So I will address my blog to my nonfiction comadre, Wendy Call, photographed above, though it is open for you to see too. Wendy is a Fellow Macondista, and that is how I met her years ago. We have a lot of common interests, things green, things Mexican, and things for human justice, for authenticity. Macondo is a Homeland for writers who are working for non-violent social change. It is a workshop, filled with panels on writing craft as well as panels on the craft of living as a writer. Founded by Sandra Cisneros, Macondo is a space for writers to come and deal with their inner and outer lives as writers. Many Macondistas say it taught them more in one week than in their entire MFA programs. It is like an MFA program in terms of its caliber, but it is also like a seminary, where we participate in the sacred act of respecting each other, stripping away our egos, connecting with kin spirits. What happens is we come out bursting and ready to write again, inspired by the deep well that comes from Sandra’s notion of generosity. As a regular attendee to Macondo, Wendy has been touched by this generosity, and I can’t remember how long ago we became fast friends. She’s the author of the nonfiction book, No Words for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy. Wendy invited me to be a part of this blog tour, which asks writers to talk about their current work, their genre, and what makes them zing a certain way on the page. Wendy toured, and she handed me the baton. You can read her leg of this tour here: http://wendycall.blogspot.com/
Preciosa Wendy: I am so excited to be on this blog tour to do something on my blog other than “Friends, Join me for my reading at such and such place at such and such time.” Why don’t I do a better job at blogging? Is it because I am afraid? Is it because I am “so busy?” Maybe a little of both. I want to get better at it. I also want to just announce what’s happening too. If anything, I designed my blog to be open for creative musings as well as pragmatic announcements.
- What am I working on?
Aside from being a poet, nonfiction essayist, and a wanna-be novelist, I am a full time associate professor of English at a community college. That means my job demands that I not not write anything new or creative on my computer during the workday unless I want the district to own it. Seriously. I had to do ethics training on this. They own everything I do on my computer, in my office, todo.
So to get around that, and to stay sane at work, I write curriculum. I constantly write and revise handouts, Power Points, course outlines, all of which I heartily give to the Alamo Colleges. This is how I stay happy at work. I write letters, faculty evaluations, new course assignments, comments on student work, encouraging letters, letters of recommendation for colleagues and students. I write write write all of the time, all day long, except for when I teach. And I am fast. I have to be fast because none of this comes home. That is my rule. And by the time I get home, my over forty-year-old eyes sting and have blurred. It is hard to do more after that, but there is a deep well from which I draw.
The truth is I am not writing a lot these days, not creatively anyway, not as much of my own work as I would like, but not long ago, I did a wonderful calculation. If I use my time well when I am not teaching, I have many weeks off a year where I can totally dedicate myself to my creative writing life. I won’t count out how many weeks off I get because no one wants a state employee to be that lucky, but I really AM super lucky.
I get time to refresh, decompress, and have long periods of time when I can plain forget about the beautiful demands of teaching. I love teaching, so I am not at all bitter about how much of my life it has taken. I was once, but no more. It is what I wanted it to become, a backsplash and reflective pool for my work. I get to read The Thousand and One Nights with my students, and I get to talk about how storytelling saves lives. I get to assist students in finding their voice for the first time. I’m really lucky I have such a great demand on me there.
But on to the question-- what am I working on right now?
Now that my first book of poemas, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, is out, I have to work on giving it some wings. I have to learn to promote it. I have to actively promote it. I have to make sure it does not flatline. This is hard for me because I have so little time as a writer anyway, and so making time for figuring out how to use Goodreads as a cheap promotional tool is quite the task! Because my brain is so terribly scattered, I have to do important things in order, and so I prioritize them. Dishes come first. I like to wake up to a clean kitchen. I cannot cope with dishes in the sink or anything sticky accumulating on the counter. It is an issue of sanitation and survival. That is all. Survival first, and that comes as prevent botulism. Also, while I clean the kitchen, I am really pre-writing. I am thinking, brewing, and getting ideas. Cooking for family comes second. Home organization outside of that comes about thirty second. Writing comes immediately after work (survival again), after motherhood (make sure son is surviving), hence the cleaning, but it comes before sleep and before drinking. Promoting my book has been somewhere behind writing, and so getting this website going was an enormous task!
But Wendy is really asking about my work, as in my WORK, my purpose on this planet, my writing today. What is going on. I am working on La Cruzada, my first novel. I have been working on it for YEARS. I am done with the third major revision after completing it two summers ago. I re-completed it this summer while on residency at the Prairie Center for the Arts. And since then, I have had some great feedback, and I am ready to re-re-complete it this spring and summer.
My novel is a lyrical novel, so that makes it less marketable than your average three act play type of novel, but this is what I want to do. I am a poet. My novel will really be a long narrative poem with prose mixed in to make it more readable. My novel is about Berta, who is a great love of my life right now. She is a guera teenage mom from Mexico with golden brown hair and fair skin. She is from among the poorest of people in Mexico too, a daughter of a sharecropper in Nayarit Mexico. She sleeps on a pallet on top of the dirt in a makeshift shantyhouse made of corrugated metal parts, wood slabs, and anything else that can help to keep the rain out. She is also illiterate. As an eighteen-year-old teenage mom, she is hired by an American couple to come across the border to work for two years for two thousand dollars. Because she is light skinned, she gets some interesting propositions and opportunities like this, and she is alone enough to say yes, and to leave her daughter behind. She does not know how much this will hurt. To me, being so pocha, La Cruzada means "The Crossed One," and it is also “The Crossing.” But to Mexican readers, it means “The Crusade,” which is not what I am thinking of. While hers is the crusade for so many, and while the book is in fact, quite spiritual, it is not at all the crusade.
She is crossed by the coyote who rapes and abandons her. She is crossed by the colonizing boyfriend who is the father of her child. She is crossed by the very woman who saves her life in the desert. She is crossed, and yet she is also crossing so many borders, including the US border, as she learns who she is and how she should take control over her fate. It is not a happy read, I am afraid, but I am so in love with her, and I want readers to fall in love too because I want them to see her in the eyes of the many 'crossed ones' who live here, who crossed the border, who work for us, and who are crossed by their new living situation every day, their own dreams. That is my novel.
Because this novel is all I have worked on for over six years, (in summer breaks mostly and during my two year MFA program), I really did think I was not going to ever write poetry again. I thought I was done with the lyric, the short lament, the layering that poetry requires. One book of poems. Done. But no. Last spring, I saw a painting that changed everything. How is it that paintings can have such a power. Here it is:
Meet Mary. Meet my grandmothers both and my Tia Licha. When I saw this painting by J. Michael Walker, I felt tears streaming down my face, and it wasn’t my allergies. The bedroom in this image is all too familiar, a single twin bed for a widow, the calendar by her bed. The portrait of Jesus, her baby, in this case, above the bed.
This is the simple bedroom of many women in Mexico. This is a bedroom I saw growing up, and the woman on the edge of the bed, taking time to embroider in the afternoon, sitting in quiet meditation with her colors. This is about the women in my family, but it is about all women who create, who sew, who mend, who blend, who bead, who write, who draw, who crochet.
The fact that my own grandmothers did their arts in the afternoon like this is enough to make me sob, but to see it held in this sacred light, with Mary as the artist and mother, wearing tennis shoes, her bent feet facing each other, her bent back getting no support, woke me to how timeless this activity is, how connecting it is for women.
My grandmothers were very prayerful women. They had no doubts about God or Jesus or Mary. Those presences were their deities, were facts for them, certainties, and this painting reminds me of my own splattered, but evolving spirituality. It is like the painting is saying, Here they are, and they are here. Trust.
When my sobbing stopped, I began to wonder about Mary, how she has this power to unify people, how she has so many names in so many countries, and how I have so many relatives named after her. And I want to write my next book about her, about this woman, who some say was just chosen arbitrarily by the big Guy to bear his son, and who some say was THE immaculate conception, and always meant to be THE mother of God. I want to get to know her better, the stories and legends about her, and I want to devote a whole collection of poems to the study and contemplation of Mary.
So far, I have written a very lengthy piece about Mary, La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, which is the Mary my Abuelita Socorro prayed to, and by lengthy I mean ten pages. No one will want a ten page poem, so it is still emerging, but a few more have emerged and I have many more coming. I can actually feel them coming. I have not felt this way in a long time.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
It may ridiculously evasive to say it, but I think my work is geometric. At least, I want it to be geometrically sound. I had my first intellectual love affair, not with poetry, but with math, all levels of it, and this began before kindergarten, when I was learning how to write the curly Mexican numbers with my dad. The love for math continued passionately all the way through algebra and geometry--how, in geometry, truths could come from proofs, from pure predictable logic. From rules that did not trick you. I loved how all the pieces fit together every single one, essential and functional and leading to a perfect composition. How things could be simplified, amplified, adapted, shortened, memorized, varied zillions of times. I adored doing math until I was seventeen. And then we broke up. After I took pre-cal, I said, “That’s it. We’re over.” We just weren’t made for each other any more.
I see the same kind of beauty now in poetry. I can achieve the poetics I saw in geometry, the rules, the patterns, the truths that resonate and say, “This IS how the universe is constructed too; it is not only a totally chaotic unreasonable mess.”
Being bicultural and binational, I was and am in a constant state of second guessing my own interpretations. Often wrong, I took wrong as my default stance, and when I did this, I was often right. It made me try hard to understand what was being said, and in a way, this is good because I have kept my mind nearly empty as a child’s, as the Buddha says you should, though I did it, not to be a Buddha, but as an act of survival. I loved learning.
And it was Pat Mora’s Chants, which first told me I could write in my own blended and culturally unique voice, using simple words that resonated not only with each other, as elements of an algebraic problem do, and in simple patterns that add value to the whole composition, but which could resonate with other people, people like my own mother and father, whose approval I so yearned for. I hear simple words convey complex ideas when I think and write in Spanish and English. While I am a Chicana writer, I may not sound a lot like of them. I was not allowed to mix languages when I was growing up; therefore, I have always had two consciousnesses, and it is in poetry that I can blend them together to form an authentic artifact about the world that I see. Maybe I write Chicana Geometrics. That is my work.
I also love the wise, deliberate echoes of imagery and diction that exist in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Donne, and I adore the purity of mind that appears in the work of HD, William Carlos Williams, Mark Doty, Linda Hogan, and Joy Harjo. My first master’s degree had no Latino authors on the list, but since I took creative writing, I was able to access a very few like Mora, and early on, they gave me the belief that I could be the writer I have always wanted to be.
Today, I read so many Latino/a Chicano/a writers, but my poetry does not delve politically into the problems with colonization and the crisis with Malinche, as some Chicano/a poetry has (so many do it so well already), but my work delves into universal problems women have, with self-esteem, motherhood, with love and its ferocious battles, with its cradling arms.
My work deals with the politics of the personal, and it stretches into the Western European heritage Spanish and English both have, touching on the lives of iconic women, Penelope, Aphrodite, Mary Magdaleine, as well as my abuelas’, my tias’, and my own life as a divorced and remarried mom on this continent.
In my fiction, I am dealing directly with the issues of immigration, identity, and human rights, but rather than taking a stand on amnesty or reform, I want people to understand how hard this is from another point of view, to look at themselves and say, “No. I do not need to contribute to it this way.”
Most people might say I am very positive and cheerful, but I am cheerful because I am not dying yet, or at least I am not obviously dying yet. Inside, I am completely aware of the cruelty we humans are forced to experience on this earth, and from the great well of that grief there is unlimited writing opportunity as I observe the world, the parts of it that are not terrible at all; in my writing, because I am so struck by this perpetual fear and grief, I tend to want to celebrate small things and focus on them a little bit, so there is a moment of hope to counter the giant, insurmountable obstacles most of us face each day.
There so many miracles around if we just lower our bar for what deems a miracle. And I have a very low bar for that since the world is such a miraculous, soggy, fragrant shit storm at all times in every nation, in every circumstance! And so when the tires do not burst on me while I am driving to work, I am actually fully grateful. My dad taught me that death was around every corner, and that I was always in danger of being a statistic. This made me afraid and grateful at the same time. It kept me awake as well.
3. Why do I write what I do?
It comes from listening to the news, which is ironic because I am not at all a news junky at all, far from it. I read one thing, and if it sinks in, I take off with it. It makes it hard to live with all the news and social media we have today. It is hard to be peaceful and still enough to write one sentence. I am not a good scroller on facebook or any news publication. I dive in too deep, click, click, and read more, which means I lose sleep and read and write too much about something that might not be that important, and I miss other things, like my own rest or my own work!
But what happens is that some things I hear hit my heart like an atomic bomb. When the tragic deaths of too many Mexican immigrants happened just outside of Houston in 2005, I could not form a thought outside of what had happened. All I knew is that the first reports came back saying there had been a woman driver. I was stunned into writing The Weigh Station then. I took on what I remember hearing Nabokov did with Lolita, writing about a repulsive villain with a sympathetic eye. How, I asked, how could a WOMAN be so irresponsible to let people die of overheating in the back of a trailer she was driving? It drove me crazy. I had to write it to find out. It turns out it was not a woman driver, but a woman passenger, but I did not learn that until my story was done.
I may see a painting, as I mentioned above, or hear an interview about limerence, or listen to a story a student tells me about her father’s heart attack, and the writer in me will switch on, and when she does, she is not that fun to live with. Interrupting her is like interrupting a crocodile giving birth. Watch out. My husband and son are so good to let me do it in silence and alone. This is what happened with the Mary poems I am writing. When my friend, Belinda Acosta, author of Damas, Dramas, and Anna Ruiz, posted the J Michael Walker painting of Mary enjoying her embroidery on facebook, my writing life was never the same. I have been procrastinating dealing with my grandmother Socorro’s death for some time, and this painting brought her into my life full on again to allow me to deeply grieve her and also get to know her while she was alive.
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!