My debut novel, which will be released to the world in July of this year—seven months from now—has a cover. A real one. Which I happen to love and whose image I open onto my computer screen several times a day just to gaze at it. The existence of this picture stirs up so many emotions in me: satisfaction, disbelief, scream-it-from-the-hilltops joy. But also, as with any big life milestone, there’s a sense of wistfulness, a deep longing to share with my beloved parents.
Here is the cover of Embers on the Wind, to be released by Little A Books on July 5, 2022. Artwork by Micaela Alcaino.
My mother, an avid reader and educator, died in 2018. I am fortunate that she was alive for part of the time I was working on the book, and even read an early version of the short story which grew into the finished work.
But Dad died back in 1995, before I even owned anything resembling a laptop. I was writing long hand and then typing things up on his old Corona (prior to the word’s current connotation). He read and critiqued things I wrote, predicting that I would one day “blow the literary world away.” Dad always regarded my endeavors with a blustery confidence he denied his own work.
My father was a brilliant writer and storyteller. An astute interlocutor of history and politics, of ace and culture, art, literature, and music. But luck and time were often against him. A visual artist who was legally blind. A screen writer whose Hollywood contacts lagged behind his skill and ambitions.
But my father’s name, Mel Williamson, lives on in the flaps and copyright pages of countless books, including volumes by Jimmy Breslin, Nadine Gordimer, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and other 20th century Giants.
My father was the chief art director at Viking Press, both before and after it was “Viking Penguin,” long before it was an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Dad designed book covers. It was what he did for most of my childhood. And therefore, it is to him that I dedicate this announcement, with his memory that I celebrate this moment.
My father took my aspirations of being a novelist seriously from the start. His advice? “Get your first four chapters in, get your advance, and get to work.” Which was the way of the publishing world when he was chief art director of Viking Press back in the 60’s. I don’t remember Dad ever using terms like “query letter,” “agent,” or “submission.” He certainly never mentioned “Platform.”
Today, you need a completed, polished novel and an agent to sell it in order to get an advance—which may or may not cover expenses so you can focus exclusively on revising your book. And you’re also required to have a platform, to put yourself “out there,” to maximize your social media presence. I cannot imagine what Dad—who died in 1995, before the internet dominated all our lives—would make of that last sentence, or why I need this very site.
And here’s the thing which makes expanding my online footprint daunting. I’m a psychotherapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to be precise. Being discreet—not “out there”—is part of my job description. Not just regarding the lives and identities of my clients, but also my own. Not that anyone expects therapists to be total blank slates anymore. We are no longer silent, bearded men upon whom patients superimpose whatever traits their unconsciouses desire. We’re people. Google-able people. Clients read our bios, view our profiles and photographs, learn about who we are from our practice mission statements, accessing anything about us that feels relevant to their therapeutic experiences.
In the 22 years I have been practicing, I’ve found that clients want you to be real with them, open to sharing bits of your story that may increase the connection between you without making it about you. It’s a tough balance, knowing when and how much to self-disclose. Many of my Black woman clients chose me because they wanted a therapist with first-hand knowledge of racism, particularly the racial trauma that comes from being an American woman of African descent. Again, many of my clients are mothers who appreciate knowing that I’ve raised children of my own. When I self-disclose, it’s usually in the form of a brief illustrative anecdote that relates to the client’s story, though I’m always clear that their experience is unique. It also depends on the situation and the individual. Some clients feel safest when they know something about me, others prefer to know nothing of my existence outside the office.
Another factor is that I live in the town where I practice. Over the years, plenty of clients have seen me out walking my dog or herding my children around a grocery store. The notion of being spotted by clients while I was out living my “real” life used to fill me with anxiety.
My finest moment was when my son, then two, completely lawless in the manner of two-year-olds, barreled into a client of mine at a swimming pool. The client was an older male—hence not a mom—and for what it mattered, I had on a bikini. Awkward enough to run into a client while your child is acting out, dashing the fantasy I believed clients had of therapists having their shit completely together. It was another thing entirely to stand in front of a male client wearing what was essentially underwear. Cringes all around.
My supervisor at the time, a lovely older woman who had raised two children while practicing therapy in the town where she lived, said, “You’re human. They all know you have a life.” She encouraged me to raise the encounter with the client when I saw him next, which I did. We both laughed about it. He asked how old my son was and I told him. No mention was made of the bikini. It would take me years for these encounters to stop rattling me, to stop trying to present a shrink-perfect image at all times.
Being a writer means making a conscious choice to present a public version of my private self. This process actually began with a talk I had been invited to give at a synagogue about the meaning of being a Black Jew, a member of two distinct groups—one ethno-racial, the other ethno-religious. An announcement of the talk caught the attention of author, journalist and now my friend, TaRessa Stovall, who is also Black and Jewish. I credit TaRessa with coining the term “Blewish”—an identity of multitudes, including Daveed Diggs, Rain Pryor, Rebecca Walker, and Tracee Ellis Ross. TaRessa interviewed me before the talk, wrote a piece about it for our local paper. While I ultimately published the talk in Interfaith Families Online, it was TaRessa’s article which gained the most attention. Some people got confused and thought I’d written it; others read it and googled me, turning up little besides a scholarly article—the first thing I ever published—in Social Work and Healthcare, about African American Women and their exclusion from the literature on body image disturbance and eating disorders.
But there was such a difference between a social worker writing about clinical issues and a woman sharing her personal story. The former was about research, interviews and observation; the latter was just about me. My visibility surged in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted it to.
Nevertheless, I started blogging a few years later, which was the biggest breakthrough for me. I wrote about my first career as a ballet dancer, my residual relationship with ballet, my subsequently complicated relationship with my body. I wrote about my eating disorder history, my experience as a Black biracial child growing up under the umbrella of my mother’s white privilege, how it vanished when I was with my Black father. I wrote about my parents’ marriage, my father’s death and, much later, my mother’s. I wrote from my heart, uncensored, sharing my raw, unfettered emotional core. I wrote about my grandmother’s rejection of me, my evolving Black identity, my evolving Jewish identity, motherhood, Obama, dogs, Betty Grable—you name it, I wrote about it. And … it was out there on the internet for anyone to see. Including my clients, most of whom frankly don’t read it. That’s not what they need from me. Either way, it’s okay. As my supervisor said, my clients know I have a life.
Soon online journals were publishing my essays. If you read those, especially the ones in Longreads and The Common, you know exactly who I am. Again, it has to be okay. At one point I considered a pen name to separate the writing me from the therapist me. That didn’t feel right.
By now, I’m experienced enough, confident enough as a therapist to handle the duality. As a writer you don’t want to hold back. You need to be real, not stiff or sanitized. You need to dig deep and notice what you feel. Which is why writing has made me a better therapist and vice versa.
Which brings me to now. I have a novel—a work of fiction—not a work about therapy or my own life—coming out in about a year.
Without using any “material” from clients, Embers on the Wind touches upon subjects I discuss with them daily—motherhood, family, race, gender, and identity. What does it mean to love and loathe a sister at the same time? What does it mean to be underestimated, undervalued, and yet resented for one’s perceived good fortune? What does it mean to struggle when others appear to have everything handed to them? What does it mean to be a modern Black woman living with the weight of the past, of your ancestors’ hopes, fears and dreams?
And suddenly, the overlap of all my work is clear, without need for compartmentalization. I wear multiple hats, but remain the same, integrated self beneath them.
It is in this spirit that my blog is reborn as my Author Website—the tagline of which I’ve changed from “Writings on Body Image and Identity” to “Stories of Motherhood, Identity and Being.”
This is the site where I can record my honest thoughts about life, parenting, race, and politics. It’s also for general therapeutic observations which readers can take as advice or leave. And of course, it’s for my new author life, my book news. It’s all here. It’s all me.
By now, I’ve shared this all over Facebook and Twitter, but I thought I would share it here as well. I have been writing fiction for years, including three (yes, THREE) unpublished novels, one of which landed me a literary agent, thank you!
But, while I’ve published a number of nonfiction essays and one scholarly piece, I’ve never succeeded in having my fiction published until now. At the very last minute, I entered my short story, “The Birthing Room,” into the Fall/Winter Short Fiction contest held by The Piltdown Review and the rest, as they say …
A huge Thank you to Bill Shunn, editor of The Piltdown Review, who was a pleasure to work with.
This story was inspired by my father-in-law’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There was a legend that a freedom-seeking African American woman died in the house and that her spirit haunts it still. As the only woman of color who ever visited, possibly the only woman of color who had stayed in the house since the 19th Century, I always wondered about that spirit. Who was she? And what in the world would she make of me?