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.

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