Friday, September 28, 2018

Here's why being the only Black person at Brave Magic this weekend turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life

As I write this blog, my memoir book-proposal is out there in the world getting busy.

Busy being rejected that is, by several different (well-researched) literary agents.  The few that take the time to respond to me, all basically say the same thing:

I’m sorry, I can’t sell you.  No one knows who you are.

So instead of being defeated, I’ve decided to look at these words as a call to action.  I’ve been advised to build what is called an “author’s platform” (an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach - I.e. “likes, comments and followers”).  In order to make this happen I’m starting to do more of what I see other authors doing to boost their platforms.  The long (and exhausting) list I’ve put together includes but is not limited to:

Blogging (✔️)
Podcasts (I start my podcast class next week)
Storytelling (I just WON my first Story Slam at the LA Moth this Tuesday – after taking a storytelling class. HOORAY!).
Taking writing class after writing class (✔️ I just signed up for another one last night)
Cranking out an insane amount of article-submissions to various outlets (trying)
Reading the insane number of articles published by these outlets, getting familiar with editors and other authors (again, trying)
Being an active member of a writer’s group (✔️)
And last but certainly not least, NETWORKING, which includes: Going to RETREATS.

So, to this end, I registered for a retreat headlined by best-selling powerhouse authors (and besties), Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed (Eat Pray Love and Wild, respectively). When I signed up, four other women from my online writers’ group (there are seven of us total) had also signed up.  I had never before met any one of these women in person (we've been meeting for years via video conferencing). 

I arrive last Thursday after flying into San Jose’s airport, picking up my hybrid from Hertz and driving up the windy, narrow roads to 1440 Multiversity, which rests at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  I am so mesmerized by the scenery that I actually forget to be nervous about being in this unfamiliar situation (my first writer’s retreat, my first time meeting the other ladies face-to-face and first solo trip for any reason in over a decade). However, my stomach begins to churn the moment  I take my place at the back of the 200 + person check in line. 

Only my stomach isn’t churning because of the length of the line, it is churning because I am the only Black person in it. 

Craning my neck to look as far down the line as possible, all I see are natural blond ponytails and top-buns, whose wearers look like they were born holding a yoga mat in one hand and a mason jar in the other. 

I do see a few silver-haired White women. I see three or four brown women (Middle Eastern, Indian or Pakistani?) and five Asian women (one I meet tells me that she is Korean American).  I find out later that there are 11 men in attendance also.

But there are no Black attendees.

There are 600 people here in total.

I’ve been the only one before.  I was the only Black student in class many times when I was little, I was the only Black parent (many times) when my kids were little and I’m often the only Black person in my recovery meetings.  But I didn’t know that this (my first-ever retreat) would be so massively big.  And it hadn’t even vaguely occurred to me that out of 600 people, I could be the only Black one.  Frankly, I am more than just shocked, I am actually deeply saddened.

While I continue to stand in line, it begins to feel as though some of the women are now craning their necks to look back at me. Ignoring the stares, I try to picture how any of these yoga mat-carriers would feel if they’d arrived at a retreat where absolutely every one of the 600 attendees (and all of the facility staff-members) were Black.  

They’d probably slip away nervously and call someone, right? Or maybe they'd turn around and head back to the airport without saying a word to anyone.

I feel irrational tears pressing against the backs of my eyes.

Really?! How is it that an event this big, in twenty fricken eighteen can be so incredibly homogenous? How is that I can be the only one - STILL - AGAIN at age 54?!

I think about getting back in my car and driving down that crazy mountain road back to the airport.  I am pretty sure that no one would blame me if I did. 

Enter the women from my writers group.

Gripping my car keys in my left hand so hard that my palm hurts, I use my right to send a group text, telling them that I’ve arrived and say that I’ll be “easy to spot."  Moments later, Stephanie appears (she lives in Portland) and then Dana (who lives in Charlottesville).  They are both so happy to see me that it relieves a bit of my self-consciousness. Soon we are in the dining hall.  We’ve now been joined by Amy (she lives in Oakland) and Riva who lives in Toronto.  

This whole time, I am constantly aware that I am quite obviously the fly in the proverbial buttermilk.  But even though I'm resisting it, I find myself beginning to feel at ease in the company of these four White women.  I am reminded of my freshman year of high school, basking in the safety of my posse of girls, watching others take notice of our "sister bond" and walk in the other direction with their cafeteria trays to sit at other tables.  I credit this "instant" bond with Stephanie, Amy, Dana, Riva (and Wendy and Kim who couldn't attend) to the fact that we've chosen to share with each other, extremely intimate subjects and events over the years through our writing; pregnancies, babies, prostitution, depression, falling in love, suicide, alcoholism, (me) infertility, divorce (me again), assaults, abuse, prejudice, bullying, breakdowns, etc...

These four women recognize immediately that I am the only Black participant here and know better than to pretend that it isn’t an issue.  They discuss it openly and inquire without agenda how things feel for me.  I am so at home with them in those first few moments that I almost get teary again.

I guess I'll stay for the night at least.

Day two of the retreat I think that I spot a Black person out of the corner of my eye on the other side of the auditorium — then that person is gone — disappeared.

Hold up! Did I just imagine her? 

Later in the afternoon when I actually see her against a far wall, my suspicion is confirmed. 

Oh yes. Definitely a sister.

We nod, acknowledging each other across the room (as is our code). I am relieved, but also in a very strange way, I am almost disappointed.  You see, in just two days time, I have started to relax into my solo minority role (although I am still a bit unsure as how to receive the many women who continue to approach me with strong handshakes and teary eyes -- thanking me for being here).

Huh?? You’re welcome, I guess.

These encounters aside, I’ve discovered that even in the Whitest of White environments, with the help of these four women, I’ve been able (this time) to set aside my painful memories of being the only Black person and have a new experience with it.

The truth is that I've having the time of my life at the Brave Magic retreat. Once again, I've learned something new about the most important person in my life — me.

R-L Riva, Me (obvs), Amy, Stephanie and Dana


  1. Laura- thank you for your voice and your message. I’ve been thinking about that one participant’s question: “why are there so few men here?” (Were you there for this?) and wish we had thought to ask ourselves and Liz and Cheryl “why is there only one black person here?” We need to start elevating memoirists who are women of color. It’s well past time for their stories, and YOURS, to rise. —Dana

  2. I have to say that this feeling has occurred to me when the reverse has happened. Only twice, but is certainly got me thinking about what it must be like for my daughter. To be different, I have always believed, is an extraordinary gift. But it would definitely be tiring Thing is, we need your perspective more than ever. We must understand the experience for which we are unfamiliar. In that empathy, we find a middle ground that is peaceful and safe, and a love and understanding so deperately needed in these times. It looks like it was an incredible experience for you all. So glad you enjoyed it. What a beautiful venue. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. xox

  3. Firstly, hurry up with the podcast,I can't wait! Secondly, there are so many people who already benefit from your voice that broadening your platflorm is only going to touch so many hearts and lives. Most of us feel like we are "the only _____." But most people carry it on the inside, it's not something you can see and once the walls come down most find that their "only one" feeling is actually shared by others. It's not that you are the only black woman writer, or divorcee, or in recovery. But, in this time and place you happen to be a pioneer and trailblazer for those who can see themselves in you (no matter which part of you that is). Your experiences and perspective cover such depth and breadth yet you share it with such honesty and grace that anyone can relate to it. Your writing is a true gift and I can't wait for the right literary agent to unwrap it!

  4. Once again Laura you've spoken eloquently from the heart and we all benefit!

  5. I just read your essay on Huffington Post and came here to say your words matter to me. Keep writing! You clearly have a voice that deserves to be heard, and I for one am eager to read more. -Kristin

  6. Hi Laura,

    I just read your Huffington Post article. I can't tell you when was the last time I read a full article without skipping/skimming until I read your piece. You're a FANTASTIC writer and your voice matters 100%! Thank you for your perseverance and commitment. Can't wait to read more!

  7. Hi Laura,

    I read your wonderful piece on HuffPost and wanted to reach out and say thank you so much for writing it, and yes yes yes, your stories do matter!

  8. Bravo to writing a beautiful piece. I too came as a result of reading your essay on Huffington Post and want to applaud you for giving voice to what deeply matters. I hope more people will see themselves in their stories. Inclusion matters. Connection matters. I will never forget when my son's 7th grade teacher at the time told me of how my son and his classmates embraced the other African American students who broke down while visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I cannot believe how the organizers of this event failed to overlook the inclusion aspect!

  9. At Ladderbird we think inclusion matters. Get in touch and send me something you're working on.

  10. I just read your article in the Huffington Post and saw myself. Women of color are left out often in many discussions that generally impact them the most. Sadly when folks need our votes, then we are summoned then customarily dismissed after after the whatever is needed is accomplished.

  11. I found you from the HuffPost. Thank you! I relate to this so strongly. You sticking through the conference is Brave Magic all in itself. You probably should be a headliner next year. Please keep writing and dont stop I need your voice even if no one else does!!

  12. i LOVED your article on huff po. funny and true and keep going, you!

  13. Read this post on huffPo and came to say, yesss it matters and thank you for persisting when it feels like it doesn’t.

  14. I don't know what to say except that your story matters to me just as much as Anna Kunecke's, on whose blog I found yours.

    Thank you for writing it. Your eloquent and succinct words gave me a visceral taste of what that experience was like for you.

    Thank you for being brave. Good luck with your book.

  15. Words for thought around diversity feeling alone and, hey, what's up? Usually being the only single, childless woman at events, or the one with hearing loss, I have a glimpse into your story. How can we all feel connected while being different. Thank you for your insight!

  16. I know what it's like to be the oldest and least conventionally attractive woman at a SF Bay area gathering--something we 50-something white chicks huddle together and talk about (most recently at a SF gathering). The Multiversity might welcome ideas about how to create more diversity. As a writer, I had limited interest in going to Liz's event, which seemed likely to be a girlfest heavy on the Atraversiamo crowd. Many writer retreat organizers bank on the big-name authors attracting authors looking to make publishing connections via the presenters, but I'm not sure it works out that way.

  17. I just this article on Facebook and Google you so I could see your beauty. You are a beautiful black woman and a very articulate writer. Please continue to be who you are.

  18. For what it's worth, I was compelled to come find your blog after reading your article on Huffington Post. If that's a small example of building an author's platform, it's working. I'll be looking for your memoir and look forward to reading it.

  19. Following your blog after seeing your Huffpost piece. Your story matters to me. Thank you for writing about your experience and, particularly, for asking the questions you asked. They are questions that need to be considered!!

  20. Thank you for sharing this story. It is staggering to me to imagine just the physical vision of your event. I am so sorry you had to take care of a white woman's emotional needs instead of receiving appropriate witness to your writing. Please continue to write and share your experience. Your writing reinforced the learning I am doing to appreciate how different our experiences are and to feel into at least a bit into experiences vastly different from my own. Deep gratitude.

  21. Hi, Laura,
    I found your article about Brave Magic at Huffpost.It caught my eye because I have read both Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed. In it you asked (I'm paraphrasing) if your story (the story and experience of a black woman) matter to the rest of you (white people). I am a white woman. My answer is YES! Yes, your story matters greatly. We need your voice as a writer and with your perspective. Yes, we (all of us) need more diverse voices in publication. Yes. You ask if we wonder what it's like to 'fail, love, grieve, and triumph'. I think you've hit an important point. Not only do we (all of us in America) benefit from your voice in the conversation, from you having a welcomed place at the table, but in hearing variations of your story and experience, not just one time, or one event, or from only one black woman. Also in the news this week I heard of Marley Dias, a 13 year old who started #1000BlackGirlBooks, she seems headed in the right direction. I appreciated your article.
    Good luck!

  22. I found your piece inspirational. Thank you for sharing.

  23. Hi there! I didn't know how else to reach you- I read your story on Huffington Post and wanted to tell you that a white woman from New Orleans who was randomly googling Elizabeth Gilbert and Sheryl Strayed read your story, and to me, it matters. I'm no one, and I don't speak for all white women (that's for sure), but I am grateful to have found your words and am looking forward to stalking you on the internet. Also, I hope to one day be my own version of an author/speaker/storyteller, and if I ever get a platform, I will do all that I can to ensure it is inclusive.

  24. Hi Laura,
    I loved this piece and the earlier one you posted in HuffPost. I'm a Latina editor who loves working with writers of color, and yet I often struggle to find and connect with them because there are so many invisible (to white people) barriers to entry when it comes to pursuing writing as a career or even a serious hobby. I love that you have opened up this inquiry to so many people, because it is something I face every single day. It is imperative that women like Gilbert and Strayed (and others like them) take this into account for future events because, if they don't, they are failing on a mission which they claim to hold dear -- supporting creativity in all its forms. And without upholding and supporting the voices of all kinds of writers, we're continuing to cripple our culture and prevent our country from moving forward into a greater future.

  25. Laura, in answer to the questions posed at the end of your original article, yes, please keep doing what you are gracefully and eloquently doing. I live in a small Midwestern town (basically a bubble) and your perspective is illuminating and helpful for our our country, especially at a time when our democracy is more fragile than ever. You should be shouting your message from the mountaintops. People that are critical are coming from a place of ignorance. What you have is a gift that is meant to be shared. Keep trudging the Road of Happy Destiny ;) Erin

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  28. Hi Laura,

    I read your Huff Po article and I’m really grateful for it. I am European born, American raised, blonde and white. I am also an immigrant from a former soviet state (Poland) and otherness was always there for me since my early ESL days. On the outside, though, I’m as white as they come, educated, and priveledged. Although I love these kinds of events and the whole world of self help, empowerment, law of attraction and manifestation, I too cringe at how white it all is. It actually just makes it feel like it is all a lie and fake somehow, because of how under-represented it is...
    How can this change? What are the conversations that are not being had? How can we also work through the realness and not just live in a priveledge bubble? And most importantly, how does one not fall into the trappings and limitations of one’s own experience without creating room for the experience of the “other,” even if it causes discomfort to our own reality? And what are we scared of in the first place? A little discomfort? Being wrong? I’d rather feel humility than ignorance, there is so much more growth there. I feel like these issues are so much deeper, but I always think of the fact that Oprah managed to open up to such a broad audience. There is a lot to learn from her approach.

    Please keep writing. Your voice and experience are extremely important.

    Divided we fall.

    Wishing you great success,
    Ania Diakoff, Los Angeles

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