On Writing (to Read Oneself)

PHOTO: TIMOTHY PULFORD-CUTTING. 

PHOTO: TIMOTHY PULFORD-CUTTING. 

By Victoria Adukwei Bulley

‘I’m finding it really hard to be here right now.’

Saturday, September 16th, 2006. 1:47am. 

It would be great if I could say that I remember dates this accurately, or that I have a gift for recalling what a clock said on a night ten years ago. I don’t, of course. Instead, I have a small, suede notebook lying open in front of me, with handwriting in it that’s unmistakably mine. This is journal number two. Lately, I’ve been revisiting all eight of them.

If you asked me who I was at the ages of 19, 15, 13, 11 – even 11 – I could tell you. I would let you in on the names of the songs I loved, each boy I liked, every girl I secretly wanted to be. It’s all there, amusing, and often embarrassing. Painful, at times. But something about this process of re-reading gives me hope: I am still that girl. Or, rather, I am still me –  and more of myself than before. In this world that rehearses, daily, the erasure of people of color, any act of remembrance, or record-keeping, is radical. Any confirmation that part of ourselves has outlived the trauma of otherness is a healing force.

For me, journaling has been at the core of this. Elsewhere in the same notebook as above, you’ll find a Toni Morrison quote, where she speaks about The Bluest Eye – a narrative about another black girl in a white world. ‘I wrote my first novel,’ she reveals, ‘because I wanted to read it.’ A light had switched on in me: I had been trying to do exactly the same thing. As a means of finding myself in circumstances where I felt disorientated, or worse, invisible, I would write. It was no longer just a pastime. Unlike Morrison, I wasn’t compiling a novel, however what I was doing was almost metafiction. I had found my surroundings failing to reflect who I felt I was, and so I wrote myself into the story of my life.

The stereotype of keeping a journal usually goes something along the lines of dear diary, today [insert boy/girl’s name] looked at me! Really, it both includes and goes beyond this. As black women, anything we choose to write enters a realm in which our voices are already an endangered species. So little have we been heard in the past – even by ourselves – that we have catching up to do. But to speak out, with authenticity, takes practice. We may well feel things that we are unconscious of until we see them in writing and, even then, we have to survive those feelings. We must, in the words of Nikki Giovanni, ‘be unintimidated by [our] own thoughts’. This is why journaling, specifically for Black women, can be a powerful channel for self love and resistance. It could never be self indulgent. To label it so would ignore the facts of our collective experience, and take for granted the richness of our inner lives. 

Reading over my old writings is bittersweet, and thick with irony. I am still telling myself to be kinder to myself. Still battling – often without success – an addiction to picking my skin during moments of anxiety. I remain too quick to say yes to requests that don’t necessarily warrant that answer, and I still haven’t made it to Bahia, like I said I would. The future didn’t end up looking the way I imagined it. And yet, there are areas of greater understanding, places where the image is the same but the frame has been switched. I know better, now, than to set goals which are brilliant but utterly self-sabotaging unless I tear them up into smaller, piecemeal steps. I know that most of my anxiety comes from a habitual fear of failure – the fallout, perhaps, from a desire to make my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile. But I also know that the 15 year-old girl who struggled to be in the world feels a lot more capable now, even joyful, and seasons her dark days with a larger pinch of salt.

The only real difference today is that I call myself a writer and poet, albeit with awkwardness. I have a community of other creative individuals, with whom I can share my work and learn from. But way before I’d summoned the confidence to describe myself as such – before workshops, deadlines, or #blackgirlmagic – I was writing. Not for the eyes of anyone else, or with the aim of creating art, but with a shy, curious hunger for learning (and therefore affirming) myself, even before I knew that this was my intention.

Over to you. If keeping a journal isn’t something you already do, I invite you to give it a shot. Maybe you tried once, but it never took off. Try again. Pick up the nicest, most welcoming notebook you can find. Make sure it’s inexpensive enough to avoid pressuring yourself – remember: self care is substance first, not style. If low key is what you need to let loose, use regular lined or scrap paper. You’re fancy? Get a nice pen, too. Then, find one night, weekly, bi-monthly – or even at new or full moons – where you mark out time to be alone with your thoughts, take a deep breath, and commit them to ink.

Be brave. More importantly, be kind. There is no judgement here, no incorrect word or emotion. Everything is welcome. A journal becomes a potent tool for wellness when it’s seen as a gradual process, as opposed to a product. When the feelings of inadequacy or pointlessness arise (and they will), write beyond them. This may even mean repeating yourself until you say something new. I have pages that are scribbles of I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired which eventually break through into subtle realisations. Elation, heartbreak or numbness – it all counts.

And as you write, as you read over your text, ask questions. Which parts flow? Where does the pen slide less easily over the paper? Does it hurt? Keep going. The protagonist is you, now. Here, the blank page is a rare white space in which you can, should and must be liberated. It, too, asks questions: What is it that you want to say? What is it that’s too dangerous even for words?

Whatever response you have, or are searching for, the request is unflinching: Write. Speak.

PHOTO: TIMOTHY PULFORD-CUTTING. 

PHOTO: TIMOTHY PULFORD-CUTTING. 

Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a writer, poet, and creative facilitator. Her debut chapbook, Girl B, is forthcoming as part of the 2017 New-Generation African Poets series, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. She contributes to Black Girl in Om because she believes in the healing potential of sisterhood for women of colour. Her self love failsafes are good food, long baths, and meditation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @victoriaadukwei, or read more of her work at victoriaadukwei.com