Thoughts on the White Imagination

Photo by Toa Heftiba

For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.

This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.

I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.

But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)

Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing:
All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.

These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.


What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.

The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.

Rankine writes:
because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying

What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.

But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.

Your Writing Practice

How’s your writing practice? Have you set writing goals for the year, month, or week? This post offers practical ideas and advice for writers who are working on strengthening their practice or trying to get back into one. Remember, everything takes time; be kind to yourself, relax, and celebrate the work you’ve already done. Happy writing!

There are no rules for having a writing practice. However, I once read the following advice on writing from a very successful novelist: Get to your desk immediately upon waking and begin writing immediately. If you drink coffee, brew it the night before and have it ready in a thermos at your desk. I couldn’t get past the coffee part, which is why I remember the advice at all — I cannot be expected to write without a fresh, hot cup! This famous novelist believed that the closer we were to the liminal state of our dreams, the greater our access to creativity. There’s a lot to be said about getting creative, but most writers understand that it’s simply the act of writing that gets you to the spaces of creative insight and not the other way around. So my first bit of advice about your writing practice is this:

At the pizzeria in Iceland 😉
  1. Put in the time: You’ve got to put in the work of writing in order to become a better writer. This may seem obvious but many of us simply do not put in the hours because our lives are busy and full. We have children, jobs, partners, homes, pets, dinners to make, vacations to plan, businesses to run, groceries to buy and so on. The reality is that we can and do make time for the things that are important to us. So, to start, keep track of how many hours you spend writing a week. Decide if this is the right amount for you or whether you can put in more. I can promise you one thing: the more you write the better you write.
  2. How Important Is It? Writing isn’t easy, so you have to ask yourself: Do I need and want to do this? Actually, the question we often pose is, will I be able to live with myself if I quit writing? If the answer is yes, well, then congratulations, you’re lucky. I know for the casual writer this seems silly or even disheartening, but for those of us who’ve been at it for a while it makes total sense. You’ve taken breaks, you’ve put your projects aside, you’ve moved on to new things, you’ve changed jobs, but you keep coming back to it: writing. To be an artist in this world, one that rarely values art beyond financial gain, requires a willingness to sacrifice: time, money, energy. So, the choice is yours but know that it is a choice that you’re making and a sacrifice. I find the rewards worth it but I always remind myself that I’m free to move on.
  3. So, if you’ve decided that you’re a writer or you want to write (because I know many of you are afraid to call yourselves writers even though that’s what you are), my next suggestion is to make a writing schedule. After you track how many hours you write a week, decide what is reasonable for your schedule. It may only be three hours a week or it may be twenty or thirty. But keeping a schedule is essential for reaching a goal. Regular writing is essential for reaching a goal. There are two ways to do this: First, you can commit to a number of hours per week and fit them in when convenient. However, the second and preferred method, is to schedule the hours so that you can be sure to get them in. Block them out in your planner; write them down on the calendar. But get them in. Pretend, if you will, that you’re training for a marathon and in order to complete the big race you need to get your hours in. Or pretend you’re getting paid for them. Just get them done! Oh, and PS, you’re not going to enjoy every minute of it. But if you keep your butt in your seat and write, you will get to where you need to go (great advice from Anne Lamott, see her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
  4. Set a timer: When it’s writing time I suggest you set a timer and focus solely on your work. If the timer’s going then you are less likely to drift over to email and social media and fall into the black hole. Try thirty minutes to start–make it short and manageable. Take a break and if you’re feeling good try another thirty. Staying focused works.
  5. Give your work time: Certain essays have taken me years to complete. Others were written in a fever over the course of weeks. I once completed a short story for an anthology in four days. I was alone and grieving the death of a beloved auntie and the story just came out. A friend of mine insists that some poems take an entire lifetime. Perhaps that story took my whole life to write and it was only then that I was ready to create it. Yet, most of my work has taken years, so give your work time. Never ever ever finish revising a draft of something and send it out in the same day. On the other hand, Annie Dillard writes that if you spend too much time away from your work, the project will die out. She likens writing a book to stoking a fire. If you leave it for too long it goes out. I have about three cold, burnt out novels to date, and countless other writings.
  6. Avoid Perfectionism at all costs: There is a great Brain Pickings on this topic, which I highly recommend. But the gist is that if you’re trying to be perfect you’re not going to create anything. You must allow yourself the space to write crap… and lots of it. Get messy, write crap, follow your instincts even if they make no sense in the moment. Creativity is about making connections where none exist and bringing to light new ways of seeing, being, and therefore existing. Perfectionism, it’s said, is the highest form of self hatred — so ditch it!
  7. Keep the Faith: Being a writer is a lot like being a profit wandering through the wilderness. Yes, there’s help out there but it is your vision and your individuality that matters. What you have to offer is your specific, intimate understanding of the world– There’s only one you! That’s the one we want to understand; the mind we’d love to access. And while writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s your friendships and connection to other writers and writing that will keep you going. My readers (two people) have kept me going for years. Without them I have no one to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, to share stories, and to kvetch with. Building up this community is essential to your success. And remember, success is mostly about whether or not you’re practicing as opposed to your publications. It takes courage to keep going. Here’s a lovely piece on Keeping the Faith.
A house in the West Fjords of Iceland

Finally, create the right space. OK, I will admit that I’m writing this at my local coffee shop and that most of my writing occurs in bed; however, we need a space that feels right to us. Writer Dani Shapiro has written that she spent two years in her favorite chair writing her memoir Inheritance. She had an office but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. A former teacher of mine told me he can only write in his bedroom with the blinds drawn. Others seek out beautiful spaces, a room with a view, and so on. But essentially, what you need is a place to be alone (the coffee shop counts!) and feel comfortable.

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xo

On Home & the Project of Becoming

So much has been written about home: landscape of memory, guardian of the lost. We are actuaries of our homes (I mean our first homes, our childhood haunts) calculating risks v. benefits of returns. Shall I move back there? Will it be the same? Will it be different? My mind runs over the landscape of this home as though tracing a path, a sort of traveling through. I collect specimens: the smell of pine, the heat of the sauna, the wet cold of a snow covered lake, the crunch of snow under my boot on a cold night, Orion’s belt in the sky.

We are close, my family and I. How this came to be remains a mystery. But perhaps it is the fact of five sisters and one (youngest) brother. Or something to do with tribe mentality, wanting to be a part of and fear of abandonment. There are, of course, variations on this closeness depending on the moment in time.

Home has always remained a function of my imagination, my creative mind, my ability to manifest thought, feeling, action in whatever way, unconsciously and then not. Right now, I think most of running when I think of my childhood home. I imagine a long line that unfolds before me, my legs growing strong, my mind clear. I see my brother, fourteen years my junior, running in front of me through the August heat, sprinting hard against the quandary of the body. I hear my breath, feel the beating organ pulse, push on, push on.

Photo by Josh Hild Minnesota, USA

Back in Vermont after three long weeks home with my two boys, I am finally alone. Silence folds in on me, a stillness everywhere punctuated by the solitary flight of a bird above the mountain.

I’m trying to get back to my writing mind, trying to dig down deep beyond the layers of fear, the raw anxiety of financial issues, the unknown.

We keep our lives in squares these days. I could show you mine: a lovely log cabin, a snowy wooded mountain view, a sun splashed table. But these images have become a commodity now and we are selling each other (and ourselves) our lives. What is wrong with that, you ask? It is not about ugliness but about the illusion of who we are. The covering over of fear and the inner life of the mind with stuff. The richness of our lives is always, as some say, an inside job, which means no amount of square, glossy beauty can make us happy.

And so, I have decided, this is the year of my becoming all the ways I need most: holding fear like a baby to my breast, giving her the comfort of words, the comfort of believing. I am at my best when things fall apart, as underdog and chaser of wild things. This is the year of justice. We are moving towards apocalyptic power, we are AOC & RBG, we are becoming. Long before Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming (amazing and def. worth a read!), back in my Julia Kristeva days, I fell in love with the word becoming–with the line of poetry I wrote in a cold Minneapolis cafe, watching the snow fall into the river and feeling my life scatter there at the surface: I am always becoming.

This is also the year of honest finances. I have to stop avoiding money and take a hard look at how I make it and how I spend it (ouch!).

And though we know a lot about a lot–intellectually– becoming is the practice of the moment and of making a different thought from the old, well-loved thought we have rubbed clean for years. It is making a different choice in the moment whenever you can. Our thoughts become our feelings which become the actions that shape our lives.

My car is dead in the driveway, my job is probably ending, I owe a lot of money in a lot of places — never-the-less, I am becoming.