Author Confesses Obsession

She’s a voyeur of words.

Dawn Downey


Let me introduce myself.

I’m Dawn, who’s obsessed with words. Some favorites are redundant because it’s re-dun-dun-t, nonbinary because look how binary it is, and lush because it feels lush to say it.

I arrange words into stories about everyday life, to lift your spirits and challenge your assumptions.

My own assumptions were challenged when I wrote Blindsided: Essays from the Only Black Woman in the Room. What began as a book ended up as a teachable moment. Blindsided taught me if you’re uncomfortable with the room you’re in, you should find another room.

I dragged myself away from all-white spaces, and I grieved the loss of their familiarity.

(grieved, what a great word)

These days I seek out rooms where people of all colors are present. And the rooms are focused on books and writing. I take workshops through organizations created for writers whose voices don’t get heard. Midnight and Indigo is one. Roots.Wounds.Words. is another. Here in Kansas City, a black-owned bookstore (BLK+BRWN A Smart Bookstore) gives me a sense of community by way of book clubs, readings, and shelves loaded with books by authors of color. (104 1/2 W. 39th, KC MO)

Writing is the perfect job for me — a woman tossed between existential doubt and the cosmic laugh. Existential doubt says, “You don’t know how to write.”

(existential, the word makes me swoon)

The cosmic laugh says, “You can’t make the writing stop.”

I start each day at 5:00 AM, with a bowl of Raisin Bran, a handful of vitamins, and a dose of caffeine. 6:00 yoga. 8:30 shower — make mental note to clean bathroom. At 9:00, I set a timer in the kitchen downstairs and then report to my writing room upstairs. For twenty-five minutes I write, which means: type, delete, make faces, change fonts, type just keep typing, and rejoice when the timer finally dings.

(dings, a word that says what it does)

I run downstairs — build in exercise — turn off the timer. Spend ten minutes in mindless physical activity like sweeping a floor. Reset timer. Lather, rinse, repeat until lunch.

External accountability motivates me to work consistently, safeguarding me from procrastination. Saturdays I have to produce some prose, because Jessica and I Zoom on Mondays, to exchange edits. Tuesdays, I have to write a blog post for Wednesday morning publication. Thursdays, I have to come up with another essay, because another blog goes out on Friday mornings.

The blog also serves as a jumping off point for my books. Sometimes a story elicits a string of responses like “Hit me exactly where I am right this minute,” or “Are you me?” Sometimes Jessica emails me a single-word reply to a blog post: “Damn.” Those are messages from the world to transform a post into a deeper, layered essay for inclusion in a book.

(damn, utter this word, and you don’t need to say anything else)

I first earned money for an essay in 2007, when The Christian Science Monitor published “Jingle Frogs,” about a Secret Santa exchange. For the next decade, I was published and paid frequently enough to keep me dabbling in the written word, while I kept up with the rest of life: job, garden, house. Priorities shifted; writing ascended. I quit the job. The garden weeded over. Dust bunnies bred like rabbits.

The boundary between personal life and professional blurred.

Super-fans began as friends, listening to me read occasional essays at spiritual retreats. New readers became friends, identifying with the hurts and triumphs I described. Friendships strengthened over coffee and readings in private homes.

(coffee, a word that smells good)

Heaven for this author is a living room with six people leaning forward in their chairs, listening to my words.

Or, as in this photo, three people at a bookstore. That’s me in the blue dress.

During COVID isolation, it was necessary to find other pathways to connection.

I asked super-fan, Katherine, “Are you up for an experiment?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Let’s do a Zoom call. I’ll read you an essay, and then we can chat about it. You pick the essay.”

I recorded Zoom call readings with a bunch of fans, including Victor. The Zooms became Author on Demand. Author on Demand grew into a whole YouTube channel (@dawndowneyauthor).

It was a revelation to realize Zoom gave me a way to hold author readings whenever I wanted to. No more searching for a venue, no more email back-and-forth to coordinate schedules. No more asking for permission. Period. I schedule a reading once a month and send out the zoom invitation. I rehearse like I’m about to do Carnegie Hall. Sit at my laptop and see who pops onto my screen.

Aside from videos, fans and I connected through emails, Facebook conversations, and phone calls. Toni texted me as she read Blindsided. “I just finished ‘Liza and Me.’ I’m so pissed. We have to talk.”

I was always a glutton for books. And not faithful to any particular genre. My first fantasy was Lord of the Rings. First historical fiction, The Good Earth. First gothic novel, Wuthering Heights. Nowadays, as a creative perfecting my craft, I stick with the recommendations from writing buddies. At various times, my favorite authors have been Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, and Martha Wells. The list changes regularly.

Except for Toni Morrison. And Martha Wells. Beloved or Murderbot. It’s a toss-up.

(toss-up, the word is flying around so much it barely stays on the page)

For fun, I took up singing. At first, I told myself I was doing it for business reasons. Weekly lessons kept the voice in shape for narrating my audio books. Here I am recording an audio book at Markosa Studios, pretending to be Beyonce.

But … really … singing turned out to be a stunningly joyful laugh-out-loud hoot. Voice lessons packed a bigger rush than caffeine, because belting the right sound, at the right time, in the right key required participation from my entire body.

Voice coach Suzanne gave instructions that confounded my intellect. “Let your abs take you to the high notes.”

Apparently, the abs understood. Without my analysis, the high notes happened. Total reliance on my body provided a vacation for my writer’s brain. Like yoga, singing put me completely in the present moment — muscle memory was the only kind of memory that counted. My voice lessons are on hiatus but I still sing. And every week, I phone a friend, just to serenade her.

Existential doubt says, “You’re not qualified to write, video, or sing.”

Cosmic laugh says, “You can’t stop.”