The Writer’s Life: My Breathless (and Breath-full) Journey to…
Today I’m mulling over what the writer’s life means to me. This life I’ve created for myself because I needed a change, because I was tired of running, because I wanted to hold on to that magic that rose in me when I penned something I was proud of, that jostled me, that made me lose sleep, that made me fall apart and come back together, more whole, more sure of my work and what it is I am meant to do.
I’m sure every writer has a different definition of what the writer’s life is for them. What it means. What it entails. I can only share what it is for me. How I came to this journey. How and why I embarked on it. And why I continue to walk the path.
I started creating stories before I even knew how to write. How to string letters together to form words, sentences, paragraphs. A story. I would go up into the plum tree in our backyard or hovel myself up in the bottom bunk, pushing blankets and comforters into the nooks so I created a cave. Then I’d lay back and imagine a different world. Worlds where I was saved. Happy. Loved. Where I had a say over my life and what happened in it. Worlds that weren’t surrounded by rubble. Worlds where everything made sense and there was no fighting, no violence, no pain.
My mom told me a story of when I was in pre-kindergarten. The teacher told her I was disruptive during story time. Instead of sitting in a circle and listening intently with the rest of the class, I’d get up and wander around. Mom came home angry, demanding that I cooperate and behave myself. I huffed, “But it’s boring. I already know those stories.” “Really?” Mom questioned. “So, tell me the story, Vanessa.” She says I got really excited. Made her sit down. I started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell this elaborate tale. I was animated, performing the story while she watched, rapt.
Mom told me this story a few years ago when I told her I’m a writer. This was her way of telling me I’ve always been a writer. I was just four years old.
I come from a reading family. We don’t all read the same genres but we all read a lot. My mother, sister, brother, and aunt.
My brother, aunt and I read (or at least used to read) the same kinds of books. Novels and memoirs that we circulated among each other. Everything from Reinaldo Arenas’s “When Night Falls” to Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” to Julia Alvarez’s “Yo!”
My sister, Dee, is more of a Harlequinesque type of reader. In fact, she’s the one that put the initial writing bug in me. As a pre-teen and teen, she would pen stories of torrid love affairs, always with a Latino urban twist so I imagine her book cover would be like those long-hair Fabio covers, a raven haired woman in his arms, her head thrown back in ecstacy, except Robby Rosa (from his long-hair Salsa days) would be the man on Dee’s book cover.
And the woman would look like the stereotypical Latina, curvy, red lips, an off the shoulder peasant blouse, jeans, and her head is thrown back, her expression in that in-ecstacy-mouth-slightly-open-and-trembling-eyes-shut kind of look.
I would climb onto my sister’s top bunk when she wasn’t home, sure to memorize exactly how her teddy bears were placed (always in a neat row) so I wouldn’t trigger her OCD “this ain’t where I put Cabbage Patch doll” rages. Then I’d go into her stash, behind her huge mirror, where she placed the stacks of stories she wrote. I’d sit there for hours, rifling through her papers, imagining the scenes, the heartbreaks. And I imagined that I too could write like she did. I was at the age where I wanted to be everything Dee was, do everything she did. I wanted to dress in the tight pink chiclet jeans, wear broaches on my button down blouses, tease my hair so it added three inches to my height (remember, this was the 80s). But I could never pull off what she did. I couldn’t make my hair blonde. Couldn’t make my eyes light brown. Couldn’t make my skin creamy white like hers. My hair was dark and curly. My eyes were dark and brooding. My skin was the color of my indigenous ancestors. My Mayan blood. But I could write like she did. Or I could at least try. So I did. In secret. Hiding the spiral binders under the bed and in my bookbag that no one looked into because it was such a disorganized mess or at least it seemed to their eyes. For me that was my protection. So no one could know what I was doing. That I was writing. This was my secret. This was mine.
As a kid my mother let me go to the library on my own. We started taking the train to school when we were really young. My brother was in 6th grade, my sister in 4th, me in 3rd. Carlos, my brother, was put in charge of us, his hermanitas. And when he graduated and my sister and I were transferred to another school, she and I started taking the train together. We weren’t into our double digits yet. So, when I became obsessed with my library card, mom let me walk the two blocks to the library by myself. If I could take the train sola, I could walk two blocks alone. I was all of eight years old.
I read everything. From the Ramona series to the Sweet Valley High books to poetry to Shakespeare. Everything. So when I saw that scene in Matilda where the librarian starts to suggest books to the little girl who isn’t tall enough to look over the desk, I am reminded of me. See, once I’d run through the kids section, which I did rather quickly, I hit the teen section. And once I was finished with that, I was too scared to go to the adult section which was across on the other side of the library. How would I look with my four foot nothing self rifling through the stacks of adult books? So I went over to the RIF desk (Reading is Fundamental. Remember that?) and asked the lady sitting behind the desk. She wore her glasses at the end of her nose when they weren’t hanging from a chain around her neck. She looked at me and said, “Why don’t you go to that section?” and pointed to the kids section. “I already read all of those.” “All of them?” “Yes, all of them.” From that day, she saved a book for me every week. And that’s how I learned about Poe and Longfellow and Dickinson.
I took this love for literature with me to boarding school. When I isolated myself because I couldn’t fit in and found self-isolation easier to cope with than blatant rejection, I escaped into books. I didn’t just read the books assigned by my teachers. I read everything I could get my hands on. The books that lined the study room in the basement of the ABC House where I lived at 12 Norfolk Terrace in Wellesley, MA, to books I could take out of the local library and the Wellesley College library. But it was a book that was given to me that shifted my world so I was never the same.
It was my junior year. I had recently read Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” I identified with Esther’s isolation and depression. I too felt trapped under my own bell jar, struggling for air, longing for belonging. I too envied the freedom that men have (I still do on some level). I was wrapped up in my second reading, my face buried in the book, sitting cross-legged on the mezzanine overlooking the lunchroom, when an English professor walked up to me. “Vanessa, you should read this.” He handed me How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. I’ve never been the same.
See, while I could relate to Sylvia’s feelings, I did not see myself in her. She was white, from a different class. She was privileged. She had opportunities that would never be presented to me, a Honduran and Puerto Rican girl from the hood. Or at least that’s what I thought. See, by that time I was 16, I had already witnessed firsthand the disparities between the world I came from and the white world I lived in while I was at school, so while I could identify with how torn Sylvia felt about her fate, I could not honestly identify with anything else because I would never be able to get an internship at a publishing company in New York and I would never have a benefactress and I would never be institutionalized or see a psychiatrist for that matter because I come from the school of “si necesitas terapia, es porque estas loca.” Enter Julia Alvarez and the Garcia girls.
No, I was not an immigrant but these girls were brown like me. They were poor like me. They had old school parents that didn’t understand their worlds. They struggled to assimilate, felt displaced and were confused about their identities and how they fit in (or didn’t) in the world. Just like me.
And the author was like me too. Brown. Latina. Struggling to make her mark through the word. And so I read that book over and over. And for the first time, I saw that maybe, just maybe, I too could be a writer. Maybe, just maybe, I too could write books about what it meant to be Latina, from Bushwick, in the era of crack, post-the Fire Wars, making my way through white academia, being raised in a lesbian relationship, refusing to fit into the “lo que hacen las niñas” mold.
Fast forward to college. Columbia University. I took a few writing classes. I was still doubting my writing, my ability to write, whether my stories deserved to be written, whether they mattered, whether anyone would want to read them. In one creative writing class, my professor handed back a piece and said, “This isn’t writing.” He didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. It was the last writing class I took. And I learned how to write how “they” wanted me to write. I had resisted up to that point.
So, after college, I did what was expected of me. What was expected from the scholarship kid who was blessed to have received such an elite education. What was expected from my immigrant family whose dreams didn’t go beyond having a full-time job, health insurance, money to pay your rent (buy? Why buy a house?), and maybe, just maybe a pension. I went into corporate America and I was miserable. I worked in so many fields, held so many jobs. Investment banking, capital ventures, health management, finance, fashion. Executive assistant, account manager, office manager, finance intern. Just to name a few. And I was fired. Fired repeatedly. Because I was miserable and just didn’t care. I wasn’t invested. I wanted to write. And I did. A little bit. Here and there. A few articles. A lot of journaling. Some commissioned work like biographies and internet writing. But I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t think I should. But I wanted to. I so wanted to. I said I wanted to write a memoir. Eventually said that I would. I claimed to be a writer but I didn’t write. Not regularly. Not seriously. Not like I wanted to.
And all the while life happens. You get fired. You get your heartbroken. You end up homeless. You party. You party hard. You get another job. You get an apartment. Your drug addict brother steals from you. From everyone. You come home to find your door axed in because he stole drugs from the wrong person and they come looking for him at your house. You have to move. In the midst of it, you lose friends and you lose love because you’re hurt and in pain and the only way you know how to deal with it is to lash out at everyone. You run, like you always do. You run away. And there, in the running, you find yourself.
In 2003, I met my daughter’s father and got knocked up. We’d only been together four months. Moved in after 2. And, it was during my pregnancy that I really stared at myself and my life (I’ve been doing that ever since). I was miserable. I was working in health management, paying the bills, but I was miserable. My boss was Satan incarnate (no, seriously, the bitch was straight up evil) and was making my already difficult pregnancy (I was high risk) impossibly more difficult. So when I walked in to a pre-natal appointment when I was seven and a half months pregnant, crying, no, blubbering, my blood pressure sky high and body swollen (by swollen I mean SWOLLEN to the point that my feet looked like two perniles. I went from a size 7.5 to a size 9.5 and remained a half size bigger even after giving birth), my wonderfully nurturing OB-GYN said, “That’s it. You’re going on maternity leave. I’m writing the letter. You have a week to get things together at work and you’re done. This isn’t healthy for you or the baby.” I was relieved though I was frantic for the next week. I could finally be free of the stress of work and having to answer to a childless middle-aged woman who I think hated me for my youth and my smarts and for being able to bear children. (“She’s too smart for her own good,” she told more than one person.)
During my pregnancy, I filled up journal after journal. I’d write letters to my belly. Stories about my life. My childhood. My heartbreaks. The many times I’d relived the “love me, please, love me” twisted definition of love I’d learned from my mother. I’d write about my fears. My writing. How badly I wanted to write. And how I was afraid I’d made a mistake with my daughter’s father. I was starting to free myself.
While I was pregnant I asked myself what legacy I could leave my daughter. I couldn’t bring her into an unhappy life. I knew what that did to me growing up with a mother who was devastatingly depressed. I had to find what I loved. I had to make joy. And I knew that I always found that in writing. Always. So, what better legacy to leave my nena, teach her, than to follow her dreams. I had to teach that by example. So, when I had my daughter, I set it up so I would get fired. I knew my boss (I already said she was satan, right?) would fire me if I told her I couldn’t return to work just yet. My excuse was that I was having trouble weaning my daughter off my breast. It was a lie. I wasn’t trying to. In fact, I didn’t try until my nena was seven months. So, she fired me, like I knew she would, and I started collecting unemployment. And, my relationship started falling apart even more than it already had. Truth is that relationship wasn’t built on solid ground. I was a mess. He was an asshole. But that story’s for another time.
While I was collecting, I wrote my first novel. I realized that all that writing I’d done during my pregnancy was in preparation for something bigger. And that bigger, at that moment, was a book. It started with a character, India, who talked to me. Yes, I know this sounds schizophrenic and maybe it was (is), but I heard her talking. We had conversations in my head. She wouldn’t let me sleep. She kept prodding. Telling me to write her story. First she asked, then she demanded. So one day, I just sat down and started writing. I barely slept. I’d stop to nurse, make dinner, clean up a bit though I confess the housework did suffer. And all the while, my daugher’s father gave me hell. He’d try to have sex when I was writing. (To this day, even my daughter knows not to interrupt me when I’m writing. It’s just not something I respond kindly to.) He’d argue that the house wasn’t clean enough. That he wanted me to serve his food. “Why aren’t you coming to bed?” “What is it you’re writing?” “Come sit with me.” Do this. Do that. Just not what I was doing. Not writing. Everything that didn’t involve him was a threat to him and he reacted violently. Sometimes with his mouth. A few times with his hands. My response? I admit, I wasn’t nice about it. I was pissed. Pissed that he was being so disrespectful and inconsiderate. Pissed that he didn’t appreciate coming home to a hot meal, that his daughter was fed and nurtured and loved, that the house wasn’t spotless but it wasn’t a disaster either and that was no thanks to him.
I wasn’t sure who he expected me to be. When we met, I had my own apartment. I was working. Paying my own bills. I’d been on my own for fourteen years. I was independent. Fiercely independent. That wasn’t about to change.
So we fought. We fought a lot. And I kept writing. Until one day, he said, “What d’you think? You think you’re gonna be a writer? You’re not a fuckin’ writer. You ain’t shit.” Yeah, he was vile like that. And so, I kept writing, but my writing took on a new energy. I was writing to free myself. Free myself of my doubts. Free myself of the fucked up idea that maybe I wasn’t a writer. That I wasn’t cut out to live this life. I was writing to free myself of him. I decided that I wanted out and just a few months later, that’s exactly what I did. I was out. That was early 2006. My daughter was one and a half.
My book, Woman’s Cry, was published in 2007. After writing it, I knew I was a writer. It was what I needed to give myself permission. I never did go back to corporate America after that. Instead, I started teaching and writing.
I got my first official teaching artist gig with the now defunct Association for Hispanic Arts. I taught the elements of fiction writing for the Latina Writers series. I loved it and I was good at it. Really good. This was while I was working as an editor of a website, rewriting and overseeing the rewriting of the entire website.
Then, come June 2009, I went to VONA for the first time. Memoir with Elmaz Abinader. And the shift to becoming La Loba began. I got the permission I didn’t know I needed to make writing every part of my life. The last day I made several promises to myself: before I returned to VONA (because I knew I would return, over and over) I would move to Inwood in upper Manhattan to facilitate the writing life I dreamt of. I would quit my editing job to throw myself into the teaching artist world. And I would throw myself heart first into the writing community in New York.
I moved to Inwood in December of 2009. In March of 2010, I handed in my resignation while co-writing a book for the organization. (I finished the book and it was published in 2011, because I never leave anything undone. That’s just not how I do.) I resigned having nothing lined up. I was putting fire under my own ass. Then I started meeting with every writer and educator I knew. To ask questions. To gain insight. To manifest this dream. By late May, I had a slew of gigs. I was in the writing scene and I had the 352 page manuscript of my second novel. (I eventually walked away from the novel because memoir took over but that too is another story for another time.)
I’ve been living this life ever since. I teach and have taught kids as young as second grade and as old as senior citizens. My oldest student was 72 years old.
I created the Writing Our Lives workshop to help writers pen their own personal narratives.
I’ve been to VONA four times and now serve as the co-editor of the newsletter.
And I now chronicle the process of becoming and being a writer in this here blog.
I taught yesterday and am off until next Monday, but here I am, in the café, writing because that’s what this writing life demands of me. See, writers write. And, yes, sometimes not writing is part of the process, but when I’m not writing, I’m reading. I’m out there in the world sharing my stories, like I did the other day at Capicu, the Nuyorican of Brooklyn, and in the Bronx as part of the Bronx Rising! series alongside the venerable Sandra Maria Esteves and the lovely Nancy Mercado. And then again, at the VONA fundraiser I helped organize and emceed at La Casa Azul Bookstore. Because the writing life isn’t just about writing. It’s about community. It’s about making sure you are heard. It’s about helping others find their voice. Teaching and advocating and being an activist. It’s about so many things. Including sharing my story, because if it gives one person the courage to write theirs, then I’ve done my job.