, who lived next door, helped her to babysit. People watched one another children, shopped together, stepped up when someone was in need and shared food. We could go next door or downstairs to ask if someone had sugar or flour. We bartered services and passed along information about job openings or what was new at the Aid office and the candy lady was an entrepreneur. She used her food stamps to open a candy store back when you can get one piece of candy for every penny you had, better known as Penny Candy.  People threw house parties and sleepovers. Robert Taylor was not just a concentration of poverty. It was also a thriving community. When things were good, they were really good, and everyone was family. But you didn’t see this on the news. We were not all crack babies. We were not animals.

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Memoir Sample – The Aid Office

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Our family survived off welfare and from that end I know it to be helpful. It was however, a possessive lover. In Robert Taylor, no one’s father was present since their mother’s couldn’t receive welfare with them. But not that men weren’t present; their existence was obvious since the projects themselves overflowed with innocence. Thousands of children the byproduct of casual sex, and drive by love pieced together somehow between the cracks of the doors left open by the ladies from the welfare office, who searched everywhere but the crack of your buttocks to ensure it wasn’t present. So the men were around, fathers of children who knew them as nothing more than the Ray Ray’s and Big Mikes of the block. Men who sort of hung out on the corners or underneath the beds of open women, too filled with desire and dreams to deny a no-good-man a place between her legs. So the kids kept coming, the men kept leaving, and the welfare office remained packed. And if it, the Welfare, sensed anything positive had taken place, even if it was a new hairstyle, they needed to know from where the money had come, how much was it and how often was it around so they may deduct that amount from the meager rations they were already giving out. It didn’t matter if it was a jar of peanut butter or a new hat, if it was expected to come from an additional money source, it would be calculated and deducted from the monthly government assistance.

If she was found to have a man living with her, whether he worked or not, she could lose her money altogether. Not only was my father not around, but my Uncle had to make a covenant with the closet when the social worker came by. You see, a man’s  presence was a threat to the relationship between a woman and her government. Thus the poor were required to remain so in the buildings if they desired to receive the little nothings they were receiving from Welfare. If they showed any sense of pride that required a level of discretion at what we commonly referred to as, “The Aid-Office”, it was as if the clerk had been instructed to repeat their business louder than the person obviously desired over the intercom so that the entire room could hear it; this made it extremely embarrassing to visit the office.

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If by any chance the women wanted a divorce by acquiring some fancy job, the government made sure to snatch away all its benefits so that she is better off to remain part of the relationship than to do away with it. What use is a “good job” when she can’t afford to pay the rent if it increases because of her salary? Or what use is a “good job” when she can no longer receive Medicaid for children who are constantly bleeding from the violence of their environment? This is a place where children used garbage dumps as a playground. What use is it, of a “good job”, when she can no longer receive food stamps as a means to feed her children? It is thus better for her to stay married, financially, to the system than to get a “good job” that leaves her just over broke and in the same situation as she started out as. Marriage? Out the question, she can lose her benefits by daring to marry her children’s father—she wasn’t allowed to have one in the home, let alone marry him. Needless to say, the system divided more than it brought together, and was quite jealous and possessive of its lover, the Black Woman.

– Concrete Children: Life Inside the Robert Taylor Projects

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I would like to publish a memoir one day. While I am still  in the infancy stages of understanding memoir writing, I have taken to writing down bits and pieces of my life story and publishing excerpts to this blog for practice. 

Guest Feature: How To Clean a Microwave with Vinegar & Steam

Oh my goodness!

Ok, just had to get that out. I found an awesome website called Practically Functional. Here, Jessi gives neat DIY tips on various projects, such as how to better clean stuff. So anyway, I’m doing my usual scroll through the online community and was excited to find something that could help clean microwaves. For those of you who live under a rock, microwaves  contain many crevices that require back bending work and are extremely boring to clean. I really hate to have to get down into it but it is a price I am willing to pay for clean. Microwaves to me are like unofficial clean house detectives. You can really tell how clean or unclean someone is just by how the microwave looks (on the inside people) because its one of those attention to detail thingys. If everything sparkles but the microwave looks like a bad science experiment then the person’s not as clean (or thorough) as it appears. That don’t mean yall can go around checking people’s microwaves now that you know the secret. ;  )

I would have re-blogged Jessi but I couldn’t find the re-blog button and I’m not sure if there is a re-blog button. So I’ll just post the link  here for you to check out. Below is the basic recipe. Yea, you’ve gotta visit the website for the extra stuff:

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“Have you ever exploded pizza sauce in the microwave? Today’s post will show you how to clean a microwave using only water, vinegar, and steam! It’s easy to do, only takes about five minutes, and it works great! I was able to clean off dirt and grime I didn’t even realize was there! Mostly what I saw when I looked at the microwave were the big red pizza sauce spills, but after I was done cleaning I realized the entire thing had gone five shades whiter! Don’t just assume your microwave is yellow. It’s not; microwaves are white.

How To Clean A Microwave With Vinegar

Here’s what you need:
vinegar
water
one drop of Young Living lemon essential oil (optional)
a bowl
a toothpick (optional)

Fill a microwaveable bowl with 1-2 cups of water and add 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar. Add a drop of essential oil if you don’t want your microwave to smell like vinegar.

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CAUTION: Liquids can get superheated in a microwave and explode. It isn’t common, but it can happen if you microwave liquids in a perfectly smooth container. Bubbles can’t form on a smooth surface, so the liquid won’t boil until it is jostled. This can cause it to “explode” into boiling when you open the microwave or try to remove the bowl. But don’t freak out! Most consumer bowls and cups are not perfectly smooth, and a microwave with a turntable jostles the liquid enough to allow it to boil. But, if you are worried about it, float a toothpick in your bowl. Bubbles will be able to form on the wood, causing the water to boil without exploding.

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Put the bowl in the microwave and shut the door. Microwave the water and vinegar for 5 minutes. If your microwave is REALLY dirty, don’t open the microwave right away when the timer goes off. Leave the door shut for about two more minutes to let the steam continue to work. The steam will help loosen up caked on bits of food, and the vinegar will help eliminate any odors. When you open the door, be careful pulling the bowl out; it will be very hot! Remove the turntable tray (carefully, it will be hot as well) and wash it in the sink. Now just take a cloth or sponge and wipe down the inside of the microwave. The dirt and food will come right off!

If you don’t want to microwave a bowl of water and vinegar, you can also get a sponge soaking wet, pour about a teaspoon of vinegar on it, and then microwave the sponge. This doesn’t create as much steam though, so if your microwave is really dirty like mine was, use the bowl instead.

Read more here: How To Clean A Microwave With Vinegar And Steam! http://www.practicallyfunctional.com/how-to-clean-your-microwave-in-2/

To Move a Mountain

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“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Proverb

So I have a very important writing endeavor coming up and it’s a really big deal. I will be among nine other writers to take part and not everyone’s script is guaranteed to make the final cut. With just a small window available to get it written, it made me think of this quote. A huge job or task only seems impossible because for the most part, we are trying to do it all at once. When I think about projects it’s usually the finished product. I think about how to go about completing the entire project but in truth that just makes it more difficult than it has to be.

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When I was in High School (well technically I had graduated but we were still in the summer months following graduation), I was chosen to take part in this program. The program was called “Paint the Town”, in which a group of former students sacrificed the rest of the summer to get together and perform one final project on behalf of the school. Since we were no longer students and really didn’t need the credit this was a paid job, so you know we were in. Some of us were already working summer jobs and preparing ourselves to start College the next semester. The job was to paint a mural on a concrete wall in the neighborhood. Initially, it seemed overwhelming because we had to complete the entire wall before the end of the program. Not to mention that we were not professional artists, we were former High School students guided only by the school’s Art teacher. Our job was to decide on a theme, draw out a blueprint and decided how to transfer our vision from paper to an outside concrete wall. It was no easy task as we struggled to decide what was important enough to leave its mark on this wall forever, or for as long as the elements didn’t wash it away. However, once we decided to break it down into parts and sections, and delegate those sections to certain individuals or teams, it didn’t seem like such a large mountain to move. We were able to see the possibility of it all coming together and today, I can walk down that same Chicago Street and still see my name carved among those who participated in the program that took place nine years ago.

When you are faced with an important job, try not to take it all in, but see it coming in slow, a little at a time and eventually the whole picture will come together. It is only when we try to move the mountain in one sitting that we overwhelm ourselves. Just take it one stone at a time; you’ll get there eventually if you remain diligent.

Break the Chain

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Thought I saw her self-esteem in the carpet.
Her back bearing the burden of bare floors
and
forks that scraped the bottom of clay plates
Thought I saw pain on the side of her state
of mind.

Thought I saw her spirit cut low like the grass.
Scattered pieces of forgetfulness floating fluently throughout her bones
that
clung its skin like melted wax welding its warring arms wildly in the sun
I asked her
Why she allowed herself to suffer she said, “I’m waiting for a change to come.”

I walked on…

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I felt metallic liquid lick my cheeks, the blood of one who’s hung.

His body shriveled up in the bowels of his own sadness,
His face “a raisin in the sun

I can see that his faith had fallen down to his knee caps.
But his eyes bulged boldly on and his life sped passed me in just a few years
Till my taste buds could create a meal from the salt I saw dancing in his tears
Telepathically he told me
that he didn’t die right here beneath this oak tree
But, “stepping foot inside this land is what killed me” He said
And like a mad woman I stared deep into a dead man’s eyes and said, “I see.”
I said.

So why do you hang out here like one whose been hung?”
He told me, “Cuz I’m waiting for a change to come”

I walked on….

At Play Near The Robert Taylor Houses

And this time crossed the Jordan
And I could hear nothing but the soft laughter of children in my ears
Shouting…jumping,
till I realized I had not entered the promised land,
but this was a street court filled with Jordan fans
Where
hope bounced back and forth to the sound of merciless concrete
polished “Niks” was like knives reaching for revolution in the air
it was cold
but the men were hot
contradictory

the American dream tied around the wings of the goddess of victory
these were project kids with $200 dollar Nikes
unknown vehicles hitting the streets
and then the seats
were suddenly empty

I realized then that I had been standing in the middle of a blank street
a court turned into a corpse
Low income homes now funeral homes, they trampled upon one another
fighting to “one up” one another
silently and still
I saw it
pieces of paper scraped up and scattered to the four corners
(Guess that’s why were still fighting one another for street corners)
a
basketball balled up and clumped like a clot of blood
carved into the cracks in the streets where crack addicts one day roamed the streets
I asked
this balled up clot of hopelessness “Where are you from??
it told me,

I wish to go back… but I am waiting for a change to come.”