Creatives are often asked what inspired them to create a certain piece. I find myself inspired in so many ways, but mostly by what happens in my day-to-day living.
Today’s post was inspired by the same thing that inspired me to write my first full length novel “Hello Diva“, and that is, my hair loss. If you aren’t aware, let me tell you, hair is a major source of self-esteem in the Black community. How your hair looks can make or break how you’re perceived and treated. With the advancement of hair extensions, weave and wig techniques, and more open dialog about redefining beauty standards, today’s Black woman can rock any length, texture, or style she so chooses (as is evidenced by this beautiful collage at Black Girls Allowed). As long as you HAVE hair, all is basically right with the world. As a kid, my hair was the first thing I’d be teased about. It was never an “acceptable” length or texture as far as the kids around me were concerned and I was teased about it a lot. But at least I had some. For the next many years, my hair wouldn’t change, wouldn’t grow any longer, and remained a source of low self-esteem.
Fast forward then to 2001. Despite my father’s death in February and my divorce that December, most of 2001 was spent living a life I was finding to be reasonably good. I’d dealt with some demons, overcome some hardships, even found a new love, all while managing to feel pretty good about myself, even about my hair. I’d get professional help at the beauty shop as often as possible but otherwise, I left it alone and it, in turn, covered my head. Till one day I noticed a small patch of hair missing from the crown of my head. I didn’t think too much of it, chalked it up to the stress of my crazy life and kept things moving.
Then comes 2003. My new relationship ended in a broken engagement, my grandmother passed, and a lay-off left me job-less with all manners of financial drama. With a little help from family and friends though, I was able to persevere and patch over some of the dings to my self-esteem. At least I thought I had. It was right about then I noticed the patch of scalp showing at the top of my head had gotten bigger. Again, thinking it was all related to stress, I assured myself it would start growing back in as soon as things settled down. Yeah, not quite. In 2005, another lay-off swept me once again into joblessness. Recovery this time included a move across country and a job making significantly less than I’d been making before. Once again, though, I toughed it out, putting my self-esteem back together as best I could whilst noticing the significant lack of hair strands now obviously showing on the top of my head.
Despite anything else that was positive in my life, the loss of hair overshadowed it all. Not only were the strands gone, but any sense of beauty or worth I’d tenuously been able to gather, was gone as well.
Que the Dramatic Music
NaNoWriMo 2008 – eight days into November and I hadn’t put not nary a word to page. I was late signing up and off to a spectacularly slow start when a voice inside my head (one of many, lol) said quite clearly, “What the fuck did you do to your hair?” Shortly after that, another voice murmured “I really hate that man”. In a matter of a few minutes, an entire scene blossomed into view in my mind’s eye. A woman, who reminded me of myself, sitting in a chair by her dying father’s bedside. As it often happens with me, my lead character – whose name turned out to be Charise Sayles – noticed me noticing her and began to chat with me. She told me her story over the course of the next 22 days and thus, the draft, and 2008 NaNoWriMo badge winner, Hello Diva was born.
- Draft length – 51,199
- Original title – Oh What a Tangled Hair We Weave
- Final length – 73,101 (includes chapter titles)
- Published – 2012 with the final title, “Hello Diva”.
- The new title came from a line Charise says after a transformative visit to the hair salon.
- Favorite scene:
I strolled into Yvette’s shop, back straight and head held high. It was the first time in months I had shown up at the shop in broad daylight, during business hours with a scarf on my head.
I imagined the stylists making note but I wasn’t concerned. Screw them and their whispered insults and insinuations. Let them spread the rumors. I didn’t give a damn any more. Seeing Brandon in that news clip had stripped me of any concern for what people thought of me.
Settled into Yvette’s chair, I pulled the scarf off. Sprigs and batches of hair stood on varying locations around my head.
“Okay, so what’s the plan for tomorrow’s big reveal?”
She turned me slowly in the chair, getting the vision of what she was going to create today.
I interrupted her creative musings, “I want you to shave it all off.”
The chair came to a rather abrupt stop. She shook her head as if to clear it, then looked at me in the reflection of the mirror. The look on her face? Priceless.
“I’m sorry, did you just say, ‘shave’?”
“As in, no more hair.”
“You got it.”
“Yes, Yvette. Shave it.”
“All of it?”
“Uh…yeah, Vette. All of it. As in gone. Cue ball, with exposed scalp all over my head. I’m making my debut as the reclusive, never before seen Desire Reid, better known as Chari Sayles, erotic horror author extraordinaire. At a comic convention no less. I want to do the grand entrance thing. I’ve got it all planned out…”
I could tell she hadn’t gotten past the word ‘shave’. Her eyes held the glassy stare of one who is in deep shock after having witnessed a terrible event.
“Earth to Yvette. Did you hear me? It’s going to be great!”
“But seriously, you want me to take all the hair off your head?”
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said have you?”
“No, not really. Everything after ‘shave it all off’’ is a bit of a jumble.”
“You’re always telling me it’s about what’s inside and how I feel about myself. You’re the one with the pep talks; how my hair does not define who I am as a person; how my looks don’t make me any more or less worthy. Well, I finally believe you’re right. No more fake name, fake hair, or fake attitude. Sure, folks are going to laugh and make fun, but those are the kinds of people I didn’t want to be bothered with in the first place.”
“You know, I can appreciate all of that and I’m happy to hear you finally admitting it. But sweetie, we’re talking BALD. If we shave it, there won’t be anything for me to attach a weave to should you find yourself wanting to change-up. I just want you to be sure this is what you want. I mean, BALD. That’s pretty drastic. Now, I could give you a really close cut?”
“What? And make the landing strip just that much more obvious? Naw, this is it. Let’s just shave it.” I grinned at her in the mirror.
“Wow. Shave it.”
“Cut it all off.”
I really didn’t want to make a day of us going back and forth like a bad comedy routine.
“Yes, honey.” I spoke slowly, exaggerating each word, “I. Want you. To shave. All of the hair. Off of my head.”
Guess the reversion to kindergarten teacher-speak sunk in. She turned toward her cabinet of tools, taking her sweet time getting out the clippers, assembling what I was sure were unnecessary attachments. Once she had everything situated just so, she took even more time washing and drying my hair. She said it was so the clippers would run smoothly. Apparently they can get hung up in dirty hair causing them to not work as well. Personally, I think she was stalling, thereby allowing more time to get used to the idea; more time for her to say good-bye to the hair she had spent over twenty years taking care of.
Finally, she held the clippers in her hand. I could feel the humming vibration of them just inches from my hair-line. Her hand shook the slightest little bit.
“I feel like I’m about to cut down a tree I’ve spent all my life growing.”
“Oh for goodness sakes.”
I grabbed the clippers and without a moment’s hesitation, took them straight back, shaving a swatch down the middle of my head. The result was a reverse Mohawk, a smooth strip of scalp now showing from front to back.
We both stared at our reflections in the mirror. The looks on our faces? Priceless yet again. Yvette’s mouth hung open, her eyes widened. I was just as comical with eyes open in surprise at the resulting look. The stunned silence lasted a full two minutes before we fell into hysterical giggles.
“OH MY GOD.” she howled.
“Stop, stop, I’m going to pass out.” I was already light-headed from laughing so hard. We couldn’t look at each other in the mirror without a fresh round of laughter taking us over. I’m sure the other stylists and customers in the main room out front thought we had gone insane. If I hadn’t been the one laughing, I would have thought the same thing.
It took some doing, but we got ourselves under control; the exuberant laughter dying down to titters, hic-cups, and gasps for breath.
“Oh my God, girl you are nuts. But okay, if you’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”
As is always the case with my work, writing this story allowed me to process my way through my loss of hair and self-esteem. I like to believe my writing is a conduit through which my Divinity delivers valuable life lessons. In this instance, She taught me that the love and validation I was most wanting had to come from within me. That I had to love myself first.
I hadn’t been to my dad’s grave since the day I’d had him planted. I woke from a semi-doze, sitting at the foot of the site, my hands clutching bits of grass that I had apparently ripped from the ground. My fingers throbbed with tension and I had to force them open. I felt a bit guilty for the small tufts I had torn up. My father’s grave no longer looked neat or cared for. I felt the same way, unkempt and no longer cared for. My thoughts spiraled down; my career was on the brink, any chance at a love life I might have, had just blown up, and I was going bald. The idea of just laying down on that grave and calling it a day began to look like a good idea
It was day fifteen of my hibernation. Sleep and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since the nightmares had returned. I spent most days in a fog, buried in my sheets. At some point I had taken off the last weave, covering my head with the same scarf I’d worn all those years ago after my mom had left. Its frayed and worn edges and washed out color, mirrored how I felt about myself.
I sat at the grave with my head lowered, listening to my breath melt into the breeze, and I waited. I waited for my father’s ghost to rise up and mock me, make fun of me, tell me, “I told you so.”
I was despondent. I didn’t bother to raise my head, “Yes.”
“Uh, I hate to bother you but the cemetery is closing soon. You gonna have to leave.”
“I hate to intrude but in all my years as the watchman here, I seen a lot of grief. And you look like you’re having a time with it.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Hope you don’t mind me intruding, but you know, he’s dead. Whatever trouble his living caused you, it died with him. Ain’t no need in worryin over it now.”
“Yeah,” I sighed my disbelief.
“I know. Easier said than done. You feel like you can’t live without him huh?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, whatever you’re feeling, he ain’t feeling nothing no mo and you can let that go. Hell, I tell all the grievin folk I come across out here, the dead are dead. Ain’t no more you can do with ‘em. But you’re living and you need to get about the business of doing that the best way you know how. You sittin’ here crying ain’t doing nobody any good, just wasting your valuable time and energy. Get up, go put that energy to use and make some good in the world.”
“I don’t know that I have any good in me.”
“Bullshit. Everybody has the power to do good. Just got to get over yourself to do it. I mean, look at me.”
I did as I was instructed. I looked up, finally seeing the man behind the wise words. He was stick thin, with leathered brown skin from his time spent patrolling the graves year after year. Sun glinted off of a pair of thick glasses while the breeze ruffled the four or five sprigs of hair still clinging to his scalp. He was missing three of his front teeth, two at the bottom and one on the top.
“I’m ugly as sin, but that don’t stop me from volunteering at the homeless shelter twice a year; didn’t stop my high school sweetheart from marrying me and staying by my side till she passed, God rest her soul, and it didn’t stop me from raisin my two kids to go on to college. I didn’t get nothing but a tenth grade education myself, but I’ve been able to work and feed my family all these years. Everybody has good in ‘em and can do good. It’s the dead that can’t give nothin back. Now, I’ve bothered you enough and it’s time to lock up. Tell you what, you sit on what I told you for a few minutes. I’ll come back when I finish my rounds and we’ll leave then.”
He shuffled away from me, balding head held high, even though his shoulders were now a little stooped with age. I watched him walk into the evening sunlight thinking about what he’d said.
True to his word, about ten minutes later he was back to escort me to the front gate. My car was parked askew in the mortuary parking lot. He made sure I was buckled up before offering up a sincere, all be it tooth-light, grin. I smiled back as I pulled out of the parking lot.
Shortly after that, I was seated at a table in the back of an Ihop. I was hungry, really hungry, for the first time in days. It was also the first time I’d been out of the condo since the television show had aired. Strangely enough, I wasn’t in that big of a hurry to get back in my bed.
I sat there, sipping a cup of hot chocolate, full and finally thinking with some clarity. I made note that no one had pointed or laughed when I’d come in. I got one or two quick looks which was to be expected. I wasn’t exactly dressed to the nines here. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t even reaching the fours with my wrinkled jeans, old tee-shirt, scuffed up sneakers and ratty scarf on my head. I had been in fear of being recognized then made fun of. Could it be my fifteen minutes of fame were really up?
Next to float through my mind as it righted itself were the words the gentleman at the cemetery had said, “Everybody has good in them, and can do good.” What good did I have? My right hand started to tingle. At first, I thought, “That’s it. A brain aneurism.” I was sure some cataclysmic health issue brought about from all the craziness was about to send me to an early grave. Gotta love the mind when it’s under stress.
Having gotten used to the many voices in my head, I wasn’t surprised when I heard, “No, you drama queen, it’s just me.”
I put the mug of hot chocolate down. While it didn’t surprise me to have a voice, it was surprising that for the first time I could remember, the voice inside my head was mine. And what I had to say was so not what I expected.
“Now that I have your attention, may I just say, everything’s going to be alright. You can stop worrying because I accept you, I love you, and I’m not going to leave you no matter how little hair you have on your cute, all be it hard, little head.”
It’s a message I’ve carried with me ever since. So now? No matter how much hair I lose, or how creatively my stylist chooses to cover it up, I am at peace with who I am and I love me no matter what. And hopefully, after enjoying Hello Diva, readers are able to find that same sense of peace for themselves so they can get out to do some good in the world.
6 thoughts on ““Mommy, where do stories come from?” – How my first novel, Hello Diva was conceived.”
Reblogged this on Black Girls Allowed and commented:
Author, Dana Ellington Myles, talks hair loss and self-esteem in her novel, Hello Diva.
Wish I had this much confidence…. You are an inspiration Dana, always and forever! xxxx
Thank you John! It’s weird, I’m not so sure it’s confidence or that I’d rather admit my shortcomings first than have some stranger point them out and make fun. I’m also taking cues from a few bloggers I’ve begun reading who talk about self-acceptance; it’s about embracing all of who you are and learning to love it. It’s a struggle, but if me being public about it helps some one else, then I’m happy to do it.