A Q&A with author Michelle L. Stephens: ‘Venturing into the unfamiliar’

[Update: Before Design Kompany became a roving atelier to gather people’s stories on the spot in real life, we were gathering perspectives in our online community, behind protected-pages at this blog. This post was originally an exclusive for a forum, ‘The Village,’ on work, life, and relationships.]

TODAY I INVITE you to read a short email conversation with Michelle Lynn Stephens, a poet I’ve been in touch with since the time we met at a fun open mic. We share roots in Durham, NC, and recently reconnected when I hosted a tweet chat about self-publishing. That opened a space for an entirely new conversation, in which I got to know more about where things have gone for Michelle since we met. Here’s our interview, which took place over email through the spring of 2017. This piece was originally published as an exclusive for our online community, S P A C E.

 

Venturing into the unfamiliar

DK: We talked in our email conversation about journeys. And leaving, and how that can inspire us. Can you talk about this a little bit?

Michelle L. Stephens

MS: How interesting that you should ask this question, as I met you at the beginning of my open mic journey! I am definitely the adventurous type. I love trying new platforms and traveling to different venues. I have met so many wonderful people who have been very supportive and eventually became my creative village.

DK: Can you tell us about what you’ve written, so far?

MS: My book is The Divorcée Chronicles. And I co-authored an anthology, Single Mama Dating Drama.

DK: OK. Besides writing and traveling, I think we also talked about family. And… dating? 

MS: The sequel to Diary of a Divorcée Diva is all about dating, but nowhere near finished. There is a tad bit of dating adventure in the first book and my short story in the anthology is about getting back out there after divorce. The anthology is focused on single mothers, so that may be where you are remembering the parent thing.

DK: But then, there is the massive adventure of parenting right? The ultimate adventure into the unknown? 

MS: Kids are fun and inspiring! The only downside is losing sleep sometimes when they are young and finding courage to let them go off own their own when they are older… While my toddler is my only biological child, I have had a plethora of little ones in my life and don’t feel particularly new to parenting. I have always taken care of children and it feels very natural to me.

My mom tells me that I wanted to do whatever she did with my baby sister, such as feeding her, combing her hair, rocking her and such. I took care of my baby cousin, I have several godchildren who call me ‘Ma’, I volunteered at daycare and after school care programs as a teen… I once had stepchildren who I adored and I take my niece and nephews around with me quite often.

DK: After we met in Durham, where have the journeys taken you?

MS: My circle in Durham encouraged me to share my talents with so many others. I may have been afraid to venture back out after my California dreams faded into the working world, if it were not for my arts experience in Durham. It is a place that embraces and supports the arts tremendously. The path from Durham led me to the next town over, then to major cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to share my words. I gained the confidence to submit my work to some heavy hitters in African American literature and became a part of a book project that turned into a #1 National Bestseller. My territory is ever increasing and I dream of seeing my work on the big screen someday, but I would also like to remember where I came from and remain a part of the circle that started me on my way.

DK: On your way… to where? Curious.

MS: I have back and forth from the DMV area often, as my significant other takes on mostly government contracts. I love the arts up there as a spectator, but unfortunately have not been able to participate much as an artist. I have no support system there, as far as babysitting goes. There’s always a book festival, library event, or museum to stop by in DC and the scenery is quite inspiring…

DK: Venturing out seems important to you.

MS: I am a firm believer that venturing out into the unfamiliar serves to strengthen your creativity. It opens your eyes to things you have never seen and expands your worldview. I have not traveled as far as you have, but testing the waters up and down the East Coast has been very fulfilling. Even before I began doing poetry and publishing, I was off to California and exploring the performing arts world. I experienced being among the best performers, in the audience of great theaters, in studios, filming for television on Hollywood sets, at casting and modeling agencies and briefly attempted to form a singing duet. My time there was amazing and continues to influence my writing and stage performances today. There is, however, a time for stillness when it is time to gather your thoughts on the page.

DK: Who are your favorite artists?

MS: My favorite artists are two alumni of North Carolina Central University, my late aunt, educator Barbara Tuck Ebron and the incomparable Ernie Barnes, a Durham native.

DK: Art venues?

MS: My favorite museum is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They have very diverse exhibits with everything from presidents to Native American experiences to African American musicians and writers on grand display.

DK: Can we share an excerpt of one of your books?

MS: Yes…

From The Divorcée Chronicles: Diary of a Divorcée Diva… 

I never felt so free as I did on that flight to LAX. The sky was the limit and I was literally on top the world, looking down on it from Cloud Nine. No one could tell me anything would ever go wrong ever again at that moment in time. After chatting it up with Darren a little bit about my hopes and dreams as always, he suggested that maybe I should look into moving to Cali, too. It would be the perfect place to start a totally new path in life and get away from all my troubles. I daydreamed myself about it right on to sleep.

“Good evening, passengers. This is your Captain speaking. I hope you have enjoyed your flight. We are approaching our destination and fully expect a safe and uneventful landing. Thank you for joining us. Have a good night.”

Waking up to stare out the window at the stuff that dreams are made of was surreal. The view of the Concrete Jungle, with all that water surrounding it, was amazing. I saw nothing but miles and miles of highway and bright lights! I had on my cute little sleeveless cotton dress that was hit just above the knee and got a rude awakening when I stepped onto the tarmac. The cold, sweeping air hit me right in the face.

“Whoa!! How can it be freezing in California in the middle of July?!”

“Kay, this ain’t Cackalacky. Ain’t none of that humidity out here. Don’t you know this is the desert?” Darren was always so thorough in his ex-planation of everything. Always had been, even back in the days when he was trying to tell me why we needed to break up and just be friends.

“You gone love the way it feels outside tomorrow when the sun is out, though. I’m telling you, Kay. The wea-ther is addictive.”

“Ok, I’m just gonna have to trust you on that one ‘cause it’s just freezing my legs off right about now!”

That night as I looked out the 12th-floor window of the hotel at all the lights that put the dark, tree-lined streets back home to shame, I was hooked and my mind was made up. If the rest of Cali was like the view from here, I was gonna call it home and soon.

The next day, Darren and I headed out to paint the town. He was right about the weather being gorgeous and we checked out the usual tourist traps like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater, then watched the many talented hopefuls acting out at Venice Beach. We toured the star homes and rode past all the famous places like Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, Capitol Records, and the Hollywood sign. We even checked out South Central and in the words of Ice Cube himself, I gotta say it was a good day.

“Tomorrow we’ll go look at the apartments I found online”, Darren said.

“If you decide to move here, you can just find something when you get to town because people move in and out around here all the time. It’s not like back home.”

DK: Thank you! Last question: What’s the best advice you ever got?

MS: Never give up!

All Things Are Governed by Atoms

‘THE ATOMIC POEMS and the philosophy of naturalism espoused by Margaret Cavendish were influenced by Epicurus.’ Says the internet. Epicurus and the internet sometimes give us intriguing tidbits, indeed. Things that philosophers in this modern era might be heartened to read, because we sometimes get railroaded into thinking that what counts is what can be counted (but we know it isn’t always the case, right? Anyone who has listened to a great poem read aloud to her, one on one, for example, and especially if it’s very personally pointed in her direction, can attest to that.)

Cavendish’s poem, ‘All Things are Governed by Atoms’ is below.

Like I said, I found it while reading about Epicurus’ ideas.

These, specifically: that we should be able to spend time with our friends; be free of the need or anxiety that comes with having to make a living the usual way in our day and age; and also, the feeling that we gotta spend some time analyzing life. Epicurus has inspired us quite a lot here at Atelier S P A C E and I’m looking forward to revealing more as we go, in the journeys ahead. Meantime, find the poem and more about Cavendish posted at the page here.

But for the moment, here is All Things are Governed by Atoms

All Things are Governed by Atoms

Thus life and death, and young and old,
Are as the several atoms hold.
Wit, understanding1 in the brain
Are as the several atoms reign,
And dispositions2 good or ill                                5
Are as the several atoms still.
And every passion which doth rise
Is as the several3 atoms lie.4
Thus sickness, health, and peace and war
Are5 as the several atoms are.                             10

  1. Wit, understanding] So Wit, and Understanding 1653
  2. dispositions] Disposition 1664; Disposition, 1668
  3. the several] each sort of 1664, 1668
  4. lie.] lies: 1664; lies. 1668
  5. Are] Are alwaies 1653

How I think I found 2 or 3 of us

THE THING IS, you just have no idea. When you go and say, ‘I’m here for a thing. A salon, sort of, but not really. It’s not a performance, well, wait, it IS, kind of. It’s an improvised play. together, the 16 of us, together is the important bit. Because who cares about ‘the arts’ or stuff on the walls these days in snooty galleries, who cares about what’s in our phones, who cares about the old books by dead people that line the halls of libraries in parts of the world where those books might have been interesting and important at one time, because, well, now, lookit. That way of schooling us just didn’t get us places. Did it? [Aside: I’m not a political theorist, or a sociologist, a psychiatrist, or an expert in cultural theory, science, et cetera. No. But I am an artist; and that means, I feel. I feel terrible about the way that the things that They Told Us Would Be Good For Us turned out to fragment and isolate us, turn on our fears and anxieties, and generally keep us from discovering our ‘edge,’ and most importantly, seeing what we are each capable of achieving as individuals with unique, one-uva-kind flair. I’m talking about us noticing ourselves, being who we really are, mirthful and fulfilled. Money and power and the chase, the hierarchies… that stuff… was someone else’s dream for something else. A time that died, that got dusty, but which we couldn’t let ourselves be pulled away from. The future happened, already. I met someone the other day at my second-favorite Indian restaurant in Hanoi. Who knows who he is. (Dude. If you are reading this, you need to really fill out the form about the conversation salon ‘N’, because those things where you actually show up are where the real learning happens, not these blogs that are written by people behind screens at all hours of the night on the other sides of your screens, because writing is a medium that is tired, so tired, sad as it is to admit this because it is my favorite medium (and yours, maybe?), but podcasting is where it’s at now.) And I don’t do that. So I am going to be quietly left behind the curve of Innovation and Evolution and Forwardness because I am too tired and probably too old to go out and buy some equipment to record myself and try to Get Famous. No, thanks. I’ll just write and blog and tie my shoes the old-fashioned way; one at a time. Here we go.]

INVITEES. Anyway, the lady who was with the person who I met was one of the two or three I think would be into ‘N’. And the new person. The one I met… yesterday? At the cool new cafe with the nice latte art? The too-cool, I think, cafe. A slightly-too-cool to be a place to host an ‘N’, but definitely isn’t a bad place for people watching. I love Hanoi for this one aspect, it might just be my favorite sport. Or maybe trying to make an ‘N’ is? That’s not a sport though is it. That’s just an impossible challenge. Well, mostly impossible. But not quite. And that sliver of almost-maybe is where ‘N’ lives. It is trying to be the thing that no one things can happen: 16 strangers saying ‘yes’ to showing up at an agreed-upon date, place, and time. For a salon. This one, this time, is on NARRATIVE. Are you ready, Hanoi? Are you there? Is anyone listening? See because that is the major part of it; you don’t know if your things that you talk about on the blogs actually have resonance in the real world. And the real world is where life happens. So I’ve been coming out of hiding a bit more and more, showing up at things, going out of my box. Saying hello to people who don’t say hello to me first. Saying nothing when they ignore me at the goodbye. Discovering it’s not personal, it never was, this online weirdness, this strange way of conversing the that nothing at all to do with the fact that some of us like to write and even at one point made a living from it, and others just like emojis. I hate emojis, but I think you know that, if you know me, personally, or if you see that I never use them, here or in the emails, or texts. Texts are rare. I hardly text. I text, though. I do. I sometimes text. Why am I telling you this?

BECAUSE ‘N’. ‘N’ is the kind of thing that brings up all sorts of things. You wonder, you think out loud, you wander. You go where you don’t think you should go (a bridge, yesterday) and you look out for people who seem like they might be the kind who would return your ‘hello’ instead of flee to their phones and glare into the glowing rectangles into the middle of the night. I am trying not to be cynical. I am typing into a glowing screen myself. Just, with a keyboard. That doesn’t make it any better, though, does it? I am still trying to find people who are interested in connecting. Just not through the usual ‘normal’ ways now. I do not do Tinder. I don’t care much for Meetup. I am not a fan of LinkedIn. I am, however, interested in chance, serendipity, looking around and walking about and running into it. The third person that I think would be a good fit for ‘N’? A lad. A youth. Let me tell you…

Is someone who I think would really get a lot out of it, on account of it being New and Different, and knowing what I know about being young and angry with the world, feeling like it’s all bad and everything, until, this one thing happens, this kind of bright light shines for a second on a spot that you didn’t see before. You see it for that one glimpse of a moment, and then, poof, it’s gone. Keeping it forever isn’t the point. NOTICING it, that is the place where we go from living to something more than just taking in sustenance… we go to places that connect us to things beyond just our day-to-day, our routines that might not involve little side conversations or the smile and hello that you would have seen if you had not grown up in a way that involves texting more than real phone calls. Real phone calls are so intense now, aren’t they? Well. ‘N’ is even more real life than that. And that is why I care so much about it. To the journeys, then. Pressing on. I made some real invitations, on email. And twitter. Good people are there, saying ‘tell me more,’ which makes me happy. Must not quit this. Must keep showing up. Must not let it bother me that the world is ‘too busy!’ and ‘thanks but next time’ and you know what? There is no next time. Onceness, noticing it, the shiny thing that’s there now!, that’s the entire point. The good news is there is still some time. My visa is good for another couple of weeks. WEEKS. I remember discovering four people in Bangkok on the four days ahead of ‘N’ there, and in London… SEVEN. So the odds are good. People here are a bit more open, too. I like this. I like it very, very much. To the journeys, then! To the next. —AS

 

A new circle

COMING UP ON THE SECOND WEEK. Of a new online conversation circle.

It’s called THE VILLAGE.

This was the welcome note, a few days ago…

THANK YOU to those of you who registered this week for THE VILLAGE. It’s, as you know, an invitation-only conversation salon. I wanted to round us out so we had a good mix of people with varied backgrounds and experiences: who we are, who we’ve become, as I’ve learned through our personal correspondences to date. The whole idea of writing to you, on the blogs and in the emails, has shifted for me. I want to write more personally, in our online virtual circles. We found you and you found us, and here we go. (This past Monday I sent you the first prompt, if for some reason you didn’t get it, let me know. I want to be in clear communication here, so much gets lost these days with technology, so I want to avoid that. I’m here, I’m listening. I’m going to respond. Much more to share, as we get going. There is so much great conversation, I’m sure of it, ahead of us.) See you in the forums, and here’s to the journeys.


IT’S SUPER EXCITING FOR US to convene in the online spaces some of the fascinating people DK has met through our travels and even work, in countries of Asia and Europe. I am always humbled by the level of thoughtfulness in the applications that come in and the value that these members bring. We are very selective in making invitations, because of the importance of hosting a safe and open-ended dialogue in online circles. Very small. Each one, but vivid.

Circles in our S P A C E programs (of which THE VILLAGE is one) are myriad and multiple, and diverse in all the senses of the word. If it weren’t for the learning that always happens when these kinds of conversations can progress (it usually takes about three months to really get started, because by then we know who’s sticking around, and then it gets very interesting), I would have stopped hosting them a long time ago. But it’s a great way to augment what begins, often, in real life spaces. I think almost everyone that is participating at the time of this writing had joined a DK event or met one of us in person, before saying, ‘I believe you will host this in a way that makes it worth my time, and money, to take part.’ I’m especially looking forward to sharing, in about four weeks, where we are in this protected post, Departures.

Probably the one that gets the most interesting comments, and I just reread them, just now, and there were some tears, or that feeling of tears about to come, and holding them back, that kind of feeling, because there are only a certain group of people who, together with us here at DK, enjoy and appreciate space to talk about such things as Home & Away, Departures, Ritual, Seasons, and The Village. I like small circles; it gets very intimate, and cozy, and where the whole point of engaging with others makes a great deal of intuitive ‘sense.’

Senescence kind of sense.

We make invitations to certain people we meet in person, but also, to those who discover us and connect through ‘A little S P A C E,’ which you can read about if you click the ‘contact’ tab, and find your way there, if there’s an interest. Not for everyone, but well worth it for those of us who are seeking, searching, and interested in going beyond the day-to-day, mundane, banal, and unintriguing. Most of the Internet is that, and sadly, most of real life seems to be headed that way, too. Let’s remember how to converse, connect, and learn together. Let’s keep making salons, real life ones and online ones, because who else is going to do this work, but us, together? That’s it from Ha Noi, today, for the moment. Onwards, forwards. Next! —AS

[Update: July 31 2017] Here are the posts from our interactive forum, ‘A new circle.’ Learn more when you add your name to S P A C E. Be sure to tick ‘Random Stuff.’

The Village

A CONVERSATION SALON in virtual spaces about family, fromness, and the journeys that interweave. A 12-week programme. Starts 1 June. Application required. Limited seats.

How did this get organized? ‘A lot of people have been in correspondence with me through the last few years about ** family ** and I thought it might be neat to bring us together in a forum-style space. The idea is to convene a small group I know personally, and whom I feel I can trust, as we design and build this next thing (a book? another co-created anthology like THE MIRROR? something else?) together as we go,’ says host A. Spaice.

Request more information.

SELF Ha Noi

MAKE A SPACE for reflection in this relaxed, prompt-led evening workshop.

SELF offers you a chance for you to discover, along with a small group of new and different others, a Concept of You. Built from 10 years of experience designing brand identities for curious and inquiring people in Seattle and, more recently, hosting conversation salons on a wide mix of topics to explore ways of talking together in Bangkok, Malmoe, and Phnom Penh. Walk away with a clear, three-word summary that describes with flair and accuracy Who You Really Are. ‘To thine own self, be true,’ et al. Limited seats, advance bookings only. More here.

Image: ‘Magazine pieces’ from the Distracte series by Design Kompany 2015

Discovering Origin

A CONTINUATION in virtual space of conversations near and far about things related to ‘fromness.’

Where are we from, what that means to us each individually, how multi-local identities shape who we are.

This is a build on something that we had run online last year, a series of 12 conversation starting prompts designed to open this kind of discussion. It was called ‘Home & Away’. Welcoming back those who participated, inviting those just connecting now to mix, together, in this one-week conversation, ‘Discovering Origin,’ in virtual S P A C E.

7-DAY PASS.
Be part of it when you join us with a 7-day pass, here’s how to get it.

Agile publishing


***

 

 

FOR A LONG TIME I used to be like most of the people I know who claim to want to write. I mean, I wanted to get picked up.

By some kind of an agent, or a publishing house.

Then, get toured around the world.

Splashy dinners, press conferences, lots and lots of people asking me about my stories… all admiringly but of course asking the same repeating questions.

But. But.

Fancy ashtrays for my splashy-splashy. ‘You smoke?’ ‘Of course I don’t!’

No.

Something.

Got in the way of that.

Not because of drive… I had a lot of drive, back then. I guess I’m a Gen X slacker in other ways, but I do like publishing and I will do it, and blogging is a kind of publishing, and even though I haven’t been writing here very much for the last three years it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing and sharing.

Just not in public, like this.

I preferred small, private circles.

I still do.

Some of the time I wrote for newspapers, first freelance and then as a staffer. Then I got into magazine stuff. Then I decided it wasn’t for me, that piecewise thing you have to do (read: pitching) and not experimenting with the medium, which is way, way more fun. Thanks to a couple of internet friends scattered in timezones near and far, I’m able to connect more deeply through writing (but only with some people, of course. You can’t share intimately with everyone.) Maybe this is why I don’t care so much about getting famous, now. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is hanging out. The quality of the conversations. The people I meet, what we discover together, what we learn from each other. How we grow.

Not famous

SO YES. IT IS TRUE.

I had this thought about fame, though. A lot, probably, through most of my early twenties. Back then, mostly in those big cities with yellow stuff pasted onto walls around subways, I picked up flyers about going to get my correspondence writing course started, and then, I left them behind. I don’t know why.

Someone I just met said, it’s human to want to be famous. I’m not convinced that this is so true, though. I think it’s narcissistic, sure. And yeah, the Western cultures have a thing about that. But living in Asia for three years (and counting) will do something to you. Will make you think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Who cares?’

Heidegger: ‘What is Metaphysics?’

 

Next steps: writing and publishing

THINGS NOW ARE INCREDIBLY NEW, and the old-school model is still nagging at the artists. Why is this?

Ego? Who cares if it’s ‘popular?’

JS wrote: ‘Do what moves you.’ Something about pining for fame… (JS is famous, by the way)… as much as this is so normal if you grow up in a place where fame is worshipped,… But well, something about the pursuit of #1, and that alone, seemed dodgy, to me. Who decides on the criteria, for one? What do you consider to be interesting, intriguing, alluring, mysterious? Because most likely, it’s not the stuff that’s going to top the pop charts. Well, at least, if you’re like me. I’m into other things. Philosophical stuff, going to the edges (literally, sometimes), looking out and over, maybe even taking a jump (literally, again. Like in India’s Himachal Pradesh, at Manali.) Not saying you have to do it this way or that way. Paying attention to the way, though. That’s important. Because along the way you’ll find the things that add to your story, the Book of You. Voicefinding is underrated, you know. Taking time is, too. Discovering, messing up, finding your way, the way again, there it is. Why are the Westerners so outcome-focused? I noticed in recent weeks that I had this one outcome in mind about a thing, and it didn’t go exactly as I had pictured, and on the one hand I was so disappointed I teared up a bit, but on the other, we had something else in its place. We had a different kind of thing. Another way. And it was fine; in its own way, it was beautiful all exactly as it stood, unjudged and unexpected. Is that the thing, then? Letting things happen?

Finding one’s voice, I felt, seemed like the most important journey, to me, when I was watching everyone follow the pack. The herd mentality is pretty crazy. Human, of course. But we gotta watch that. What are we doing, and why? It’s necessary to pay attention to this. Intention. Even in my younger days, I knew that to experience life would be more important, than to try to make sense of what had happened, so far. There wasn’t enough of it behind me. I wanted to go. See. Learn, make, and do. Of course people said that was stupid. These were the people who later went into investment banking and got houses that are now ‘underwater.’ They also told me that I was a ‘free spirit’ and wasn’t that just lucky-for-me, but twenty years later they are still looking for a weekend off to ‘go and write my novel.’ Yeah. A weekend. F.

Traveling opened it up, though, got me away from those people and their poisonous don’t-can’t thinking. (Total opposite of N+1. More about that in a bit.) First job I got enough to save some to start this habit. That’s how I got traveling. To East Asia. Southeast Asia, South Asia. Europe, too, of course. Moved there, even. Started things out. Made it all up as we went along. Slowly, surely. One step at a time.  It became a kind of method, a sort of dance. Go, see. Suss. Learn, then make the next decision. You know, the more I think about it, the more this isn’t just about a way of life that has nothing to do with wanting the praises and accolades that, I think, many many people that I would have known when I was, say, yeah, twenty-three, would have said they wanted. The thing is, I met a lot of those people, along the way. People who had made it. Were on the book tours. Were traveling the world, on other people’s dimes. But they didn’t have the one thing that I had, in so many giant waves and troves and uncertain amounts, seemingly indefinitely. They didn’t have time.

‘Hello, internet. I’m doing fine without you.’

Tonight is ‘N’ London: NOTEWORTHINESS

MANY THANKS TO THE DOZENS of people in our online and real-life community, S. P. A. C. E., for helping DK connect with the 16 ‘new and different others’ we are meeting for the first time in one moment tonight.

TONIGHT IS ‘N’. Here, in London. A year in the making, this one. We are getting together to talk about NOTEWORTHINESS, what’s remarkable? Why?

Esoteric perhaps in nature, the actual experience of an ‘N’ is, I hope, I think, I believe, much more playful, open, engaging and by design fun. What would be the point of it if it wasn’t fun?

Fields will be represented from many directions: mathematics, curation, anthropology, culture studies, photography, writing, design, business and technology and more. The magic moment is almost here. Tonight, tonight, tonight. —AS