Coco Papy I Writer I Teacher I Artist
"...growth is not linear...growth is just whatever happens along the way."
Coco Papy recently wrote this:
In the span of 365 days: I used to live in New York and feel like if I left, I might die of boredom. Now I’m a small town southern woman who can’t get enough of conversations with old women at the grocery store about cornbread recipes. I used to be obsessed with social media. Now I make a living doing doing social media.
I used to wonder if I’d ever be able to step into a classroom as a teacher. Now I am getting ready to watch my middle school creative writing class graduate with some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time and I’m lined up for classes to teach art in the fall. I used to hope that one day, I'd be able to make more than a few bucks writing, that I'd be able to translate something I deeply cared about into an actual, feasible working life. Now, I'm doing it, and doing it in ways I never thought possible. I used to be in a long-term relationship and fear losing it or never being good enough. Now I’m alone and think it might have been the best thing to ever happen to me because I am good enough.
Who have I become y’all? The answer: Who I’ve always wanted to be.
We thought this was a good place to start.
Can you describe your transition from living in NYC to moving to Georgia? How did it come about?
I very much thought that I should have this particular kind of life - that it would look a certain way and I felt like I had fought for it for so long. There were some really amazing things that happened to me there (NYC), but I was really unhappy there. I was at a job that wasn’t going anywhere. It felt like I was kind of stuck in this place where the only option seemed to be to leave - sort of try something new. It is like that Hebrew saying “Change your place, change your fate.” The only place I could think of going was home. I think once I got over the fear of going back home and knowing that I could create a life for myself down here..it was like “Oh, I am still doing all these things that I really deeply cared about and I am the person that I always hoped to be.” And that is a monumental realization because it is really easy to compare yourself to everyone in New York, and always feel like you’re lacking in so many areas - it is like a blood sport, you know? I still wrestle with that, but I am still doing all these things that I care about...just not in the way I thought it should look like.
Now that you are back in Savannah do you look back on growing up there? How did it inform who you are today?
Yeah. Savannah..it’s... super southern. I think when I was growing up it was a little more of an economically depressed place with very little opportunity and very limited roles for what people could actually do. So it was like “Well, what do you do?” You could either stay and have this culture sort of eat you alive, or you can get out and try to do something else. You sort of react against this presence either way. When I moved to NYC I felt very much separated from Southern culture and the identity of Savannah. I got rid of my accent - I wanted nothing to do with it. When people would come up to me and be like “Ohh, the south…” I would say, “I know, it’s the worst...right?” Time would pass and it sort of became this more neutral thing, but then I started coming around on it when my grandmother got sick and my mom got a divorce and all these factors with family started happening. I kind of felt like maybe this life in New York that is all about me, is just not all that important.
Can you describe yourself as a child?
Very quiet. Very bookish. Very distracted - super ADD kid. I always felt like there was something else out there.
Were you artistic?
Yeah, I wrote and I drew and my mom was really supportive of that. My family has always been really supportive of going to pursue your dream, whatever it is. And I think that is a really healthy response because a lot of my friends that are or were very artistically inclined people - very creative people - they were kind of pushed into one direction or another and now they are in prison or doing something that they don't care about. It is interesting to see that.
You have described your mom and grandmother as strong female figures in your life. How do you feel that they have influenced you?
They always did their own thing. I feel like there this cultural shift happening down here (the south), but they very much have always done their own thing - consequences be damned. I kinda feel like in the culture down here it doesn't matter if you make the right choice, there is still a consequence to it as a woman no matter what...so you might as well make the choice you want to make. They paid the price in some ways and in some ways they are kind of okay. They’ve always just flown their freak flag high and that has sort of been a very liberating thing to witness. And also, they’ve always stressed that growth is not linear...growth is just whatever happens along the way. Which I think is good if you’re a woman approaching 30, or are 30, and you’re not married and you don't have this type of job or you don't have kids - it’s like “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing wrong?” There is always a million-gagillion things that you are doing wrong, but they really taught me that that’s not a thing.
So, what do you do?
Currently just trying to get through day-to-day. I write. I’m a teacher. Educator. Artist….I do a lot.
Of all the things you do...is one of them your favorite?
No, I feel like it just shifts and changes. Right now I am not writing as much and not teaching for the summer, but I am making more art. And that has been interesting. Things shift and become more important when you need them. That is nice because, and I don't know if I can attribute this to NY or a certain mind frame, I just feel like you get very caught up in branding yourself or promoting yourself in a certain way and you end up setting limitations around what you do. Like, “I can only do this…” It is this branding...you are kinda pushing forward this dream, but it just ends up making things stagnant.
When you write, what is your focus?
It is usually on women’s issues. Right now I write a column which I really love doing, mostly because I don't really know anything about anything...like, I don’t. And that's the great thing about advice, you can give it all day long but it doesn't matter - people have to kind of find their own way. So it becomes this really cathartic exercise in figuring out your own shit along the way, but also having this bigger conversation about what something could possibly mean. You can ask this very general “Oh, what do I do” question but it evolves into something that you talk can about other than that.
What is your process of sorts in giving advice?
When I write, what I hope to get across is my best self. The self that I always hope that I can be. And what does that look like? It looks like being really empathetic and sincere and honest and not an asshole. And sort of listening to what it is that people are actually asking as opposed to being like, “Well, I have this thought and you should listen to it.” Basically it is like, “Well, how do I want to be talked to? How do I want to be shown?” This form of love and listening. I do believe that listening is an act of love.
What age do you teach?
I teach middle school.
How do you take everything that you do and apply it to a middle school audience?
First off, people just don’t talk to kids they way they should. It’s like you either kid club them or you just say very careless and thoughtless things...and those things stick with people for the rest of their lives. Can you remember all the nasty things that someone maybe said to you when you were in middle school? Yeah. And I am sure there were tons of positive things said too, but it is like the nasty stuff sticks.
This past spring semester I was teaching a writing class at an art school down the street from here. We had 10 girls and 1 guy (who barely showed up). The big emphasis in my class was - don’t hate on other people and what they are doing. Be kind to yourself. Be brave enough to be yourself. Be confident. Because what you are doing has value whether or not someone else likes it. The middle school girls are in such a strange period, where you are still a kid, but you are figuring out how to navigate this whole thing - “womanhood” as a whole. If you can survive middle school as a girl, then you can survive anything really. It is also the perfect time to teach girls how to believe in what they are doing and believe in the value of themselves because you have all these different messages telling them “No, you don’t have value...No, what you’re doing is not that great”....."No, you should do this. No, you should do that.” It’s just very schizophrenic, I guess.
Do you see a transition with your students as the year progresses?
After awhile, yes. I would say at the beginning people don't trust each other. They are almost waiting for someone to say something not nice. Or waiting for that moment where they have to defend themselves. One of the things that I made them do - and this was taught to me in a burlesque class of all places - I made them stand in front of the classroom and do the Wonder Woman pose. It is proven that if you do this pose for two minutes and look at yourself in the mirror...physically it changes your body, mentally it changes your body. It just makes you feel better and more confident. I used to think it was such crap, but then I started doing it and I was like “Damn, I feel good!” Better than alcohol. But, it’s stuff like that. And trying to actually hear what they’re saying as opposed to telling them what I think.
With your writing and teaching, what is it you are hoping to get across? What is the root of it?
I think writing is all about yourself, and I think teaching has nothing to do with you. There’s this really great Harry Crews quote, I have it on my fridge, and it’s basically talking about writing and being very obsessed with writing. And he says when things aren’t going very well he’d rather teach because it makes him realize that it's not all about what is going on in his head and that there are more important things in the world than what he has to say. Which is a nice reality check. I think both serve a larger purpose. Even though writing is very much self involved, you hope that it will affect a larger audience and people will feel like “Yeah, I feel that way too…I’m glad it’s not just me.” And with teaching, even though it’s going out to a larger audience, there is this really amazing thing that happens when you have a good class, where you are like “Holy shit...that’s the best I’ve felt in a long time. I was just part of this thing…”
Do you think it is the feeling of being able to empower someone?
I think it is that you are hoping to make a connection with someone and by proxy hoping that connection is empowering. A huge influence on me is author, Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Tiny Beautiful Things.” I read that book religiously. Mostly because I’m able to connect to it, to take stuff to heart. And I am able to say “Okay, you’re right..this is true...this rings very true to me.” So that is what I sort of hope for.
Would you consider yourself a feminist? What does that word mean to you?
I do. I always hesitate, but not because I feel ashamed of the label, but because I always feel that it’s a qualifier as opposed to the larger experience. To me, being a feminist, which is not a word I heard until I was in college, the whole idea is that you are telling your truth and you are listening to other people tell their truth and you support that. That is what it means to me.
The qualifying experience..it’s specialized therefore it only applies to certain people. I don't know. It becomes like a ghetto in itself instead of being granted a dignity of the regular experience. No one is ever going to say “Jack Kerouac….that’s such a great feminist reader.” No, it's just Jack Kerouac. It is such a pain in the ass.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women today? What are the challenges you face as a woman?
I mean, other than the Hobby Lobby thing that just happened? I don't know. Oh my god, I don't know….there’s so much...there are so many things and they are so different for everyone. I would say that it’s not being “othered.” Does that make sense? It’s sort of not being granted the dignity of not having your experience viewed through a certain lens. I think any sort of minority group faces that issue. Your experience is never “Here’s what it is.” It’s always a specialized experience. It’s a huge umbrella category, but I think that factors into everything, from how people talk to you or talk at you, to the way I think women can treat each other when we think one another isn’t being a good feminist.
Actually Roxane Gay is coming out with a book called “Bad Feminist” which I am really excited about. It’s about how its hard to sort of win at the game because no one can decide on what it means to be a “good woman” or a “good feminist” but everyone has lots of opinions.
Other than the huge cultural issues, I think a lot of it is just learning to sort of recognize the value and worth that gets denied to you on a very small basis day in and day out. And not in these grand scale Hobby Lobby ways, but in little tiny minute ways in which it just chips away at what you are capable of doing or what you can do or what your value is.
What inspires you? Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor right now..I’m looking for a mentor. They are really hard to find. I will say that little old ladies that don't care anymore - I really want to be like them. They really don’t care. They seem like they got it down. You survived this long and now you don't care and that seems like a good survival strategy.
I would say that anyone that gets up and does what they care about is pretty inspiring. Especially if you have a day job, or student loans, or kids, or any one of those thousands of things that people have that take them away from what they actually really care about.
What does the word authentic mean to you?
Being who you are and not ever having to convince anyone of what you are doing or who you are or why they should love you or believe in you. I think one of the most outstanding lessons I sort of learned recently is...I was in a relationship for 5 years and it was a constant battle to convince someone that they should treat me with the love that I thought was normal in a relationship like that. And things eventually implode. And it is like, “Why?” Why should I have to convince anyone on this earth to believe in what I am doing? Someone will. Someone will see what I care about and will recognize it, and when they come, they come. I think it is such a destructive thing to do to yourself.
I wake up, feed the animals..I have a really nice porch by the railroad, so I watch the train go by. After that it is whatever I can do to get myself focused for the day because once my feet hit the floor there has to be a certain game face on. Like “Okay, let's go deal with whatever happens today…” And then I bike to work. Being at my house is preparing for whatever the day brings and being on my bike is just letting my mind wander and tuning out. It is like a nice little meditation period.
5 year plan?
I have not the faintest.
One thing you can't live without?
Books. Right now I am reading “Girls to the Front” by Sara Marcus. It’s really great.
Check out Coco's work here: