“As a writer, one of the things we all learned from the movies was a kind of compression that didn’t exist before people were used to watching films. For instance, if you wanted to write a flashback in a novel, you once had to really contextualize it a lot, to set it up. Now, readers know exactly what you’re doing.” –Salman Rushdie
Recently, I was talking with a friend about how hard it is to find time to write when you have kids.
“Once the twins were born,” I said, “my writing came to a screeching halt.”
But yesterday I found myself looking back and realizing that I have two types of writing: There is most of my writing, and then there is writing that people have actually read. It was quite interesting to realize that the writing that people have actually read category has increased from almost nothing to quite a bit. More interesting is that increase happened entirely after the birth of my children.
Damn. I really wanted to blame them for something.
I’ve been a writer my entire life, I have no childhood memories that where I was not also writing. Yet I have almost never published. Of course, that’s entirely my own choice if I’ve never really tried, and I haven’t really tried.
I liken it to music. Must a piano player create albums and tour professionally to be an incredible musician? Must they be a performer in order to be a musician? Can they identify as “a musician” if they are not a professional and famous?
If I’m not a famous book author, can I really identify as “a writer?” I’ve always believed so. Others haven’t.
Art is the act of creative expression. Yet judgement is often placed on the outcome of art. Many will be familiar with the voices, whether real or in their head, telling them if they are not famous, or making money, or some other arbitrary standard then they are not… real. As a child, my family instilled in me the fear that the sheer love of the craft of writing is not enough. If you haven’t published and made money, then you are a fake, subject to phrases “Oh, right, you’re a writer.”
The last word drawn slowly from the throat like a sword.
About a month after the above picture was taken, I was on First Shift™ with the twins, holding a flashlight over my fountain pen, when I decided to do something differently. For the first time, I wrote something with the intention of publishing it.
What came of that evening was the story of the fear I felt when my wife was suddenly rushed away by doctors, fear based on a reoccurring dream I had for years that she would die in childbirth.
That story, the first I wrote with the intention of publishing it, actually got accepted.
“Wow,” I thought. “So that happened!”
I have to admit that I got really scared by that. Fear does funny things to a person, and the fear of failure is not quite as scary as the fear of almost succeeding. Lots of people never publish anything and it means nothing. But if I can only publish one thing, that mean’s something. If only one editor will accept my work for their publication––whether or not they are paying me––that mean’s it was a fluke.
So, for the most part, I kept writing for myself––for the sheer love of the craft of writing. But something was different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but writing simply for myself was, not worse, just…different.
Because of that, I tried it again. The next thing I wrote for publication was a true story about a girl that I loved like the autumn sun on my face. It was about needing her, and wanting to keep her, and knowing that I had to let her go.
That one got shot down so many times I lost count. But I loved it because I wrote the truth that was real to my heart. Eventually it found a home outside my notebook.
Most of what I write is fiction. It’s true fiction, like “Peter” is true fiction. The story of me losing that girl I love is true even if it hasn’t happened yet. The imagined representation of what I know will eventually come is as true as what has come to pass.
Not to say that most fiction is false. Fiction is almost always true. At it’s best, it is the exploration of human existence. It is the opportunity to be inside the universe of another person’s experience. Sometimes that’s an escape. Sometimes it is a study, as was this rather dark piece I wrote for a writing symposium shortly after “Peter”
The Answers That Swallows Know
You don’t have to notice it so much from up here, but you still know it’s there. It cuts this place like a blade…
The idea was to write about the place we live in. I live in a pretty beautiful mountain town on the Columbia River, so most of the place-based writing ends up being rather romantic.
I went in a slightly different direction.
As I said, most of what I write is fiction, but not all. I occasionally dabble in poetry. I say “occasionally dabble” by way of easing the pain of the truth, which is that I “constantly write” poetry, but that very little of it is of any value.
Poetry is a strange bird to me. I think of it as if painting in abstraction rather than realism. I hope my fiction is in some sense poetic––at least in that I can occasionally provide a nice turn of phrase––but it is realist. Fiction describes a scene, or an action. Poetry describes a feeling. To me, poetry is Picasso’s Guernica… it is not a realist painting, but the chaos, the pain, the fear, those are all very real.
I’m a rather awful poet, but sometimes I try. I find that I often write poetry about writing––or about the effect of writing on my life, such as this one.
Growing up in a family that thought writing was Not A Real Job™ has some considerable emotional disadvantages to a child who wants to do nothing but write. I often wonder how many of the various directions of my life were dictated by that experience. By the fear of choosing a writer’s path over a “real job.”
One thing that helped me throughout my childhood was an unexpected best friend. It was not a person.
I’ve heard people talk about liminal places. Sacred places that are thin, where the distance between this world and the spiritual are smaller. Delaware park in Buffalo, New York was that place for me. I’ve written quite a bit about that liminal space.
At times I think I spent more time in Delaware Park than in my home. It was only as an adult that I realized how vital the access to this vast park was to a small, poor boy growing up in the city. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many parks.
And so here we come to an interesting event. One mediocre day, an unknown writer (by all accounts, still a fake) gave a speech to a tiny church in a small mountain town in Washington.
Some folks missed church that day and wanted him to post it online. Because he didn’t have a blog anymore, this unknown writer decided to throw it on a site he’d heard about called Medium, because it was as good as anything else.
Then he went to sleep.
When he woke up, he realized something big had happened. It took him a few weeks to realize just how big.
Suddenly, I had thousands of people sending me messages, asking for interviews, phone conversations, and everything you could imagine. All for what I thought was little more than a kindergarten-level treatise on race. The most basic introduction I could write.
There’s a great quote by Carrie Fisher: “George Lucas ruined my life. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I kind of feel that way about the Medium publication Those People. My previous pedestrian life of complete obscurity was destroyed. With their visual design and promotion, that speech absolutely exploded. Counting reposts and the many translations, something like six million people have read that piece. It was absolute insanity. Nothing can prepare a quiet, unassuming hobbit for such madness.
But something else came of it too. Immediately following that piece going viral, I was not writing pieces with the intention of submitting them, I was being asked to submit pieces. One of my first commissioned pieces was in Al Jazeera English
Race in the US: What if your identity was a lie?
John Metta is a writer on racial issues in the US. My father's anger was a storm. Like many other boys, I was carefree…
When they commissioned that, when I saw my essay published by a news organization on the other side of the world, I realized that it probably wasn’t a fluke. Maybe, I thought, I am pretty good at telling a story.
While I began to publish in other venues, I kept submitting pieces to Those People because it had a really great vibe, and a great message. It seemed like what they were doing was what I had thought about doing, but hadn’t yet done: Promoting not just the writing, but the positivity of the stories and experiences of Black writers.
The next thing I submitted for them was in response to a social media story about whether Shaun King was actually Black
If you read this and called it Yet Another Thinkpiece™, you wouldn’t be wrong. But unlike most of the think pieces, I didn’t try to weigh evidence or answer the question of his race––because that’s his story. My purpose in this essay was to explore the question “who gets to define us?”
I’ve met a lot of people through my writing, and some of the relationships I’ve gained are very dear to me––although they remain physically distant and often somewhat virtual. Many of the people I’ve met are fellow writers, and some have become friends. One of the friends I particularly value is Clay Rivers (Go read his stuff, I’ll wait).
Like me, Clay never thought that writing about race was “in his wheelhouse.” Yet, like me, he ends up writing a lot about race. It was comforting to me to relate to another writer who spent his live within an experience, but not writing about it directly.
One day he wrote something that really spoke to me
Imagine if you lived your entire life in a tropical climate and you’ve never experienced or heard of snow. One day someone who’s lived in the arctic attempts to explain the concept of snow, blizzards, and all that comes with winter to you. Your lack of experience with snow does not negate the existence of snow, the need for winter clothing, snow drifts, etc. In order to entertain the notion of snow, you have to first concede that the world as you know it is not the only way the world can exist.
That metaphor washed over me like water and I felt as if the dust that covered words I wanted to write was washed away. The result was a poem about snow.
Where I live It is ever cold. Where I live The wind slices you Like the long edge of a whale knife.
Most of my poems are at best, okay. This is one of the few I’m actually proud of.
(Oh, and thank you for letting me steal your metaphor, Clay.)
What I found most interesting about openly writing essays on race is that it felt as if the experiences of my life broke through a dam behind which I had walled them. I found that many things that I’d thought for years, but never expressed, finally had a method of expression. Strange thing, that, because I’ve always expressed myself through writing, but never written directly about race.
I have frequently spoken of my writing as a boat on the ocean of race. My writing often interacts only with the surface, but the whole ocean is still there below it. It is only because that entire ocean is there that my writing can float in this particular space. The surface is what the reader may see right now, but there are great depths below that are holding it up.
That changed when I started to write directly about race, and interactions that I would previously have been silent about became expressed. One is a common view about Martin Luther King, Jr.
That essay is one I could have done better. The nuanced distinction between The Magical Negro and An Actual Hero is subtle, and one many people missed. Responses to this essay were fairly bimodal: Either people already understood what I was trying to say, or they got angry and said I was stupid for telling people they couldn’t honor Dr. King.
I believe in this essay, and this message. I wish I’d expressed it so that more people could see what I was trying to say. Maybe that’s impossible. I don’t know.
Sometimes I feel that when you are a Black writer that writes about race, then “writing about race” is what you do. I read my bios written by other people and see words like “a writer on race issues” and I feel sort of penned into that expectation. Often, I tell people that most of my writing is Speculative Fiction or Fantasy and I can watch their eyes glaze over with a sheen cast either by the failure to believe, the failure to accept, or perhaps just the failure to understand.
Honestly, it might be internal. I have a fair amount of imposter syndrome about many things, and the biggest one is writing. Still, it feels that most people who’ve read my writing have either only read my writing on race, or have read into my writing that it is primarily about race. Even my essays that are entirely political and not centered on race at all.
US elections: This is not a time for jokes
John Metta is a writer on racial issues in the US. White supremacy in the United States is dying. Many, including me…
This essay was intended to respond to the death of satire. I saw early on that the so-called satire surrounding Trump was not real, but rather just laughter to gain ratings without substance. I and a lot of other Black writers expected the backlash from a Black president and tried to voice a warning.
As a side note: I really do have to give people the benefit of the doubt. I had every intention of writing this essay from a purely sociological perspective. But more of the depth of the ocean wetted it than I intended.
Maybe they’re right, maybe I do write about race more than I think.
Quite some time ago, I wrote an essay about HipHop that was eventually published in Al Jazeera. In that essay, I tried to bring some historical context to the genre––where did it come from and why? My goal was to bring a historically grounded validity to the entirety of Black culture. What I found was that people missed the context and focused on whether HipHop was a real musical form or not.
Since Those People was once again willing to work with me, I decided to try again. I wanted to both expand it and distill it. This time, the essay was not about a specific aspect of Black culture, this was a direct attack on European culture as the definition of normal.
Like the HipHop essay, I knew that as a Black writer, I couldn’t simply say “Black people have a real culture, and that culture is West African” without having 3.7 million people write “they should just act normal.” So I brought specific examples of how white America holds on to European cultural norms from one thousand years ago before reminding people that Africans were first brought here 400 years ago.
In this piece, I sought to make people question why white (read: European) cultural norms were okay to hold on to for centuries, but Black (read: African) cultural norms were seen invalid or even fake. It was amazing how many people wrote to me to argue a specific fact about European language or history.
I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate the point I was trying to make.
Much of what I write about race is written primarily for white consumption. That is not because I avoid or reject a Black audience but rather because most of what I write is a distillation of what most Black children have already internalized by the time they’re in middle school.
Because of that audience, I mostly try to relate those very basic facts in a way that is different, so that people who’ve not been able to hear The Message™ before can finally hear it. In each essay, I try to really nail one specific point.
There’s a repeated message in these essays that makes me feel a bit like a broken record. Still, enough people have responded to me to say I helped them see something they could not see before. That’s very powerful for a writer. To feel like I might be actually making a difference is why I keep writing this type of essay.
Of course, the sheer number of responses carries it’s own baggage.
Like many writers, I needed to vent a bit in November. Unlike many writers, I had been planning for this rough time for months. Many left wing and centrist white people were stunned by the election of a fascist creamsicle. Most Black people I know saw it coming.
If you can count on one thing in America, it is the white backlash to obvious Black advancement. We all knew there was gonna be a price to pay for a Black president. So on the day after the election when Al Jazeera contacted me to write a piece on the outcome, I was already three quarters finished, having collected interviews throughout the summer.
The foul stench of fascism in the US
John Metta is a writer on racial issues in the US. Throughout this summer and autumn, I have interviewed fellow…
Actual death threats. Ridiculous. Although, I shouldn’t be surprised since I got death threats after making my first post on Medium––which said little more than “racism actually exists.”
My election piece was quickly followed by an actual––honest-to-god, holy cow I think I actually did it––purely political piece. This one was not about race at all but rather meant to introduce the idea that Russia didn’t necessarily want old Orangeface as president, so much as to sow discord and distrust in our political system. To put a piece on the board and not have to worry about how it moved.
Originally, I thought Putin would not want to worry that his piece would move a certain way. More recently, I’ve come to believe that he doesn’t really care how the piece moves, so much as that it does move, and do damage to our already tragic political system.
That political essay spawned another shift in my thinking. I realized I was so deeply invested in reading about the current news that most of my writing energy was spent shouting on Twitter. I thought about the essays of Baldwin and the fiction of Morrison. I know I’ll never truly measure up to them, but I realized I wasn’t measuring up to anything while most of my writing was angry tweeting. So I left social media.
Because I have so many friends and followers who might wonder why I disappeared, I decided to write an essay to explain my absence. That was the entire purpose of it, just to tell everyone where I’d gone. Yet that essay was picked up by one of my absolutely favorite podcasts: On Being
I'm Done Drinking the Draught of Despair - John Metta
I'm out. I've been feeling tired, depressed, and overwhelmed. I'm having a hard time concentrating, and I'm mad at…
Podcasts are mostly an intellectual endeavor for me, I listen to them with my head. Years ago I found this podcast called “Speaking of Faith” that I could listen to with my heart. I’ve followed Krista Tippett ever since, her work is a home for the soul. The opportunity to have my work featured there actually brought me to tears.
The funny thing about having so many essays published is that I’ve never considered myself an essayist. Most of what I’ve published is more of a metaphorical journey––a story in a form that harkens back to the fiction that is at my heart. I don’t write essays so much as try to tell stories.
Sometimes, though, an essay comes out as just an essay because it has to.
I never intended to write this essay, it was pulled from me by the sheer number of people asking for my help. I imagine that will continue to happen from time to time, but now I have something to point them to, even if it is a bit…pointed.
Returning to obscurity
It really is interesting to see that the most prolific writing periods of my life have occurred entirely since the birth of my children because finding time to write is incredibly hard for me. On the surface, I feel as though I’m not writing enough, but even a casual look shows that is wrong.
Lately, I’ve been focusing on some longer-term projects. I think I can make a bigger difference by creating something larger, so that’s where my energy is. Consequently, I’m writing fewer essays. I’ll continue to publish one occasionally if it’s rich and meaningful, but that’s an increasingly high bar for me. When I publish, I want it to be because I have something that is true to me, not simply because I can publish. If that means I rarely publish and become an obscurity, then so be it.
Obscurity is actually pretty true to me.