Author Archives: ehuergo

“The Dare” by Rachel Unkefer

picture of Rachel UnkeferI entered my first short story contest in 2009 on a dare—and won. Until then I never considered submitting a story for publication. I thought of myself as an unpublished novelist, not a writer of short stories. Since then, I’ve had four more stories and a poem published. But this is not a story about publishing. It’s a story about the dare.

A few months earlier, my writing group had launched a non-profit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia, called WriterHouse. The deadline for the annual fiction contest sponsored by the local free weekly newspaper was approaching. The competition was popular because it was judged by John Grisham. The seven of us in our writing group, now the board of directors of the nonprofit, decided it would be good publicity for our fledgling organization if one of us won the contest. So, on a dare, we all submitted stories.

A few weeks later, Grisham made his decision. My story won first place, and third place went to a story from another member of our group. The first sentence in the article announcing the winners was:  “It may just take one to read a story, but it takes a community to inspire a winning entry.”

That opening sentence perfectly captured the spirit of what had happened. I was inspired to do something I hadn’t thought of doing because a group of us were doing it together. Certainly founding WriterHouse, a writing community center, is not something any one of us would have undertaken alone. A writer’s voice can carry far, but it carries farther when it is amplified by community.

In the five years since WriterHouse was founded, dozens of our members and students have been encouraged by their instructors and fellow writers to send their work out, and dozens have been published, some for the first time. Writers who had never dreamed of reading in public have stood before audiences and shared their work, and then come back to do it again and again. The best writers are full of self-doubt and anxiety, which can silence them if they let it. Sometimes we need a push from a friend to take ourselves where we need to go.

At WriterHouse there is a Science Fiction/Fantasy group that meets monthly. In between, they stay in touch using an email list. One day a new member of the group wrote an email about having just read an article that convinced her she was a terrible writer. She was about to quit writing. Within five minutes there was a flood of responses from the rest of the list. “Keep trying,” they told her. “Don’t give up. We’re here for you.” The rest of the group hardly knew this woman, and yet they wanted to boost her back up onto that high wire and hold her steady until she could balance herself once again. Reading those messages made me proud to have been a part of bringing those writers together.

It’s not easy to find other writers who will support us. There are those whose first question is “what’s in it for me?” rather than “how can I help?” There are some who only want to be admired and told their work is perfect as it is, who don’t understand the difference between support and uncritical validation. But out there somewhere is a community for every writer who is sincere, honest, and generous. If your town doesn’t have an organization like WriterHouse, consider taking a writing class at a community college, starting a book club, or running an ad on Craigslist. It may take some trial and error to find fellow writers.

Don’t settle for a group that doesn’t nurture you and your art. But don’t expect it to be free. You must be willing to extend yourself toward others as well. Sometimes you will give much more than you get. But if it’s the right group, they will be there for you when it’s your turn. They will commiserate with you when you receive rejections. They will celebrate with you when you receive acceptances. They will tell you when your writing needs more work. They will laugh when you write something funny, and they will shed a tear when you have written something moving. Most of all, your community will dare you to be your best.

Rachel Unkefer, President and Founding Member of WriterHouse, was co-founder and CEO  of a technical bookstore chain, Computer Literacy Bookshops, in Silicon Valley. She is currently looking for a literary agent for her first novel, A Useful Life, (which was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) and working on the  second draft of her second novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard      Review, Prime Number Magazine, as well as other publications. She has received        fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Writers in the Heartland.

Author Contact:

The View from My Chair

Also of Interest:

Writer House Blog

 National Novel Writing Month

 

 

An Interview with Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

 

 So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art

 

Sheryl Louise Rivett is the blog editor at So to Speak, a George Mason University literary journal. She is also a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Mason, where she is working with two members of the Mason Health Administration and Policy faculty to edit and organize a forthcoming textbook on managing integrated healthcare systems in today’s ever-changing environment. She enjoys reading the inspiring work of leading thinkers and administrators in healthcare and providing creative support to the project. She holds a BIS in Women’s Studies in Communication from Mason and an MA in creative nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

As a Sally Merten Fellow, Rivett taught in the public schools and Fairfax County libraries. She has also taught creative writing in homeschooling cooperatives in the far west DC suburbs, as well as composition at Northern Virginia Community College. In addition to teaching, she has served on the advisory board for the Virginia Board of Medicine, worked as a lay health counselor for disadvantaged women in Loudoun County, and has formed grassroots organizations that focus on women’s health. Rivett’s essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

RIVETT: The complexities that are inevitable in life: our relationships; our life events and our responses to them, whether tragic or joyful; and the ways in which people persevere and adapt; the way in which luck affects so much.

The voices of the past. Nothing is more inspiring than examining old photographs and trying to imagine a story behind the one-dimensional image. As a young child, family photographs taken in the towns and cities that my ancestors made their homes fascinated me. I’d wonder if the two women in the photograph had a strained relationship or an easy one; whether the man seated with his son, who I’d heard was a drinker, had a soft and redeemable side; whether the stout, stern woman who always wore a grimace loved to bake. When did the little girl holding the brown and white dog first realize that her mother had asked her father to leave, that she no longer had a father to tuck her in at night or attend her school events like most of the children in her Midwestern neighborhood in the 1940s.

I also feel a responsibility to the stories that have been entrusted to me along the way. For instance, I worked on a psychiatric unit when I was an undergraduate, and the patients often shared their life stories with me. I was an easy conduit, sitting behind the counter working as the unit secretary or sitting in a chair in front of the elevator to “monitor” any patient who tried to leave. (It seems kind of funny now. How would I have been able to do anything?) The elderly patients were the ones who would surround me while I sat at the elevator. I found so much truth in the lines of their faces and the depths of their eyes; they experienced so much despair over their handicapping behavior and idiosyncrasies. One man used to sit and pick imaginary peaches. He was depressed that the family farm, a peach orchard, had been sold. He sunk into dementia, where he imagined he could still pick summer peaches on his Virginia farm. Many of their lives had been quite remarkable, but society had shifted in such a way that their families couldn’t care for them because of their neurological illnesses and resulting behaviors. They were lonely and spun stories for me throughout my eight-hour shifts. My college textbooks remained unopened on the table beside me. I never found the time to open a book.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

picture of the author Sheryl Louise Rivett

 

RIVETT: I love the drafting process! In fact, I’m most comfortable there. I can lose myself for hours in a story that I see in my mind, guided by intuition about one or two characters. During the drafting process, I do sentence revision constantly, and I read sections out loud, so there’s minor revision happening even as I’m jumping into the heart of a story. More serious revision is something I do best when my initial pieces have had time to breathe, to rest in a drawer or in a folder on my laptop. Once a piece has had time to rest, I find I develop a different relationship with it. It’s as if I’m meeting an old friend for coffee and we’re catching up. I’ve changed, the way the piece feels to me has changed, and we become reacquainted; our relationship deepens when I dive back into it and mold it with fresh eyes attuned to revision. I can better see where to cut the fat, where to expand, and whether there’s a better way to tell the story when I’ve had time away from it.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

RIVETT: First and foremost: relationships, whether a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, or simply a chance encounter between two strangers. I’m fascinated by the way in which people affect one another and the ways in which life changes for a character, whether for the better or for the worse, because of a relationship with another person.

But medicine is another, equally important, theme in my work. I see medicine as an art that can be practiced badly—or with revolutionary results. What one generation deems genius, might be the next generation’s nightmare. In modern times, it seems to me that medical rhetoric is often definitive. Take this medication for this. If you have this disease it means X. Have a complaint? We have the answer, but don’t ask questions, we know best. We have entered a time when questioning and mystery and mistakes are not a part of the rhetoric—at least in terms of what is communicated to the public or to the patient. And so I think modern society is ill equipped to cope with illness on a real and authentic level. Finding stories that examine those real and authentic moments—or conversely, the panic when they don’t exist—is a focus in my writing.

I find the questioning and creativity inherent in the art of good medicine to be interesting, whether in modern times or in the past. Medicinal herbs and homeopathy, ancient forms of medicine like shamanism. Equally fascinating are the botched beginnings, like lobotomies and other early psychiatric practices. Where have we erred and what have we gotten right? What have we forgotten or discounted out of arrogance? How has this enhanced or devastated a person’s life? A family? A community?

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

RIVETT: So many teachers! From my sixth grade teacher Mr. Donovan to my first college composition teacher Judy Straffin. More recently, I’ve had the fortune of learning from Tim Wendel, Bill Loizeaux, Ed Perlman, Suzanne Fierston, Susan Richards Shreve, Alan Cheuse and Helon Habila.

I consider Helon a mentor as well as a teacher, and I’m fortunate that I’ll have the chance to work with him as my thesis adviser at Mason. I think every writer has a unique method for gathering story and finding the inspiration to express it most creatively on paper. Helon is the mentor who understands what I’m trying to do with my writing and who gives these quiet, generous nuggets of advice that fit just right, propelling me farther down my path as a writer.

All of my mentors and teachers have fanned the flames of my creativity and offered necessary challenges and advice. I’m grateful to them all.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

RIVETT: Trust your vision. Trust your instincts. Especially in the beginning. Write it through to the end before considering major revision. Only listen to trusted readers who understand your work.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

RIVETT: Lately I’ve been expanding a rough story into a full-length novel. The main character is a young, single woman who lives in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. Her narrative shifts back and forth between her current life and memories of her childhood with a mentally ill mother. The other major characters who narrate parts of the story are the two women who have had the greatest impact on her life: the adoptive mother, and the biological mother who gave her up. It has what I consider feminist themes in that it examines women’s tough choices during several different decades. And it includes an examination of psychiatry in the middle of the 20th century.

I plan to return to a nonfiction project I started some time ago under the guidance of Bill Loizeaux, when I was in the master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. The project, a memoir, deals with a health crisis, the possibility of inter-generational illness, the environment, and a quest for healing. It will be my last semester in the Mason MFA program, and Steve Goodwin will be serving as my mentor on the memoir. I’m excited to revisit the material and commit to a final form.

I will be working on both book projects at the same time, which I’m sure will be challenging, but I find that writing nonfiction gives me a necessary reprieve from fiction and vice versus. I enjoy jumping from one form to another. When I do, solutions for the other form typically appear in my consciousness. It’s a very synergistic process.

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                                       Author Contact:

 So to Speak

sherylrivett@gmail.com.

Photo Credit:

                                     Alyssa Polcek-Peek

 

 

An Interview with Teresa Burns Murphy

Book cover for the Secret to FlyingTeresa Burns Murphy is a talented writer and (happily for me) a dear friend. Her debut YA novelThe Secret to Flying, published by TigerEye Publications in 2011, is told from the perspective of an adolescent girl named Donita Tosh and explores the intricacies of the mother-daughter bond. For Donita, growing up poor in a small Arkansas town during the 1980s is difficult enough, but having a mother with a scandalous reputation makes her life practically unbearable. Donita’s mother has always told her the secret to overcoming obstacles is to release everything that weighs her down. Yet her mother’s association with a succession of unscrupulous men is a weight Donita can’t quite shake. When her mother refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Donita’s father, Donita begins to believe the malicious gossip circulating about her mother. Once Donita learns the truth about her father, she is stunned by her mother’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity.

 Alan Cheuse, book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and author of Song of Slaves in the Desert, describes The Secret to Flying as “a distinctive tale that starts with a keen sense of narrative and deep insight into human relations, and just keeps going.” Richard Peabody, prolific writer and editor of Gargoyle Magazine, describes the novel as “part Harper Lee, part David Lynch,” adding that “Teresa Burns Murphy juggles a full menu of toxic bells and whistles—shotguns, rape, extortion and more—in her debut novel. Teenage Donita navigates the slaloms of adolescence in small town Arkansas circa 1982. She rattles the bars of her caged life trying to escape while struggling to solve the puzzle that is her mother, find the father she never knew, and come to grips with a tangled web of imperfect love. Donita suffers a few close calls before discovering that forgiveness, more than understanding, is what the heart craves most. Murphy takes us along for the ride and brings us back high on adrenaline and very much alive.”  Montage of Recent Publications

Murphy’s writing has appeared in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Academic Exchange QuarterlyGargoyle MagazineInquiryPulse Literary Review, Science TeacherSouthern Women’s ReviewTHEMA, the Washington Post, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS Award for Fiction and was a semi-finalist for the 2005 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.  Her short story, Halloween Gifts,” was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and her poem,Geometry Lesson,” was a finalist for the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. Originally from Arkansas, she currently lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

 

Teresa Burns Murphy, Author Photo by Margaret Murphy HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

BURNS MURPHY: I am inspired by people and their stories. Everybody has a story. I grew up in a culture where storytelling was as natural as breathing. I listened to family stories, work stories, Bible stories, and survival stories. The potential for drama lurked in each facet of everyday life. Later, I read the works of writers–Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers—whose stories resonated with me.

When I was an MFA student at George Mason University, I had the privilege of studying with a wonderful writer—Richard Bausch. I had read his short story, “What Feels Like the World,” and was so inspired by it. In that story, he does what all good storytellers aspire to do; he delivers each literary element in a way that elicits the maximum emotional impact. By the time readers get to the last word, they know everything they need to know about the characters through the details Bausch has sprinkled through the narrative. Upon absorbing these details, readers feel the protagonist’s pain as he watches someone he loves confront an everyday obstacle that for other people is no big deal, but for her is everything.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

BURNS MURPHY: Post-it notes and yellow legal pads are scattered all over my house when I am composing a piece, so I can jot down ideas as they arrive. After I have written a draft, I type it and then I print it out and go over it numerous times, making changes. Often, the story doesn’t work and whole parts of it have to be rewritten. Once that is done, revision begins again. This procedure repeats itself over and over and over again until I have a draft I can present to others to critique. I find drafting extremely energy draining and revision energy producing. Once I have that original blob down on paper, I can begin to shape it. The shaping can go on endlessly, so eventually I either give up on the piece or send it out into the world.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

BURNS MURPHY: The most important theme in my work is letting go. The theme is present in almost everything I write. In The Secret to Flying, the main character’s mother tells her she must release everything that weighs her down. Metaphorically, Donita must be able to release the negativity in her life if she is going to be weightless enough to “fly.” In another novel I have written, two characters, a middle school boy and his grandmother, are overweight, and they feel that the extra weight is keeping them from leading the lives they want to lead. So they let go of the weight.

Though I can’t be totally sure why this theme recurs, I have a pretty good idea. When I was growing up, I was always encouraged by older and wiser members of my family to hold on to the positive and release the negative. My mother even sang me the lyrics of the Johnny Mercer song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” a time or two, particularly the lines—“You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative.” Another reason is more straightforward. I was a chubby kid; and, one day, I decided I didn’t want to be chubby anymore. So, just as some of the characters in my fictional stories have done, I literally let go of that extra weight.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

BURNS MURPHY: I have had so many fabulous teachers and mentors—my family members as well as my teachers from elementary school through graduate school. However, one teacher, Susan Richards Shreve, stands out because she did for me what all good mentors do. She put me on a path to get the encouragement I needed to keep writing.

When I completed the thesis for my MFA, which was a novel that eventually became The Secret to Flying, I gave it to Susan. I was so nervous while I waited for her to read it. I remember going to her office at Mason after she told me she had read the manuscript. She is a writer whose work I admire, and she is a very kind and generous person, but she can also be fierce.

When I came into her office, she looked at me with her piercing brown eyes, handed me the manuscript and said, “I love it.”

I was over the moon!

Later, she gave me a list of agents, and I sent the manuscript off to them. Some of them expressed interest in the manuscript, but they ultimately declined it. Through it all, Susan continued to encourage me, but I was a bit disheartened. Then, I saw an ad for the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, so I emailed Susan to ask her if I should send my manuscript to them.

Very quickly, she replied with a two-word email, “Submit it!”

Though I didn’t win the Peter Taylor Prize, I was a semi-finalist for it, and the director sent me a very encouraging letter. A few months later, I got a phone call from a man who had published some of Peter Taylor’s work, and he invited me to send him the first few chapters of my novel. Then, he asked for the entire manuscript.  He ended up not taking it because his company doesn’t publish young adult novels, but he was very supportive and even gave me the name of another publisher he thought might be interested in the novel. Those experiences kept me going through some pretty lean times.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

BURNS MURPHY: Keep listening to other people’s stories, all the while observing them for the details that remain unspoken. Keep reading other people’s stories. And, keep writing. Then read the stories you have written out loud to yourself and consider whether or not the characters would have presented themselves in the way that you have presented them. Authenticity is essential to writing stories that stir the emotions of others and leave a lasting impact.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

BURNS MURPHY: In recent months, I have been writing short creative nonfiction pieces for a former student’s gratitude blog. Writers tend not to be the happiest people in the world, and I read that research in neuroscience has indicated that being grateful can help people be happy. I wanted to see if that was true, so I started writing about the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. In that blog post, I wrote about how my mother helped me study for a class with a very difficult teacher when I was a little girl.

My mother was typically a stickler for good grades, 
but when those C’s began appearing on my report card, 
she told me to do my best and not worry so much about the grade I got. 
Even when the C’s dropped to a C- during one grading period, 
she didn’t reprimand me.

“I don’t want to make a D,” I sobbed 
as I handed her the offending report card.

“You won’t,” my mother reassured me. 
“I’ve got a plan for improving your penmanship.”

My mother’s plan was for me to copy her handwriting, 
five pages each weeknight for the next six weeks. 
If I completed my work before my favorite television shows 
came on after the evening news, I could watch them. 
If not, those Beverly Hillbillies would have to 
exasperate and outsmart the city folk without me. 
The cast of Lost in Space would have to escape 
the villains of the cosmos without this 
small earthling cheering them on. And worst of all, 
I would miss the antics of that adorable sheepdog in 
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. 
Desperate to go to places where there were no
 mean third grade teachers, 
I filled up those five pages night after night 
as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley droned on 
about the escalating war in Vietnam 
and the rising racial tensions at home.

You can find all of Murphy's "My Mother's Emmy Award Winning Moment" 
at Your Daily Dose of Gratitude

 Author Contact: Teresa Burns Murphy, author photo by Margaret Murphy

 www.teresaburnsmurphy.com

 http://www.linkedin.com/pub/teresa-burns-murphy/23/956/781

 https://twitter.com/teresalmva

 Photo Credit:

 Margaret Murphy


Necklace by Varda Avnisan

An Interview with Tim Wendel

book cover for Habana Libre

When One More Page Books, a local indie book store in Arlington, Virginia, invited me to do a reading in tandem with Tim Wendel, who also writes about Cuba, I don’t mind admitting I felt a little intimidated. Wendel, after all, is the author of 10 books, including Summer of ’68Castro’s Curveball, High Heat and Habana picture of the author Tim WendelLibre His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, American Scholar, Gargoyle, GQ and Esquireand he teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he’s a writer in residence.

High Heat got high praise from the The New York Times. It was even designated “Editor’s Choice,” the reviewer observing that “Wendel’s writing is also all fastballs. Sensitive and scrupulous… [his writing] is a séance with the game’s past, an almost literary fantasy….”

Of Habana Libre, his most recent work, Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Next Time You See Me, describes the characters as acast of dreamers” for whom “America is more of an abstract ideal than a place that can be reached by boat. Wendel tells their story with tender complexity and rich detail.” Fortunately for me, Tim Wendel could not be a kinder, gentler, more salt of the earth sort of soul. The sort of person who immediately puts everyone at ease.

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WENDEL: I believe in the power of stories. They can save us, and a well-told tale holds a lot about the secrets of life, especially how to stay at it even when everything seems stacked against us. Richard Ford once said that when you read something that strikes a chord within you, the natural tendency is to try and do it yourself. There’s nothing like finishing a good read and then imagining what you can do.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

WENDEL: In recent years, I’ve tried to let things sit a bit before sending them out to the world. This allows me to see the places where the story could use a bit of polish. In addition, I often do more research during the revision stage. If a scene needs a boost, it can often be found in additional detail or back story that helps with the understanding of the characters. We’re so lucky in the D.C. area, where I make my home, with the Library of Congress and National Archives close by. A trip to them or even the local library can underscore and help emphasize things, especially a pivotal scene.

book cover for Castro's CurveballHUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?

WENDEL: Good question. In looking back on my work, a key theme has to be perseverance. I often write about the underdog, whether it is in my novels or narrative nonfiction. I’m also intrigued by group dynamics. Even though my writing usually has several key characters, they are often involved in a group, and how they come together is crucial to their overall success. This is certainly true with the nonfiction titles—Summer of ’68, High Heat, Going for the Gold. But it is also key on the fiction side with Castro’s Curveball and Habana Libre.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

WENDEL: I’m been extremely fortunate to have several great teachers during my career, going back to my high school days, which is saying something because I went to a rural school in western New York state. In college, I studied with a master of long-form narrative, Bill Glavin, at Syracuse University. And since then I’ve been blessed to learn from Nick Delbanco, Margot Livesey, Marita Golden, Carolyn Doty, Oakley Hall and Alan Cheuse to name a few. But I also think it’s important to seek good teachers out. I have attended several summer conferences (Sewanee and Squaw Valley) simply because somebody whose work I admired was teaching there.

HUERGO: How has teaching affected your writing?book cover for High Heat

WENDEL: It means I cannot cheat. What I mean by that is I cannot advise my students to go in one direction and then not pursue the same path with my own writing. Teaching keeps me honest about my own efforts on the page.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

WENDEL: Try to bring some degree of regularity to your craft. Certainly writing is easier when we’re inspired or a story is going well. But some of the best scenes or moments happen on the days when it all seems simply like a lot of work. But if you can put down a few lines, fill a page in your notebook, it can often lead to some effective passages and insights. Writing in this day and age is tough—no doubt about it. Between work, family, etc., finding the time can be difficult. But seize the time. It will be worth it. I wrote my first novel on the D.C. Metro. It was the only time I had back then, but I got a good book out of it.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

WENDEL: I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. It keeps me from becoming stale. So, after the recent novella, Habana Libre, I’m back to writing about sports and history in a new book for Da Capo entitled Down to the Last Strike. It will be out in spring 2014 and includes a slice of memoir, which is new for me. After that I’m back to the beginning, looking through various ideas in my notebook, and I’m thinking the next one could be another novel or even a screenplay.

 

 Author Contact:

www.timwendel.com

@Tim_Wendel

 

 Nervous Author at One More Page Books:

http://www.onemorepagebooks.com/

EMH OneMorePage Books

Photo by P. M. Korkinsky

“The Power of Friendship and Latino/a Identity” by Comadre Nora Comstock

picture of Comadre Nora ComstockI have always been a reader—not a writer. Occasionally someone would bring to my attention a book by a Latino writer, and I would purchase and read it. The story filled my soul and made me yearn for more, but the idea of seeking out Latino/a writers to read and interview did not occur to me for years.

The idea for Latina author teleconferences was born when a young Latina in her mid-twenties, who had recently graduated from college, commented on a gift I gave her: a book by an author who also happened to be a comadre. She held the book, read the title and author,  and commented that she had never read a Latina writer. I determined she meant a U.S. Latina author, and though I was stunned, I realized it was only recently that I myself had made a commitment to become acquainted with these authors.

It occurred to me that, given our age difference, there were probably a lot of Latinas/os who were not aware of these writers who were telling our stories. Certainly, in my many conversations with comadres and other friends, we never mentioned Latina/o authors, nor did I see their books prominently displayed in bookstores. I decided to change that.

Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club began as a teleconference series in 2006. In 2008, we added physical book clubs in cities where we were able to identify comadres willing to take on the coordination responsibilities.  The Association of American Publishers became our partners in this endeavor. The book club/teleconference series is now in its seventh year.

But it was another organization, Las Comadres Para Las Americas, that expanded our ability to to learn more about our lives and histories through the eyes of our Latino/a authors. Through this organization, I have had the honor of learning about the many ethnic and racial groups that make up our Latinidad. There are many labels to identify us, and each one of us chooses the one(s) that strike the right cord. It does not really matter to me, though I have recently decided that I like thinking of myself as a U.S. American of Mexican descent.

I wanted a connection to many Latinas. I wanted a community surrounding me filled with family and friends, and a place where anyone could come to feel connected. This desire was something that I carried in my heart from very early in my childhood. I was a solitary child. After being born into a family that would eventually produce ten siblings, upon my release from the hospital, I was placed into the loving arms of my aunt and uncle who raised me. I owe them my success. However, I strongly sense that being an only child until the age 10, when my cousin David was adopted into the family, fed my overwhelming need for others.

My roots were slipping away, and I was dangerously close to losing my identity. I realized that I did not want this to happen, and this was yet another personal reason for creating and building this organization: I wanted to retain my identity and my connections to my ancestors. But since I did not know my history, it was very hard to feel grounded and connected. I thought that I was alone in feeling this way, but soon found out that many U.S. Latinos had the same desire for community and a proximity to our culture as a way to preserve and celebrate who we are and where we came from.  Those who were more recent immigrants also felt isolated and were looking for others like themselves. For many who lived in areas of the country where they were surrounded by Latino culture, their reason for participating in Las Comadres was simply to get to know each other as comadres, to share resources, and build communities.

As I began to connect with other Latinas in my immediate surroundings, I found that they left our comadrazos (what we call our gatherings, a combination of comadres and abrazo) saying that what transpired in these gatherings filled their souls. Our gatherings were filling a need. Though we all mostly spoke English, meeting with others who understood and appreciated idioms, phrases, jokes, songs, etc. in Spanish, gave us an instant connection that doesn’t happen with others in mainstream English-speaking society. For example, we may be strangers, but when we hear something about chanclas, it conjures up similar images and memories for us all.  I believe this is what we share and what keeps us coming back to the next comadrazo. Even if it’s just for an evening, our gatherings connect us to our roots, our people, our language, our jokes, our laughter, our souls.

Count On Me, Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships is a collection of twelve reflections on the importance of Las Comadres in their lives. In it, Fabiola Santiago, Luis Alberto Urrea, Reyna book cover for Count on MeGrande, and Teresa Rodriguez tell their stories of survival in the United States and in Latin America, where success would have been impossible without their friendships. Favorites like Esmeralda Santiago, Lorraine Lopez, Carolina De Robertis, Daisy Martinez, and Ana Nogales explore what it means to have a comadre help you through years of struggle and self-discovery. And authors Sofia Quintero, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Michelle Herrera Mulligan look at the powerful impact the humor and humanity of their Comadres brought to the darkest moments of their lives.

As well, Las Comadres, in collaboration with Medgar Evers College, CUNY: National Black Writers Conference, the Center for Black Literature, the Foreign Language Department, and ALAS–Association for Latin American Studies has organized the Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference, which will be held on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn, New York (http://lascomadres.com/countonme/latino-writers-conference/).

Our mission is to preserve and celebrate culture, to celebrate our connection to each other. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, and many other social networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas fills Latinas’ need to connect with and lean on each other, and unlike online only networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas offers two different ways to connect: online and in person, thus appealing to women in different situations, and offering an opportunity to strengthen friendships and cultural connections through personal interaction. We invite you to join us.

Author Contact:

Nora de Hoyos Comstock, Ph.D.

President & CEO/International Founder

Las Comadres Para Las Americas

www.lascomadres.org

Author Photo:

Michelle Talan

 

 

An Interview with Raquel Cepeda

Birds of Paradise book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Raquel Cepeda—not in person, but over the telephone, in an interview conducted by Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founding member, president and CEO of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, an international group of comadres (“godmothers”) who work to unite us all through literature written by Latinas/os. So the first thing I experienced and recognized about Cepeda is her powerful and passionate voice. It is a voice that has had the courage to speak about Latino-American identity, immigration, hip-hop culture, and mental health issues among Latina-American teenagers.

Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, Cepeda is an award-winning journalist, cultural activist, and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is a memoir about growing up in New York City and Santo Domingo, as well as a detective story that traces her year-long journey to learn about her ancestry. Bird of Paradise,” wrote David J. Leonard, “speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.”  

Raquel_Cepeda_2Cepeda’s writings have been anthologized and her byline featured in People, the Associated PressThe Village Voice, MTV News, and CNN.com. As a free-lance reporter, she has contributed to WNYC, CNN and CNN’s Inside the Middle East. She edited the critically acclaimed anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins and Latino Book Award. As the former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld, Cepeda was responsible for the magazine’s overhaul in September 2001, winning a Folio Award for best re-design and receiving accolades for her global take on urban culture. In 2013, she was named one of El Diario/La Prensa’s Distinguished Women and also sits on the board of City Lore and the Style Wars Restoration Project. She also directed and produced Bling: A Planet Rock, a feature-length documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds and all of its social trappings, and how the infatuation with “blinging” became intertwined in Sierra Leone’s decade long conflict.

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

CEPEDA: Many things inspire me to write. My answer changes depending on the day. However, I can tell you that what compels me to write is this feeling, this sense when I’m writing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on earth. I remember the day I called my maternal grandmother to tell her that I sold Bird of Paradise, and she just started laughing and hollering on the other end. I was like, “Mama, why are you laughing at me?” After a few minutes—literally, she couldn’t stop laughing—she composed herself and replied, “When you were a little girl living with us in Santo Domingo, you used to pull on my hem whenever you were mad and say, ‘One day I’m going to write about this family and set the record straight!’ before storming off.” I don’t remember doing that, but I that’s exactly what I did. So, I guess becoming a writer was a part of my destiny, after all.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

CEPEDA: With Bird of Paradise, my drafting and revision process was a deeply spiritual and holistic one. I had been writing versions of this story for years and deleting, editing, putting it away and revisiting it from time to time. However, when I set out to see it through—to draft the proposal, shop and sell the book—the words just poured out of me like a tsunami. It felt like a gift from the universe. The whole thing, including the sometimes painful revision process, (you know, cutting out stories, characters, and other unnecessary fat), was ultimately personally rewarding.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?picture of Raquel Cepeda

CEPEDA: It depends on the project. I would say with Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, the most important theme is identity, or rather, the exploration of the self. We are always shifting, and so we must be able to do the work of exploring and defining ourselves outside of the ethnic/racial check-boxes we are crammed into here in the U.S.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

CEPEDA: No, there wasn’t. In my book it becomes apparent early on that the problems with our current educational paradigm in New York and the US are still as pervasive today as they were when I was growing up. I can see why many kids, especially Black- and Latino/a- Americans become disengaged or, worse, develop a low self-esteem.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?

CEPEDA: Writers should abandon inhibition before sitting down in front of their computers or before putting pen to paper: connect to the gift and let it pour out from within. Worry about revisions later. I also strongly suggest developing a routine that includes at least an hour of sweating. Starting the work day at my boxing gym almost every morning before I sat down to write enabled me to focus and build mental stamina. I would beat any frustration and blockage I may have woken up with that morning on a heavy bag. Whatever form of exercise you choose, working out the mind, body and spirit is the ultimate expression of respect for one’s own craft. Trust me: exercise is the gift that keeps on giving.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

CEPEDA: I’m working on a proposal for my next book, a memoir about gentrification, and I’m in the latter stages of production on my current documentary film, Deconstructing Latina. The paperback of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina will be coming out in February 2014. That’s great news, especially because my hardcover was a casualty in the recently settled dispute between my parent company Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble. I’m hoping that the softcover will have an easier flight in capturing its audience. I’m also working closely with an educational specialist from the Robert F. Kennedy Center on a curriculum that would go hand in hand with Bird of Paradise, a project which I am excited about.

Author Contact:
@raquelcepeda
http://www.djalirancher.com
Photo Credits:
Heather Weston and Djali Brown-Cepeda

An Interview with Eamonn Wall

The first thing I ever learned about Eamonn Wall had nothing to do with his poetry and everything to do with his generosity. In his role as guest editor of Natural Bridge, a literary journal published by the University of Missouri, St Louis, he included one of my short stories in a special edition on exile. Without that boost in confidence, I might very well have put aside my writing. Eventually, I learned that the rhythm of a generous heart and eye run through every line he writes. And here is one of my favorites, “Returning to Dublin,” a poem in The Crosses:

To return in summer                 picture of the book The Crosses
to a suspended city and know 

there will be no end 
to daylight so long as summer 
holds over the Liffey, 

    so long 
as the gates remain open
to the heart of evening

    so long
as the last bus is held
by a single hand
and one long, dry kiss.

picture of Eamonn WallA native of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland, Wall has lived in the US since 1982. He is the Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has written six books of poems: Sailing Lake Mareotis (2011); A Tour of Your Country (2008); Refuge at De Soto Bend (2004); The Crosses (2000); Iron Mountain Road (1997); and Dyckman-200th Street (1994). All six were published by Salmon Publishing in Ireland. His poems have also appeared in a number of journals, including The Shop, Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, West47, TriQuarterly, Crab Orchard Review, South Dakota Review, River Styx, The Recorder, New Hibernia Review, Eire-Ireland, and Nebraska Review. His essay collection, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2000 and awarded the Michael J. Durkan Prize by the American Conference for Irish Studies for excellence in scholarship. His poetry and prose have appeared in a number of anthologies; specifically, The Book of Irish-American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present; Irish Writing in the 20th Century: A Reader; Wexford Through Its Writers; Flood Stage, An Anthology of St. Louis Poets; and The Big Empty, Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers. His next collection, New and Selected Poems, will be published by Salmon in 2014.

 

picture of the book From the Sin-e Cafe to the Black Hills                     picture of the book Sailing Lake Mareotis                    book cover Writing the Irish West

 

HUERGO: What inspires you to write?

WALL: What gets me thinking about poems the most is being out of doors walking or being indoors sitting quietly. In these two situations, the first more so than the second, my body and mind are guided toward composition. I hear sounds, lines come to me, memories flood in, and I begin to experience being in the world at a deeper level. Reading can also take me to this place and listening to music. In such situations, I am not distracted by nonsense or static and reminded again that I am a writer whose job is to write. To discover the world by writing about it. To communicate with an audience. But, being the eldest of eight children who grew up in a noisy and lively household, I have learned how to write, and to read, anywhere. I work most productively in two or three hour bursts.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process? How do you move from idea to poetic line?

WALL: I am an old-fashioned pen and paper poet. If I have an idea, if something catches my ear or eye, if I hear something said, or read something in a book, I will sit down and write a rough draft. I might achieve some result quickly, or, more often than not, it will take time to articulate or shape the idea. Later, I’ll go back to the notebook and add some material. Eventually, I’ll type and revise the poem. At times, these various revisions can take a few years though this is generally not the case. One thing I have learned though is that countless revisions don’t always make the poem work better. This is the idea we used to describe in Ireland as flogging a dead horse. Nowadays, this is not a politically correct comment. A student said to me once: “Why would anyone want to flog a horse–dead or alive?” I understood immediately that she was right.

Though the first draft is the most important one for me, it’s the poem’s foundation, I greatly enjoy the whole drafting process, the revisions leading me in fresh directions of discovery. It’s a kind of magic. I am very happy and quite mellow when I am working on a writing project. The key aspect in writing poems is form, in my case. Working in free-verse means being in search of the correct form for the material. I am guided by voice, breath, sound, and flow more than anything. At other times, I will be guided by more traditional metres or by assonance and alliteration. There’s a lot of back and forth, give and take, and a great deal of asking of the poem to give up the secret of its shape. I am pretty patient. Lots of things frustrate me in the world but not writing. Even when it’s hard, it’s cool. And I feel this way about prose-writing too. Even when it’s difficult, I feel I am making some progress. If a poem fails, I have learned something and not wasted time. If I want to waste time I watch CNN or Law and Order!!

HUERGO: As an Irish poet who has lived in the US for so many years, what is the significance of landscape in your writing? What is the relationship for you between landscape and identity?

WALL: Place and landscape are important for me. Always in my mind’s eye are the various landscapes of Co. Wexford where I grew up in Ireland: the town streets, the river, the mountains, and the sea. The land in Co. Wexford is the richest in Ireland for mixed agriculture: I see the barley being blown about and the cows and sheep quietly engaged. But I learned to become a writer in America, and American urban landscapes (New York and St. Louis, in particular) are important. Also, I have traveled in the American West and written about it a great deal. I dream about it. I have been formed by landscape: Irish and American. Because I carry it with me wherever I go, I do not actually miss being in Ireland. I see my identity in landscape and vice versa. As an immigrant, I have two landscapes–the Irish and American–and as a person who has moved around the US, I have multiple identities and landscapes. I am defined by multiple allegiances.  I am like many people in the contemporary world. This is an aspect of the richness that we, the immigrants, give to America. At my core, I often think, that being an immigrant is what actually defines me best. People ask me: “Are you Irish or American or Irish-American?” I say take your pick. I am happy with all three. Sometimes, I imagine that I am none of the above, that I am, for example, a man wearing a hat working on a Mexican farm or an Angolan fisherman hauling in the catch.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

WALL: Many people have made it possible for me to follow this life path. My parents always encouraged me and never made me feel that reading was an inferior and anti-masculine activity. They had great faith in education and were happy when I was reading and writing. Of course, they worried about what sort of future (income, job) a writer might have and were happy, and maybe a bit surprised, when it led to me getting a job. Though it was as a traditional academic that I got a job. For them, all things were connected and that’s how I see it too. My father was a journalist and my mother is a retired businesswoman. Neither of many parents had college degrees but this in no way curtailed their intelligence. Always curious, forward-thinking, funny, full of deep faith and a fine sense of the absurd, with a wealth of wisdom to pass along. Ours was a house of songs and stories, and so a good nurturing space for a would-be writer.

This year, I edited two volumes of Irish poet James Liddy’s essays On American Literature and Book Cover On Irish Literature and IdentitiesDiasporas and On Irish Literature and Identities for Arlen House/Syracuse University Press. James Liddy was the friend and teacher who helped me get a scholarship to come to the US to graduate school, and this was the making of me as a writer.

Friends and family provide great help when we know that they are wishing us well, when they remind us that the work we do is important. As a writer, I find this kind of community important. In my case, because I am not part of a creative writing program, I rely on various friends and colleagues scattered across the US and Ireland.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

WALL: I have two current projects. One is a volume of New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014-2015. At the moment, I am working on the new poems. I’m also working on a prose book exploring connections between Ireland and America. A few of the chapters have been published–on Rory Gallagher, the late, great Irish blues guitarist and songwriter, and on the poet Michael Coady–while others exist in draft form. I’ll add some chapters on my own experience as an immigrant in America and on immigrants in Ireland, a recent and an important phenomenon resulting from the Celtic Tiger of recent times. This book, like my first prose book, From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), will be a multi-genre book incorporating creative non-fiction and literary criticism, and perhaps some fiction too. But New and Selected Poems comes first.

On the back burner is fiction. I wrote and published short-stories in the early 1990s but stopped because I knew that I could not be a poet, scholar, and fiction writer as well as being a husband, parent, and a college teacher trying to figure out the tenure system in a strange country. But I have a little more time now that our children are grown and a leave is coming up, so I might give fiction another go. During the Spring semester of 2014, I will be Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University.

 Author Contact:

http://www.eamonnwall.net/

“Wearing Three Hats” by Clarinda Harriss

Wearing three hats is uncomfortable.  Wearing more than three is unwieldy to the point of picture of Clarinda Harriss and two friendsimmobilizing you, which is probably just as well because you look ridiculous.  The hats I totter under are beret, mortarboard, schoolmarmish cloche, black prison uniform cap, fedora with press pass stuck in the brim, and flapper’s feathered whimsy.

There’s a chronology to this list—the hats represent poet and fiction writer since age 19 (when my first story was published in a magazine); college grad/grad school survivor (1956-62); newspaper columnist (80s through 90s); volunteer with The Writers’ Club at the Maryland House of Correction for Men (80s and 90s again); schoolteacher/professor (1961-2011); and publisher (1974 to present). I claim the flapper feather because the nonprofit literary press I have directed for more than 40 years, BrickHouse Books, Inc., was just named Baltimore’s 2013 Best by Baltimore Magazine, occasioning my feathered attendance at the magazine’s speakeasy-themed celebratory bash.  Over the 50+ years I’ve been piling those hats on, I rapidly doff and don them in varying orders (cf. the great hat-passing scene in Waiting For Godot).

Clarinda HarrissAsked about “transitioning” from, say, teaching and/or writing to publishing, I have to reply that there have been no such seques. Starting almost from the moment I announced to my astonished (and probably rather disheartened) writer/editor/teacher/administrator parents that the things I would never grow up to do were writing, publishing,teaching and administering (oh, by the way, I chaired Towson University’s English Department for a decade), I began doing all those things.

The one activity conducted by both my parents which I did not rule out was parenting, and in retrospect I am convinced that the refuge of ordinariness, even (dare I say) emotional health which I gained by having my two lively, interesting, curious, smart, busy children around most of the time from my late twenties through my fifties is why wearing all those hats worked out pretty well. It made my schedule almost make sense: they were my constant while I was doing some writing either before everybody got up or after everybody went to bed; teaching at “Beltway University” (the Clarinda and Tom at the 2012 Bookfair adjunct thing, driving from, say, UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus] to Goucher to Towson University) to teach a couple of courses at each place; driving a carpool; cooking dinner (what sensual pleasure we writers find in cooking!), and so on. I’m sure you all know the drill. My point is that virtually all my poems, stories, and articles came out of those activities more or less directly. It wasn’t exactly that I wrote about those activities. It was that they set off a noise in my brain, a hunger in my gut, providing words and images which hooked together in ways that surprised me.

I think being in a state of constant surprise is one of a writer’s most essential work-tools—that and, of course, obsession. A few years ago there was a PR campaign for some worthy literary enterprise which featured the question, “If you couldn’t write, would you die?”  A writer is supposed to answer yes, of course. For me the question got it backwards: in order to make me not write–not think in words and images, whether or not they ever got down on paper, you would have to kill me.  Knock on wood—Irish style, fist to skull: I’m still alive–and sporting hats.

Author Contact:

http://brickhousebooks.wordpress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/BrickHouse-Books/105236526191727

BrickHouse Books

 

 

An Interview with Doritt Carroll

book cover for GLTTL STP

If you ask her, Doritt Carroll will tell you that she is (unfortunately) a lawyer and (fortunately) the mother of two daughters.  She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. Her collection In Caves was published in 2010 by Brickhouse Books.  Her poems have also appeared in a long list of publications, including Coal City Review, Poet Lore, Nimrod, Slipstream, Rattle, The Baltimore Review, and the Journal of Formal Poetry. Her poem “motherlove” appeared in the Fuck Poems anthology by Lavender Ink.  Her book Glttl Stp will be published in September 2013. Ilse Munro write of this latest volume that “Carroll’s control and precision reveal aspects of the human condition that would leave a lesser poet running from the room, screaming.” Lorraine Whittlesey describes Carroll’s voice as “uniquely honest,” a voice that employs “Picasso’s and Miles Davis’s understanding of the importance of the space between objects.”

HUERGO: What moves you to write? picture of Doritt Carroll

CARROLL: I don’t know if I’m exactly answering your question, but when I write, I’m having a conversation.  I want someone to see something I’ve seen, in the way that I’ve seen it.  Often, I’m writing to someone who wouldn’t actually listen if I called them up to describe it.  And, to be fully frank, I’m often imagining that if I write something good enough, people will be proud of me, people who could never be proud of me in real life.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

CARROLL: I think i’m different from other poets.  I’m not a good reviser.  If I get myself in a position in which extensive revisions are necessary, I may never finish the poem.  It’s almost as if, by writing it down, I’ve painted myself into a corner.  So when I get an idea, I try NOT to write it down or even say it out loud.  Instead, I arrange it and change it completely in my mind.  I only start writing when I’m pretty sure it’s in the right form, and only minor alterations, such as line breaks or avoiding the repetition of a word, will be needed.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work?  Why?

book cover for In Caves CARROLL: I think I have trouble writing a poem that isn’t about isolation.  It’s the theme of my existence.  I was a late in life child of troubled parents.  If I think about myself as a child, I’m always alone with a book or a doll.  Even in the middle of a crowd, I will often stop to notice how the essential parts of ourselves never meet, never interact.  I think true human contact and understanding between two people is almost a myth.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing?

CARROLL: Gerry Connolly was my first real teacher. She taught me that, when I’ve painted myself into a corner, it’s often helpful to read others who have written on the same topic, or in the same way, to see how they solved the problem. In more recent years, I can’t say enough about Clarinda Harriss.  She has been editor, mentor, publisher, and indefatigable reader of emailed drafts.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?                                                      “everything good  is in the things / that we don’t say”

CARROLL: “Throw grenades at your clichés! Your goal in writing should be to make us see an ordinary subject in a completely new way. Make your reader say, “Well, I’m never going to look at that in the same way again.” 

HUERGO: What are you working on next?

CARROLL: Unlike others, who write a book and then find a title, I find a title, and it tells me what book to write.  The book I just finished is called GLTTL STP (glottal stop), a term that refers to choking off sound briefly when singing.  The minute I thought of that title, I knew I would write a book about things withheld, things not said.  The next title, and I have just started working on this, is Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner.  We’ll see where that title takes me.

Author Contact:

http://brickhousebooks.wordpress.com/tag/doritt-carroll/

 

“Be an Autodidact” by Fatima Brown

I just finished a course in Latino/a Feminisms that included the topics of history, identity, and feminism. The class was writing intensive, allowing students the possibility to explore their personal views on particular matters. Something we all found curious was our unfamiliarity with Latin America Fatima Brownand its history. I believe most of us were unprepared to tackle the subject because we were either not taught that history during previous years of schooling, or we were not taught sufficiently, even correctly. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I have faced the challenge of being unschooled in something that is vital to know and understand. Shortly after the class ended, Professor Elizabeth Huergo invited me to compose a reflection on my experiences with college writing. I decided to reflect on how formal education does not equip students with the necessary tools and knowledge.

When I started at Mason, my first class was not with Professor Huergo. I took a basic, required English course. A few weeks into it, I noticed how many red marks continued to appear on the work that was returned to me. I was a junior in college, yet I did not know where to place a comma properly. But I was not the only one whose work was being torn into. The professor of that required course made a comment to the class about how grammar is not taught correctly from elementary through high school. My first instinct was to drop out of college and repeat school from the first grade. I wondered if any primary school would legitimately consider my request. I honestly felt like I needed to re-learn everything. I was embarrassed at my misunderstanding of language.

Then I thought more deeply about my professor’s comment and asked myself, how did I get away with making the same errors for so long? I was extremely concerned and realized that formal schooling teaches the same things, but not necessarily accurately or analytically. For example, the subject of history is diluted with dates and names of wars and their heroes. The reason why most students end up dragging their feet to history class is because it is not often enough a subject that encourages questioning and thinking about why history repeats itself. History is presented as inactive and passive. We learn to memorize events, the people involved, and the period. We take a test that measures our ability to remember those facts and then forget them as soon as we fill in the last multiple-choice question.

Fatima BrownUntil college, most of us do not get to sit down and break history apart. When we finally decide to question its assumptions and causes critically. Those are the discussions that ignite a network of light bulbs, making it easier for eyes and fingers to trace the lines between then “now” and “then.” That sort of critical thinking helps us develop a better understanding and respect for all people as we study different and various histories. This understanding and respect allows us to sharpen political and social consciousness, strengthening our grasp on the complexities of human nature. Most important, history becomes a channel of identity and compels an individual to discover his or her own. The greatest assets of education are its gifts of practicality and usefulness outside of the classroom. We can apply those critical and investigative skills to question and form ourselves.

After completing that required English course, I decided to accept criticism and force myself to try to do better. Instead of feeling discouraged, I started to teach myself the fundamentals because I believed sloppy grammar and punctuation should be forgiven but fixed. I was determined to learn where those darned comma belonged and why. So my English re-education began with the basic parts and structures of a sentence. Besides its relevance to clauses and conjunctions, a comma came to symbolize for me the importance of spending time learning about seemingly little things that have such an extraordinary power to change meaning.

Education should present information the way a skeleton watch displays tiny pins and wheels. Subjects need to be exposed from the inside-out. Pupils must see the bones and internal mechanisms of systems because those mechanisms affect our lives. Personally, I take responsibility for not doing certain things that could have benefited me. But generally speaking, education needs to be reformed in its entirety, beginning with what we learn about and how. Integrating lessons on real life issues and how to handle them in a healthy, productive way should also be a priority. And last but not least, educators need to be on every “Top Paid Jobs” list. Without them, I would not have been able to confront my own setbacks and create a new plas of action. Most of us have at least one influential teacher to thank.

I only want to address the value of self-teaching, not blame a system or person. Investing our minds solely in formal schooling is not enough. It must be supplemented with what is found after venturing out and taking advantage of resources beyond the borders of established institutions. Some examples would include reading a local newspaper, a random book from a “free books” cart at a library or book store; listening to an opposing argument; viewing a controversial work; rethinking previously learned material. All of these can offer new or unheard-of terms, opinions, and ideas. They deepen a learning experience by helping one accept individuality and difference. Providing ourselves with options is necessary in figuring out likes and dislikes, possibilities and impossibilities.

I used to be apathetic to the idea of being both an instructor and a student, but now encourage everyone to be an autodidact, to practice self-enlightenment. The decision I made to be my own teacher has given my career plans a jump-start. I am revving the engine. I have antsy feet. I’ve been taking risks by writing and sending articles to website, interning at a media placement business, and editing works for aspiring authors. The past few months alone have been a wild ride, but I’m far from reaching a final destination. The journey is what I anticipate.

Fatima Brown is an English major who is currently finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree at George Mason University. She aspires to be a published writer and an editor in the very near future.

Contact Information: fbrown6@gmu.edu