InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we chat with Morgan Mann Willis, a New York City-based writer and consultant.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
MO: My name is Morgan Mann Willis. Undoubtedly the first thing you should know about me is that I was named after a crab and seafood (yes, crab and seafood) carry out on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, where I was born and raised. I think that’s the coolest thing ever, so I guess that’s the second thing you should know: I’m kind of a huge nerd.
Formally, I am a writer, facilitator and consultant. I work with individuals and organizations to create and refine ideas. Currently I’m a Career Strategist (haaay resumes), I lead workshops on college access and alternative education. I’ve been a ghostwriter (which is the most amazing term ever), an artistic editor and published in Razor Wire Women, an anthology about incarcerated women, educators and activists. I’m Head Writer and a Strategic Consultant for Bklyn Boihood, which is, plainly put: f’ing spectacular. For about seven years I’ve led writing and theatre workshops in prisons, jails and other facilities in Michigan and New York.
ELIXHER: When did you begin pursuing writing as a passion?
MO: I can honestly say that I have always, always, always adored writing. Not reading—that was an acquired taste (to be honest). I wrote a play in 4th grade with some really dramatic name like ‘RAINFOREST SAVED!’ or something. It was a smash hit. I typed it up on a typewriter, moms made copies and sent it all over creation. A few years later, I learned how to write doctor’s notes for cutting school. I became keenly aware of word choice and cadence, those things have always fascinated me. I write in voices all the time; it’s my favorite style right now. I think I’ve probably written some of everything. I try to write in my journal everyday. I came out to my parents in a letter…I really trust writing almost more than I trust speaking. Is that a crazy thing to say? It might be. I don’t know.
I officially committed to writing when I went to graduate school. Before applying I said to myself, ‘Don’t go crazy with this, just do what you can.’ I ended up only applying to one school. When I got the big envelope from Sarah Lawrence I said, ‘Okay. I’m investing in this and I plan on getting returns. I don’t believe in this starving artist shit.’ Words are powerful.
ELIXHER: What about your work as a consultant?
MO: As a consultant I work with people and organizations to flush out ideas, establish sustainable groundwork and create strategy. That essentially boils down to making effective to-do lists, answering big questions, tying up loose ends and making a plan. Simple. Let’s just sit down here, drink some coffee or tea or…whiskey and figure out how to best help you make a plan.
ELIXHER: What drew you to the craft?
MO: I actually woke up one day, almost literally and realized—I’m already a consultant. I’m already the person people call when they need ideas flushed out or portfolios re-designed or help organizing their curriculum, etc etc. This is what I do…and I don’t get paid for it. And I was at a crossroads. Part of what I love about consulting is the opportunity to assist people’s ideas, especially if they don’t really know where to start or if they don’t have access to conventional resources. I’m learning over and over that I can’t be a good resource to the world if I’m not taken care of. So the ‘craft’ for me is really the act making a business out of it. It’s the act of believing that what I have is good enough to sustain me.
As a writer, language and the opportunity to be heard is what drew me to the craft. There’s deep psychology behind language—what we say, who we say it to, why. The opportunity to tell my story and the stories of all the places I’ve lived and seen and loved from a distance is incredible. What drew me to the craft of writing is the opportunity to refine my voice and to use it well.
ELIXHER: What topics do you tend to write about and why?
MO: In fiction, I write about all manner of things and people. Broken things. Concrete. I love writing adolescents. Where people are going. Undiscovered genius. City spaces. Crackheads (I’m obsessed with crackheads—I’m from DC in the 90s, what?). I like writing about politics and the way people talk to one another. Graffiti on brick walls and old trains. I like writing stories/pieces about people who could care less whether I was writing about them. One of the reasons I love doing creative workshops inside is that the way imagination and creativity manifests is unlike any other place. What comes out of need, regret, reflection. We very often write about similar things. I have been too shy to write about women the way I want to. I just started writing about Homoness in the last year or so. It’s been really, really incredible. Last year, at the Butch Voices Regional Conference here in New York I read ‘Memories and Admissions,’ which was one of my first public pieces about sexuality. The response I got let me know I was doing something really important by being transparent and raw. I just sometimes fall back, drop my head, and thank God my mother hasn’t read some of the stuff I’ve written. Or my father–have mercy. Thankfully I approve of myself, so that all fades into the background.
ELIXHER: You contribute to Bklyn Boihood’s blog under the name “The Bad Gay.” How did that name come about and what does it mean?
MO: Ha! I don’t know why I didn’t expect TBG to make an appearance. The Bad Gay is rude, unconcerned with the politicized elements of our identity and soooo over all the ways the queer community segregates and judges itself. The Bad Gay (and I) came out in the Midwest. Being gay is really a completely different thing and being queer is a privilege. Often so many of the things we consume ourselves by talking about are like…for the birds. Truthfully, the Bad Gay may or may not be the attitudinal extension of my generally cordial persona. My Sasha Fierce if you will. I think TBG wants to explore why we have so many of the rules/ideas/beliefs/stigmas/etc that we place on ourselves culturally as young, fresh, Black gay people. And any other sort of people. She’s unconcerned with convention. She’s interested in talking about sex and drugs and rock and roll and the real stuff that no one is actually saying. She’s the one who would blurt out a question about strap ons in the middle of a room. Which is rude…but needed.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
MO: Knowing I’m loved by God. The Universe. Young people. Lyrical dancing. Sexy women. Potential—both wasted and realized. Having clear goals. Color, sound, light. Being read (both gayboy-wise and literary-wise). My sister. My future wife and children. Surrounding myself with things and people that teach, challenge and/or edify me. Walking like I talk. Fear. Reading. My friends and arch enemies. My father. My mother. My faith in people and my interest in voice. My drive. An Acura TL. Keeping internal promises. Exploration. Doing things normal people don’t do. I decline to provide an example. Staying proud.
ELIXHER: Describe yourself in three words.
MO: Creative. Singular. Moving.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
MO: That I’m soft. [Laughs.] I’m real sweet and laid back and show love as much love as I can. And it’s genuine. But I don’t play games.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
MO: I was going to give a classic answer: moving to New York and finishing grad school but honestly, it happens. People do it all the time. I think the biggest challenge I’ve had to face to date is being in a place in my life where my career is beginning to blossom, my work is beginning to circulate. I’ve made a decision about my business and it’s all happening right now. Having the confidence to be successful, to not just play the background or tool around with mediocrity. To write the books I need to write and to complete the projects I’ve set before myself. How am I overcoming it? I don’t know. By doing work when I’d rather be out. 2am brainstorming sessions. Shameless and subtle self-promotion.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
MO: How absolutely brilliant and fly we are. How strong we are. How, even though we’re segmented and often at our own throats, we’re in love with ourselves—both blackness and queerness—and that’s a powerful thing.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the Black queer community?
MO: More dialogue. More long-term investment. Less violence. More self-care. Better haircuts. Printed publications. Money circulating. Patronage. Financial growth. Better/more writing. Spirituality-in-action. Smaller words. Bigger ideas. An abandonment of limitations. More days without make up.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Mo?
MO: This fall I’m leading a handful of college access and creative writing workshops, continuing to build absurdly exciting projects with the Bois, launching my website (finally), and co-presenting “Degrees In Black,” a play and workshop series designed to examine Black identity to college campuses.
I’m also teaching myself the guitar (ideally), starting meditation, and buying a black leather jacket. #pow.