From Writer to Aspiring Writer and Back Again

thieves - emceeThis week’s question is about going from being an aspiring writer to being a successful writer. In this arena, I have the odd distinction of being in transition from being one type of writer to another type of writer, with an unpaid parental leave in between. From 1999-2009 I had a successful career as a spoken word artist. I was able to quit my day job in 2000 and freelance doing a combination of consulting and training in the non-profit sector, and being a writer/performer. Some years I made my living exclusively from my artist life. I got fellowships, grants, artist residencies, and I performed nationally. I was at the top of my game. I was among the first to get a California Arts Council fellowship in spoken word. I appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry. But I wanted to do more than 2-3 minute pieces, so I branched into theater. thieves dvd coverWhich was also really creatively fulfilling. I won awards and I did well artistically, although there was no money to be made unless I moved to New York. But I made a living. I had a booking agent who booked me on the college circuit. current big screenI traveled all over the country, and even had exciting political/celebrity moments, like co-hosting the San Francisco kickoff for Al Gore’s Current TV network with Mos Def.

But the road wore me out. And I decided I wanted a job. I managed to parlay my eclectic resume into landing a university teaching job, although it was adjunct and paid on the bottom of the faculty scale.

MOAD23_026_KW_.jpg On Sunday August 20, 2006 local poet Aya deLe—n performs as part of "Uplift: A Tribute to Katrina Survivors" at MOAD, The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco which is part of the "I've Known Rivers" first person storytelling salon series. Kat Wade/The Chronicle **Aya deLe—n(Subject) cq Mandatory Credit for San Francisco Chronicle and photographer, Kat Wade, No Sales Mags out

So during that decade in spoken word, I got used to being sought after for appearances, being featured on panels, getting press coverage, giving keynote addresses and being invited to publish. Not that much of it paid well. And the hustle was constant. But I learned to hustle well. I self-published chapbooks, CDs, T-shirts, and even a DVD, making thousands of dollars off of my merchandise.

Over the years, I’ve even had a number of pieces that have been commissioned. Different organizations have asked: will you write something about this. For example, after the 2000 elections, a local progressive arts organization noted that people were feeling demoralized, and asked if I would write something. And I did.

D afropuff peeking 1So I think part of what’s been profound as a debut novelist is that I’ve already had a great life as a writer. But I am female, and I wanted to have a family, so my life as a performer was not sustainable if I transitioned into being a mother. I have male colleagues who have had children and it has had little negative effect on their careers. I have always envied these men, and also female celebrities who have the resources to continue their careers. For example, A-list actresses can have children and continue their lives as performers because they have the resources to hire staff and family entourages to travel with them and their kids. But I was neither a movie star nor a man. And the kind of work that I was doing didn’t bring in enough resources to allow me to continue performing with a child.

So I returned to my roots. Long before I was interested in spoken word, I wanted to be a novelist. And it was clear to me that being a novelist was much more compatible with being a parent, because when you’re a performer, you are the product. Sure, you can sell chapbooks and CDs, but travel is an inherent part of the gig because what you’re really selling is your live appearance somewhere. So I really did it big in my 30s, because I knew that once I had a kid, I wouldn’t be able to spend my late evenings in nightclubs. blackboxayaAs a mom, evenings are for bedtime, and nights are for sleeping. As a mom, it has been excruciating how much I have had to slow my life down. As a debut novelist, the pace is picking up, but it will never be like it was when I was touring year-round. Now that I have a book coming out, the book is the product that gets to be out in the world full-time, not me.

Thus, part of my desperation to get published as a novelist has been this: I did function at a really high level of being part of a public conversation, being part of a community of artists, being sought after for social commentary, and I wanted that back. I feel so hungry to expand that part of my life that is public and creative and opinionated and in demand.

If I’m being honest, some of it has to do with status, and feeling like I went from having a minor local celebrity status to a stay-at-home mom status. Parenting is incredibly important work, and outrageously devalued in our society. I don’t resent the motherhood, just the sexist conditions in which I’m parenting. As I’ve been writing this, the title of Abby’s book keeps looping in my mind: I Liked My Life. More accurately, I miss my life.

So my kid is finally in kindergarten, and my book is coming out, and I feel like I’m finally stepping back into my old life. It’s crazier now, because I have to stop writing to make lunches and drive carpool and braid hair and pick up from gymnastics, but I’m thrilled that while I’m doing those things, someone else is editing and proofreading my book and will be printing it and shipping it and selling it and promoting it. And I’ll hustle my best with the time I have, and I get to be on panels again, and read at festivals and hopefully do some interviews, and for the first time in years I’ve got a major new project coming out, and…Yes! It feels really good to be back.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

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