It took me two and a half years to finish "Walang Hiya, Brother." I was 21 when I thought of it, and 22 when I began to write it. I ended it only when I was 24-going-on-25.
And let me admit: it was no easy two and a half years. I struggled with this story, rewriting and redrafting it, never letting it go. I walked around thinking about it. I sat in cafés in downtown L.A., Charleston, South Carolina, to Norfolk, Virginia, and all the way back to California, finishing it at World Grounds Coffee on Christmas break. Writing is an isolating and tiring process.
I didn't work on any other story during this time. Only this one. This one obsession.
This leads me to another confession: I am that kind of writer. You can call us tortured ones, silly ones, obsessive-compulsive ones that labor over each word and breath and inflection and erase erase erase until that one sentence flies on its own, bleeds into the next one.
No remnant of the first draft has remained, except for the one thing that started it all: my brother's black question mark tattoo, impressed on his right forearm and four inches in height.
And that is how I start all my stories—with an image, a thought, a visual, a haunting. I start them like poems. I begin with a phrase, a saying, a moment, anything that has permeated my mind and has stayed with me, left me breathless, confused, and wanting more.
For me, that's the hardest part. To begin a story with something that has lingered within for a long, long time, something that has possessed me, and to end the story with that obsession, with something that instead lingers with you, the reader.
I am terrified of beginnings, like all emerging writers are. I have no answers to overcome this fear other than this: just write, and keep writing. I would recommend finding a writing community, attend conferences that will support and love you, and to simply read great books. There are not enough books to ever fill the void within, so you must read in order to write. Learn the rules to break them. Find your own writing process. And more than anything else: take your time. Be patient. There is no rush to be a writer.
Beyond this self-doubt, I understand that for some writers (who are just like me), there lies another one: as a writer, as a woman, as a person of color, as someone who is everything in-between, I have been taught that anything I say or think is irrelevant. Beginnings are scary because I constantly tread between beginnings. I'm a Navy wife. I'm 25. I'm young. And I have to remind myself that if I don't believe in what I say, in my writing, then no one else will.
Let me be more specific: I'm a writer from a lineage of accidental literacy. To quote Edwidge Danticat:
"As immigrant artists for whom so much has been sacrificed, so many dreams have been deferred, we already doubt so much. Who do we think we are? We think we are people who risked not existing at all. People who might have had a mother and father killed, either by a government or nature, even before we were born. Some of us think we are accidents of literacy. I do."
I'm also that kind of writer—one who cannot escape her political inclinations because who she is manifests into a political statement.
But at the end of the day, if you are like me, you must remember this: politics can't make a story. They can be a framework or a window into the world of your characters. I hold firm to the belief that the political is the personal, but one must find a balance to everything. Stories are always more universal and—at the same time—more specific than this. They're about falling in love. Or a relationship between a brother and sister. About searching for one's place. Or the leaves that fall to the ground in autumn. About springtime, winter's coldness, summer's whimsicality—about beginnings and endings and the process in-between.
Write what haunts you, even if it hurts, if you're scared, or if you're filled with doubt. As Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
It took me two and a half years to finish my story, and though writing is an isolating enterprise, I didn't do it "alone." I wrote the words. I imagined the characters. I dug deep within to find the emotive stirrings beneath the surface, allowing my own shame to shape what I had to say. But if it weren't for the guidance of my professors, VONA/Voices, or Laura Pegram at Kweli Journal and the Kweli scholarship program, I wouldn't have believed in myself. I wouldn't have edited and edited and edited the manuscript over and over again. And that's the first step. I said earlier that I have to remind myself if I don't believe in what I say, no one else will.
That's also a lie we tell ourselves.
There's a whole tribe that will believe in your work. Linda and Susan did. My community did. We, as writers, just have to show up and do the work—this constant uphill battle. This is our process in-between, and though yours will be different than mine, the results are the same:
Creating art. And writing what haunts you.