Monday, October 28, 2013

writing that terrifies

When I was in high school I had a subscription to Seventeen magazine. In 1996 or 1997 they published a short story, I believe it was the winner of their fiction contest, that blew my mind. It was gorgeous, dark and terrifying. It was about a young woman who had an inappropriate phone relationship with an older man. I can still remember parts of the story, how it swallowed me into the dark place and held me there, allowing me to see the beauty of the monster.

I've been thinking a lot about fear and personal demons, those monsters we dress up in qualities that are considered to be safe, good, clean. I realized that all the stories and writing that I'm drawn to terrify me in some way, they speak to the darkness, awaken something in me. When I was fourteen I fell in love with the work of Sandra Cisneros. I liked House on Mango Street enough but it was her poetry that thrilled me, and her short story collection Woman Hollering Creek. Mango Street was good (and my favorite story in that collection is crazy dark) but WHC and the poetry slew me out of what I thought literature was. I loved her voice, how Cisneros narratively went places that good girls did not go. She gave me permission to desire, the embrace the sides of me that were, until that point, latent, hidden. In a lot of ways, Cisneros shaped who I became in my late teens and early twenties. I was open, willing to surrender. Before Cisneros I read a lot of Anne Rice, and I loved her, but Cisneros was speaking to me, speaking to my experience, validating and uplifting it.

I was wrong a lot of the time in my twenties but I embraced the experience and even more, I loved the stories I was starring in. Ego, yes, but I had to go through it, ride that beast into the fire and I had to come out of it alive and more whole than I could have had I chosen a safe, conventional way of looking at and experiencing the world.

And there were other writers that showed up, Lorna Dee Cervantes and her gorgeous, scathing rage. Yet she was vulnerable too. And she gave herself over to the beauty, the music of the language, slid the knife in in ways that still confound me. Then Demetria Martinez, with Mother Tongue. I wept, I tell you, hard tears all over those pages. All that pain, all that love, I couldn't believe she used the same 26 letters I used to write. That that happened.

I scare myself sometimes, with my own writing. Things come up, come out and I have to sit with the monster, breathing on my neck as it asks for acknowledgement. And vulnerability is the most terrifying place. We have the protections to keep us from wounds, but SO much of the great writing comes from those wounds. What to do. Let go. Release. Allow. Surrender. Easier said than done. Oh process, I love you.

I'm outlining a story right now that I've had percolating for years, based on a conversation I had with a landscaper a few years ago. The story he told me was dark, devastating and utterly creepy. It stuck with me. The other night as I was falling asleep a new character showed up and started talking to me and telling me his story and I realized in that half-asleep state that he belonged in the story about the landscaper. I had to get up and outline it briefly, write down a few notes to let me remember. It is a dark one, and the narrator is deeply flawed and I have to recognize that some of those flaws I'm giving her are akin to my own.

In the contemporary YA novel I'm working on my protagonist has to deal with a lot of the things that I was dealing with as a young woman of color. She falls in love with the work of a writer who changes her life and discovers a secret about the writer that intimately effects her life. I'm trying to embody that feeling, the first time you read something that splits your life into a before and an after. I'm considering spending NaNoWriMo working solely on the contemporary novel, give myself a little break from the fantasy book so that I can go back to it fresh. Welcome fear, when you show up it means I'm doing it right.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

night muse

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep a great line came to me. I briefly considered ignoring it and sleeping, trying to remember it in the morning but I know how that story ends. I pulled out my phone and typed it into the notes. I rolled back over and was sinking into the that half-awake space of color and weight when a character showed up, staring at me from the other side of the fence. I paused on my way to sleep to contemplate this new presence and then he started telling me his story. Again, I pulled out my phone and jotted down a few notes to help me remember him and tried to surrender to the comforter and pillow. But my muse had insomnia. A description of landscape came, poetic and metaphorical, the kind of writing that "uh-huhs" me out of complacency, so I wrote it down. Silly me, wanting to sleep when the floodgates were open. The whole damn story came then, interweaved with a story I've been incubating for years. All the interconnecting treads, the weave of the narrative, the voice, my slightly fucked up narrator, the wounds, they all showed up. I've learned the hard way not to ignore the inspiration, the muse. She's like luck, illusive and shocking at times. I listen, honor. Again.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


A few days back from another trip to Mexico with the crazy, loving familia. It was, as always, intense and beautiful, slightly crazy-making and home. Ten of us were down visiting, roving, eating our fill and more. We spent hours and hours in the sea, floating, getting tossed around by big waves, darkening. We drank. We danced. We were always a little bit sandy and always that peace that comes from being away home.

Sunday night was the village festival. H, my dad, a cousin and I were the only ones who went down for it. Everyone else wanted to enjoy the last night in the hotel. We arrived late, turned the last curve before the village and had to brake as the entire village was before us, the Virgin carried on the shoulders of uncles and strangers, a band blasting out hymns while fireworks exploded up over the crowd. We detoured a dirt road east and made it to my grandmother's house where we downed quick cold beers and headed into the street. We lost grandma's chihuahua and so instead of Virgin gazing we ran the streets looking for the little creep. He was hiding but eventually we found him. We relaxed on the porch, wandered the town a bit, watched the old ladies sit and gossip.

Eventually we headed to an uncle's house. There, under a palm thatched roof we sat at a plastic table and ate small crabs smothered in hot sauce and lime. So much work to eat a crab but satisfying too. My uncle stood at an outdoor fire and boiled pot after pot of shrimp he'd caught. We sat with cousins and uncles and aunts. H impressed everyone by carrying on entire conversations in Spanish. My empty, never-occupied uterus was lamented and mentioned more times than was comfortable. My cousin gave us tales of working on the prison island west of the state, how there are little colonies everywhere of prisoners who live outdoors, eat fruits off of trees but are threatened with death if they wander near enough the ocean to touch it. He cooks for the guards.

All in all it was a good trip. There was bickering, and a few snaps but family vacations do that. Close proximity brings up the old wounds and triggers. I'm more aware these days of what the triggers are and the child that wants to come crying out. I'm better at keeping the calm. I imagine it is the result of experience but mostly the mostly steady meditation practice.

Chatting with cousins we started talking about writing. I told the cousins I'm working on a book and tried to explain a bit about representation of people of color in literature, especially fantasy and what my hopes and intentions are. A cousin asked "Like Narnia, but for us?" Yes. Pero mas.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

little memory interlude

Listening to the Smiths this morning and thinking about Chula Vista, about Jen. The Smiths always remind me of Jen, dead ten years now and my soul sister in music and teenage malaise. We were high school friends, we shared thrift store sweaters and swapped music. When I got my driver's license we drove everywhere, without destination. But we had road and tapes galore. The Smiths, Morrissey, Depeche Mode, Bauhaus. We sang along and shared secrets that I still think about. We spent hours staring into coffee cups, sighing. We confessed our loves to each other, hers I still see every once in a while and I think of everything I know or knew about him; how he had to jump out her window and over a fence. She knew mine, all the weird shames I was beginning to carry. We drifted apart after high school. The last time I saw her she was standing by her car in a parking lot, she had a "Smiths" decal on her back window. We chatted about our friend who'd recently had a baby. We made false promises about getting together. She asked about my dog, who she'd known as a puppy. I told her he was dead, hit by a car driven by a girl on my sister's soccer team. We were awkward. We hugged. The weather that day was exactly how it is today.

Santa Ana winds, almost no water in the air and the body wrinkling into old patterns. This is the time of year for it. The sun is hot hot, the air is cool but dry and spiders are trying to catch the world, leaving webs everywhere; building webs for food or just to watch them collapse into the plants.

At her funeral I sat in grief and anger with all the old friends. Her family had religion and they they were trying to convince us how Jen had come to Jesus at the end, but none of us would buy it. She was our tribe, baby anarchist and feminist, she called people out on their shitty politics. Her family said she had confessed to all the things she had done but we knew she wasn't a confessor, and if there were any stories told they weren't told in hopes of absolution, but that she was shouting out I have done this, known this. She was in half there at the graveyard, ashes torn even in death, between her mother and father.

I remember one night when there was some shit, and all of us were going down. All of the friends, without even consulting each other, banded together to protect her, to keep any knowledge of her part away from her family. We'd seen her bruises. We suffered a little more in our punishments but kept the secret she begged us to hold on to.

I remember how once we were lost and she hailed a police car and got them to drop us off at a school dance where we danced on the tables to Oingo Boingo. I remember riding in the back of our friend's Vanagon, singing "There is Light and it Never Goes Out." I remember her showing me how to pop the seam out of a pair of Dickies so they'd sit lower on the hip. She crashed my car once and we had to borrow money from a friend. We had slumber parties at her house and would listen to the same album over and over again until we fell asleep on the floor.

I'd like to think had she had the chance to grow up our lives would have somehow cycled back together and we'd still be swapping music, keeping tabs on our bad habits, laughing. I miss her.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

all the processes

I did a reading this morning with So Say We All for the international book fair at City College. I read a short essay I wrote about immigration, the story of a young undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. It was about how a friend and I scrambled to help him after he lost his way crossing the mountains East of San Diego and pretty heartbreaking. It was the first reading I've done in a few months. I teared up during the piece, which was new for me. I think the difference was that the auditorium was full of brown folk. The students were mostly black and brown and when I looked up as I was reading, I could see the intensity on their faces. I could have been speaking about their fathers, brothers, I was telling one of their stories and it broke open a part of me that I have been trying to reach. It was a tender thing and I was almost bereft considering the scope of what I want to accomplish as a writer.

After the reading I came home and called an old college professor. I spoke with him for a long while about my novel, and the challenges I'm having. I don't think they're really challenges, but I have given myself a huge assignment. *sigh* And I'm getting there, minor terrors of ego notwithstanding. I spent all day Sunday eyeballs deep in the Popul Vuh.  There are parallels between my fantasy world and Mayan civilizations, but they aren't the same. I read the histories (many corrupted) to place myself in the world then let go to go into the dreaming that drives the stories I'm telling.

I sent out a lot of work this last week. Poems, essays, short stories. The days I don't really write I try to get what I've written out into the world so that when I finally do reach out to an agent or publisher they'll be able to see that I've been published. So much work to being a writer.

Heading to Mexico next week with H and the familia. I haven't been to the ranch in a while and I miss it. I miss the slowness of the days and the food. I miss all the dusty kids tumbling around and the uncles slinging rocks to keep the birds off the corn. I miss the old blue Datsun my Uncle Payin drives and how he honks the horn right at sunrise and I get up to jump in the back and we drive the dirt roads to the cows. I miss how we toss the stripped corn stalks off the back of the truck while my uncle drives slow circles around the fields and the cows follow, hungry and faithful.

It will the first time I've taken a partner down to the ranch. They all still think my pig has gone to mountain. I think the uncles will approve of H, his body is similar to theirs and he is brown brown from the sun. He knows how to sweat and how to spit and drink down a beer contemplatively.

Now, to write some.