Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.

Freeing the writer within with Natalie Goldberg

If you are a writer — however you interpret that — then this book is for you.

I had never heard of Natalie Goldberg, until I read Tricia Lott Williford’s post “The Sparkling Moment” a few weeks ago, and then Writing Down the Bones immediately went onto my library holds list.

I devoured this book. Its chapters are short and digestible, sometimes just a page long, but each one brings its own treasures. Most helpful to me, probably, was the growing conviction as I read that if I want (need) to write, then that is something I need to honour and to make the time for. Yes, I have small children underfoot. Yes, I have other things on the go. Yes, I need to write anyway. If I care about it, I need to find the way. So I am trying to do just that.

Writing Down the Bones was a well-timed kick in the pants as far as my own writing practice — and I do mean, “practice,” as in doing a small amount of it every day. Julia Cameron suggests writing “morning pages” every day: three longhand pages, or about 750 words if you’re typing, that’s totally unfiltered and stream-of-consciousness. They should be the first thing that you write, and the idea is that it clears out all the gick that’s floating around in our minds and allows us to focus more fully, afterwards, on what we actually want to write. I did morning pages some years ago, briefly — probably less than three weeks’ worth all told. I didn’t see the value in them. But I love how Natalie Goldberg frames writing practice:

This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice. […]

One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories. […]

A friend once said that when she had a good black-and-white drawing that she was going to add color to, she always practiced first on a a few drawings she didn’t care about in order to warm up. This writing practice is also a warm-up for anything else you might want to write. It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing. The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir. But it is something you must come back to again and again. Don’t think, “I’ve got it! I know how to write. I trust my voice. I’m off to write the great American novel.” It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running. Runners don’t say, “Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.” Each day they warm up and stretch. (11-13)

That’s a way of putting it that makes intuitive sense to me. I don’t do morning pages just to clear out my subconscious mind (or… whatever); I write morning pages because there’s something in me that isn’t happy unless I’m writing regularly, because I want to write more and write better, because it’s all grist for the creative mill, because writing begets writing. I write so that I will want to write. I write to understand the world, and to understand myself. I write because if you want to write, to be a writer, the only way to do it is to put your butt in your chair and your pen on paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and do it. It’s both that difficult, and that simple.

And so I’m doing my morning pages again, nine days in a row and nearly 9,000 words so far. I do it while I’m drinking my tea before breakfast, and I use 750words.com to do it since I type way faster than I handwrite. Sometimes I do a writing exercise, like trying to describe a house I’ve visited as completely as I can. Sometimes I just write whatever I happen to be thinking about. Sometimes I surprise myself. And the thing is, whether or not these morning pages are doing all that Julia Cameron promises, they are motivating me to write more during to day, to keep my notebook and a pen at hand for when I need them. My production is up. So is my enjoyment. Maybe even my sense of purpose, at least as far as writing is concerned.

I’ve read other books on writing before, and I’ve gotten useful things out of them. I wrote a three-part series on reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which you can find on my Post Series page. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, or most of it. And I read Stephen King’s On Writing (as one does) and got some useful things out of that too — most specifically his rule of thumb for cutting, which is that your second draft should be equal to your first draft minus roughly ten percent. Okay, that’s useful advice. I’ve used it. But Writing Down the Bones is the first book on writing that’s actually galvanized me to sit down and write — and that’s priceless.

On a journey with Rhoda Janzen

Whenever I’m at a secondhand store, I always check out the books. Most of the time the shelves are filled with self-help treatises, weird diet books, and a dozen used copies of Harry Potter and Twilight — but occasionally you find some gems. I grabbed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress chiefly because of the title — and because I’m always ready to risk a new author when a paperback only costs me $0.50 — and I loved it so much I immediately sent off for a library copy of its sequel, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (which appears to also have been published under the title Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?).

Although they were published several years apart, these two books make, in a sense, one long memoir detailing the break-up of Janzen’s tumultuous first marriage, her sibsequent refuge in (and reflection on) the Mennonite community in which she was raised, and finally her wooing by “Mitch,” the born-again Pentecostal whom she weds midway through Mennonite Meets Mr. Right. But as it turns out, Mitch isn’t the only “Mr. Right” in this story; the two books also detail Janzen’s long wooing by God as she returns to faith. In between all that there’s cancer, embarrassing childhood memories, a good dose of humour, and of course, plenty of borscht, four-part German harmonies, and prune soup.

The two books are also somewhat divergent. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made me laugh out loud perhaps a dozen times. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is also funny — and I did laugh out loud a few times — but it is infinitely more tender. It’s mellower; or I suspect one could more rightly say, Janzen is mellower:

Dating Mitch prompted me to attend church regularly, but spiritual change had been creeping up on me for some time. It started five years ago, when after a long absence I went back to visit the Mennonite community in which I’d been raised. Elsewhere I’ve written about what I saw there, but I haven’t written about what I took away. In simple terms, I saw that people who live by the Spirit experience the Fruits of the Spirit. In the New Testament book of Galatians the Apostle Paul promises believers that the life of faith yields good and practical fruit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Who wouldn’t want those things? I did. Of the nine, I could then lay claim only to two, love and self-control. I adored my family and friends. But isn’t it easy to be loving to folks you like? As for self-control, it’s no great achievement to run six miles a day when you have a genetic drive to do so. The remaining Fruits of the Spirit were distinctly absent in my life. In fact I was static, restless, impatient, grudge holding, skeptical, and petty. The choices I’d made hadn’t made me happy, so I was ready to try something new.

In these past five years my life has changed tremendously. I’ve had ample opportunity to watch and ward, to look for the Fruits of the Spirit in my own life and the lives of those around me. I still struggle with skepticism, but I’ve made real progress in other areas. And I love it that the mystery of faith turns on what is after all a simple logical equation. In surrendering to the divine, we yield to divine transformation. A causes B. This surrender is the only intentional gesture we can make to invite real and permanent character change. It may not perfect us, but, thank God, it sure makes us better than we were. (171-2)

We can cancel our church’s sermon series on Galatians now; I think she nailed it.

I’ve taken a peek at the Goodreads reviews for Mennonite Meets Mr. Right and they are extremely mixed, which is perhaps not surprising considering the gulf in tone and subject matter between it and the first book. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is funnier, and snarkier — and also more heartbreaking and ambiguous. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is written from a very different place and is unapologetically Christian, and I can understand having a bit of whiplash if you’re going into it expecting a straight continuation of the first book. Taken together, though, Rhoda Janzen’s memoirs form a touching story of wandering and coming home again. They may be different than each other — but Janzen is different, too, in a beautiful way. I’m very glad I read them.

Real American

This post contains offensive language.

Julie Lythcott-Haim‘s memoir Real American came to my attention via a friend’s facebook post. She’s black and her husband is white, and she asked “Any other parents of biracial or multiracial kids wanna read this book with [friend] and I? Discussion and beverages when we’re all finished.” Now, I don’t fit that category, but this whole race-in-America thing is something I’ve been trying to learn more about and so I asked if I could read along. (I’m also an admitted sucker for discussion and beverages. )

Lythcott-Haims is the child of a white English mother and a black American father; although she was born in Nigeria, her only citizenship is American and she has lived in the United States since she was a toddler. Her father George Lythcott (obituary) was a prominent physician whose work took them to the white suburbs of Wisconsin, where Lythcott-Haims spent her teenage years struggling to find her place as a biracial woman: simultaneously not white enough for the white community, and too white for the black.

… I can’t remember what we were laughing about, but I remember feeling in that instant on that shiny cement floor that I was falling in love. Jenny had the film developed at the local drugstore and ordered prints for all three of us.

I pinned the photo to the corkboard on my bedroom wall. One day Daddy noticed it, looked over at me with a loving smile, then shook his head.

“White boys will be your friend,” he said with his booming bass voice, “but they’ll never date you.”

I trembled. Neither then nor ever did I challenge Daddy’s authority. His decision to move to this remote area. I never knew how to ask, Why’d you move me to this all-white town? (35)

The culminating incident of Lythcott-Haim’s adolescence is perhaps her seventeenth birthday, when her locker was first decorated by her best friend, and then anonymously vandalized — thrice — with a racial slur. The force of that written assault stayed with her for decades, and she closes the first section of her book with these words:

I’d told no one about my locker sign, and I’d go on to tell no one for decades. Not my parents, not the school administration, not my boyfriend Mark, not my best friend, Diana. For more than twenty years, though, the truth of that day hunkered down inside of me and metastasized.

I was the Nigger of my town. (75)

(I had to stop and think about whether I would actually write out that word on my blog, even though it’s part of something I’m quoting directly. It’s not something I would ever, ever write or say myself. But it is an integral part of Lythcott-Haims’s story, and I want to honour her powerful words and her honesty. She didn’t have the choice to avoid the N-word when it was scribbled across her locker in permanent marker. Nor did she ask to have that word scribbled across her psyche in the way that it was. But if there’s anything that Real American makes clear, it’s that we need to look the ugliness of racism in the face, to not shy away because it’s painful and uncomfortable and hard. There is no hope for reconciliation unless we are willing to deal in reality.)

Lythcott-Haims traces her journey through college at Stanford, through getting her JD at Harvard Law School, to her work at Stanford as Dean of Freshman. Throughout she skips backwards and forwards in time, telling her parents’ stories and touching on major milestones in politics and the civil rights movement. A major turning-point in her own story comes after the birth of her daughter Avery, her second child, who is three-quarters white, with smooth wavy hair and light olive skin. She writes,

Professionally, I appeared to have taken all the right steps. I had degrees from elite schools. I’d landed prestigious work. I’d done all of this schooling, all of this work, in part so as never to be called Nigger again. But I walked tentatively through my life, unstable, feeling a hollowness inside, as if the very construct of my self was liable to fracture into pieces and fall apart. At any moment I felt I might step on a crack, break my own back. […]

I knew the infection of self-loathing was bad and deep, likely to spread to my precious girl child if I didn’t find a way to get it out of me. I gave myself permission to tell myself that the birthday locker incident had in fact happened. I dared to tell the truth of it inside my head, dared to put it on the page, dared to write it down. Dared to stare at the word some anonymous white American had called me. And to take a deep breath and see that I still lived.

And why the challenge with Avery? I felt her lightness lessened my Blackness among Blacks; I could never pass as white and now, because of her, I couldn’t pass as Black either. This tiny child kicked me deep into a racial crevice, with no ledge to hold on to. I want to drag a Black cloak over my white-looking daughter. To build Black consciousness in a child the world would see as white, by un-hiding her Blackness, by trying to hide her whiteness. […]

By the end of the exercise — and essay of some length I revised and revised for months, I’d finally reached an essential truth.

I wasn’t ashamed about Avery. I was ashamed to be me. (171-2)

Real American is not an easy read — nor should it be. Lythcott-Haims’s writing is beautiful but pulls no punches, especially as her chronology moves her to names and deaths and incidents we know from recent news: to Trayvon Martin, to Freddie Gray, to Darius Simmons, to Jonathan Ferrell, to Tamir Rice, to others. To her own fears for her dark-skinned American son. To the fact that for some white people, black skin is seen as inherently other, inherently threatening:

We the people cannot continue to abide the stories of police and civilians on witness stands telling us that in just seeing our Black bodies they were terrified.

You have to be terrified for a justifiable reason.

God gave us this Black and brown skin. The skin God gave us is not a reason for you to be justifiably terrified.

We are terrified.

Of you. (202-3)

I’ll go to the promised discussion and beverages, and I will listen hard. I’m reading this book as a white woman, whose children are white, who isn’t even American. To me, Real American carries the weight of an indictment. But I can’t imagine what it is to read it as a black woman, or as the parent of a black or biracial or multiracial child. I haven’t had to live these things; not even close. But Lythcott-Haims has invited me in anyway. And that is a gift.

Yes my white friend cry your tears. I know your pain is real as you feel the weight of this history this present lodge in your stomach like a stone.

Go there. Feel it. Hold it. Seek to understand it. Come to me with an open heart and I will show you my own. (258)