What it’s really like being a writer.

Dear Reader,

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.

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Isa and I goof off at the University of Miami

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.

 

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Jasminne and I celebrating her husband’s graduation from his MFA program. He’s also a writer. Jas was just accepted to her own program too.

 

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.

Another friend, also VONA related, Bani Amor became my Twitter friend recently. She’s a queer travel writer and photographer from Brooklyn. Her work earned her a spot as one of the 9 more inspirational women travel bloggers to follow. 

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.

Need to get started? My friend Glendaliz Camacho has some ideas.

Good luck,

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The 1 big mistake mystery novels make

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The Mysteries of Jennie Manning.

Dear Reader,

Jennie Manning. She’s a character who gives zero…

The word that you’re looking for to end that phrase rhymes with ducks.

That’s how someone described Jennie to me after I read a sample for Culture, Love, and Identity: An Afro-Latina Reading.

Zero ducks. Yes, I like that.

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.

Marching forward,

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How the worst time of my life became the best

 

 

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Welcome to Miami. There are palm trees everywhere.

Dear Reader,

Today, I am dreaming of Miami.

It’s been nearly six months since I last stepped foot in that town and it changed my life. That was when I felt something break inside of me and a shift happen. There was bound to be change. That was June 26.

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Me at VONA in Miami

It wasn’t even a month later that my life completely changed. I left a rough and difficult situation for home, where I wanted to be for so long. Looking back now, had I continued in that situation, I’d be dead within six months. That’s where my head was.

I’m not ashamed of it now, I was at one point suicidal. There was a time I curled up into a ball and cried. The crying didn’t stop and I soon found myself being diagnosed in a psychiatric hospital.

However, I had help getting there. I know now the dark side of humanity and that it pleased some to create the situations that lead me down this dark path.

So when Miami happened and that shift happened, a new life happened. Happened. Happened. Happened. I have that clear in my head, the last year happened, to me, around me, and in my heart.

During the week of Thanksgiving, I wondered if I would have something to be thankful for. I was upset that I wouldn’t. Surely this is the bottom of the low of my life. But a phone call from a former student, actually several phone calls from former students, reminded me how close I came to ending it all. They reminded me how life in 2015 started one way but is ending in a completely different way and that’s okay.

Those phone calls reminded me that, to live a life worth living it is not about how much of one thing or another you have. It’s about what you contribute to the world. And it’s being here when it’s easier to not be. It’s about feeling the dark and the light.

These past six months have been the most creative in several years.  I started a writer’s retreat. Did a live streamed reading. Won an award. Taught amazing students. Wrote a short story in a genre I never thought I’d write and I went to VONA where on June 26 everything changed. 

I’m not done. If all goes well I will finish 2015 with three more submissions to publications and contests.  And I’ve met my tribe. My beautiful Afro-Latinas who knew me before they knew my name. For them I am forever grateful. 

Dark comes in anticipation of the brightest light.  This is what I know  to be true. (Click to tweet this out.)

Miami, I love you. With every visit, I learn something more of myself. This last one was a doozy. Thank you for that.

Miami dreaming,

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I AM THIRSTY!

 

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My friend Alicia doing her writing thing during the Afro-Latina retreat

 

Dear Readers,

My friend Alicia Anabel Santos is on a mission.

She was accepted into a writer’s retreat in Costa Rica! That’s amazing.

I know what some of you may be thinking. Costa Rica! Vacay! What does this have to do with me or with writing?

First off, it’s not a vacation. Writer’s retreats have nothing to do with being on vacay. They are usually in beautiful places because you’ve spent most of your time being spent — heavy lifting on your writing, some crying, some tearing pages apart, some real time with your piece. So, yeah, no vacay. It’s work, all work. And at the end of the day staring out into pretty things is the only thing you have strength enough to do.

Also, this has everything to do with writing. Alicia is a great friend of mine and is one of the writers from the Afro-Latina writer’s retreat in Galveston. She was also one of the readers during the recent live stream.

This is one of those experiences where she stepped out on faith and submitted to a writer’s retreat. And she got in! She needs our help to get there.

Please, click on the link and read her story about her reasons for going and donate what you can. Five bucks, ten bucks, whatever. Anything is helpful.

Thanks,

Icess

 

Source: I AM THIRSTY!

How I learned to give myself (writing) space

 

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A delicious writing session at Starbucks. Jazzy music not included.

 

Dear Reader,

I recently Tweeted something odd. At least it is for me.

There’s something to say about space, especially for writers, that makes the world go right-side-up again. It’s been four months since I’ve moved home to Houston and while it’s great to be home writing space and time have been hard to come by.

It’s hard to go from a set up with a dedicated desk to a kitchen table in a noisy living room. With headphones, the problem lessens but sometimes a writer just needs quiet.

Starbucks or a coffee shop is NOT quiet, but it’s quiet enough.  A good set of headphones and the latest Adele album (have you heard it yet?) and it’s enough to do some work.

So, yes, Starbucks makes me feel normal. And normal is good. I still miss my set up, though.

 

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My old space

 

But space also has another meaning for me. Head space. Creative space. The space where things are all possible.  Some people call that space Hope. I call it my creative, white-hot center.

Robert Olen Butler coined that phrase in his book, “From Where You Dream”. I read that phrase during grad school when I was all artsy and, frankly, douchy but in the cutest possible way, if that’s possible.

“You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place– it can’t be white-hot and dark at the same time, but I don’t care–that paradox, live with it — whatever scared the hell out of you down there — and there’s plenty in there; down into the deepest part of it and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away.”

That white-hot center. That place from where creativity comes from. That place where hope lives and the place I keep pristine.

That space? For me, that space is magic. As I reflect back on this year, I know that 2015 has been amazing to me. No, I didn’t win the lottery nor did I purchase a big, flashy new Texas McMansion. This has been an amazing year because for the first time, I feel free. The white-hot center part of me, from where creativity comes, is free and for the first time I feel I can do anything. Absolutely anything.

And I have! I have worked on projects that really appeal to me and used my voice in new and different ways.

That makes me feel…well, like this

 

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Smiling and rocking out.

 

 

And who doesn’t want to feel like this all the time?

Space. It more than just a desk and a computer. It’s where creativity comes from. And, if  I’m lucky, my space will be all I need for a long time.

 

Writing from the white-hot center,

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When the N word doesn’t make sense

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Dear Reader,

One of the most eye-opening experiences about teaching college students in Houston is the international feel of the classroom.

In my English classes, I have students from countries in Africa (too many to name) Iran, India, South Korea, China, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia.

These students are from these countries. First generation. They know nothing about certain things.

So when a Mexican student said the word “nigger” in class the other day, it was a teachable moment I knew was coming.

Now, before you get up in arms, Dear Reader, I want you to know the context. It wasn’t in an effort to name call or to demean. It wasn’t said while saying the lyrics of the latest rap song. It wasn’t even said as a term of endearment as some have decided to use this term.

This was part of an assignment – to read essays in their textbook to find out how to write a certain type of essay. They were to do a presentation on how they think a definition essay should be written.

One of the essays in the chapter deals with the N-word. While my other American(ized) students decided to skip that word and/or that essay, this student didn’t. For him, nigger is a word like cat, or dog, or cup. It means something. There was a definition in a dictionary but it didn’t mean more than the letters it took to write it.

That word was even difficult for him to pronounce. With its double g next to the r, it took so much energy to try to say correctly. N-eh-gg-rrr. Ne-gr. Nah-ah-gar.

Hearing him say it, even with an accent, during the presentation made my skin crawl. I gasped as did some of my other students. The international students looked confused. What did this word mean? Why were some students in shock while others weren’t?

Then came the teachable moment. I looked at my international students and explained that that word, although part of the English language, means something very dark and sinister. We talked about the origins of the word, Jim Crow, and how, at one point of American history, I wouldn’t have been allowed to be their teacher.

Then we talked about the word now. The meaning could not be separated from the connotation, they were one in the same. Some use it in a positive context but it doesn’t erase what is was and still is to some people.

This moment here, this is why English and liberal arts are important. Listen, I can go into this whole tirade about why a liberal arts education is important. I can go into how classrooms need to be protected because that is one of the last forms of a pure free speech. I can politic this into next Tuesday.

But all of that doesn’t matter.

Once upon a time there was this word. And it was hurtful. And the people who said it were hurtful. And the people who they said it too, bad things happened to them for a very long time.  But now that word is a teachable moment for the next generation, the next flocks of immigrants who want to make this their home country. They learned from something that still infects society and understood that a word, one single word, is powerful. By speaking it, they aren’t just saying dog, cat, or cup, they are evoking the past, something they are not interested in repeating. What they are interested in is learning from it and moving forward.

I can’t wait to see what they will do with these essays.

 

Humbled,

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What I did different to be a better writer

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Dear Reader,

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this short story I’m writing! So much so that instead of writing an update post about Jennie Manning, I decided to write this instead.

At the moment, I’m in the teacher’s lounge where I usually am hours before my classes start. Usually, I am here prepping my classes but with this being Thanksgiving week and all there’s very little to prep. So I brought my latest short story with me to work on before class.

Essentially, I had #wordsforbreakfast. It was glorious!

This short story is like nothing I have ever written. It is a sci-fi short story. Other than my love for all things Doctor Who, I’m not really a sci-fi girl, not really. I’m more of a geek girl who goes to cons to be among her people.  Seriously, a picture exists with me and the TARDIS.

I wanted to submit a sci-fi/dystopian story to an anthology edited by a really awesome author. I didn’t make the deadline because I had no idea what I was doing and the story was absolutely awful. But I decided to keep working on it anyway. I felt it had some possibilities.

After working on it for a huge chunk of the weekend, I feel like I finally have a handle on it and I’m so into it. SO INTO IT.

Let me clarify, I’m into my story. I’m not officially saying I’m adding sci-fi to my list of genres.

I think what is bringing me to this is that the drama of the story is enhanced by the setting. Issues of humanity, race, and control are easy to explore. Creating the world didn’t enthrall me as much as getting into these issues.

And truth be told, I like not knowing what these characters are going to do next. I just throw a bunch of obstacles just to see what they do. It’s pretty exciting.

I’m going to finish it this week if not in the next couple of days. I’m excited to enter the revision stage with this one and then workshop it.

Ain’t the writer’s life grand?

 

Your friendly neighborhood writer,

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That Latin Explosion documentary…incomplete

Dear Reader,

Sometimes being Afro-Latina comes with stomaching the obvious — being left out of the narrative.

I tried to avoid the HBO documentary Latin Explosion because I already knew what it was going to be, a celebration of Latino achievement in America.

And it should be celebrated — Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano — their very presence started a chain reaction that allowed Rick Martin to dazzle at the Grammys or Shakira’s hips not to lie.

But where are the Afro-Latinos? Are we not part of the story?

Usually, we are not. Usually, we are the other, the dark-skinned tio in the closet no one talks about. The Afro part of being Hispanic, whether you’re Mexican or Argentine, is usually swept under the rug.

But this documentary is very music heavy. We talk about salsa and include Desi Arnez in the conversation. The Fania All-Stars are mentioned. And yet, where is Celia Cruz?

We talk about acting and yet where is the infamous Zoe Saldana who was in one of the highest grossing films in recent memory?

Continuing with actors, how about Gina Torres who has had an entire career with little recognition of her Latina roots. And she doesn’t run away from it either as we can tell from this video.

Can we also mention Laz Alonso who is an actor on The Mysteries of Laura, which was adapted from a Spanish television show?

I find it difficult that the Estefans were part of this documentary and didn’t mention their friend Celia once, or the fact that they made a living with beats that came straight from their African roots?

Like this moment never happened.

Or at the very least that her life was on Broadway. Yes, THE Broadway.

It’s harsh when not even your own recognizes you and most especially when they were your friends.

It’s obvious that the documentary made me angry but it doesn’t surprise me. I don’t like that as a people, Latinos are not united. We have the potential to do great things and yet we insist on not accepting and telling our entire narrative. We, as a people, seem to be okay to just tell one side of the story and accept it as complete — this is who we are, not that other side.

Newsflash, there were slaves in Latin America. They have last names  like Fernandez, Gonzalez, Guerra, Martinez. They speak Spanish. They dance salsa and bomba and tango. That music you are dancing to? Came from the motherland. That pride, part of that came from the motherland too. We are Latinos and we deserve to be part of the narrative of being Latino, not only in Latin America but here, in the US, which seeks to categorize us as African American.

Documentaries like this make me tired and upset. Story, my dear reader, is currency. Those with the currency have power and can frame the narrative in any way they choose.

That’s why it’s so important to tell our stories, the Afro-Latino story. It’s just as beautiful and varied as everyone else’s and it’s just as important to tell.

So, I’ll tell it.

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Questioning the evil in the world

 

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Photo courtesy of Elliott Brown via Creative Commons License. No changes were made to this image.

 

 

Dear Reader,

For the past week, I have been questioning the world and its intentions.

Paris. Beirut. And now Mali. What is going on with the world? What is going on with humanity?

 

My students talked about how they felt about things after the Paris attacks. I wanted to give these college freshmen space to talk about this — what they were feeling, thinking, etc. It amazed me that they were ready  and willing to talk.  They started with one question.

“Why would anyone do this?”

I couldn’t answer this question for them. I could answer how to punctuate a sentence or write a thesis. Yes, that was easy stuff but why do people hate and why do they act upon that hate as easily as ordering a latte at Starbucks…that one was more difficult.

So, I told them why English class was important.

“It’s not just a required class,” I started, their eyes looking at me in the middle of the room. “And this class helps you with thinking critically on paper but it’s not really about that either. This, these papers you’re writing are slices of humanity. This is how you combat hate. You learn to write what it is like to be a human in 2015 and use your words, not bullets, to communicate ideas. Civilizations have crumbled through the power of words, leaders have been created with the right thought at the right time. The written word is more powerful than bombs, swifter than swords, stronger than steel. Writing, words, thoughts, thinking, this is how wars are won. Not armies but words. You are in English class because your generation has the potential to change the world to something amazing. This is how you start. Words are your building blocks.”

After that, the class sat. They thought about it and their argumentative papers. I could tell they looked at their papers different because during class I was flooded with questions about their papers, specific questions. More than just please check if this is right. These questions were like, I want to make sure I’m saying what I think I’m saying.

I’d like to think that I said and taught my students more than just essay structure and thesis statements. I hope that I taught them to question and express themselves in a different way. I hope I taught them that they already have a weapon at their disposal and that it’s stronger than their fear.

I hope for them all things strong and good and fair. I hope for them a humanity of peace. I hope for them the answers to all their questions.

Even when the world is going mad, Dear Reader.

 

As always,

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The best night of literature and words

 

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The most brilliant women I know. They make me look good.

 

Dear Reader,

I am exhausted and with good reason.

On Wednesday night, I was part of an amazing livestreamed reading. Culture, Love, and  Identity: An Afro-Latina Reading. 

It was amazing and just knocked my socks off. You know when you work on something for so long and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out but you just can’t stop to think about it. That was that moment.

Wait, it’s all jumbling in my head like a brand new jigsaw puzzle. Let me start where all things start, the beginning.

I had this idea. What if there was a writing retreat for Afro-Latina writers? Like why wasn’t there before? It just seemed to be this was a thing to do.

You have to understand, Dear Reader, that when I thought about this, it was for an award given by a lit journal. It wasn’t really thought out completely. It was half baked on its way to being fully baked, as most ideas are.

But then I won it and all of a sudden I became something more than a writer. I became a person who created space for other writers. I became a person who went from writing in the shadows to asking people to apply to spend a weekend in a Houston in Galveston, Texas. I became a person with a voice and an opportunity to do something different.

Talk about adulting.

And I took it seriously and it was amazing. The five ladies that joined in were just amazing writers and people. It was surprising how close we became in such a short period. So much so that I can’t imagine my writing life without them.

Then we did this reading. This crazy awesome reading of our work and now people are saying they were inspired. I read a section of Jennie Manning, my novel in progress, and now people are asking about my character.

And yet, this feels like my life’s work, something that I should do always and constantly. Something I should explore because there’s an answer there somewhere, I think, though I have no idea what the question is.

And so this reading happens. It happens the same week I grade what feel like a million papers. It happens the same week I get some distressing news from my past. It happens the same week I questions a list of truths I’ve grown up with.

This reading happens just as life happened. As it should.

So here, I give you the reading. I hope you like it. I hope it inspires you. I hope it fuels you.

As always I remain your humble storyteller,

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