Category Archives: writing

Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

In a previous BGDGS post (“Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post Comps”), I wrote about how I would care for myself after comps. One of my suggestions was to do a writing retreat, but when I imagined this, I figured I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a writing retreat would literally fall out of the sky and into my lap.

And yet it did. William & Mary Libraries hosts a week long writing retreat for faculty in the spring after graduation (and I believe in the winter, too). This was the first time they decided to open it up to a limited number of graduate students and I jumped at the chance. I applied for a spot before I went under my exams rock, and by the next Monday, I was in.

I have been riding a high since I finished and passed comps last Thursday, so this retreat came at a perfect time. I was still so jazzed and energized that I wrote a solid draft of my prospectus* in four days of work, wrote a draft of a 200 word abstract for a journal submission and worked on a strategic plan for a new project I am developing.

In addition to all the good work I’ve been getting done, being a participant of the Writers’ Retreat earned me a swag bag filled with a nice W&M notebook and pen, as well as a travel cup. Not to mention, breakfast and lunch each day were provided. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for any of this? They literally set up ideal conditions in which you have your own private space to work, nourishment, meetings with research librarians if you need them and a pretty steady supply of caffeinated beverages.

Despite being alone in my writing room for hours at a time, I found that I have met a bunch of really amazing people here. Breakfast and lunch are communal, and we share space with a bunch of other faculty retreats happening, including May Seminars, the Film & Media Studies Retreat, and the Coll 100 workshops. So I got to see a lot of faculty that I love, as well as meet new folks, including many of the librarians and a particularly cool Classical Studies professor.

The Provost Fellowship Writing Retreat is also happening this week. A few of my American Studies pals got Provost Fellowships and so they’re here in a different part of the library working away, though I do get to see them upon occasion during lunch.

It’s been a really nice week. I got a lot of writing done and had a lot of good fun with my buds while doing so. I hope to do this again in the future when I’m in the throes of actual dissertating.

William & Mary Libraries was right on time with the Writers’ Retreat– this was the perfect way to jumpstart my summer.

*The prospectus is the next milestone I have to conquer. This is essentially the proposal for your dissertation project. Different programs have different ways of dealing with the prospectus, but at W&M in American Studies, our handbook requires that the prospectus be 3,500-5,000 words (14-20 pages) and it should include: the problem, your intervention, a brief investigation of the fields and studies this work will build upon, an outline of your chapters and the work you seek to do in each section, primary sources you will be drawing from, methodologies, and a timeline for completion. After getting this document approved by my advisor(s) I will then have a colloquium where I will present my prospectus for feedback as I move into the formal dissertation.

A Debrief on Written Comprehensive Exams

Well, I did it.

Four days of testing, 6 hours per exam, 9 questions answered, and 59 total pages written.

I did it.

My brain feels like it has a rubber band wrapped around it, but I got it done.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Someone once told me (hi, Chris!) that it would be relatively anti-climatic after months of studying and preparation. In some ways, it was, but in others, I felt that taking the exams was an excellent culmination of my five semesters of graduate level coursework, and my semester of individual preparatory work. Every morning when I opened my email, I held my breath while I read over my questions, then let out the greatest exhale ever. None of my examiners/committee wanted me to fail, only asking me questions that played to my strengths.

Each morning I got up, showered and cleaned myself up, dressing in my favorite outfits to enhance my good energy. I calmly reviewed my notes and looked over book reviews of texts whose arguments had flown straight out of my head. Then, around 9:30, I made myself some breakfast and set up my testing desk. I wanted to take the exams from the comfort of my home in my comfiest chair so I set up a little TV dinner table as my desk. I gathered supplies– a blank sheet of paper and some pens for outlining. At 9:50, I lit my Black Girl Magic candle and made myself a cup of coffee in my Queen mug, both gifts from Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias, settled into a cozy living room chair and at 10, my questions arrived.

Each day I got 6 hours to do my best idea work and writing. However, as I’ve said, my examiners knew me particularly well and asked me things that they knew I’d have a lot to say about, and in forms that let me flex my creative muscles. I had questions that asked me to write a conversation between some famous figures in the history of the Black intellectual tradition; I wrote a lecture on depictions of race in popular culture (managing to tie in “Homecoming” while I was at it); I imagined designing a lecture on African American literature for a non-American audience (I’m sure my examiner was thinking about my role with the Keio program for the last three years while crafting that question); and I designed a syllabus on modern African American literature. I answered other questions as well, questions that let me explore the impact of Black women writers on African American literature since Zora Neale Hurston, and questions about speculative fiction and currents in the Black intellectual tradition. As anxious as I was about these exams, when I sat down and looked at the questions, I felt my heart swell because I knew the answers. I knew how to answer them. I knew which texts to connect and analyze. It was as if the tangle of 250+ texts just straightened out when I had to put my fingers to my keyboard and type.

It was actually kind of fun.

I never want to do it again, ever– but the process really wasn’t so bad once I adjusted the way I was thinking about it. I saw someone tweet (hi, Shannon!) that someone else had told them to think about the exams as writing days. And we all know I love to write, so that’s what I did. It took some of the pressure off and allowed me to get carried away by my ideas.

Practically speaking, I spent about 30 minutes getting myself organized for writing– selecting the books I wanted to use, jotting down ideas, connecting the dots. Once I had my outline, I just let my fingers fly. I wrote almost every day (in a Googledoc so there was no fear of losing my writing) for at least two and half hours without stopping. I would write until I had exhausted myself, then I would take a break for lunch, catch a second wind and then write for two more hours. I usually started to fade somewhere around 3 o’clock, which is when I’d start to round out my answers, read over everything and edit. I would add a sentence here, delete a sentence there, until it sounded the way I wanted. By 4 o’clock I had, on average, around 15 pages of work that I downloaded from Googledocs into a word document, then attached to the email that the questions had arrived in. I would submit them the moment the clock struck 4 and feel my body slump with pride and exhaustion at having finished another day.

I walked around the house with a mixture of fatigue and satisfaction for a few minutes after submitting each test, riding on the high of finishing, before I started on my relaxation routine. I would have a cider, my drink of choice, call my dad, do a facemask and meditate while the mask was on. Then I would spend some time either mindlessly flipping back and forth between the Vampire Diaries and Gilmore Girls or else reading a few pages in Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always. I’d have dinner then spend a little time looking at notes for the next day. It wasn’t a hard core study session, just a casual flip through notes. Even on my day off, I spent most of my time laying around. I was actually so wound up and buzzing with energy that I was convinced I should’ve just scheduled my exams to go straight through.

Thank God I gave myself that Wednesday break because by Friday at 2, I was crawling to the finish line. I think my answers were good that day, but it was obvious that I was running out of steam. Those were my shortest answers and probably my least well developed.

I wrote as much as I could on that last day and it was the only day that I submitted my answers before 4. I couldn’t look at my writing any more. I had written almost 60 pages total and I was done. I hit send and immediately a blanket of fatigue hit me. I had been running on adrenaline for pretty much the entire week.

I made a celebratory Target run and had dinner out with my parents. I was going to watch Into the Spider-Verse, but the fatigue won. I was out like a light before ten.

Of course, Karin Wulf was right all along: It was the process. Because I had carefully done my work over the last several months, I was more than prepared to take the exam.

I’m thisclose to ABD (All But Dissertation). Just an oral exam standing in my way.

But after surviving this ordeal, I can survive an hour with four people who only want me to succeed. The hard part is over.

And just like Professor Harold tweeted at me, I need to relax, but I won’t: I’m already plotting what comes next.

I’m too eager, too hungry, to relax– not when Ravynn K. Stringfield, Ph.D. is closer than ever.

Fade to Black: Double Consciousness/Double Grace

Aristotle and I have a…difficult relationship.

On my second day of class, after being assigned to read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was asked my opinion on the work. My response: F**k this white man. If you know me, I know what you’re thinking, “Did Micah just cuss!? Micah neverrrr cusses!” I was just as shook as you are and actually cried later because I felt like I didn’t rep Christ well in that moment. In reading that text, I felt like so much of the work that I love was erased, dismissed, and undervalued. Poetics is regarded as one of, if not the most, important texts for dramatic writers. Something scared me and angered me that this was the only measure by which my work might be judged. But if the tongue is a reflection of the heart, then that moment scared me even more.

So let’s call this my heart check.

Truth is, I don’t actually hate Aristotle. I hate the idea that writers are expected to worship this white man who presents only a limited perspective on storytelling. But if I’m being honest, he has a lot of valuable things to say. I also don’t hate rules—I just hate the systems of supremacy that create them. I mean, who am I kidding? Is there a film that follows three act structure more closely than Love & Basketball? Is A Raisin in the Sun not a Well-Made-Play? Does every episode of A Different World not have two turns and a comic block?

I think that I’m neither the artist that Aristotle nor Amiri Baraka would have hoped for. Horizontally, I’m somewhere in the middle, and vertically, I’m climbing deeper into my soul with every piece of art I make.

My verbalized disdain for Aristotelian ideas is rooted more in a desire to be seen, to be understood. If you can’t see my melanin infused middle ground, then surely you can see the polar opposite of something you’re already familiar with. Like in my middle school days, there are moments when I coon myself into visibility. And it’s a really bad classroom survival tactic. It crushes my intelligence and light under the foot of the white gaze.

It’s a tactic born of insecurity and also very real frustration. Let me be clear, I may have moments of being combative, but I am always substantive (at least I try to be). In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness.”

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Growing up in middle America, then attending a PWI for undergrad, Double Consciousness has always been a part of my life (as it is for most Black people everywhere. Thx yte sprmcy). But this idea has never felt so poignant as it does in my first year of grad school. Let me share some scenarios:

When you say that your film is Black Film A crossed with Black Film B and hear crickets in the room, but somehow everyone has seen that obscure Czech film from the 70’s; When you spend more time discussing a white woman’s view of Black womanhood than a literal play by a literal Black woman about Black womanhood; When your professor tells you that your play is, in fact, not a play, because they’ve read none of the seven+ plays that you’re drawing inspiration from.

And here’s the catch, you are expected to know the works of white artists, established or emerging, like the back of your hand. Double Consciousness means double the work. Black artists, there are [at least] two canons that you have to know. The Black one that gives you life, speaks to your history and your soul, and the white one that gets you audiences and a degree. And let me add these massive caveats, you are no less Black if you are inspired by white artists and this is much more complicated than this binary. But for me, it’s a matter of creating within two worlds. It’s something that I’m going to have to reconcile as long as I’m in grad school, if not for the rest of my artistic life. What does that look like in the classroom? Being silent or invisible or being loud and hyper visible? Often it feels like a deadly combination.

I went for hyper-visibility again.

Recently, I had an assignment to bring in a produced scene (something that you’d be able to see in theaters or on tv), along with a script of that scene, so that we could compare the two as a class. After almost a semester of doing this exercise, I got tired of being one of the only people that’s never seen a given white-people-famous clip. I wanted to bring something that excited me, that I was familiar with, was helpful to my process, and reflects the kind of work that I want to make. So, I brought in Kahlil Joseph’s good kid m.A.A.d city film—which was originally a dual channel projection piece—and the lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from the good kid album—which Lamar calls a short film.

It’s one of my favorite films and Kahlil Joseph is certainly my favorite director. But if I’m being honest, the very real creative and academic benefits of unpacking a piece like that were accompanied by some tongue in cheek. (And if it wasn’t already clear, I wore my Toni Cade Bambara t-shirt). But I was scared. Like actually so nervous my hands were shaking and I was talking faster than I already do. I over-explained myself because I wanted it to be clear that I had receipts. Black Girls ALWAYS need receipts. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way that anyone will listen, let alone take us seriously. Then we read and watched the clip.

And it was okay; I was okay.

People shared thoughts, asked questions, offered alternative interpretations. One kid even challenged my interpretation of Kendrick’s album. It felt like most of my fellow artists were there with me. Like even those who may not have understood at least cared and valued my right as a fellow learner to discuss the things that matter to me. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I also felt less naked and alone in the classroom than I have in a while. (Is this my Randall Pearson moment?)

So @God, thank you.

For the courage to bring in something that felt like a piece of myself and who I want to be. For the conviction that Black art does and has always mattered. For confidence in You that reminds me that I deserve to be seen. Jesus, You’re the light at the end of the tunnel.

To all my Stage-D-Cadets, thank you for engaging in a real way. Know that for your Black (and other POC…but we’re talking about Black Girls here) classmates, that’s a real gift. It was the first time that my voice felt fully present in the room. It felt like I wedged a little path for myself and my work in this program.

And for my Black Girls pursuing or thinking about pursuing an MFA, a few proverbs for your edification:

  1. Be your bold/beautiful/Black/brilliant self. As artists, we come to institutions in search of instruction, refinement, and mentorship. But what they can’t teach you is your soul, your imagination. It’s easy to feel like making something “good” means adopting their structures and losing your spark. That’s just not true. I’m of the opinion that an MFA program shouldn’t be a factory of cookie cutter artists. Be humble and eager to learn, but also be the master of your own art.
  2. Protect your spirit, your work, and your seeds. Some folks like to call this “guarding your heart.” I’ve come to find that that’s about more than not leaving yourself vulnerable to damaging relationships. That thing that makes you excited? Maybe that’s not the thing to get in a heated debate about. Maybe your idea is so dope that they can’t understand it yet. Maybe that seed of your next masterpiece needs time to grow before it’s pruned. I know I’ve walked away from many a writing class feeling physically ill and disoriented because the experience of having something so dear to me be ripped apart was lowkey traumatizing. My ideas are my babies. That’s not to say that you don’t need the criticism (trust me, girl, you do. You’re incredible, but not perfect, so you better get your money’s worth), but you need to know the proper time for it. Give yourself time to love what God dropped in your imagination. Because if you don’t, who will?
  3. Do the work. I know you’re mad that Susan in your film class has never heard of Julie Dash in her life, but looks at you sideways when you haven’t seen the 17th Rocky movie. But, to paraphrase Ravynn, we have to be the artists to get these degrees so that a Black Girl ten years from now doesn’t have to fight for professors to value her sources of inspiration. You are going to be tired, you are going to be frustrated, but these trials come to make you stronger. This is really a note to self to double down on my commitment to doing double the work, so keep me in check, y’all. Capital F freedom is too important for me not to be the best artist that I can be. I like to think that someone down the line will be happy that I did.

For any of this to work, my heart’s gotta be in the right place. I pray that God’s Kingdom come, that reconciliation would be real, but sometimes wonder how much I mean it. Is my armor more valuable than my healing? Well, sometimes I make it that way. How can I defend my voice and the tradition from which I come without sacrificing my mandate and desire to show love to literally everyone? That’s a struggle every single time I walk into the classroom or share my work. But if my journey is hard and my consciousness is double, is it also not true that Christ reconciled this conundrum on the cross? (spoiler: that one is in fact true). I don’t have all of the answers, I’m finding pieces of them everyday. As for me and Aristotle’s relationship status: it’s complicated. But, in the last weeks of my first semester of grad school, I’m finding enough hope to know that the journey of making this art is worth figuring out this whole Black Girl thing.