Thursday, June 26, 2008


This quote from Writing Down the Bones really spoke to me this week. Things are so messy in my life right now, that I don't think I am really seeing the material possibilities. So this was a wonderful reminder:

"A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp's half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer's task to say, 'It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.' Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things in our lives as they exist--the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blonde friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop those details from coming."

Also, thanks for the comments on the previous post. I am still pondering all of your wisdom...but it felt so liberating just to get it out. And Amber, someone emailed me about that Writer's Digest article about Latino Lit. Is it a sign?

I miss visiting you all. I can only get online very late these days, and I am usually too tired to comment. But you are on my mind. Cue Willie Nelson, or the Pet Shop Boys.


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Thursday, June 19, 2008


Cool photo from here.

Why don't I want to write this post?

Because it's a subject that feels touchy, feels weighted, feels uninformed, and I hate to put something out there in the world on this subject that isn't well considered.

Also, I am lazy.

In my last post, I spoke at length about my difficulties with writing, and about the massive block that resulted.

But I didn't mention all of it.

See, it's hard for me to believe now, but there was once a time when I was thoroughly ashamed of being a Latina.

Like most interesting baggage, this had its roots in childhood. We were a family that liked to party, and no party was complete without dancing. Inevitably, some tio or tia would notice me in the corner, attempting a hesitant little shuffle, and would push me into the center of the dance floor. “Baila, mija, dance!” Their voices would change on that last word, growing strange and accented. Perhaps that moment of sounding Other to their own ears darkened their mood, made them crave someone to push that sense of wrongness onto.

And there was me-- doing my best imitation, but somehow I never quite mastered the insouciant vibrato shoulder shake, or the perfect flirty hip swivel. Ah, here was something they could do, and I couldn't. Who cared then that I could speak “perfect” English? So they would tease, and laugh, and shake their heads. “La Americanita” couldn't dance.

In hindsight, I think all of us kids got hazed about dancing—it's a prized skill in our culture, and woe to those who can't do it. But at the time, I felt the “American” spotlight squarely on me.

I think I adopted a “if I can't join them, I'll just stay here in the corner and wear black” attitude.

It wasn't always easy. Sometimes I would have to run to the bathroom and lock myself in, dancing with careless abandon to the bass pressing against the door.

I am sure I wasn't so bad, then.

So, outsider feelings, blah blah. I still didn't feel inferior per se; I grew up in a heavily Latino area, and while all of my friends were white, black or Asian, I still didn't see myself as different or worse.

Enter college.

I met the most amazing, affluent, cultured people. And not a one of them was Latino. I read beautiful literature, none of it by Latinos (I was an English major, after all). I listened to glorious music...well, you get the picture. I started to feel the weight of something, some feeling that I came from a void. Everyone else could claim something in their lineage. I just felt a big blank. Sure, we had Celia Cruz, and sancocho, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but none of it felt significant enough in comparison.

I struggled with this feeling more after meeting TEG, who grew up in India and is fiercely proud of his homeland. He told me stories about the history, mythology, art. I felt sad I had nothing comparable to share with him.

This went on until I turned about 28 or so. I decided that just because I had grown up with little knowledge of the contributions of Latinos to the world stage, that it didn't mean there was nothing there to celebrate. So I started forcing myself to explore, to read Latino literature, both in Spanish (painstakingly slow) and in translation. I realized that I didn't much like Gabriel Garcias Marquez but loved Julia Alvarez. I discovered that the songs I grew up with were beautiful and worthy in their own right, not just always as “booty shaking” music.

In short, I got over myself and learned.

When I started writing again, I felt compelled to write out stories full of Latinos—if only to counteract the (usually unspoken) assumption that if no ethnicity is specified, a character is white. I wanted to share the insides of people who don't always see their own lives as worthy of preservation, and I wanted to show my parents that I could see the beauty of everything they gave up to move here.

All lofty goals, right?

The problem is, all those lofty goals started to feel forced. I found myself wanting to write around them, under them. I wanted to write romances, teen stuff, even fan fiction for my favorite shows. But I still felt like the only writing that counted was the “up with Latinos” stuff.

So, write the other stuff, you must be thinking. Sure, I tried. But then I faced the other side of this problem.

I felt like the only thing that made me special as a writer was my ethnicity. That it was the only thing that made people want to read me (and about me, since I am mostly talking about blogging here). It was my “niche” “hook,” if you will. Writing romances, teen stuff, et al...nothing about the way I write those would make me stand out. And I so do dearly love to stand out (just not on the dance floor, at age 11, doing it All Wrong).

Thus, I felt caught in a weird construction of my own making. Writing ethnic fiction was the “right” thing to do, and it was the only thing I had to say that was interesting. But I didn't want to write ethnic fiction anymore. But my other stuff just felt like nothing. And wasn't I betraying all of my newly discovered pride by putting my stories about Latinos aside?

If this sounds a bit like over-thinking, well, you'd be right. But I have been the “token” so much in my life. I was always “my only Hispanic friend.” I was the only Hispanic on my editorial row at my Big Publishing House. And now I turned myself into the Latina in our blogging community (yes, I know I am not the only one; indulge me).

I want to write again, so much, to feel free on the page to say WHATEVER about WHOEVER. And feel that it's interesting, and that it will still matter.

I want to come out of that bathroom, like I should have so many years ago, and shake my hips, even if it makes Shakira herself giggle.

So...why can't I?

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Sunday, June 15, 2008


Jack Kerouac's typewriter, from here.

Remember my awful infected tooth? That's a bit how my soul feels about not writing.

It's time for me to tell myself the story of what went wrong.

It's such a sore subject for me that I need to explore it, to poke my tongue into the painful crevices of the wound.

I had ambitious plans for the last couple of years. After Madam's birth, I discovered a clarity of thought and voice I'd never quite experienced before. All those dreams I had dismissed over and over as a girl and young adult, came back, with an added note of confidence and possibility. I could get through labor, nurse my daughter, survive two and a half years of broken sleep. And I found all of you, living out all sorts of fascinating artistic dreams. Seeing you gave me the everyday courage I needed to start this blog, to share my writing with strangers for the first time in years.

It was good.

And thanks to your generous feedback, I could see what worked and what didn't...I started learning to spot nuances in my own words, and how to tell stories about things that worked themselves deep in me.

But then, something happened. I started feeling a heaviness in my writing, a desire to make it RIGHT or not make it at ALL. I've always been compulsive about reading writing books and writing advice, but all of that well intentioned knowledge became a soup in my mind. I couldn't quite apply what I was learning...I could just recognize it well enough to see how wrong I was. Writing became frustrating in a completely new way. Despite all of my best efforts, I wasn't getting better. I was getting worse. And I couldn't fix it. Story ideas which had seemed so tantalizing now seemed impossible for me to work on. And I kept getting worse.

Somewhere, I'd always harbored the belief that if we work VERY hard at something, our progress would reflect that. Our jagged edges would smooth out. Things would become more automatic, and pleasurable. I thought A would lead to be B and out to a triumphant C, D, E.

And I kept getting worse. Now the joy in writing was also gone. I couldn't judge my own work, at all. I just knew the efforts of producing it felt abysmal and constipated.

Now, during this time, I was a member of an amazing, creative group of women committed to following our creative dreams. We spoke on the phone once a week every week, and shared our progress. We all did the exercises, and I watched their lives catch fire.

And I just kept getting worse.

Finally, I needed to acknowledge that my ambitious desires to write a Great Novel were probably going to have to be dismissed, at least for a little while. I put writing away in all of its incarnations (which wasn't easy—writing is woven into my day. I do morning pages, keep a journal, write this blog). It got to the point where the very sight of a book I might have once loved caused me to wince.

I returned all of my writing books to the library. I started avoiding bookstores.

Today, at lunch with a friend, I shared all of this frustration. I wish I could report that she had patted my hand, looked sympathetic. Instead, she smiled and said, “OK, that's learning.” She even acted it out a bit with the salt and pepper shakers and the ketchup (OK, maybe you had to be there for that one).

Something about her blasé attitude stopped me short. Is it possible...that I've been torturing myself, thinking that I was stupid and incapable of learning because...learning is not linear? Perhaps this is ho-hum common knowledge to you, but seriously, I NEVER thought of it that way. I honestly NEVER thought that sometimes...we get worse. And it doesn't necessarily mean we should stop.

Madam's speech therapist said something similar when she reminded me that Madam's speech would probably start to get MORE garbled as she learned new words, and started experimenting with sentences.

I still feel that lack of love for writing that frightens me. But maybe that, too, is part of the process—my grown up version of the tantrums Madam throws during her growth spurts.

Either way, I desperately want to try again. Garbled words and all.


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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Challenging can be beautiful

There is a parenting book out there with the enlightening title, Your three year old: friend or enemy.

Lately, I am leaning more towards the latter.

To her credit, Madam has been spectacular in the face of so much change. Her father's six week trip to India. Our two weeks at my parents' house. And now our seven weeks here. In the meantime, her schedule has warped to the point where it's no longer recognizable.

Of course, we miss the easy rhythm of our days at home. Our familiar haunts, now grown grassy after endless winter. Lakes that whisper with gentle airy laps, relishing fluidity after a hard freeze. we are.

Unfortunately, all of this change comes on the cusp of Madam's own changes—from two to three, from relative wordlessness to burbling sentences. From loving child into, well, into a three year old.

It's been challenging, to be sure. And yet, the other truth is that she's never been so lovely, so winsome, so brilliant and clever. Looking at her, I feel dizzy and particled with happiness. Until she starts screaming again, of course.

I'll be honest, I haven't been able to learn much from Madam in the last few months. My own depression was like a dense fog, and I was so tired from the efforts of moving from the living room to the bedroom to the kitchen that I was merely existing. Now, I am waking up again, little green shootlets of soul. And the phrase that shot through my mind while watching her today was “Challenging can be beautiful.

This is something I want to remember.


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From here.

This post may be a little bit like Genesis with all of the beginnings.

You may also be able to sing it to a blues beat.

So much has happened during the last four months or so. Most of it bad. Turns out that rushing to the emergency room in the middle of the night was actually a high point.

As I mentioned in a previous post, TEG's mother became very ill, and thus we've moved in with his family to help her with her recovery. So that's five adults and one toddler in a small(ish) space. Surprisingly, it hasn't been as terrible as I had dreaded. But seven weeks is a long time to be away from home.

But that's not even what has turned out to be the biggest problem. Like Dante, “in the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” It's been an endless soul winter that moved me inexorably to a worse milestone. My 35th birthday.

Ba da ba dum.

Go ahead and laugh, but I really thought I'd be somewhere else by this time. You know the fantasy—I'd be a polished, brilliant creative writer, living in a fabulous, eccentric charmer of a house, where I often hosted gatherings for my artist tribe. A whole stove of manuscripts would be simmering on every burner—front, back, and side. And of course, I'd have a wonderfully behaved little Madam who would provide endless streams of inspiration and laughter.

Go ahead and laugh. I can wait.

None of this has come to pass (well, that last one is true on very good, really not bad days). Quite the opposite. My writing has dried up, leaving behind a keening muse and sad memories. I am living in a limbo dictated by sick parents, or aging parents, or a million and one practical concerns, not one of which convinces the pouting four year old that I have evidently become.

I had to step away from blogging because I was woefully depressed (and following my Mami's advice, “If you don't have nothing nice to say, then say nothing.”) but also because it wasn't working. Blogging started to feel like some sort of a high school purgatorio where I saw all of you as the Cool Kids, the lucky, bright, brilliant ones, and I couldn't measure up. My genuine excitement for your triumphs was coated over by a slimy ickiness that had submerged all of my finer feelings.

But that's not even the whole truth. I left this place because I reached a point where I was getting angry. Angry that you all were so inspirational and wonderful. Yes, if depression is anger turned inward, mine was a more troubling, encompassing thing, soiling all things at once. Because I didn't have any faith that things could EVER be better, I couldn't stand to read the faith that you all share everyday. I just couldn't believe that things could ever change. I couldn't believe that there would be a day without depression. I couldn't believe in magic or creativity or hope.

And yet, I am back here. Because I need those things I don't know if I still believe in. And I miss you.

I made a radical decision on my birthday this year. If a fuss needs to be made on my behalf, I need to make it. I want to be happy, even if I don't deserve it. Even if I never accomplish another blessed thing in my lifetime. Even if I never write again. I don't want to cut myself off from the whole spectrum of deeply lived life anymore. I get so much happiness from you all—happiness I am still not sure I deserve. I want that, even if your general amazing-ness casts a shadow of envy onto my own life. Because I am happy being an enthusiastic cheerleader, it's one of the few things that I really believe I can do well.

So much more to tell you about—like my foray back into soap opera land, my strange last couple of months, how I've realized that beating yourself up really DOES serve an odd purpose (even though it doesn't actually work) and how I've learned that lying to yourself ruins absolutely EVERYTHING.

Ba da ba dum.


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