Why do I love teaching writing?

Dear Reader,

Someone recently posed a question to me. When you think about teaching creative writing, what does that mean?

The answer was easy and came to me quickly. This is all about empowerment. Writing, especially creatively, is about being empowered and empowering others.

This is why I love teaching writers. In my career, I’ve taught children, college students, and adults.

Me teaching

And each time I’ve taught, no matter what the age group, something magical happens. Students’ opinion toward writing change and, while they may or may not get into it, they start appreciating it and writing becomes accessible.

Accessible: (adjective) easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, or use.

For me, English wasn’t always accessible. That’s because another language came off my tongue first.  My first language was Spanish. I went to kindergarten not knowing that much English, just whatever I heard on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember a teacher thinking I wasn’t very smart when I first started school. Surprise, surprise, East Harris County in the 80s was not nice to daughters of immigrants.  My mom, with her limited English, complained to the point that the teacher was fired.

I was put in ESL classes and had to have extra tutoring in English. My mom would read to me every night in her broken English until I practically memorized books.

And then, in 5th grade, something amazing happened. I skipped a reading level. Now I was one level away from the gifted kids. That’s when I made a promise to myself. I was going to do this English thing — reading and writing —  better than the smart kids. If being able to command this language in the written form was seen as  a magic trick, I was going to do that magic trick better than anyone else.

By high school, I was in English honors courses and taking AP English classes. For me, writing was empowerment. It meant that I could write and understand the world around me in a way that other people couldn’t. And that meant, if I got really good, I could write my own ticket in life.

Empower: (verb) give (someone) the authority or power to do something.

Fast forward to my first adjunct English class. I started my college teaching career in Louisiana.  And in my class, I had students who were parents, adults who worked, folks who returned to college after being gone for awhile. For all of them, English was the subject that they couldn’t pass. They weren’t good at it. I didn’t understand. They grew up speaking this and reading this language, why was it so difficult?

 

Because no one told them that this space was for them and that they’ve already succeeded just by showing up. No one told them that this is how they make a mark in the world and that these words are just building blocks to create the thoughts in their heads.

No one told them that their voices matter.

And my existence tells them the opposite of what they’ve have been lead to believe. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.

In life, as I’m learning, you get a microphone, a chance to do or say things that help impact the world. The size of the microphone depends on popularity, I’m sure. For example, Beyonce’s mic is bigger and has a longer reach than this website. But this is MY microphone, my change to change the world. While Queen B does it with music and concerts, I do it one student at a time, one word at a time, one class at a time.

When you make something that was formerly non-accessible completely approachable and relatable, you’ve just empowered someone. That’s why I teach writing.

So here’s my new motto: Empower to elevate.

Eso mero.

 

Feeling like She-Ra,

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Shame on NBC and in praise of Simone Manuel, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles & Laurie Hernandez

This post right here!

I love it when a great writer posts what I was thinking. Here’s an example. Especially during this election season, stuff like this needs to be said and often.

Aya de Leon

IMG_9774Last night, as Simone Manuel stood on a podium to be the first black woman to earn an individual gold medal in swimming, NBC decided it was more important to cover Russian gymnastics from several hours before…

Dear racists of America, we are coming for you. Coming for your pools and your balance beams. We’ve already come for your NBA, NFL, National Leagues (yes, Dominicans & Puerto Ricans count). We been done came for your Pulitzer Prize, your Nobel, your White House.

We, people of the African diaspora, have proven that we are some of the baddest folks on land, but now we came to claim air and sea. Watch us fly through the air on the floor, the vault, the uneven bars. Watch us glide through water so fast, even your shit talking about our hair can’t stop us. NBC, you can cut away to something else—

We interrupt…

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What’s your writer’s purpose?

Dear Reader,

I have an interesting story to tell.

A good friend told me this the other day and for the first time I believed this of myself. I’ve spent much of my adult life telling other people’s stories, learning and writing about what made them interesting to read for cities in Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana. And finally someone has noticed that my story was at least as interesting as the folks I wrote about.

The person who told me this was my very good friend and a friend to the site, Ashley Northington. She guest blogged on the site over a year ago and gave us some insight to book launching.

So if Ashley says I have a story to tell, then I do. I’ll be telling that during the Dream Fest Digital conference in November. Ashley has invited me to speak to tell my story and I am so thrilled to do so. (More info when the date comes closer, including how you can participate!)

My story isn’t a Cinderella tale, that chick has nothing on me. It’s a story about dreaming, crashing, burning, and stubbornness. It’s about walking through fire, facing your own demons and figuring out how to win against them, even if you can’t. Above all, it’s about survival. Scrappy with a shank in your hair survival.

Sounds interesting? Not as interesting as living it.

I have a couple of weeks to solidify what I will say to the world but what about you? What’s your story?

Writers have the best stories. We just do. It’s kinda our thing. We are the keepers, creators, and tellers of the human condition but, often our stories aren’t told.

That’s why so much of our work is autobiographical. Even fiction writers. (We tend to put everyone we know in a story eventually.) Because even just a sliver of truth belongs to us.

So, I’m asking you, writer…what is your story? Is it also one of survival? Triumph? Pain?

Writer, do you know why I’m really asking these questions? Because I want to know, and I want you to know, the answer to this question:

Why do you write?

Yes, I’m speaking to purpose. Why do you do this? And no, the answer is not just simply because I can’t NOT write. That’s a given. Why. Do. You. Write?

Chris Abani, the amazing writer, had this writing group during a conference a couple of years back. I was in grad school at the time and we shared space with the conference. At lunch, a large group of writers would sit next to me at the table, their eyes like the inside of a watermelon. They were sniffling and some were still crying.

“What’s wrong,” I asked concerned.

“Chris Abani asked us why we write,” one of the said.

“Okay. So what’s wrong with that?”

“It was bullshit. He kept saying bullshit until we finally got down to the real reasons.”

“Oh, shit!”

That was scary but damn if I wasn’t jealous. While they all looked like they were drained from the tears, they looked light, liberated from whatever was weighing them down. They looked ready to do the work. Darn straight I was jealous because I wanted to be that liberated, that in touch and in tune with my purpose.

Because purpose is everything. It’s the game AND the game changer. It is the and all stories. You ain’t got purpose, you ain’t story. Period.

Since then, I’ve done my own crying and soul searching and dragging. Last year, I broke down at my own writing workshop. I stopped writing for more than a month. I created space for Afro-Latina writers. I wrote about the darkness, embraced it, gave it a kiss and put it on paper. I flirted with death time and time again and inked my demise. There was more crying and soul searching and soul hearing. And more until there was purpose.

I write because I want my humanity acknowledged. I want to be seen. I want to be heard. I want the world to know I was here and existed and I had something to say.

Note: that doesn’t mean that I am seeking acceptance. That’s not my purpose. It’s nice but not my purpose.

See, that’s why Ashley said I had an interesting story to tell. And I do. Just you wait.

What’s your story, writer? Why do you do this? Why do you write?

For your first answer, whatever that may be, I call bullshit. Try again. Dig deeper. It’s good for you.

Dig, writer. Don’t make me get Chris Abani to come for you.

 

Well wishes,

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Don’t call me brave. Call me chingona

Dear Reader,

I’ve been thinking a lot about bravery recently, what it actually means and what it takes to be brave. This bravery thing seems like a simple thing to figure out but I’m not quite so sure.

I’ve been called brave once. About a year ago. See, I did something that most people wish they could and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do. After working in journalism most of my adult life, I walked away from a career and a stable paycheck and decided to start over. All the way over and do what is in my heart to do. That means not taking opportunities unless they fulfill me in some way.

That is why I was called brave.

But is that bravery? That act of drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Here. I want to stop with this ridiculous merry-go-round here.” Is that brave or is that just being fed up?

Listen, I don’t want you walking away from this post thinking that I left the evil mass media. Yes, I have my opinion about what happens inside America’s newsrooms and they are strong opinions, but it was the best gig for a long time. It was a gig that allowed me to go on assignment in Mexico twice. I knew the news before the rest of the city. It allow me to impact the world in a substainal way and for that I’m grateful. But I want more. I want to write and write well and write books. It was kinda my thing for a long time, something I had to keep hidden at times.

This writing thing, this gave me my voice and empowered me to be a journalist in the first place. See that sentence. That’s an important sentence, reader. The order of it is so telling. WRITING came first, not journalism. For some people it’s the other way around.

Yes, I stepped off the merry-go-round a year ago. Not an easy year but I still wouldn’t call myself brave. I didn’t run into a burning building to save a baby. I didn’t fight in a war. I didn’t put on a uniform and swore an oath to protect. I didn’t stare down the barrel of a gun so others wouldn’t. That’s brave. All of that is so much bravery. No, all I did was demand more for myself and my life.

All I did was try to live the life I always wanted.

Actually, when you see it on the screen like that it reads a bit selfish. Who am I to demand that of the universe? To be happy, to live my waking hours doing something I love and to help humanity in that way? That’s selfish! That’s … audacious.

Yes, that’s what I am. I am audacious. I am a high clearance level chingona who defied textbook definitions of things a long time ago. I am a chingona who is learning her lessons from the university of hard knocks with a major in I do what I want. And yes it comes with bumps, hill sized bumps, headaches and heartaches, but love is like that sometimes – worth the fight and being fulfilled up to the brim.

Please, don’t call me brave. What I am doing isn’t bravery.  I want more for my life than what I settled for originally. I’ve chosen that road Robert Frost talked about. I don’t know if it’s made all the difference because I’m still creating it as I go.

Bravery means there was fear to overcome but I was too busy wanting to live a life (and keep it) to live it in fear.

 

La Chingona,

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Top 5 links to read this weekend

Dear Reader,

There are lots to read out there after the events of this week. I’ve tweeted a bunch of them out though I’ve been quiet on Facebook. Thought that there should be at least one place to escape.

So the links I have below are a mixture of self-care, business writing, and prompts. All empowering things to help you spring into action.

Because this is when we should be writing, by the way. This is when writing can be both escape and revolutionary. It’s your choice. Remember, it’s about a writing LIFE not just what happens on the page.

I REALLY wish I was going to this but, alas, I will be elsewhere when the class begins. He’s amazing and has written plays that not only entertain but make you think. He’s in Houston for this class and it’s a bargain to get to study and write with him.

  • If you’re not in Houston and need some writing direction in your life? Try this prompt. 

It’s from my other friend, poet Rich Villar, who teaches at the School of Poetic Arts in NYC. He, along with they great folks at Sofrito for Your Soul have partnered for this prompt.

I love this prompt not only for poets but for prose writers as well. One thing that we do well, unfortunately, is that we can grow words about place like weeds. Here’s an exercise that can keep you focused.

I’m not quite at that point in my life yet but it’s nice to have this list of books that can be guiding forces. Look, every writer has the potential to be a creative entrepreneur regardless of how you sell your art. The business part of the writing life can always use a polish.

I’m into self-care this week. I unplugged from social media for long chunks of time. And I was so grateful that I did it.  I also spent time with friends and protected myself from what was happening for awhile. It’s not avoidance because I came back but the break away gave me time to collect my thoughts, reflect, and remember some good life lessons.

This makes things all that much easier for novelists. Researchers have done the work and say all books follow one of these six arcs.

There you go, enjoy!

Oh, and as a reminder, I am teaching  an online writing class in the next couple of weeks and would love to have you guys join us!

Take care and keep going,

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Big announcement tomorrow!

Dear Reader,

Sorry for the late note. Things are moving lightening fast on my end of the world and I have an opportunity to strike while the iron’s hot!

I have a big announcement tomorrow. Wednesday. July 6.

Yes, this is the announcement to announce the announcement. I actually think it’s more of a heads up.

I’ve had so many people ask me when was I going to teach writing classes again. The answer is soon. Really soon.

More details tomorrow. Like noon-ish.

Until then!

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P.S. Want to go ahead and get on the interested list? Fill the form below. I announce classes to my list first.


The Writing Life: February and March progress

 

Dear Reader,

Yes, I am alive. There’s a reason for the radio silence and it’s a good thing. I’ve been writing and submitting and teaching and grading.

Oh, all those papers.

So many that I have just looked up and realized it’s the end of MARCH! MARCH!?! What happened to February?

Wait, it’s April. Yikes!

For January, I posted an update about my writing life. My goal this year, at least one of them, was to demystify what some people believe the writing life is. I don’t sit in coffee shops all day. (Though I am now.) I don’t sit and think about life and it’s meaning. I work. Hard. I have a day job and my writing. Oh, and a life to live. That’s the most important part.

Let’s talk about the work, the writing, what keeps you motivated, or, at least, me. February is when all the grading started so I slowed down. I ended up doing the following:

March was way slower. In the middle of all the papers, all the living and all the madness. Here’s what I accomplished:

  • FINALLY finished my non-fiction essay.
  • Submitted said non-fiction essay.
  • Learned that my panel that I submitted to a conference in Madrid, Spain in January was accepted!
  • Reading (still) The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani.
  • Listening to The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. (Thanks, Audible!)
  • Started a new personal essay
  • Jennie Manning chapter 4 completed, chapter five rewrites.

Two slow months, but here’s the thing. Now that I see it written down I don’t think these months are slow. I’m surprised I got done what I got done with all the things that I needed to get done. So, I’m cutting myself some slack. I did alright! #givingmyselfcredit #slay

According to my goals for the year (yes, I still consider them from time to time) I’m don’t what I’m supposed to. Here’s the list.

  1. New short stories? I’ve revised old ones which feels like new material
  2. More submissions? Uh, yes. Totally have submitted more this year so far than I have in the past two years. My Submittable account tells me that.
  3. Work more in non-fiction? I just finished an essay that took me many months and many more Kleenex to finish. I’ve already started the next essay and have located others from my past to revise later on in the year or early next. New project? Good Lord, I hope not. Ha!
  4. Continue my Afro-Latina journey? Always.
  5. Jennie Manning? It keeps going. I’ll be writing her own separate update but I’m excited where it’s going. The finish line? What finish line? Kidding. End of the year the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.
  6. Translation? This one is the only goal I haven’t started yet. For now, I’ve put this on ice until I have fewer things on my plate.

So there you have it, my months of living this writing life. That’s what it’s like living this writing life. It’s not always glamorous but it’s worth living.

Writing On,

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6 opportunities for writers of color this month

Dear Reader,

I got a fantastic shout out on Facebook a couple of weeks back from George “Urban Jibaro” Torres. I’ve known him for awhile now through Twitter. He was one of the first Latino social media folks I met many moons ago.

He urged writers of colors to follow me because I was listing out opportunities for them. I was so honored and humbled by that. He hit on something that I didn’t know was doing.

In recent months, I’ve noticed an urge to create or to announce opportunities for writers of color. Whether it’s retweeting things I find or putting together a list like this, I find it a great privilege to curate this information to give writers an opportunity to practice their craft.

So, I’ve put together a special edition of writing opportunities geared specifically for writers of color. Let’s get your writing to the next level, folks. Vamonos!

World Wide Network of Artist Residences

I came across this website a couple of weeks ago and I instantly bookmarked it. Wow! A list of residencies to apply to around the world! Does that mean there could be a residency that allows me to go to Paris and work on my book? Yes. That’s exactly what that means.

Although you may not be at that point in your writing where you are ready for a residency (I would argue you are) it’s good to go through the process. Things like CVs and artist statements and project statements take time. So it’s nice to have an opportunity to write something you wouldn’t usually write and have it ready for other opportunities.

So enjoy Germany or Austrailia or wherever you’re going next.

VONA/Voices

I. Can. Not. Say. Enough. Good. Things. About. VONA. When I got ii, it was kinda a blur. An unbelievable excellent blur of awesomeness with Sunday morning pancakes and warm syrup. Around for more than 15 years, this weeklong workshop at the University of Miami, gives writers of color critique and feedback on their writing in a constructive and awesome space.

There’s space here for everyone, literary, genre (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery), poetry, travel writing (YES!), essay, political writing and more. New this year is a young adult writing workshop with Daniel Jose Older, writer of Shadowshapper.  Hurry if you’re doing this one. Applications are due March 15.

Kimbilio Fellowship

This one I am really excited about.  I was accepted to last year’s class but couldn’t attend. They extended an invite for this year and I thankfully accepted.  #Kimbilio16, y’all!

Kimbilio means safe haven in Swahilli.  Here’s a bit of their mission statement.

We are a community of writers and scholars committed to developing, empowering and sustaining fiction writers from the African diaspora and their stories.

Projects include readings, presentations at professional conferences, social media networking, and an annual summer retreat for fiction writers who are members of the Kimbilio community.

What I found really interesting about this residency/fellowship/awesome opp is that its alumni gather to read in different areas of the country in addition to creating a community. And we all know how I feel about writers having a community.

I’ve already just finished reading one of the faculty member’s short story collections and I was blown away. So, this seems like an exciting place to be. (They’re near Taos, NM for a week in the summer.) Applications are due April 15.

National Parks Foundation

National parks. Writing. Dedicated Space. What else can I say about this opportunity?

Listen, so each national park from New Mexico to Hawaii to the Eastern seaboard has its own deadline and stipulations. Some have stipends while others don’t. All are residencies with your own place to sleep and be, but stuff like wifi…I dunno.  Each park is different and offers different experiences. You’ll have to click each park at the link above and see the specific requirements.

Glendaliz’s List

My friend Glendaliz (also a VONA alum. Hint, hint) has been gathering a list of these opportunities longer than I have. She has a list going on her own site with opportunities that seem really fun and interesting.

She also does webinars on how to apply to residencies and covers things like how to write an artist statement. Check her out on her site. She’s a wealth of info and is always applying to these opportunities as well.

Journals featuring writers of color

Meanwhile, there are journals who are looking for work from people of color. Thanks to WritersRelief.com for putting this list together!  Some good stuff here.

Alright then! Seems like we all have some work to do. Residencies. Workshops. Submissions. Writing. Get to it, folks!

Write On,

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Valentines Day Treat: The Last Single Girl

Dear Reader,

As I was working on the blog today, I came across this story that I wrote for my then site, Writing to Insanity, in 2009.

This was me pre-MFA, pre-writing workshop, pre-everything when I was trying things out with my writing.

Man, I enjoyed this story that I decided to spruce it up a bit and re-issue it for Valentine’s Day. It’s a short story in six parts.

So, for you, my readers I re-present The Last Single Girl: A Love Story from the Gods.

Enjoy,

~Icess

Everything in its Place | Icess Fernandez Rojas

I’m so excited that this story found a home! “Everything in its Place” is different for me — voice and structure. I’ll write about the revision process for this piece soon since how it come to be is its own story. For now, however, read, enjoy, comment, share.

THE FEM

She is speaking. Her mouth moves but the words are soft like her brown skin and now I want to touch it again, strum my fingertips against it, make more memories from it. There isn’t enough time, there is never enough time when we are in this space. Time is cruel and so is this, what we are doing. The giving and the taking. There is pain and agony coming for me and for her, but her mouth is the color of strawberries.

Today there is breakfast. Yesterday there were good-byes, the could have and should haves of rewritten lives.

“There’s just no getting over you,” I say.

“There shouldn’t be,” replies.  

*

She returns to the room in her blue dress with little yellow flowers. I saw the fabric in the store earlier that summer and the pattern reminded me of her— beautiful and unexpected. I knew her…

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