Ramadan Day 27 – One Day at a Time

Sure, it’s a platitude, but it’s one that I appreciate. I didn’t want to write today. Why would I? I wrote my ass off nearly every day of Ramadan before I left to China for a week. On the day I flew to Chengdu, May 30, the Rumpus published my essay – a mini-memoir called “A Part of Me.”

I returned Fryday from eight days in Chengdu, Xi’an, and then Chengdu again, and along the way I was infected by the usual stomach bug and a small cold. I’m jetlagged. Emotionally, I feel like a bug. I want to write about my trip to China and regale you with true travel-blog style writing, but I feel intimidated by the wealth of my experience.

Also, I’ve got a new look. #PandaLounge #MasterofNothing #LazyPanda

 


 

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the galumph, side view

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding


 

I’m so grateful for you – my friends. So many of you read my piece, wrote me kind and loving compliments, heaped on the praise, helped me publicize my work on social media (thank you so much for sharing!). Basically, every single day I was in China, I felt as if one of you was coming up to me and wrapping me in a huge hug. I had extremely limited Internet access, but I’d sneak past the firewall every now and then, and my heart would swell. And swell. Thank you for your support. I feel very loved.

 

It’s also my first day back to fasting after about ten days away, and I’m kind of clocked. That’s the effect of starting and restarting on me. I’m a procrastinator by nature, so it’s hard for me to get things underway. I have to work myself up, and then I’ve got the lasting power. Even though the fast only a couple weeks ago was so smooth, I felt overwhelmed yesterday by the thought of fasting again for a week.

 

So, to help me write, I reached into the galumph grab-bag, and I decided I wanted to try and answer a question. This was the one that came to hand, and frankly, I’ve been thinking about how to answer it…


dear Galumph,

 

I spent the past month getting to know someone long-distance and we finally met on a blind date.  Prior to meeting up, I felt so certain that this was going to turn into that something that was a game-changer.   I’m trying to follow my gut more and more as I get older and this really felt like a strong gut instinct.  however, upon actually meeting that did not turn out to be so.  beyond disappointment, I feel a bit jaded with this pursuit and my own desire in this sphere.

 

astrologers of all sorts have told me to be patient.  still, i increasingly wonder if I should chuck this pursuit (as well as the writing career, although maybe that’s a separate question but somehow the two feel intertwined…) and do something meaningful with my life like work in a Syrian refugee camp.  thoughts?

Shāʿir


 

Well, I can’t answer this question today. I just don’t have enough gas in the tank.

 

Instead, since it’s been on my mind, let me tell you some behind-the-scenes about “A Part of Me’s” publication journey.

 

It took me 3 months, and nearly every single day of a 4 week residency last year to write the essay – a little over 5 months total. And I didn’t just write an hour here or an hour there – we’re talking easily 4-5 hours at a time, days on end. 90% of it you’d be so grateful I threw away.

 

In the end, I wrote two completely different pieces, at first one more journalistic, and then a complete rewrite into something more personal. It went through a third, nearly complete, overhaul after my beloved mentor, T let me know (in what was an act of love), that it wasn’t up to par. That was after I’d spent two months. Several friends edited versions of the piece at different stages in the process. Courtru probably read every draft. While writing the piece, I would spend entire days reliving trauma, some of which I discussed in the piece. A lot of which I didn’t.

 

I only wrote it after one of my closest friends, L, reached out to me. She’d read one of my Ramadan blogs last year, and she wanted an essay based on it about the reproduction industry. She’s the editorial director at ________, and this was for their nationally distributed print magazine. Initially, I told her that I couldn’t write the piece because I needed to work on my novel, and, more importantly, that I was stressed about the pregnancy stuff. I was also worried that too many people, trangers especially, would find out I was trying to get pregnant. Deep down, I worried I might also never be pregnant, that every sacrifice was for nothing. Dealing with the magazine, the timelines involved a lot of hurry-up and-wait. But L kindly, patiently, and lovingly edited my piece and walked with me through every step of the process. Over and over again she asked me, “Are you happy with the piece? Is it serving your needs and what you want?”

 

It was a piece that broke and healed my heart to write, or perhaps more accurately — to live. I had to call my therapist several times while writing it, because I became so consumed with anxiety and depression remembering the past. But I finished it, and I was truly happy with it. Nervous as fuck. But happy.

 

On my birthday in October last year, L called to explain the contract mishap and to break some difficult news. I’d traveled to Seattle to give myself a little birthday present mini-writing retreat and had contracted the flu. My family had come with me for a couple days and then left so I could be by myself. Of course, the flu wasn’t part of the planning.

 

L had forgotten to give me a contract, and we’d only discovered it a few days before. I’d published with the magazine before – smooth sailing all the way. This time the terms were different. L explained that they might want to use my piece for an academic reader someday. The magazine was afraid of writers selling their work to another magazine. They needed to have complete ownership of my piece. If I didn’t give up every single one of my rights to the piece, L said she wouldn’t be publishing it.

 

She’d gone to the ED of the magazine to modify the contract, L explained. Although the magazine considers itself a premiere feminist organization, the ED decided to keep the contract because — that’s the contract they had — was the gist of it.

 

I reached out to friends and agents who are either writers or magazine editors, asking about the language, and folks said it was a predatory contract. “How can you ask a queer woman of color to give up the rights of her individual, personal life story? My family is in this piece,” I argued to L. “If somebody wants to drag my name or theirs, or lie about me, only your magazine would have the rights to my piece. If I want to use my own essay, I can’t even do that. I’ll give you anything, an exclusive for a year, even joint copyright. This isn’t even industry standard. Most places only ask for exclusives.”

“I’m sorry,” L said. “The language is locked. You’re the only writer who’s ever complained. I do hear what you’re saying, and this is all my fault. I should’ve given you the contract earlier, but I didn’t know about these terms. I’m sorry I can’t change anything.”

“You’re the editorial director. Can you try?” I said. “Don’t you want my piece?”

“Yes, but this is with the ED. I was trying to do something new with your piece, go in a direction our magazine has never gone before. Fuse the personal and an argument that’s more journalistic. It’s where I want us to go, but we weren’t prepared for this kind of piece. I know this is putting you on the spot, but I need an answer or we’ll have to replace your piece and we’re set to print in a couple days. This will be very difficult for us too.”

“Then make an exception, please.”

“I’m sorry.”

 

Many writers give up their rights, all the time, to predatory contracts. Or perhaps I should say, many magazines force their writers into these positions. More and more, there’s less and less pay for copy, and less and less negotiation around contracts. The writers, especially emerging ones like me — don’t feel they have any choice. Some don’t even bother to read a contract. It’s either sign the dotted line or lose your chance at being read. I’m a lawyer. I’m not a pushover (well, except for with all the people I love). I had writer friends who told me the truth – that it wasn’t typical or necessary to sign away all rights for a personal essay. That the standard was an exclusive for 90 or 120 days. Ultimately, everybody said I had to weigh the pros and cons of having this byline vs. rights that honestly didn’t seem worth that much in the context of a nobody writer like me.

 

I felt desperate to publish. It would be the biggest publication of my tiny career, and in print – which I loved. I was terrified of the reach of the Internet, that anybody could google me and be like – oh yeah – that person. This is how old she is. She’s trying to knock herself up. Her name is Serena W. Lin.

 

The stress of writing the piece alongside my newly minted efforts to get pregnant had been a terrible strain on me. All the crappy doctors I saw had kept saying that at my age stress was a huge factor. They hinted that if I changed my entire life and had no stress, then I’d be pregnant by now.

 

And deep down inside, I knew that it was what I deserved – all my terrible decision-making, my unloveability, my fucked-up immaturity and selfishness – that had led to my status in life, trying to get pregnant alone, not being worth a damn as a writer. The pity party was a rager, but hey – it was a pretty shitty birthday.

 

I also knew something else. That the only thing I was signing away if I signed the contract was nothing. Some imaginary future. A huge career I’d only dreamt about achieving. It wasn’t like it was the whole thing, my actual future. It was a tiny chapter. No big deal. I’ve never planned on, or wanted to, write a memoir. I’m a fiction writer. It was arrogance to believe that I was being told to sign away something of value.

 

Think of what I could gain.

 

I decided that I was going to go ahead, even though I felt like crap about it. Was it supposed to feel like this? I called my sister and told her what I’d decided.

 

“I think it’s crap. Don’t sign it!” Ernie said. “Listen, I believe in you. You’re a really good writer. Someday you’re going to finish your novel, and your books are going to sell. All I can think about is how me and the kids are going to benefit from the bags of money you make when they make a movie about your life story. Think about OUR future. Why should that magazine have the rights to your life? What about us?”

 

It was the push I needed. Somebody telling me that my writing had value. I realized that symbolically, I felt I was being asked to choose between whether I believed the brightness of my future was worth more than a cool publishing credit. Really, whether I believed I ever was going to get to where I wanted to be. And when push came to shove, I didn’t know what the future would be. But I did believe. I believed in me.

 

Later that day, I told L exactly what I thought of her unethical contract, and she told me that I was right about everything. She sent me a text that she was sorry that she’d let me down. As an editor and as a friend. I didn’t hear from L again after that text on my birthday. To be fair, I didn’t write back to her last text message apologizing to me. What was there to say? Make it right?

 

I sunk into a depression. That piece was the first writing I’d finished since my breakup over a year before. I hadn’t written except during Ramadan. L had called, and it had felt Allah stretched their soft hands into my life. Losing the support of my friend at that juncture also felt unbearable. But most of all, it was the effect of everything on my hopefulness around getting pregnant. I’d tried a few times at that point to knock myself up. It wasn’t IVF, a couple at-home DIY times, followed by a couple drug-based IUI’s.

 

Each time, a couple weeks after inseminating, when I’d gone to the bathroom and bled, I’d find out I wasn’t pregnant. I hadn’t even made peace with being a single mother. I felt so alone. I would be seized with a terrible hopelessness. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed or move the next day. Then, I’d go on being angry and tearing up the pages of my own life, finding ways to get into trouble and allowing toxic relationships into my life.

 

One day, my friend Lucky called from New York. She’d been trying to get pregnant herself for years, unsuccessfully, in her mid-30’s. As I was telling her about my latest romantic escapade, she said, “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. All that loss.”

“Oh, I haven’t really lost anybody or anything like that.”

“No, not getting pregnant. Whenever I found out I wasn’t pregnant, it was like a little loss. Every time it felt that way.”

 

I still thank Lucky for saying that to me. It got through to me. I was burned out.

 

For the next six months, I buried the piece by not submitting it, even though it was finished. Yet little signs of life emerged. I thought I’m not going to publish the piece until after I have a baby, but I wanted to at least have some people read it. So I sent it to a few friends who hadn’t helped with the revision. Because I needed to…

 

I sent it first to Yara, who’d shifted from break-up buddy to soul teacher and confidante. We went through it at around the same time and both of us had been wanting kids when our breakups happened. Yara wrote back right away. She said a couple things. The first was that it was perfect and that the right time to get it out in the world was as soon as I was ready. And that if the piece was like my baby, then the right outlet would be like the right midwife.

 

Then, I ran into a friend, Frida M at Blissey’s dinner party. She suffers from a condition akin to MS, a degenerative disorder, and told me that she didn’t expect to live into her 30’s, and that she’d been told she had one shot to have her child. A beautiful boy who stood in front of me with peace on his lips. I sent Frida M my essay. A couple months later she sent me the call for “Mothering Outside the Margins” by The Rumpus. I wrote back, thanked her for sending, and promptly said I wouldn’t be submitting because publishing the piece would only lead to stress.

I also sent it to Pele, who has told me VERY NICE THINGS about my writing, and that feeling is mutual since she writes too. Pele specifically and powerfully told me all the ways in which the piece worked for her, how it was about building family and faith and love and also getting pregnant. And I started to see the piece differently than as a stand-in for my failures. While I wanted to demur, I listened instead. I trusted her judgment, at that moment probably more than mine. And perhaps most importantly, Pele did the thing I couldn’t bear to do. She listed publications that she felt would be a good home for my piece. Something about that concreteness lifted me forward.

Eventually, I sent the piece to its eventual editor, Christine H. Lee, at the Rumpus and pretty much the piece came out in that wonderful publication, easy as pie. May Allah see fit to grant me a pregnancy just like that!


 

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Original Art by Clare Nauman for “A Part of Me” in The Rumpus


 

I don’t know all the reasons I wanted to tell you this story behind publishing the piece. I think it’s because I feel something so powerful every time one of you has liked the piece or shared it. I feel like I’m in a better place than I was six months ago? Isn’t that silly? To feel all that because you wrote me a note saying you enjoyed a piece I read?

Something else has changed: I want people to get to know me in a different way than I ever have before.

 

I’ve had a lot of shame in my life. Writing about it helped me to make peace with some of that shame. But it’s still a lot of work, no matter how much you write. Things come up. When people started writing about Kate Spade Anthony Bourdain on social media after I returned, it felt like a barrage. I could only hold close my own truth, which is that of course I’ve thought about it. And I assume you have too. I assume it about everybody I know, except the few people who actually have told me that they’ve never thought about it. With some friends, I know that it’s gone further. But I’m a queer poc: my life and the lives of people I love have been deeply affected by people we love taking their own lives, by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, no matter what the cause of that may be. I’m holding names in my heart, as are many of you.

 

So I suppose that it’s a bit silly and ironic that somebody lost in the ways that I am would try to write an advice column. But, it’s not exactly me – it’s the galumph. And what I’m really trying to say is that maybe by getting to know each other, whether that’s by writing or drawing or singing or by talking or finding some other way to share — we can really listen to what it is that people are asking. Those questions can be: will I have a baby? Will I find love? Or they can be: do I deserve to be a parent? Am I worth loving?

I have to say it again: Take it One Day At a Time.

That’s the wisdom of fasting. One minute. One hour. One day. One moment.

As the Doctor always says – you can’t know the future.

Well, I don’t.

I do know that I can’t measure the warmth I feel in my heart for publishing that piece without the year of hardship that I associate with it. If I never published it, I would still be writing. Because, despite the failure in publishing the piece, writing the essay was the path to me becoming a writer again. It was because of Ramadan and then my friend L soliciting my work. It was because I dealt with the painful reality of my own history, which took time and didn’t feel even slightly productive, that I even began writing again. It’s why I’ve been working on my novel again after so long away from it. I’m so, so grateful to be writing.

Shāʿir asked me a question which is whether or not to chuck a pursuit, and the pursuit was possibly dating or writing, and whether to work in a Syrian refugee camp. I said I couldn’t answer the question, but upon coming to the end of this blog post, I guess I’m going to have to give the galumph some air time after all . . .

I will do a part 2 tomorrow, and hopefully maybe I can tell folks a little more about China. In the meantime, consider this Part I of something bigger…

 


 

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Ada Limón, from Bright Dead Things


 

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