Good Sunday morning! I hope you’re doing well and that the writing is flowing as well as the coffee and that you’re doing the work you’ve always wanted to do.
It’s been a busy week for me and this upcoming week will be even busier. But I wanted to share this essay with you from my friend Vanessa Martir’s website, Digging into Memory. She is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and all around badass. This year, she’s pledged to write an essay a week and man, she is sticking to it! Great job, Vanessa!
This particular essay I’m sharing from her series has so many truth bombs. Love me a good truth bomb. The first sentence alone drips with truth and feeling. Here’s another section that jolted some truth in me, when she talked to writer Chris Abani about self-care:
“Then he got serious and said that I will come up with ways to take care of myself, like the boxing I was doing at that time and my walks in the forest. But there will come a time when those things won’t work and I will have to reinvent my methods of self-care. ‘You will always have to reinvent those ways, Vanessa.'”
I haven’t written much about self-care on this site but I’ve hinted at it. (This will be something I’ll be correcting real soon.) Part of the writer’s life is to dig deep with your work (yes, even genre writers have to do this. Especially genre writers, I’d say.)
Sometimes, while digging some emotions/feelings/thoughts bubble up that you don’t want to deal with. We have to pick at the scabs and pour alcohol on them to re-bleed on the page. It isn’t pleasant. It’s not supposed to be. But the craft is empty if it isn’t followed by the emotional work. That’s what makes it authentic.
I’ll write more about this soon. In the meantime, read Vanessa’s essay and her Relentless Files for more truth bombs. Definitely worth the read and the time invested.
Here’s the thing no one tells you about digging into memory and writing about the ghosts that haunt you: you will have to relive those moments and it will leave you reeling and you will carry that reeling in your chest and you won’t know what to do with it or yourself, and you will snap at people, the people you love most, who hold you when you’re heaving, and you won’t know what to do with that pain so you lash out and you can’t help yourself…in the moment, you will blame those people, say it is them, their nagging, their demands…and only later, when you’ve had time to calm fuck down will you see that it wasn’t them, it was you and your shit coming up…and you will be so fucking sorry but sorry doesn’t heal the pain you already caused…so what…
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.
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.
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.
The weekend is over and Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota are probably still on your mind in one way or another.
You want to forget but it’s still gnawing at you enough to sense you’re restless about it. But you don’t know what to do or how to start. You have to write that stuff down.
You have to write that stuff down.
I know what you’re thinking. Not everything is a writing exercise, Icess. True but not everything is about exercise either. Sometimes, writing is about healing and pouring something out of you onto paper so that it’s tangible.
Also, when writing through tragedy it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to publish. Other people don’t have to see it and you don’t have to share it. It’s just for you, to sort your thoughts.
I learned how powerful it was to write about the tragic moments in life when my dad died. I wrote awful, dark poetry, that will never be seen by another human being ever. But when the tears flowed and my heart hurt, that page was my security blanket. It helped me cope with death and what it meant in my life.
This is the easiest, low stress, basic way to write about the tragedy. Take a paper and pen and just write what you feel and what you think.
It doesn’t have to make sense.
There is no judgment.
It can be a grocery list if you want.
And you don’t have to do it for long.
Set 10 minutes on the clock and write about the first topic that comes to mind. Don’t stop for anything just keep going. Don’t hold back.
Write a poem
Poetry writing isn’t my forte but I dabble. Something about the poetic form is freeing. You can use figurative language (those similes and metaphors you don’t usually get to use). And…here’s the thing…
It doesn’t have to rhyme.
It doesn’t have a structure.
It could be about something small.
There are lots of different types of poems that could help you focus on your situation. One of my favorites and basic forms is an ode. This poetry form gives praise (or not if you want to be sarcastic) to an item, a thing, a feeling, or an experience.
This form uses lots of descriptions and imagery to give it heft. Here are some more tips http://www.powerpoetry.org/resources/writing-ode-poem
Writing prompt: Write an ode to a favorite memory. Be as descriptive as possible. For an added bonus, use the five senses in your description.
For me, dipping into science fiction or fantasy while writing about trauma has helped. The flexibility is endless with these forms. Science fiction doesn’t have to be the traditional form of spacemen and aliens. Think Doctor Who or Orphan Black or any comic book-based tv show. It can be basic on reality with some one aspect — time travel, cloning, etc — being extraordinary.
I like reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron for many reasons. At its core, I could be called science fiction if we’re looking for a simple genre. The story about how all people are made equal is dystopian, a sub-genre of sci-fi. It’s rooted in some reality but it usually deals with the ending of something, sacrificed for the common good. It brings up complex issues against the backdrop of fiction, allowing the writer to explore difficult topics.
Writing prompt: Write a short story where something human or an aspect of humanity had to be sacrificed to the continued life of the planet. Feel free to use time travel, cloning, a superhero (or two) or a complex equation to aid in your story.
This is probably one of my favorites.
I’ve written commentary for Huff Post Latino and the Guardian and it’s been great. It’s also the most direct way of getting out the pain and the hurt while focusing on logic or argument.
Note that this is different than freewriting which has few rules. Opinion writing follows a logical stream of thought and includes examples and facts to back up the argument.
What I love most about opinion writing is that it can take may forms. It could be the basic letter to the editor in your city newspaper to a creative non-fiction form to even a grocery list.
Writing prompt: Write a letter to someone or something that made you angry or treated you unfairly. Don’t forget to include examples add facts to back up your argument.
I hope this helps. I’m actually writing through my pain and have written some new pieces I’m excited to revise and submit to places.
Remember, on the page, no one can tell you what to do.
I’m offering creative writing classes in a couple of weeks. Online!
Yes, that’s the big announcement. I haven’t taught my online class since 2013 and so I’m opening up and teaching “How to write like a Rock Star.”
The class is the jump start you need to work on your fiction and your non-fiction. With this class, I’ll teach you the beginning how-to to get your writing in gear, on point, in process, and on the page.
The words weren’t foreign to me but how they were put together were. Space? I nodded thinking that I knew what that phrase meant.
All through my week, I kept hearing that phrase over again like a mantra in yoga class. During our workshops and in conversations with my workshop leader, this phrase was the bad penny of conversation but, like with everything else from that magical week, I took it with me to mull over and consider.
But this time, after more than a year, I know what that phrase means. I feel it like one feels cold or warmth. I feel it like how one feels pain. It is instinct now.
For people of color, women of color in particular, we play this inherited game. We walk into it really, the second we accept our first job. We learn to get better at it. We shrink ourselves in ways we’re not conscious of. We learn when it’s best to talk in the meeting even though we had that great idea two weeks ago. We learn to dress professionally, with just enough colors to be seen or even be considered fashionable, but mixed with enough muted colors to blend into walls and cubicles. Our voices are softer and lower, our tones calm, our speech rates slower so that we are understood but don’t come off as “passionate”, a code word for threatening. We change the texture of our hair — we relax it, we weave it, we place it in buns or ponytails. Our laughter in the workplace is limited least we are thought of as lazy and non-compliant despite working longer hours and working harder.
In short, the goal is to take up enough space to be seen as a professional but not so much that we’re seen as intrusive.
Writing is like that sometimes. Take up enough space to do your art but don’t demand any more than that. And getting paid for your writing? Well, that’s absurd! Writing for art? Who do you think you are? Hemingway? Writing the truth of the world around you — well now you’ve gone too far!
How dare we ask to take up the space that is not only due but required to just make sense of the world around us? I, as a writer, a woman of color, the daughter of immigrants, an Afro-Latina, take up this space because, simply, I am human.
So, nah, I ain’t sorry. I am allowed and required to take up all the space I need.
That is what independence is to me. That freedom of being and creating in my space. Being who I truly am. Not apologizing for it because none is necessary. I am human after all and we need what we need to survive and thrive in whatever way we chose. If that means I take up more space than I’m allotted then so be it. Making myself smaller physically or on the page serves someone else, serves a game that I’m not willing to play anymore.
I am allowed to take up space. I don’t have to apologize for it. I am free.
Began semi-secret new project, which I don’t want to announce until it is completely finished. Sorry, no update for this.
I’m working on non-fiction pieces! YES!! Flash memoir! Some thoughts from reading Citizen, which is amazing and you should definitely pick up.
Jennie Manning got a couple of raised eyebrows from agents. We’ll see what happens next. She got a deep polish during April which means she’s shining really brightly.
Kinda took this month off. Between grading and submitting grades and knowing that I’d have a relatively active summer, thought I’d take some time off. However, I did finish and submit my piece for the Kimibilo Fellowship. It’s a sci-fi piece and I LOVE it.
So far, I’ve concentrated on teaching creative writing to kids during a two-week camp. That camp just finished. So I’ll be back on the grind and prepping for Kimilibo here in a few days.
Thoughts about my progress
What do I think of my progress so far this year? It’s okay. I’m always going to push myself for more but I want to increase my number of submissions. However, to do that, I need to concentrate on writing more single, one hit things — flash fiction pieces, poetry, memoir, flash memoir, etc. I’ve written so much on Jennie that I need more stand alone pieces.
My submissions calendar is a bit sparse now. I hadn’t really updated it since taking May off. So I’m going to be adding more due dates and maybe revisiting some of the publications that posted new calls for submissions.
So…here’s the thing with my writing short stories. They all become novels. Seriously, I am having the most trouble with this. Two short stories now have novel heartbeats. So I’m going to retool this resolution to focus more on flash fiction with 1,000 words or less on the page most likely focusing on a single moment. Anything more than that I’ll have another novel project on my hands and NO! that can’t happen again.
Also, I haven’t thought or started translating any of my pieces, which is a goal I had at the beginning of the year. I’m thinking I may lay that aside and concentrate more on making the writing more impactful and deeper. I still want to work in Spanish and in translation but I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
Self care: I’m doing it. I’m listening to my body more and to my thoughts and making sure that I’m not overdoing it and that I am expressing what needs to be expressed. I’m also creating art which helps with the healing. This is extremely important because if I don’t take care of myself, how am I going to create art?
So that’s it. I give myself about a C+ on my goals which means I’ll need to step it up. I think I have a game plan already. There are two pieces that are boiling in my head at the moment that may be ready soon for submission. We’ll see.
Alright everyone, off I go and return to my writing hole.
This year, my Christmas holidays were one of reflection and surprise. I was surprised at how happy I was this holiday. Not because I was with family because it was exactly the opposite of what I thought I’d be in my life.
This has happened often this year.
Talking about this year, I’m going to write down 2015 as probably one of the better years. Not because this year has been stellar in the winning the lottery department. This year has been stellar in one very important area, life lessons.
This thought came to me after reading some old emails. Near year means cleaning out some old files. That’s when I saw them. The emails that reminded me of all the pain and hurt from six months ago. So I instantly wrote down the top lessons I learned from that experience and others this year.
Here’s the seven that I wrote down. I hope as 2016 comes in, they help you with your writing life.
Celebrate the small victories
I’m from a generation where you didn’t celebrate things until you did something really big like find the cure to cancer.
While I haven’t done anything THAT big yet, I do believe in giving yourself credit when you’ve done something good or completed something difficult. Whether that’s with retail therapy, a Netflix binge, or a good meal with friends, taking the time to celebrate the small moments sets you up for the bigger moments.
For writers, this means having a glass of wine when you finish a chapter. Treating yourself to a good meal when that poem FINALLY comes together. When you beat that deadline, get yourself those new shoes. Whatever and however you celebrate. There are lots of people who will remind you how awful you are, these moments prove them wrong.
Always protect hope
I haven’t hidden the fact that it was touch and go there for a bit. I know now that what nearly lead me to make that decision was a lack of hope. I had no hope that things would get better. And while I had help eliminating hope from my life, don’t ever lose it. The thought of things getting better despite things going wrong is enough to move mountains.
Put yourself out there, even if you’re not ready
This one is one of the biggest lessons for my writing career. I’d been writing in a bubble for awhile, even after grad school. I didn’t want anyone to read or know my work until I was finished and it was clean. And while I still believe that pieces should not be workshopped until you feel good about it and some major decisions have already been made, it should not hinder you from doing sending out your work or having people read it.
I submitted my essay for the Owl of Minerva Award right under the wire because I thought it wasn’t good enough. My VONA application was turned in two minutes before deadline in the back of a MegaBus and I still wasn’t happy with it. Both times I was rewarded. This made me think that it was time for my writing to be read by more people.
Yes, this post will reach 3,000 people (btw did I mention that more than 3K people read this blog. Wow! Thank you!). Yes, I have published articles and such before. However, I am a fiction writer who writes books like some people write grocery lists. People should see my work, even if I don’t think I’m ready.
Find your tribe
In 2015 I found my tribe and they are amazing. VONA and the Afro-Latinas from the writer’s retreat are just what I need. I pitch them ideas and they read my stuff and give me feedback. And when I’m down, they lift me up. My tribe is my heartbeat.
Accept it, some people are just plain evil.
From Aug. 2014 – July 2015 I lived in absolute fear. I didn’t have to, but I thought I did because I thought I was doing something wrong. I blamed myself for being afraid. After all, if you have something to fear you’re doing something wrong. For the past six months, I have learned that there was very little that was wrong with me and whole lot that was wrong with the situation I was in. I know now that this was a form of mental abuse called gaslighting.
And as hard as it is to admit it, there are just some people in this world who are just plain evil. They aren’t nice no matter how nice you are to them. They will take advantage and they won’t care how it impacts you.
Once you understand that, truly understand and accept it right down into your bone marrow, decisions will be made easier. You’ll know what to do in all situations. And no one will be able to tell you different.
Courage means listening to your gut instead of your head
There is more courage in saying that it’s not working than there is in staying and trying to make it work. There will be times that logic needs to be thrown out of the window.
Don’t be afraid to do something stupid if it means keeping your sanity. It all falls into place when it should.
Lessons come from unexpected places
I have learned from my students, podcasts, my madre’s refranes, my sister, and from soap operas. Lessons are everywhere and in the most unexpected places. All you have to do is be open to it.
How much do I love Christmas time? Lots, I suppose. Today I have a bah humbug type of feeling which I’m sure is temporary.
There’s no reason for it and I’m not sad. As a self-diagnosed introvert, this is the part of the holiday that exhausts me. It’s not that I’m not happy to see everyone during the holiday season, but it’s the act of seeing everyone in such short amount of time. So many people. So much noise. So much of … EVERYTHING.
No other family friend visit exhausts me as much as visiting a Cuban household. I’m half Cuban and I live in Houston so I didn’t grow up around very many Cubans. So visiting is always overwhelming because there’s so much preperation. Most especially during the holiday season.
Therefore, in the spirit of giving and sharing, here are my tips for visiting a Cuban household, each earned the hard way. Please think of this as your handy guide to surviving the Cuban Holiday Apocolypse.
Rule One: Dress well as to not shame your family
Let me be upfront with something, you will be judged. Oh, the judgement. Some. Much. Judgement. The goal really isn’t to not be judged but to be judged less, to keep comments to a minimum. Why? Because clapping back is a direct reflection of how you were brought up. After all, this will not be the last time you will see the Cuban family so bringing shame upon your own with a snide remark is a rookie mistake.
For me, dressing well to go to a Cuban house means the following: You have to wear makeup. You have to dress up (which means nothing is wrinkled at all). Perfume is a must. And your status in the world must be reflected in what you wear. And don’t be fat. Please, don’t be fat. Well, at least, dress to look less fat.
Remember this always, do NOT shame your family. Rule One.
Rule Two: You will be fed.
Talking about fat, you’re gonna eat. It doesn’t matter when you go. In fact, you may be ushered into the kitchen with a plate already waiting for you. Don’t say no. Eat. It doesn’t matter if you already ate. Why? Rule One. Stop trying to shame your family.
The good news is that if you are being feed, most likely pork will be involved. Delicious. Marinated. Cooked with the care of 100 angels. It’s the national food of Cuba, you know, back when we had food.
And Cafe Cubano. That tiny unassuming cup of coffee. Even if it’s 4 in the afternoon, take it. Rule One. Enjoy your insomnia tonight.
Rule Three: Bring in the noise.
It will be noisy. There may be a tv set on, plus the radio, plus a dozen or so children running and screaming, and the typical Cuban conversation, which is about 10 decibels above the typical American voice. No, you are not being yelled at. This is how we talk. Hand gestures. Facial expressions. Arms flapping about. We communicate through body expressions and noise. We don’t know what quiet is. Seriously, what is that?
When (not if) you are asked to dance. Wait, there is no asking. Someone will grab you by the hand and dance with you. If you are a single woman and there is a single man there, you will be shamed (SHAMED!) into dancing together.
Yes, you are being set up. Yes, they hope something happens. Yes, they are seeing what you will look like dancing at your wedding. In fact, they’ve already planned it. Your nuptials have been the talk of the adult table since two hours before your showed up. Yes, they will ask you to go run an errand together because suddenly there’s no ice. Oops! Take that opportunity to mention to your now newly beloved that you are secretly married and you’re just waiting for the right time to tell your family because he’s the head of a cartel. He has guns. Lots of them. He has an army with guns. Lots of them, too. And if he plays along, you won’t mention to your cartel husband that you (guy) tried to holler at his secret wife. (Incidentally, this explains my writer’s imagination.)
Rule Four: Bring your A game to the adults table.
Did you happen to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year? Great! Wear it. Did you win an Emmy, Oscar, Tony? Bring it. Did you do anything big and spectacular? Bring evidence of it. That can be used to explain why you haven’t 1) visited more often this year 2) your singlehood 3) your career choice 4) your barren, barren womb. (Why don’t you have children?)
Now, if you were sick this year, this is even better. But, you can’t be too happy while you’re visiting. Like, don’t dance salsa. I know it’s your favorite song. Yes, Marc Anthony is the jam but unless you are his next wife, you will be talked about and then, yes, Rule One. STOP trying to shame your family!
Yes, it’s the jam. Stop dancing. Now. Your mother and her friends are watching with THAT look. BTW, he’s Puerto Rican not Cuban. WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?
Rule Five: Say hello and goodbye to everyone ESPECIALLY the matriarch.
Do not, I repeat, do not skip one person in your greetings. It will take you about 30 minutes to say hello. If it’s even one second less, you missed someone and you have broken Rule One.
Make sure, however, that you compliment everyone as you greet them.
Example: Manolito, you’ve grown so much! Sylvia, you look so beautiful. Abuela Martinez, you look so young, how do you age in reverse?
Nice, yes but you save the big compliments for the matriarch, the woman who makes everything run. While a man may run this Cuban household in theory, it’s the woman who makes all decisions. Every. Single. One. Especially the piece of pork that you will be served today. Your greeting needs to go something like this:
“Senora Martinez, how beautiful you look tonight?! I love your new (insert article of clothing). And the house looks amazing. I don’t know how you do it. Your family is so lucky to have you.”
Say this with so much fake sincerity and it nearly brings you to tears. It’s thick but it works. Trust. Me. Keep the queen happy and you will be fine. God save the queen. Always.
Conversely, however, it will take you about an hour and a half to say goodbye. Don’t’ short cut this step. Rule One, remember?
Rule Six: Your were NOT raised in a barn.
Basically don’t show up unannounced, bring a gift no matter how small, and always offer to help in some way. I personally like to offer to either do the dishes or set the table. Any self-respecting Cuban woman will not allow you to do her dishes so you’re safe there. However, as a compromise setting the table is a good alternative. Don’t do any of these and Rule One is so broken super glue ain’t gonna fix it. The shame will be intense. You want none of that.
Don’t do any of these and Rule One is so broken super glue ain’t gonna fix it. The shame will be intense. You want none of that. You are not prepared for this. None us are.
In the stupid chase you do break Rule One, start looking for another family. You will be disowned immediately.
That’s what I got. Hope this has helped you as it has helped me through the years. God speed, Reader.
Taking a short nap before the next visit,
P.S. Whatever you do, don’t forget Rule One. Ever.
An interesting thing about being a writer is that you have writer friends and they do some awesome things. Like really awesome things. Like life changing things.
Sometimes, it really puts your life into perspective.
So, I thought I’d share some of my friends’ work with you. Why?
Because what you think the writing life probably should look like isn’t the reality. Let’s look at some case studies.
Let’s start with my girl Isabella Avila Borgeson. She’s a spoken word poet I met at VONA in the summer. She was so awesome to chat with and when it was time to do a reading, she picked me after she performed what was possibly the most-perfect spoken word piece I have heard ever.
Here she is performing one of her poems, which made her one of four spoken word poets picked to perform in during the climate talks in Paris.
My friend Jasminne Mendez is amazing. I’m secretly jealous of her poetry skillz. She also a Houstonian and it’s been a pleasure getting to know her through her work and by the awesome advice she gives.
Here she reads an excerpt of “El Corte” which was recently named a finalist for the CutThroat Magazine Barry Lopez Creative Non Fiction prize judged by Nick Flynn.
And of course, I have friends who released books. One of them is Kaiaia Alderson-Tyson. Her latest book, Calling Her Bluff, was published by Entangled Publishing. LOVE HER WORK so this is definitely a recommendation.
Need one more? I got one for you. Vanessa Mártir is a writer from New York who teaches and … hold on … is a single mother. Yes, she does this life AND she’s a mom. She’s also fierce on the page. She’s an essayist and writes memoir, fearless memoir. Vanessa is working on her second book called Relentless and has had lots of her essays in publications. Her latest was published in Thought Catalog earlier this month. Her work also earned her a place at the Tin House Winter Workshops early next year.
I know what you’re thinking. Icess, these are writers who have been doing things (publishing, creating, getting press for their work) for a long time. How am I supposed to get there?
Here’s the thing. They were once you. They started writing at their kitchen table or in their notebooks. They wrote during school, after school, in line for groceries, etc.
They started. They continued. They applied for opportunities.
All of these writers have full-time jobs and they still work on their craft, publishing or producing poetry videos or participating in readings. That’s what it means to be a writer in modern America today.
Listen, I know you have this idea of a Parisian cafe and spending the day there, writing. That can happen to a certain extent. You may think of the life where you are writing every day in your home office. It does happen for some. However, what defines the writing life in not your butt in a chair but the actions around your art. Writers do. Writing is a verb. You must write, you must do, and, this is very important, you must support others on similar paths.
You learn from your contemporaries as much as you learn from reading the big names.
Still feel like this isn’t or can’t be you? Make yourself this promise. In the first three months of 2016 submit your work for publication – whether it’s to a lit mag or a freelancing piece to a news publication or sending out a query letter. Just one. Then in the second three months, submit an application to a workshop or conference.
Keep going for the rest of the 2016 writing, reading, and submitting. With any luck, by this time in 2016, you will have a list of accomplishments. The point is not whether you have gotten the opportunities you applied for, it’s that you did it and fulfilled one aspect of the writing life most people forget — putting their work out there.
Every time I’ve taken parts of the Jennie novel to workshop or to read, I get this feedback about her voice and her character. She is powerful, and sassy, and funny, and yes, gives no ducks.
And the people who have commented most about this have been women. I don’t know why this surprises me. A lead female character should appeal to women, shouldn’t it? But when women who don’t read mysteries say that they would read a Jennie Manning novel, it’s probably because they see something in her that they don’t see anywhere else.
“I’d want to have a beer and hang out with Jennie,” someone told me after the reading.
As a writer, that makes me feel great. As a woman and a reader, it makes me sad.
With other female detectives out there, from cozy to hard-boiled, why are there not more women finding themselves in mystery fiction? More specifically, what aren’t more women of color seeing themselves in this genre?
It’s not that there aren’t female sleuths in fiction. Janet Evanovich alone has made an industry of Stephanie Plum. However, if you’re like me, you like your heroines gritty, more complex, more like … you.
I’ve read heroines who were more like me. Lupe Solano from Carolina Aguilera Garcia was my childhood. I didn’t know what Miami was until I read those books. Lupe had a Cuban heritage like me. A loud and proud family like me. But she had such a crazy awesome life — a DA boyfriend, a crazy cousin, and a detective agency in Coral Gables. Those books brought that world into my world and I knew then I’d write a novel. And if I was really lucky, I’d write my own mystery novel with my own lady detective.
So I know that lead characters of color in mystery novels exist. But if I wasn’t looking for them, would I have come across them?
That’s the argument that comes when this talk about writers of color and characters of color comes to the main stage. It’s not enough that there’s one or two or a handful of characters who look or sound like me. It’s not enough when the rest of the world sounds so different. When people don’t see themselves in stories why should they listen? Why should they read?
I decided to look for some market research in this genre (seriously, once you’re a journalist it’s hard to turn it off) and I found a 2010 study commissioned by Sisters in Crime. The study was surveyed 75,000 (that’s not a typo) who purchased books at the end of 2009 and the beginning on 2010. Here’s some of what they found:
68 percent of mysteries are purchased by women.
More than half the mysteries purchased are sold to people over the age of 55.
39% of all mysteries are purchased in stores.
35% of mysteries are purchased by people who live in the South.
77% of mysteries are purchased by households with no children at home.
48% of mysteries are purchased by readers who live in suburban areas.
E-book sales are growing fast. In 2009, 1.7% of books sold were e-books. In Q2 of 2010, 7% of books sold were e-books.
Readers under 40 look for dark, suspenseful stories.
Readers under 40 don’t see mysteries as distinct from other genres as older readers do.
So older women in Southern suburbs with no children read mystery novels that they purchased at their bookstore. That’s what the findings boil down to.
This study is dated and I hope that the group commissions another study soon, especially since they started to track the growth of e-book sales and the habits of readers under 40. I also hope they break it down by ethnicity/race.
Because the ladies who wanted to have a beer with Jennie were women of color. And they were not older. And they did not live in suburbs.
Reader, I know some things about life and telling stories. Stories are about people and how they live their lives. I have a character of color who chooses to go down a path that many women would go down if they could. She picked justice by any means necessary. In this world where justice for people of color seems like a foreign concept, this is the appeal.
We want hell in high heels. Strength. Smarts. Flawed.
This is why writing characters of colors and stories of color is so important. Our stories don’t just validate our experiences to adds to the overall narrative. And our narrative is not just older and suburban.