Of Serena Williams, Barbara Ehrenreich And Evolution

Imagine what you want then get out of the way
Remember energy follows thought so be careful what you say
So be careful what you ask for
Make sure it’s really what you want
Because your mind is made for thinking
And energy follows thought

Willie Nelson, “Energy Follows Thought” 

***

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
–Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing

While watching Serena struggle through her last (?) second set last night, I got the news update on my phone: Barbara Ehrenreich had died. That nonfiction champion of working people was 81, 41 years older than the history-breaking wonder woman I was watching on ESPN.

I immediately went back to Williams because it’s consistently amazing to watch her form and spirit, even when she loses. And I confess I had been watching the U.S. Open all week to see how she would lose, how she would leave the field and then go to—what’s her word?—oh, yeah, “evolve.”

It’s a very reflective time for me because it’s the silver anniversary of someone who once yearned to be smart yet did a real dumb thing: leave a fulltime job to go to graduate school. Thirty years ago, give or take a week, when I was much less foolish than reckless than I am now, I decided to leave home and become a writer. I am so grateful for my life of failure that resulted from that decision.

When I decided to ditch covering Newark, N.J. mayors for mastering decimal numbers at Maryland and D.C. libraries, Bill Clinton hadn’t yet been elected and The Dark Knight and the X-Men had just made the jump into serious FOX Kids network animation. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince and Serena and Venus were white Roman goddesses found in mythology books.  

Here’s what I didn’t know back then:

  • You can’t enter a penthouse from the outside, because there are neither outdoor stairs nor a side door.
  • Writing is like golf; like Smith says in my favorite movie of his, you can’t win, you can only play. It’s not a career because there’s no future with it; it’s something that belongs only to the present–you do it full-time until it’s no longer feasible and viable.
  • Writing’s friend is also its enemy: stealing calm and stillness, even sacrificing it.

This was the period where Williams was professionally born and Ehrenreich came of nia age. Off to work. Never give up, never surrender, as the Captain Kirk-ish lead of Galaxy Quest made famous at the end of a decade devoted to Star Trek.

Is giving up or staying the course nature or nurture? Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man whose father told me once drove a cab, said on some Facebook video I once saw that people don’t fulfill their writing ambitions because they give up. Because that was Winner Advice, which is by its nature dishonest, he didn’t say why they give up. In a famous 2009 graduation address to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ehrenreich was more forthcoming: “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are furthermore going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry. You have abundant skills and talents – it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.”

Every single time I force myself twice monthly to pay a very nice woman to clean my apartment, I remember the line Ehrenreich dropped that scared me the most (and still does): “You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery. You’ll be living some of the problems you report on – the struggle for health insurance, for child care, for affordable housing. You might never have a cleaning lady. In fact, you might be one. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have moonlighted as cleaning ladies or waitresses. And you know what? They were good writers. And good cleaning ladies too, which is no small thing.”

By the time the famous author said this, Williams was still grand-slamming on the way to GOAT status and I was a lifer, still searching for literary immortality in a post-literate culture, armed with nothing but graduate degrees, the memorized arcs of a 1989 James Baldwin documentary and the Alex Haley episodes of Roots: The Next Generations, and a six-figure student loan debt. I had not yet accepted that writing doesn’t exist in the real world where people pay serious dues every day to ensure their survival. Unless you are in the Talented Tenth it’s an invisible, irrelevant profession. Don’t believe me? On May 23rd of this year, I went online and got my Wu-Tang clan-generated name: PHANTOM ARTIST. Yeah! Um, wait…. On August 22nd, I went back to try a second time, wary as 55 approaches next year. Wu-Tang renamed me LUCKLESS HOODOO. I accept my fate.

The destinies of other scribes happily cross over into the academy. All the living writers I followed as a 20-something are journalism professors now—most at Howard University, Hampton University and the place I got let go from 10 years ago next spring, Morgan State University. I learned during my six MSU years that being a professor is not a writing job. I was taught in the 20th century that if you want to go write, write; If you want to make writing your fun nights-weekends-and-summer hobby, the analog mantra went, go be a professor. Twenty-two years into somewhere else, reality can be quite a witch when compared to memory. Other than my mentor Herb Boyd (himself a part-time professor for decades) and my friend Richard Prince, the only full-time writer I follow in 2022 has been in prison for 40 years.

For some there is only one path. Williams never gave up, never surrendered. Neither did Ehrenreich. But on the other hand, if you are not like them–either not the very best or not in that opportunity zone–that survival move and mode, I now know, slowly turns into professional evolution and eventual advancement in the real world outside your window. Thirty years later, pretty much everybody I know evolved well: they either/and: a) know what it’s like to get a promotion; b) make six figures or near it, c) have a house paid off and/or d) are fantastic and proud parents.

Ehrenreich and Williams have shared that accomplishment story, and on their own terms. They have inspired many who, like myself, will never get higher than fifth place in life’s Olympics—who will remain invisible to history but fulfilled in the private spaces. That in itself is a GOAT-level accomplishment.