Motivational Monday

Because I’m in the middle of a draft, and because I keep teetering between revising the beginning and continuing to write, today’s theme seems to be: keep writing until you reach the end. In that first draft, don’t worry about the audience and don’t be afraid of writing crap, just immerse yourself in the story and “tell the hell out of it” (Chris Crutcher @ SCBWI Miami 2014). You can worry about all else in revision.

First Drafts

Just finish

Quantity leads to quality

Write the good and ugly

Happy writing!

 

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Connecting to the past, one family tree at a time

There are many times, too many to mention, where I wish I could sit with my father and ask him about his family, about the stories he heard growing up, and about the “whore” that made him stop in his research (there’s a note from an uncle that says my father told him so). But I can’t because he’s not here anymore. And I didn’t get the urge to research my family tree until after he’d passed, when I realized the delicate tether between myself and him was becoming much too thin.

And about a year after he died, his brother died.

And earlier this year, in July, my other uncle–the one who was helping me make sense of the nebulous territory of genealogy–passed away. That thread is snapping. Three aunts remain, and I can feel the precarious situation for those memories, teetering between recognition and oblivion.

This found its way somehow into my novel, THROUGH THE WALLED CITY. As I labored through the research, I realized that some of what I was finding–Colombia’s history, old photographs from the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s–correlated to what my late uncle had been able to tell me about our family’s history. With his help, I had mapped out my family tree on my father’s side to circa 1850’s, when the last known entry is of a woman with a son “out-of-wedlock.” That’s where the trail ends, and if I could go back and ask my father, I’d want to know if that was the “whore” he was referring to.

But it was fascinating, pitching the research against Mica’s story. Seeing the past and the present dance, come to life. Someday, I want to breathe life into that family history. Not only for my son’s sake, so he knows his heritage, but for me, because I didn’t pay attention when I had the chance.

Mama Adela with Children This picture is of my paternal grandmother with four of her six children. My father sits in the bottom, nestled between his older brothers. The three are now gone. I have it tucked in the corner of my dry-erase board (which hangs over my writing desk at home) as a reminder that he’s watching over me. I can’t ask him now all the questions that flood my consciousness, but writing THROUGH THE WALLED CITY gave me a better idea of the Colombia he grew up in, of the stories he heard and the climate of his land. He loved his country, which is why when he died, we took his ashes to Manizales, his hometown, to be buried with his parents. He would’ve wanted that.

THROUGH THE WALLED CITY has been a special story for me for many reasons. This is one of them.

The art of working hard

Our culture seems to have an aversion to working hard. Everywhere I turn, there’s a clamor for instant gratification. Forget sweating, forget busting our behinds. We have a dream. We have a vision. This is what we’re MEANT to do. But we don’t want to wait. We don’t want to do the dirty work. We don’t want to put in our time and effort to get there. We want it, and we want it NOW. And we want it easily.

Reminds me of a toddler cranking up towards a massive meltdown.

The thing is, the only way to get to that dream, for it to really mean something, is by working hard. By paying our dues. I was talking with a friend and former colleague, author Christine Kling, many moons ago about writing, and she said something like this: to get close to having something ready to publish, you have a million-word internship. In fact, she wrote this post about The Million Word Rule. And I believe it because, as clichéd as the saying is, it’s true that practice makes perfect (or better yet, practice makes better.)

Sometimes, I’ll hear well-meaning friends say, “Hurry up and write it!” Or family will want me to finish, but don’t understand the time I take away from them. But if I don’t sit on my behind and write, if I don’t spend the time to develop the characters and the world, to run through the steps that it takes to start and finish a draft, and then to revise it (over and over and over again) until it’s ready to send out, it won’t happen. I’ll have a half-finished story, a draft full of possibilities that’ll simply evaporate because I didn’t put in the time and effort. A book’s not going to write itself.

And on the same note, a first draft will NEVER be good enough. It can ALWAYS be better. It’s not called a shit-draft for nothing! I drill this into my students: the importance of writing multiple draft, of reading and re-reading and revising to polish their work. I take this to heart, and it’s what’s allowed me to silence my inner editor temporarily while I get the story down into that first, exploratory draft. But again, this is work. It takes time, dedication, patience, and endurance.

I haven’t reached my dream yet of being published, of sharing my writing with the world. I also don’t have an agent…yet. But I’ve seen how much I’ve grown in the past five years since I started taking writing seriously, as a career. Every class I take, every workshop and conference I attend, every critique I receive and every story I write puts me that much closer to reaching my goals. That’s what I have to do. If I want this with every cell of myself, then there’s no other option but to keep on writing, keep on trying, keep on paying my dues so that eventually, it will happen. And when it does, the prize will feel that much sweeter because I reached it with my own effort.

i-did-my-waiting-gif

Sure, there are days where it’s harder than others, days where the inner doubt creeps in and tries to take over. But that negativity is just an excuse. It’s a way of trying to take the easy way out, which I guess we’re programmed to want. So stuff a pillow in doubt’s mouth and keep going–the only way to reach that dream is by persevering! You can do it. And when you think about quitting because it’s just too hard, remember this:

“There’s only one thing that can guarantee our failure, and that’s if we quit.” – Unknown

And these:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“It’s when things get rough and you don’t quit that success comes.” – Unknown Quote

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” – Ross Perot

Keep going, keep writing (or keep doing whatever it is you need to do to succeed)!

Patchwork

The problem with illness is that it can threaten to demoralize you, picking you apart at the seams, unravelling you until all that’s left is a ghost of who you once were.

At least that’s how, on the worst days, I feel. Like now. Like yesterday. When every part of me hurts and when I feel no one understands, not even my husband, because it hurts and all I want to do is stop and rest and crawl into a corner, away from everyone, and cry. And stop hurting.

It’s not just the pain that’s debilitating. There’s a stronger emotional and psychological repercussion at play, and anyone who’s experienced chronic pain, fatigue or illness will probably agree with this. At its worst, I feel like a failure. I can’t go to my son’s PTA meetings or run around with my son (I’m a horrible mother). I can’t go to work or head a student club (I’m no good as a teacher, colleague, worker). I can’t write (I’m never going to be considered a serious writer). I can’t… well, you get the picture. Consciously, I KNOW this is bullshit. It’s but a moment in time. It will get better; I will do those things, even if a little slower. But there’s a moment when I’m deep in despair and pain that I almost feel as if this illness is taking over. It’s all I can do to articulate that I can’t do this, that I’m drowning because of all the responsibilities which, though normal, seem great when everything hurts and it’s all I can do to get out of bed. And I collapse into a heap of tears and frustration and anger. And I sleep, restless. It’s a vicious cycle of pain and guilt and frustration.

The cycle breaks, though. It takes lots of deep breathing and crying and self-talking and sometimes meds to get back into a place that, though not as hopeful or optimistic as when I’m in remission, is enough that I can think of the cycle of the disease, that if I’m in a flare, with time (though how much time is never a given) I will go back to feeling better. That it’s possible to feel better again.

It’s that thread of silver that starts getting me back together, stitching me up slowly so that I can feel almost whole again.

Happy Birthday, Papi

Today is my father’s birthday. Or, rather, it would’ve been if he were still alive. He’d be turning 82.

Next month, on Valentine’s day, will be the fourth anniversary of his passing. Four years. My son’s age–he was six months when my father left this world of conflict and pain and frustration.

My father wasn’t one to celebrate birthdays. He never really saw the need. In fact, one of his favorite anecdotes, about birthdays, went something like this: “When I was growing up, I never had parties or anything of the like. No. It was simple. I needed pants, so for my birthday, I got pants.” I wish I could remember the exact way his words that left his mouth, but now the memory melts into the idea of what he said: no parties, just pants.

That never stopped me, though. I do like parties and celebrating–always have. So on his birthday, I would either make him a card or I would spend hours perusing the greeting card sections at Hallmark (or Publix or Eckerds, now CVS), and then I would pen what I thought was a beautifully written sentiment. And it usually was, except it was in Spanish, and my Spanish, though good, wasn’t perfect. When I gave him the card on his birthday, then, I grew accustomed to him reading it, pen in hand, correcting my grammar in the greeting card. I have to say, though, it stung a little, and sometimes, I would fight the tears that threatened to overcome my eyes. It was a card, damnit! I’d think. Just a card. I wanted him to read past the errors (which weren’t that many!) and get to what I wanted him to know: that despite the differences and hardships and fights, I still loved him.

But love, for my dad, was different. I realize that now.

For gifts, oh that was difficult. What do you get a man who doesn’t want anything? The only thing he wanted were cigarettes–Winston ones in the red and white box. Some birthdays, that’s what he’d get. He’d already made it clear he wasn’t going to stop smoking. Not after he went months without smoking, after his leg was amputated (is it weird that I can’t remember which one right now?) and he was in temporary hospice. Not after all his doctors kept regañandolo because he was slowly killing himself. No, he wasn’t going to stop smoking. He was a man of stories, anecdotes to make his point. So for this he’d remind us that when his mother, my grandmother, was dying of breast cancer, and all she wanted was a cigarette, he fought everyone to give her one last “gusto”– “She was dying anyway; who are we to deny the dying?” That was his motto, I guess, and since, in his mind he was dying (though his “dying” lasted well over a decade), he felt we should heed his argument without question. So on his birthdays, we would sometimes relent and wrap up a box of Winston cigarettes in bright birthday wrapping paper, place a big bow on it, and present it as his birthday present. Those were his happier birthdays, I think, and in his later years would elicit a series of chuckles as he put on his shirt, grabbed one of the cigarettes and his lighter, and rolled outside of the apartment to smoke his birthday gift.

I think of him often. Not only as a daughter thinking about her dad, but as a kindred spirit who is just beginning to understand the workings of that man. I didn’t understand while he was living; I didn’t understand when, as a teenager, I saw him break things and scream and make my mom cry. I didn’t understand his pain and in not understanding, I couldn’t help him. My mom, I think, understood him. I am only just beginning to understand as I tread through my own journey of illness. And I wish so many times he were still alive and I could ask him questions. I miss him.

So happy birthday, Papi. We love you.

Writing Warm-Up

Here’s the thing about writing: it really is something you need to do every day. Or, if not every day, then regularly and consistently. If you don’t, you begin to rust on the sides, to stiffen, so that when you do sit down and write again, each word comes out painfully slow with a silent umph as your mind adjusts.

At least, that’s how I’m feeling right now, and really, I’ve only had a small hiatus of about two weeks.

When classes ended, I cheered because I was going to finally have some consistent writing time during the week my son was still in school, before we left to Disney, before Christmas came, before the craziness of the holidays consumed me. And even in that craziness, I had been sure, so sure, that I’d get in some writing time. Unfortunately, life happened. My hubby was off and we had Christmas shopping left to do (which I will never again leave to the last minute–please hit me if I do). That week, I only had one day, about four/five hours, for writing, and those hours were spent on revising one leveled reader draft and writing another leveled-reader. I didn’t work on my novel. The following week, when we went to Disney, I didn’t write. I took notes in my notebook about an amazing restaurant we went to for a blog I wanted to write, but that’s about it. I haven’t written said blog. Last week, I had to stay up for a couple of hours and I did finally work on my novel. I reworked some of the scenes into chapters, but then exhaustion got the best of me and I had to put that down. And I haven’t been able to completely shake the exhaustion and cloud that have moved in on me.

So today, I said enough’s enough. I need to write. I’ve come upstairs, closed myself in my writing room, lit some incense, plugged in the ear phones, and poised myself to write. Instead of the words flowing out easily, though, I sat staring at the screen. What the hell do I write? The words didn’t come. I realized my mind is rusty, though I’m not sure if it’s because of the cloud that’s still hanging around or if it’s because of the small lapse in writing over the past couple of weeks. I don’t like it. And I hear the sage advice I’ve received about writing: just keep writing, every day, something.

So here I am, writing something, warming up. Please excuse the sweat marks as I get myself back in gear.

Christmas Eve Thoughts

There’s nothing better than spending Christmas Eve with family, except maybe spending it with family you don’t see often, along with those you see every day, in a manner that reminds you of your childhood.

I was blessed to have that kind of Christmas Eve.

We drove the almost-two-hour trek to my cousin’s house where this year’s celebration was being held. Making this Christmas that more special was the fact that family from Colombia and Germany were joining us. Though we were missing some family, this was the largest gathering we’d had in a while! I sat with my cousins, and we started with the “Remember when?” We giggled and laughed, and I swear time shifted and we were teenagers again, at my aunt’s townhouse, when she lived in Miami, sitting in the front steps and talking about boys.

Once everyone was there, we started novena. Colombians partake in novenas, where, for the nine days leading up to the birth of El Nino Dios on Christmas Day, we gather with family, sing villancicos (Christmas songs), and recall the story of the birth of Christ. The last of the novenas is read on Christmas Eve. Our family is no exception, and though I might not hold onto that tradition every day, I do try to make at least a few novenas, especially if there will be a large group. They’re one of my favorite traditions. This year’s Christmas Eve novena, though, was even more special. My uncles took out their guitars, my aunt passed out the maracas, panderetas, and other noise makers, and the signing commenced. We sand Tutaina, Los Peces en el Rio, Antontiruliroliro, A la Nanita Nana. We ate bunuelos, natilla, empanadas and arroz con leche. Then we passed around the book with the novena readings and those of us brave enough to trying out our rusty Spanish read our part. When it all ended, my aunt read some thoughts she’d penned earlier that day, about love, and family, and their mother (my grandmother) celebrating with us in spirit, and about never forgetting the love that was promised with the birth of El Nino Dios. It was beautiful, and most of us cried. Good crying. We were happy and blessed because we were together.

Isn’t that what Christmas is about? About the love that began because God sent his only Son to Earth because he LOVED us?

And so what if Christmas really didn’t happen on December 25. So what if the celebrating straddles the solemn and the festive. It’s a time to rejoice and love!

Yesterday, I was blessed because it was a day spent with family, first my husband’s, then my own. In each of these homes, the promise of family and love was present, and we enjoyed something more precious than any tangible gift can provide: we enjoyed each other and the gift of family, and love.

It’s days (and nights) like yesterday, when family comes together, that I’m reminded family is the thread that holds our past, our present, and our future together. I am grateful and blessed to have such an amazing family, immediate and extended.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

If we spend our lives dreaming, will we ever know when we reach our dream?

This issue of dreams is risky business. We’re always told to dream, and to dream big. Nothing is out of our reach so long as we roll our sleeves back, our pants up, and get neck-deep in the process. We need to get dirty, stress, suffer – and with all the hard work, we’ll get to that dream.

Trouble is, we tend to have many dreams. At least I know I do. It seems as with human nature, we’re not content in reaching one destination. We’re always pushing for more. I can think of a slew of cliched phrases that demonstrate this, starting with: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” I say “starting with” because that’s why we dream. We want something other than what we have in the present. I’m no exception. I’m always dreaming of something else. Fo example, I dream of leaving South Florida. I’m tired of the traffic, the rude (and highly volatile) drivers, the packed cement blocks. I’m tired of the fast-pace of the city. I dream of open land, pastures, green (that doesn’t involved painted trash cans). I dream of friendly people, like those I met in Virginia, who, instead of saluting with the middle finger, gave friendly waves and hellos, even though we were outsiders. I also dream of writing full time. Dedicating the hours while my son is in school, to writing down all these characters and memories that plague my mind. Sometimes, I even dream of inventing some sort of time machine to go back to a healthier, livelier, more energized me.

The problem with these dreams is they interfere with my living today and now. I think there’s a saying that says something akin to: the past already happened, the future is yet to come, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. In dreaming so much of tomorrow, and in working so much for a future (retirement, fame, whatever), we oftentimes neglect today. And in today lies family and friends. When it’s all said and done (I’m just full of cliches today, aren’t I?), what do we have to look back at in our lives? Will we be happy? Will we be satisfied that we did all we could do at each stage?

I find myself often at this point, stuck between the dreamer and the realist. I remember my godparents, who worked their behinds off (might as well keep at it with these trite expressions), saving up for an unsure future, only to die in a plane crash in Long Island, on their way back from Colombia after the Christmas and new year holidays in 1990. What was that worth? Then again, if no planning is done, no dreams to pursue, our future might be just as bleak. There’s no denying that retiring here, with nothing but Social Security (if that) is simply not possible. What’s the right answer? Is there one?

I don’t have the answers. I am pretty sure, though, they lie somewhere between dreaming and planning, drifting and cementing roots. There’s got to be some balance there.