My Trip to VONA

I celebrated my birthday a week ago. You might remember from past blog posts that birthdays tend to freak me out. But this year was different. For the first time since I finished high school I did not spend my birthday in a blind panic about what I wanted to do with my life. That’s cause I know what I want to do. I know what I am. I am a writer. I can’t tell you how much heartache I’ve caused myself because of fear of claiming this dream. I remember many a phone call to my mother, crying because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Truth is I always knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the courage to say it out loud. But now I saw it loud and proud. I am a writer.

Now, as much as I believe in speaking my future into existence, saying it is not enough. I have to put the work in. In the three years since I started my MFA, I haven’t spent my time blogging because I’ve been concentrating on getting published. I’ve had some success. I published an essay “Kurova Guva” in the Australian journal “Tincture Journal”. Apogee journal published my essay “The Rotting of the Sun”, an essay about what I realized about the lingering effects of colonialism when my parents and I went camping for the first time. I also had my short story “Finding Mermaids” about njuzu on the shortlist of the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize. But for every success, there are ten rejection letters. I’ve reached a plateau with my work. I’m stuck in a place where I don’t receive form rejection letters but rather personal letters telling me that I’m not quite there yet. So, I applied to VONA Voices the only multi-genre writing workshop for people of color in America where I will hone my skills and hopefully find a supportive writing community to help me reach the next stage as a writer.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I’m hoping you might be able to help me on the next step of my journey to being a professional writer. I have been accepted to VONA and I’ll be attending the “Political Content in Memoir, Poetry and Prose” with Elmaz Abinader at the University of Pennsylvania. I received a half-tuition scholarship but I’m going to need help to cover the rest of the costs of this workshop. So why VONA? VONA will give me access to a community invested in the same social justice goals as me as well as a community that understands the challenges of being a POC writer in America. Furthermore, VONA is the kind of opportunity that leads to more opportunities. Several writing retreats like Hedgebrook have special funding reserved for VONA participants. And often when people in publishing are looking to add diversity to their line-ups, they look up VONA past participants.  You can learn more about VONA here: http://vonacommunity.org/community/.

The story I will workshop at VONA is about villagers in a small border town in Zimbabwe in the months leading up to independence who no longer know which side they’re rooting for. As with all my work, this story complicates the narrative about Zimbabwe to open up conversations about what it means to be Zimbabwean. Please help me become the writer who can do justice to this story and many more in the future.

Help if you can and help spread the word.

www.paypal.me/ChidoMuchemwa

https://www.gofundme.com/ChidoMuchemwa

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Petina Gappah and the Imposter Syndrome

It’s finally here. Petina Gappah has finally published her first novel The Book of Memory. I am so excited! So just imagine my disappointment when I tried to buy the Kindle edition of the book earlier today only to discover it will not be available in America until February 2nd, 2016. That’s a long time to wait, but I will wait. Because Gappah is always worth the wait and frankly, I can’t afford to buy the book from the UK at this moment in time.

Anyway, to make time go by faster as I wait, I’ve been trawling the internet for the various interviews that Gappah has done for the book. In all of them, she’s asked the same question. Why did it take six years for the book to come out? And her answer is imposter syndrome.

In an interview with Lauren Beukes at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Gappah said “It’s a wonderful thing to win awards, but the prize was completely unexpected, and it feels like overnight you are a different person. People are looking at you with a slightly more critical eye, and despite the fact that the reviews were very positive I felt that I had conned everyone, and that they would soon find me out. There’s a phrase that’s funny but it’s horrible, one-hit wonder. I was terrified of being a one-hit wonder. All feels well, your book is selling, but privately you are going through a terrible time and you are doubting yourself.”

It’s quite heartening to know that someone this talented has doubts about their abilities to consistently create good stuff. It makes me feel better about my own doubts. Doubts seem to be a frequent companion to writers (and everybody else really) and maybe trying to get rid of them isn’t the easiest thing to do. Perhaps it would be better to accept their existence and still create despite the doubts.

And here is my absolute favorite quote from the Beukes interview.

“What I’ve given myself as a mission statement is to explore Zimbabwe in its complexity, and to explore the multiple factors and identities that make up Zimbabwe. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in presenting a cookie cutter version of what it is like to be an African writer. I’m interested in exploring the different ways of being a Zimbabwean.”

Can I just copy/paste this into my artist’s statement? This is exactly what I’m trying to do. And I love that she calls it a mission statement.

And here‘s a link to an interview with BBC Radio 4.

 

Of Cats, Bathrooms and Fears

I am afraid of a lot of things. I’m scared of most animals, especially puppies. For some reason, baby animals seem to scare me more than their full-grown selves. I have several stories about the silly things I did as a child to avoid dogs. I stopped visiting one of my favorite aunts because I was terrified of her huge brown dog. He was just so big and he loved jumping up on people. I always felt like he would jump up at me, knock me down and maul me. Then there were my grandmother’s cats. It felt like she had a million. I was very young at the time, so my memories of these cats are slightly sketchy, and I probably exaggerate, but there must have been at least 20 of them, all different renderings of black and white, from the one with a black body, but a white stomach, and white feet, to the completely black one.

I remember walking into the bathroom once and finding one of the cats sitting on the edge of the bath. I froze in the doorway, unsure what to do. I couldn’t turn back. Mother had told me to go bath! But I couldn’t move any closer to the creature. It looked up at me, down at the tub and then back at me, and I knew it was thinking, “This silly child wants to take a bath, but I don’t want to move.” So it continued eyeing me as if to say, “I dare you to try and move me. Ndiedze!”

I could have spent an eternity standing in that doorway, paralyzed between two fears: fear of what my mother might do to me if I returned without taking a bath, and fear of this cat that I was sure would scratch my eyes out if I got any closer. But then my mother came up to me and told me to stop blocking the door. I got out of her way, and she walked up to the tub with the bucket of hot water. She hardly gave the cat a second look as she nudged it away. I quickly got as far away from the door as I could as the cat slunk out of the bathroom.

I spent most of my first semester of grad school feeling like that six year old girl, terrified by what was in front of me but knowing I couldn’t turn back because I have to make this MFA thing work. And I spent my time hanging back on the edges waiting for someone to tell me I was in the right place. I can’t tell you how many times I said to myself “What am I doing here?” What is this crazy, awkward, weird girl from Harare who can’t write about anything except Zimbabwe doing in freaking Wyoming? The answer is I’m trying to become a better writer and waiting for someone to tell me I’m worthy isn’t going to make that happen.

So much of grad school is standing up and saying I want it. I want that research grant. I want that award. I want to present at that conference. I want to do that major research project that terrifies me. None of these things are going to fall in my lap. No one will seek me out for these things. I have to pursue them despite worrying that I’m not qualified for such things.

I’ve been staring warily at all these opportunities, eyeing them like they are that black cat waiting to scratch my eyes out because I’m not good enough. But who am I to decide that I’m not good enough? Who am I to decide that someone else is more deserving? Who am I to count myself out?

So my motto this year is “It’s not my job to count myself out” or as Mindy Kaling puts it, “Why the fuck not me?”

Life is too short to spend any moment of it being held hostage by fears, especially by the fear that you might fail. Life is hard enough without having to cotend with you being the roadblock in your own way. Leave the job of deciding you’re not good enough to someone else. Your job is to try.

I’m a Writer

I didn’t sleep the night before the first time I had a story critiqued in a creative writing workshop. I could not turn my brain off. All night, the same three questions ran through my head. What if they don’t like it? What if they think it’s stupid? What if they think I’m a terrible writer? I was in such a nervous state that around 6.30 am, when light began to creep into my room, I resolved that I wasn’t going to class that day and instead, I would be dropping the class. An hour later, I realised I was being completely ridiculous. How would I ever know the answers to the questions if I didn’t go to class?

So I went, dragging my feet, feeling like someone was wringing my intestines. I sat in my usual corner, barely listening as we workshopped the first two stories. Then my turn came. I stared intently at the desk. I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye as they shredded my story to bits. I was so scared that no one would understand my story or that they would all just think it was a horrible story, but guess what? They actually liked it!

I tell you, it’s an intoxicating feeling knowing that someone was entertained, someone laughed, or someone cried because of something you wrote. There is no feeling more gratifying than knowing that your words moved someone.

The thing about applying to graduate school is the process warps your vision. It’s a long process and somewhere in there, you forget why you’re going through this all and focus only on getting in. You forget that you’re the one who writes and hand over the authority to someone else to tell you that you’re a writer.

Today, I’m remembering the words I wrote to myself when I got back from that first workshop.

 “I don’t know why other people write, but for me having someone come up to me and tell me that they loved it, or that it reminded them of something that had happened in their lives, that is amazing… I think somewhere this semester I finally made the decision to be a writer. I have always said I want to be a writer, but now I am a writer, putting in the hard work required for success, trying new things and actually letting people read my work. Being a published author is my goal and I’m feel like I’m finally on the right path:-)

Today, I’m reminding myself that I’m the one who decides that I’m a writer. I’m the one who decides the next step.

 

Weekly Writing Round-up: I’m finally writing again!

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” – Ernest Hemingway

It’s been a good week. Words have been written! I’ve managed to produce at least 500 words a day. It feels great to have words written, but really, I’m just happy to have managed to show up at my writing desk everyday

So what has brought on this change? Well, I follow Anne Lamott on Twitter and lately she’s been writing a lot about shitty first drafts and how difficult it is to get them out. Now if an excellent, established writer like Anne Lamott struggles with every first draft, who am I to expect things to be easy?

What I’ve Been Working On

  • I published a blog post: Joy in Translation
  • I’m finally working on finishing a short story that I started last June but abandoned because I need to brush up on my knowledge of the 2nd Chimurenga.
  • I’m revising an essay on kurova guva that I will be submitting soon to journals

Writing Lesson of the Week

Favorite links this Week

Write on Chido! Write on!

Don’t Let It Break Your Heart

For some reason, Coldplay’s been making me cry lately. I don’t know why, but at the first sound of Chris Martin’s voice, I get a little tear in my eye. It’s not completely strange to be moved to tears by Coldplay. I’m sure there are quite a few of you out there who’ve gotten choked up over Fix You, and who hasn’t cried to The Scientist after a bad day? But Charlie Brown? Princess of China? Really, it’s the whole Mylo Xyloto album that gets me going.

Is this what writing has turned me into? An overly emotional creature who teeters from deliriously happy to tears in seconds? One minute I’m feeling confident and buoyant, the next I’m reduced to a blubbering mess by the sight of the blinking cursor on a blank Word document. I have all this time to write, yet I can’t seem to string together enough words to create a coherent story.

That’s when the Coldplay comes in, the soundtrack to the self-torture of writing when the muse is AWOL. “Just keep writing,” I whisper to myself, “Just keep writing.” And in the background, Chris Martin pleads with me once again, “Don’t let it break your heart!”

Back to Writing

I am currently in the hardest part of applying for graduate school – waiting. All the statements of purpose have been written, every writing sample tweaked until it squeaked, every recommendation letter sent and every application submitted. Now, the only thing to do is wait.

I think the craziest part of the MFA application process is how it takes the fun out of the very thing you are trying to achieve. Instead of writing, I find myself despairing about the low acceptance rates. Instead of starting new projects, I’m wondering, “what if I’m not good enough?” It all ends up feeling like by applying, all I’m doing is begging the admission committee to tell me that I’m a writer.

But a degree in creative writing doesn’t make you a writer. Getting an MFA doesn’t turn you into the next Jhumpa Lahiri. Writing and revising do that. An MFA gives you time and space to write, a community to encourage you and great resources, but ultimately the only thing that can turn you into a decent writer is showing up every day at your desk ready to put in the work.

So today, I’ve decided to get back on the writing wagon. It’s back to 500 words a day for me. And to help me reach those 500 words, I’m introducing two new series to the blog. The first is #writersrole. There’s a hashtag there because I’m hoping to spark a conversation not just on this blog but on Twitter as well. I will explain more about it in the first post of the series, but what I’m examining is whether it is fair to assign writers a specific role, and if yes, what role. The second series is the Weekly Writing Round-up where I track how much progress I’ve made and some of the lessons I’ve learnt.

I’m quite excited about the two series and there will probably be other changes on the blog. Exciting times lie ahead!

In the meantime, I leave you with a quote I’ve stuck above my desk to remind me that talent means nothing without discipline.

“Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Few have excellence thrust upon them – they achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.'” –John William Gardner