I don’t mean to skirt the question of why I write what I do by telling these stories, but this is such an exciting question, and I am not as prolific as I would like to be, but I do have a conscious purpose as a writer, and it has been the same since I was about twenty:
to form a
between Americans and Mexicans.
We are neighbors.
We have so much in common.
We are similar in huge and small ways. When the microcosm matches the macrocosm, it is a miracle. When two beings have anything in common and can move each other's heart's, it is a the biggest “power point” lesson there is. It is a truth layered into the universe for us to witness if we pay attention. It is plain as the miracle that our Earth is a geometic sphere with just enough gravitational pull to keep me from flying off this keyboard as I write. What a love affair between my very legs and the Earth's core? Who designed that perfect balance? And the salinity of the ocean matching that in the womb? Is this really true? Who figured that out in the FIRST place? What chemist made it happen all those eons ago? And the creaminess of avocados. There is a higher being aware of much more than we are capable. I have proof of it in my fingerprints, in my blood, in yours. And I want to bring awareness of it in the text that I create.
So I aim for what is universally miraculous about being, and I do it with a bilingual, Tejana slant. Language is organic. It has changed over time, and will keep changing. Ask any linguist about grammar rules, and they will laugh about which rules are “right” or “wrong.” The human mind made the rules, not the grammarians. Grammarians tried to capture them, to colonize them, to "herd" the crazy cats going in all directions at once, which is great. Grammarians helped us understand one another when natural boundaries like oceans and distance kept us apart, but their rules are artifice. I love grammar, but language is and will always evolve because it is alive, and it will change because of borders being crossed, because of migration, because of Steve Jobs! it is used in communities, and the change is a slow and politically painful process. The Tejano community has its own language, and I am so lucky I get to record it, speak it, write it, and love it. Asi es. We speak this way y nos gusta right or wrong it is our mother tongues combined, a fusion of cultures and spice. I am grateful for my teachers like Mora, Tafolla, Cisneros, Cantu, and Anzaldua who paved the way for me to be bilingual on the page. I think the whole country became bilingual with the “epa, epa, arriba arriba” of Speedy Gonzales. I want to extend that a bit further.
4. How does your writing process work?
I love deadlines, as most artists do. Because life is distracting, artists have to negotiate gettng OUT of life in order to get INTO creating writing that is alive. This is hard to do. I see many people who want to do it and just opt out. And for almost a decade of my life, I also opted out. I was dead. My dreams had died.
As a community college professor, my writing process works like this: If I get a chance to write, which is rare during the semester, I will know about it well in advance, and I will do it. I am fast and effecient when I have the time and space to write.
This happens when I have no commitments, when I have satisfied any leftover work commitments, and when I have satisfied my friends and family with visits or phone calls needed to maintain those important relationships.
Sometimes I write on weeknights while my son and husband are doing their thing with television or a computer in the other room. I hate writing when they are both home because we already live disconnected lives, (my husband works evenings and weekends, and my son spends every other weekend with his dad), and I want to be between them, snuggled down, watching stupid television shows with them, laughing, having wine, and enjoying their comments, their company, their perspectives. Also, I want to be reading. There is so much to read!
So when I write during the week at night, it is like I am being punished in the other room, but it is always for a good reason, and it is the cost of being a full time employee as well as a writer. This is when I am most opting IN, when I give up family time to write, but I try to do it all when they are not impacted by it because I just flat out miss them, and I want to be with them. Like most of my writer friends, I have two major careers going on, my writing, and the other thing that makes me a living. I love both, but that means there is little to no “free time,” and I am never bored. I am always catching up, catching my breath.
Since the boys are often gone on weekends, I have to free myself of other commitments in order to write on weekends, and this is hard because I miss my friends and family, so I make a choice and stick to it. Someone may be having a baby shower I need to attend, or a friend and I may need to catch up just to survive the next week, or there is a writing gig I have to attend, and I go, and the writing waits. Between all of this and a regular life as mom and wifey, I don’t get to use the weekends for writing as much as I could if I were more of a recluse. I live with that, and I am okay with that. I need to keep my life balanced.
While I was working on my MFA, and now, when I do have the time and space to write, I close the door to my study because I cannot write with any sound distractions. Sounds actually hurt my brain when they come as I am writing. If my phone rings, it is like an ice pick going through my brain, and I want to grow another head, body, and hands, so I can murder the phone without consequence. If I answer, and it is my mom, she thinks I am either angry or sick, and I have to use all of my will power to say it nicely: “Oh, I am writing today.” It would be easy just to turn the phone off, and I do sometimes, but not my landline, and I just have to keep it on because as a mom, daughter, and wife, it is hard to disconnect. I am not a very nice person in this world when I am transporting myself into the other world that I inhabit when I write. This is horrible too because I am usually writing about compassion and family in one way or another, and then I am a total bitch to people on the phone.
While most of my writing is at the desktop, my poems are born usually by hand, and, if I already know what I am working on, like these Mary poems, new ones come in flurries by hand or at the computer when a moment pops up with time for free thinking. I have written poems waiting for my son in a parking lot, or stopping at a gas station before I get home. I just need five to twenty minutes of silence, to focus, and to see what miracle of understanding bubbles up, and these hand-written poems are a terrible mess when they are done, hard to read because my handwriting is really bad, but I listen to what I tell my students: Something in there is salavageable. Find it. Work with it. And then it may take minutes, or hours, or years of work after that.
Fiction and nonfiction is something I do only on the computer, (so many words!) but I am learning to edit with a stylus on my ipad, so that I can work while I travel or sit somewhere where there is no desktop and two to four to eight open hours of silence or near silence. That is exciting, not that I get that much silence, but when I travel I do, and I do jump on a plane fairly often to do something associated with writing.
My best friend in writing is the retreat/residency. I was lucky enough to get a large portion of my novel done when I was at Ragdale years ago. It was a very shakey, terrible draft, but it had scenes, characters, most of the building blocks I needed to begin the MFA at The University of Nebraska at Omaha. I had enough to work with program mentors who showed me to revise it into a thesis. Last year I went to Illinois again, to Peoria, to the Prairie Center for the Arts Residency at http://prairiecenterofthearts.blogspot.com/. There, in an astonishingly luxurious home, set on I do not know how many acres of pine, I worked on the novel for two full weeks. I completed a total revision in an isolated space with no commitments, no distractions, nothing but time to think and consider the story.
It was hard to sleep away from home in a strange house, but it was the only way I could actually do a heavy revision like that in less than two weeks. I would wake, have a cup of decaf, a shower, and then write until lunch time. I ate simple food that was ready right out of the fridge, leaves, berries, avocado, hummus. I sat down again to write until dinner, which was also raw and no mess--except for chips and salsa, which I just had to make while I was there, but food was not going to take up my time like it does in real life when I am cooking for my family.
After "dinner," I would sit down again to write until late at night. When on a writing retreat, my natural writing cycle is to do it all day and well into the night. I do not tire mentally of it, but I do tire physically, and my back has paid the price for sitting too long at the computer. It is very plain to me that my body is at odds with parts of my writing life, but I do yoga, massage with a foam roller, and recently have had chiropractic treatments to get the muscles and bone to work together so that I do not have pain. I have lots left to do! I am just getting started.
During the day in Peoria, I made short calls to all those who I was missing when I took small breaks to eat, but I did not let cooking or laundry, or social things interfere with the work. I worked all day in my novel’s world, and time disappeared. When I got to the end of the revision, after eight solid days of writing nonstop, I read two books and several research articles on topics I needed to understand better, and I had time to make some painful decisions about the ending of the book. Then I actually had time to add a whole new ending, and when that felt fine, I worked on some poems before I flew home. It was a dream for me to just live as a full time writer, but it came at a cost, being away from where I feel most safe and most happy, at home with my son and husband.
The writing life is a terribly beautiful paradox--it is where I feel most connected to myself and to the world, and yet, to do it, I have to disconnect from everything.
Usually, I finish projects just on time, with no seconds to spare. I trust that the universe is in sync with me a little on this because I completely lose track of time when I write, and so I live in hope it works out when and as it is supposed to. For example today, I had until five pm to write this blog entry. It is now 4:58, so Wendy Call, thank you for calling on me to talk about my creative process!
I enjoyed thinking about these questions, and I hope they help others who are juggling their multiple lives to know it can happen if the agent is you making it happen! I would love to describe all of the many dehabilitating and life-dream-ending crises I have endured in order to get this this point, this calm point where I have accepted my process and my purpose, but that writing job will need a new deadline! I have to go and meet my husband for dinner. It’s Wednesday, our “date night.” Next up is Jen Lambert, editor of burntdistrict poetry journal as well as Spark Wheel Press and Bill James, author of Parnucklian for Chocolate. I will link to them when they do their leg of the tour!