On Writing Like A Monster

Jose VilsonJose, Writing

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of moderating a non-fiction panel for Las Comadres and Compadres organization featuring former Colorlines editor Daisy Hernandez and writer Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. The panel was uproarious and chock full of information for the burgeoning writers in the audience, some of whom already have their own works in the audience. Even though I was there mainly to let the other panelists shine, I also had the opportunity to reflect on my own successes and failures as a writer. With no agent, a super-tight budget for publicity, and a teacher’s / father’s schedule, I’ve still made plenty of headway with my writing.

I’ve had hundreds of rejections and made hundreds of mistakes, but, in the back of my mind, the word “radical” always grounded me. What does it mean to be a radical writer in a time of polished centrism? If radical means “far-reaching or thorough” (along with advocating for complete sociopolitical reform), then how does my writing propound that? In education, this is especially dangerous considering the levels of acceptability folks want you to reach before you’re welcomed into some circles whose borders you never actually see, just feel. If “radical” means getting to the root, not necessarily uprooting, where do we belong in that?

I’m writing this list not as a definition, but as a documentation of the ways and means for how I go about my business here, my book, or anywhere else I’ve written.

1. Look for what’s not being said.

The most difficult part of writing in any circle is to look for the things that aren’t “successful” in views and shares, but that are meaningful. For instance, in education, it’s super-easy to write a post about the plethora of venture philanthropists trying to privatize our schools. It’s equally easy to write about anti-testing too. Yet, I rarely find posts that incorporate both this element with what that looks like for the average classroom teacher (or student). The policy angle has been done over and again. Can we tell the stories without the shame that it’s not a carbon copy of someone else’s material?

2. Be unafraid to fail.

Many of my colleagues have this fear of failure, as if the blogs we write are the only shot we have of getting people to read us. That might be true sometimes, but usually, I’ve found that the more we write, the better we get, and the more our writing improves, the more people are willing to give your writing a second chance. We all have different levels of attention we given to different projects, but we can rest assured that, as long as you as the writer are earnest about your growth, your people will continue reading.

3. Develop new words.

Esmeralda Santiago, famous author of When I Was Puerto Rican, had echoed a sentiment Sonia Sanchez had mentioned to me more than a decade ago: we all work with the same set of words, but the way we approach them will make our stories different from all the others. The writer needs to develop the delicate balance between writing from a unique perspective and drawing in an audience who may or may not relate, connecting to something in their purview.

4. Challenge your own contradictions.

Often, radicalism looks less like Chomsky and more like Calvin and Hobbes, reflecting on your own practices and asking hard questions of yourself. For example, let’s acknowledge the complications of developing collegiality with one another and understanding that some of our colleagues clash with our deepest principles. Those sorts of conflicts make us more human and more approachable. This also gives us the pathway to lay bare our grievances about one another. These honest conversations rarely go anywhere when people play defense more often than acknowledge flaws.

When people ask me how they can do what I do, I often tell them “Don’t.” Yes, I have a book and all the praise that comes with it. But there is a certain danger in writing like this. Only in the last month or so did the NYC Department of Education unblock my website from district computers. Some folks still tread nervously around sponsoring what I say, even when they quietly agree with it. Don’t be me; be the best you.

You have to be willing to discard the hope that corporate sponsors and luminaries in your field will openly and vociferously endorse you because, as it turns out, you’re a radical writer. We’re trying to get to the root of things and work from there, not simply gathering words from others.

This is real writing right here.

photo c/o