Writing on Writing - journaling a journey with Bianca Nkwonta
When Bianca told me she was moving to NYC for grad school I was both super excited for her and sad for Minnesota Playlist. Bianca's background in satire was an added boon to our journalism on the site. I told her I hired her based on her subtle Kevin Garnett Uncut Gems reference in one of her pieces - we had a good laugh over that dark f*cked up movie.
Bianca has been working on a piece about artist migration (to the Twin Cities and from it) that we'll see hopefully later this year. As she was planning to head out last fall I asked if she'd be willing to try something different for Playlist - journaling her experience. She agreed and what follows are some of her thoughts over the last 8 months.
Her writing is honest, thoughtful, introspective, touching, and real. I'm grateful Bianca took this risk to share with you all, to open up her thoughts on struggle and the creative process. Read on friends, and then watch for future entries in the coming months.
September - Crawling back to homeostasis
I feel like my body is just now getting used to being in a new place.
New York City threw me entirely out of homeostasis. My skin, my mind, my appetite… they’ve all been affected. From not having clear water, to learning where I can get fruits and vegetables for a reasonable price (hard to find -- you don’t win ‘em all), to New York City being hot as actual hell even when the sun goes down, I can say that NYC completely threw me for a loop. I’ve spent the past four weeks slowly crawling back into myself and into my health. I’m certain that not everyone has this experience. Some of my peers in my writing cohort already seem to be living their best lives. Perhaps they were more prepared for a move across the country to one of the world’s busiest cities. I thought I was prepared too - it’s all relative, I think.
But even in my exhaustion, I feel inspired to create. I think in Minnesota I was exhausted and uninspired. I’d at least like to have one of the two! Hopefully the exhaustion turns into energy as I continue to navigate (and ideally, get familiar with) the beast that is New York City. I’m a month into my Master of Fine Arts program for screenwriting and playwriting. I came to New York to learn how to write for the screen, but I didn’t realize how much I would love writing for the stage. So maybe I will find my way back to Minnesota one day..?
I was so dead set on leaving Minnesota and never coming back. But now, I find myself craving it, even looking at flights for random weekends where I could just come to Minnesota and exist for two or three days. Oh, the naïveté. You truly don’t know what you have until it's gone. I miss my car and singing my heart out. I miss going for long walks in a suburban regional park and seeing just one other person. But I don’t miss feeling so distant from a world I’ve been dreaming of being a part of for years now. I’m in it now. I’m grateful for that.
So I’m going to spend the next two years as grateful as can be, as I document my journey in New York City. If you’ve ever thought about moving to New York, I hope I can give you some insights as to what you might expect or what you may be surprised by.
Pleasant surprise: The subway is so convenient! Like, I can get in for $2.75 and end up on the other side of the city! Yes, there’s always room for improvement - but so far, so good.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: Like I mentioned earlier, New York is still unforgivably hot through September. Shoutout to global warming. I used a lot of sunscreen and got comfortable wearing a tank top and shorts everywhere, even to work. Don’t worry - no one will bat an eye.
What I miss: I missed out on the State Fair (sad face). But if you think about it, NYC is basically the Minnesota State Fair. It’s hot, food everywhere, people shoulder to shoulder… Maybe I didn’t miss that much.
What I’m looking forward to: I’m looking forward to getting my brain back and using it to write a few short plays, which I have never done before!
October - Things are chilling out (literally and figuratively)
I heard professional actors read my writing for the first time. I wrote two ten-minute-plays. I see a new play or movie at least once a week. I’m working on an audio project, and I get to recreate scenes from classic films. I can’t believe it most days, that I really spend the bulk of my time writing and being creative.
Something I’m grappling with is that I didn’t need to go to school or move to New York City to ‘be creative’. I could have taken a risk on myself, taken a break from work, and just spent my days focused on writing in my comparatively low-cost-of-living area, facing the woods and a gently lapping lake. I deeply respect the people that have enough discipline to do this. I know that I am not one of those people. I didn’t realize how much I needed to have other people around me to feel driven to create. In Minnesota, I wasn’t close to any writers, so I didn’t feel a push to write. But now that I spend every single day with other writers (and I am paying legitimate salary amounts to be here), I have no choice. Hooray for peer pressure!
I am learning that I thrive best in highly structured environments, one of these places being academic settings. I can dig for inspiration easier while in school, and I don’t know how else to explain it, but I would rather work for a grade than for money… Like I’m more driven to complete something well if someone says ‘good job, here’s your A+’ when I’m done rather than hand me $100. I mean… I would like both. Both would be nice. It’s hard to make sense of that (it’s gotta be something from my childhood), so we can move on.
I’m starting to figure out a routine, and my state of being is steadily improving. I go to the gym, I see friends when I can, I get my steps… everything that Psychology Today says I should do. There are still days when I feel bone tired, but I think that’s the rat race of life. I felt hella tired back home too. The main difference between that tired and this tired, is that this tired is startled awake by singing strangers, sirens, barking dogs, and other noises I am unfamiliar with and yet to identify. Is this something I could get used to?
Pleasant surprise: Screenwriting can be so collaborative. I was worried that I’d be out in the world, on my own. But I have classmates who have great ideas and they help me take my work to the next level. I’m grateful that we are all here at the same time.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: I raved about the subway last time, but giiiiirl the 6! That subway line is out to get me. Tell me what direction it’s going! Please! Now I’ve wasted almost $10 (didn’t learn the first, second, or third time) and have had to do some 30-minute walks of shame.
What I miss: I miss feeling like the amount of money I spend on any given thing is worth it.
What I’m looking forward to: I went to Central Park when it was very hot and it was nice to see my long-lost friend grass but I didn’t really get to enjoy it because of the heat. Since it is cooling down, I am excited to go sit and enjoy a nice breezy afternoon in the park.
November - Even when it gets easier, it’s still hard
New York City is not the monster I once thought it was. Don’t get me wrong - it’s still a monster. But it’s a lot less threatening than it once was. It’s gotten more manageable for a few reasons. I know what uptown and downtown means now, and I can even get to a destination on the subway without using Google Maps. It’s not boiling outside. I have a small community of writers who are going through the same struggle, and we commiserate often.
I can’t imagine New York City without community. I have so much respect for people who move here untethered to work or an academic program. They may have connections from outside of these two ecosystems, but to move to a new place and build a network from the ground up seems like a challenging task (but one I’d imagine is rewarding, given you can be picky about who you surround yourself with).
I’ve seen quite a few shows so far while in New York, but one of my favorites that I saw this month was Ain’t No Mo, a Broadway play by Jordan E. Cooper. It was witty, emotional, relevant, and it included specific bits and pieces of pop culture that made it evidently clear that this show was made by Black people, for Black people. I was especially impressed by the show upon learning that Cooper was the youngest American to make his Broadway debut as a playwright. Seeing this show gave me hope that the work that I create, even as I am in my twenties, is worth reading and maybe even staging. Also, there was an excellent scene with a purse involved. I got my purse stolen this month (-1 point for NYC), so I felt seen and understood by the character and their struggle in that scene.
I’m grateful for the inspiration and encouragement I get from young Black creative people in NYC, and I’m looking forward to supporting and connecting with more Black writers.
Pleasant surprise: There’s an abundance of leaves on the ground. For a place that sometimes seems so devoid of natural life, it’s comforting to hear the familiar crunch of red and brown leaves on the sidewalk.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but an unwelcome reminder… the film industry mirrors the relentlessness and rigidity of corporate America, which is exactly what I wanted to escape by pursuing something more creative full-time. This month, I questioned whether or not doing this full-time was a wise decision. I could go back to stability and comfort in something that I didn’t really care for, or I could start my career over in film/tv/theater and by the time I get to the point where I have some credibility in the ~industry~, I’m already jaded. Of course, this is such a black-and-white way of viewing my potential trajectory. I’m hoping the eventual outcome is different from either of these positions.
What I miss: Talking to strangers.
What I’m looking forward to: I’m looking forward to being in Minnesota for winter break. I hope to prioritize seeing shows and walking outside in a hopefully picturesque wintery wonderland.
December - Progress is more important than perfection
It’s finals season, folks! And what does that mean? It means I am being crushed under the weight of the 100+ pages that are due near the end of the month! I’m writing this from chilly Minnesota now. Thankfully, I am able to complete the bulk of my schoolwork away from the city, so I’ve been taking in all that Minnesota has to offer - comfortably driving a car, going outside and hearing only the sound of nature, and our local sports teams, for better or worse.
At the start of my New York City journey, I was so worried about being a good writer. I aimed to write important stories and I wanted every bit of it, from the stage directions to the dialogue, to be meaningful and different and rule-breaking and yadda yadda. However, over the course of the semester, I’ve learned that those are great things to aspire to if you want to burn out, grow to despise your own work, or not have anything come to life.
This isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, I felt that I did my best work in school or at my job when I did it last minute (oops). Something about the pressure of a looming deadline made me think better, faster. But even though I felt like I could produce something worth reading under a short amount of time, it was not a sustainable way to live. I burned out on a regular basis and had to make a concerted effort to recover every time I needed to write again.
Now I am trying a different, more sustainable approach. Slow and steady, disciplined effort, and just getting words out on the page. The part I hate about this new approach is that it requires rewrites and several drafts. I think rewriting is one of the most painful, laborious tasks out there (kidding, there are harder things). I want to avoid rewriting as much as I can, but the truth of the matter is, rewriting is a very necessary evil. With my new approach, I hope to make writing a sustainable practice, and not a stressful last-minute one.
Pleasant surprise: In one of our classes, we heard from an executive producer in television who got his start in theater. Last month, I wrote about the callous, corporate-ness of the industry. This executive didn’t speak about that at all, but he spoke about what makes a career in writing and producing fulfilling. He said more than anything, it is critical to write stories that are undeniable. Meaning, despite industry trends that lean towards adaptations, remakes, or blockbuster superhero movies, there is still and will always be room for stories that are close to the heart. Hearing from him calmed my nerves and assured me that there is space for my stories so long as I continue to pour love into them and write them.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: Ubers here are absurdly expensive. Do not take them.
What I miss: Not even gonna lie… nothing right now.
What I’m looking forward to: I’m looking forward to completing a few pieces of writing during my break. I was challenged to complete a screenplay, which I do not want to do, but I won’t back down from the challenge! Hopefully, I’ll get to tell you all about how sloppy that writing process is… and ideally next time you read something from me, the screenplay will be complete.
January - Progressing without making progress
So… all that writing I thought I was going to do over winter break? I didn’t do it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even open my computer. My initial goal was to complete the drafts of the three pieces of work that I started. One draft was completed but requires serious edits, and the other two didn’t get a second of attention. But I am thrilled about that. And I’m not upset at myself about it, at all.
At the end of the semester, I was burnt out. The thing about slow and steady and sustainable is that it is also draining, just like mad dashes to get work in on time before the deadline. Makes me think that there is no comfortable way to go about writing.
For my winter break, I went to Texas, Minnesota and Arizona. I saw no shows, I saw no movies, I watched no TV that was not of the reality variety. In Texas, I visited the biggest Walmart I had ever seen in my life, went to the zoo, and ate hearty hotel breakfasts. In Minnesota, I slept and walked around the Mall of America a few times. And in Arizona, I walked around in the heat, went swimming, and looked at cacti. Winter break was mostly uneventful, but uneventful is exactly what I needed.
When I returned to NYC, I got upset that my Uber home cost the same amount of money that I would earn in one shift. And then, I had my first birthday in New York City. Birthdays are already weird, so to experience one in a new place was a little challenging. It was exciting to bring together new friends and old friends (most who had also moved from Minnesota to New York) to celebrate, but a little sad that the celebration took place in a place that doesn’t yet feel like home. Nonetheless, it was a good day and it was on the first day of classes too! I’m most excited about my television pilot writing class - I wrote a pilot to get into school, so I feel like it’ll be good to return to my roots (I do not know anything about writing a pilot…).
Pleasant surprise: Global warming has rendered New York City’s winters obsolete! While I do love a good snowfall… I’ve yet to see any real signs of winter here.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: Okay, yes, I know things are expensive here. However, I just paid the most I have ever paid in my life to get my nails done. My nails were extremely simple and I think I was just scammed.
What I miss: People often joke that Minnesotans are passive-aggressive, which is fair. However, when it comes to strangers, Minnesotan strangers beat New York strangers by a long shot. I don’t care if Minnesotans don’t mean it, I miss nice people. The character growth people experience here, to me, is not worth the experience of people being mean or the experience of being dismissed as a person. And more often than I would like, I find myself stooping to that level. I don’t know if this is a cultural difference that I can get over.
What I’m looking forward to: I’m looking forward to starting a new set of classes and digging deeper into new stories, while building upon what I learned in my first semester.
February - Happy Black History Month!
Shoutout to me for finally switching the year on my papers and journal articles to 2023. It happens to me every year - I get stuck in the previous year for a few months. Happy Black History Month to all who read! The amount of work that I have done in the month of February is unlike anything I’ve ever known in my entire life, which is certainly not fitting with the month’s celebrations, but this degree isn’t going to get itself (did that make any sense? It’s late.).
There were a lot of plays and musicals I was excited to watch this month but didn’t get to, because I had to plan something, or write something, or edit something. My hope is that frontloading all of this work will allow me to truly rest during spring break next month. And I also hope the opportunities to see such shows presents themselves in the future.
Something that I have known for most of my life, but I re-learn every year, is that saying no to people and things is such a powerful tool and it really works. I don’t know who I am afraid of disappointing at this point but whoever it is must be truly terrifying because I can’t help but do whatever I am asked to do.
As I reflect on moving to New York City, I always said it was totally the right choice. I still feel this way now, even as I struggle with a weird allergy thing, and my feet are tired everyday, and I am averaging 4-5 hours of sleep per night (working on that). It’s really, really difficult - and I am learning a lot about myself as a person and as a writer here. While writing consumes my thoughts every day, I am starting to learn how to separate myself from my own work. As a lifelong people pleaser and overachiever, I used to always identify my worth with the quality of my work. Now I understand that I am who I am and my work is what it is - words on a page. That might be an oversimplification, because I know that some words on some pages mean the world to the people who write them and read them. However, for the sake of my health and sanity, I can’t involve the two too much - at least not yet (because it doesn’t pay my bills yet lol).
Pleasant surprise: I planned and hosted a short film festival on campus for Black History Month. I was nervous to see how it would go and to see what the turnout would be. To my surprise, it was decently well attended, and the attendees asked tons of questions! And the food, from Charles Pan-Fried Chicken, was excellent.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: Here’s an uncomfortable truth! As a Black woman, Manhattan has been unwelcoming and harsh - and I can tell that I am treated differently because of my identity and my physical appearance. Oof. So much for diversity. (hey Black girls - go to Brooklyn!)
What I miss: 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Grad school will do that to you. I also miss soft running water.
What I’m looking forward to: I started writing a play that I fumbled through when I pitched it to my professor. But it’s actually kind of making sense as I write it… I am looking forward to getting more pages out and making sense of this story.
March - The sun’ll come out……………….. at some point
Again, it was absolutely my intention to get ahead on my writing during spring break, so I could coast when I came back. Did I write? Not even a little bit. Perhaps I should set my intention to rest, so that way I get bored and decide to write. But if I set my intention to rest, I think I would just rest. Rest is okay (and necessary) folks!
I am taking an acting class to learn what it is like for actors who will read my scripts, and thank heavens I am not an actor. There is so much attentiveness and reading between the lines that must be done, and they do these silly little exercises where you repeat the same word back to your partner over and over and over again. I applaud anyone who acts - your work is very weird and difficult.
When it comes to writing for school, I’ve adopted a brand new mindset based on last month’s discoveries. I am in school. I am paying (exorbitant amounts) to write. I am not (yet) being paid to write. And to add to that, the pressure to write well is low because all of my classes are pass/fail. I just need to complete the scripts to pass. Therefore, none of my writing needs to be good. Ironically, I think this mindset has improved my writing. If my focus is on getting the bare bones on the page, I spend less time overthinking and overwriting flowery and cool and impressive language, and I have a crisper, more focused skeleton to come back to and fill in when the time is right. And now, I am sleeping! That’s the biggest success of the month.
Pleasant surprise: By complete chance, I went to see this musical called Shucked! on Broadway with a friend I grew up with in Minnesota, who is also in the city being cool and creative. I didn’t realize that one of the stars of the show was also a Minnesota native, who is also in the city being cool and creative -- Caroline Innerbichler! I had no clue what the show was about before I went, and I came out of it a huge fan. If you ever find yourself in New York City in the near future, I highly recommend that you see this show. It kinda feels like a love letter to the rural Midwest, too. This is not an ad, although I could use the money.
Not-so-pleasant surprise: I found out the cause of my persistent allergy symptoms - I have hella dust in my apartment. My weekly cleaning routine will be ramped way, way up.
What I miss: I was once again in Minnesota for spring break and one day I decided to walk to Target. The snow piles were almost twice my height, and I dug into a mound of snow and ice to press a crosswalk button. I was the only person walking, because why would anyone walk to Target in a Minnesota winter? I'd give that specific experience a 10/10. I think about how simple and calm it was every day. I’m realizing I enjoy the walking aspect of New York City, but I crave the peacefulness of walking in a place like Minnesota.
What I’m looking forward to: The smell of New York gets stronger and stronger by the day, meaning that warmer weather, sunshine, and the end of the academic year is coming! I cannot wait to stop wearing this light jacket and have less writing to do.