In the late 90’s, I was a mid-20’s-aged aspiring writer (among other artistic interests). Emphasis on aspiring. I had zero direction. No degree, no formal training, certainly no MFA. I’d had a passion for writing going back years. I was a rapper and poet by late in middle school and into high school. Most of what I wrote, outside of school and rapping around the way, ended up in the drawers and closet in my bedroom. A few of my poems saw the light of day, long enough for me to read to this girl or that girl over the telephone, a plus in courting; I was chubby, so to say. I needed every advantage. In 12th grade, I joined a Black student organization. Creative expression became an important component of the group and we did a few readings. I did my best to get over my shyness, my reluctance to share what I was writing. I thought I was starting to come into my own creatively. I started nursing dreams of making a career out of my creativity, or at least my strong proclivity towards the humanities.
That lasted a few months as I allowed my folks, who meant well, to talk me out of writing poems, essays, raps, whatever, as my life’s work. Even though this was my passion, back in those days, ideas like living from your passion and following your bliss, were not nearly as prevalent as they are today. In those days, many still believed that the best way to live your life was to find your way into a corporation, put yourself into gear, whether low or high, and hold on as long as you could, until they kicked you out of there with a gold watch one day. Hopefully.
Again, those around me, giving me that advice, meant well. At their suggestion, when I got to school, I set my major as computer science, even as I was loading up my schedule with history, English, and theatre classes. I did an internship in information technology. Went back to school and declared as computer science again, before switching to information systems. Gave myself a crisis of identity as I tried hard to fit into that world. Due to stress and other factors, I fortunately washed out. Yes, fortunately. Had I gone all the way through with a degree in computer science, had I kept pushing myself to stay the course, I might have had a stroke years ago. I might have trapped myself more deeply into a world not my own. Any more than I already have.
After I was out, and with an odd amount of freedom, the details of which I’ll save for my book one day, I was writing online, under a pseudonym. Yes, blogs did exist back in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. They weren’t always known as such, but they existed. I hadn’t developed enough confidence to publish under my own name, but at least I was writing and putting out things for people to read.
I met a fellow writer, an overseas journalist. She thought something about me that I dared not think for myself: that I was a good writer. In my mind, that term was reserved for people who had had the confidence at least do something about it like get a degree in it, perhaps two, as my new friend had. Still, she encouraged me to write and to write towards publication. Under my own name.
She told me about an online group for Black writers, deGriotSpace. In dGS, Black writers shared their writing for critique, offered critique to each other’s writing. She’d been a part of the group before, and though she had dropped out of it, she thought it would help me a lot. Despite my overwhelming impostor syndrome (which has actually never left me), I joined.
Normally, this might be the part in the story where someone says that a tough decision ended up changing their whole life and they got straight to their goal and lived happily ever after.
Not so for me. Sending in work and critiquing work did not get rid of my feelings of impostor syndrome. It didn’t convince me that I was as good as my friend, and others I’d meet along the way inside of dGS, thought I was. I didn’t come out of the other side of the experience with a resume of bylines and folders worth of clips. To have even expected it to would have been unrealistic, as those were outcomes that I would have needed to generate on my own.
But what deGriotSpace did do was offer a safe space for me as a young, black writer, to grow. To learn. Writing and critiquing others’ writing forced me to not just lean on what I’d learned before, but to learn more, to grow. I’d been reading much more drama than fiction in the time between high school and when I joined, but with so many fiction writers in the group, it was hard some months to meet the critique quota monthly without offering critique for a short story. It was hard at times and I couldn’t even recall the number of months that I didn’t fulfill the monthly quotas for submissions and critiques.
dGS also offered a great community for Black writers. There, we could not just write from our own perspectives, but talk about craft, publishing, production, the larger worlds of writing, from our perspectives as well. I also still keep in touch with several writers from the group.
I made a couple of tours through dGS. My life was always filled with some drama or another that I gave my attention to, instead of my writing (and other artistic interests) and by the mid 2000’s, I was gone for good. I’d check in from time to time and look and see if the group was still there. The group itself seemed to be gone by 2010 or so.
Even as I’d move on and eventually do more work in theatre as a playwright (and actor and director), I missed dGS. I was not the model member of dGS, sometimes quarreling over critiques of my work, other stuff, and again, often not fulfilling the critique requirements, but I missed it. I missed being part of that kind of community. I missed having extra sets of eyeballs, who could understand really well where I was writing from, looking at and giving me feedback on my work. Still, dGS was gone. I blessed it, blessed those days, forgave myself, and let it go.
A few months ago, one of the writers I’ve kept in touch with, Eboni Johnson, sent me a message on Hangouts. She told me she missed dGS, too, had for years. Instead of just feeling wistful, however, she’d decided she wanted to start another group, just like dGS. I told her I was in. Not because I wanted to recreate dGS. That would be easy as technology had improved and we’d kept many of the periodic lists containing the groups’ guidelines. But this time, I wanted to, as so many people say these days, do better. To contribute more and in more quality. I do attribute quite a bit of the growth that I underwent as a writer to dGS, but dGS isn’t around anymore, yet I can share whatever I’ve learned in a new writing group with new writers. And I can be more open and allow myself to be even more enriched by the knowledge and expertise of a new cohort of Black writers. I have much more space to grow as a writer. I always will.
That is why I said yes to co-starting Under the Baobab Tree Writers’ Workshop, a safe space for Black writers to create, share, and refine their works-in progress.
If you are a Black writer and you’re interested in a safe and welcoming space to share your work and build community, and to grow as a creative writer, I invite you to come to our home. Apply during our registration period. Sign up for our mailing list. Follow us on social media.