Guest Speaker Theresa Varela, author of Covering the Sun with My Hand, shares her journey as a writer!
From November to February, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. We welcome author Theresa Varela, who’s novel Do No Harm, the first part of a Latina detective series, will be published in 2015 by Aignos Publishing.
As I read the YouNiversity blog I was struck at how refined, polished, and positive are the posts, the critiques, and the responses. The mentorship this type of program provides is invaluable. My experience with the critique process was very different and I’m not sure exactly why that was. Years ago, sitting in my doctoral program and announcing my dissertation choice was met with a, “Why would you want to study that?” That questioned was echoed years later in a creative writing course that I took where a couple of students asked, “Why would you want to write about that?” Those types of questions are necessary and I’m always eager to discuss the topics I choose that usually include spirituality and urban health with a magical realist slant. What I have taken issue with is the sardonic tone that comes with those questions. I reflected on my very different history of feeling awkward while sitting with other writers in real time. I remember having to manage a blasting critique sitting in a group without the luxury of having time to digest the negative comments I heard or the cannoli I had just crammed into my mouth in a mood of civility just a moment earlier. It took me time to develop my writer’s muscles; technical nuances and emotional filters are necessary if I want to develop my gifts and charge as a writer.
The processes I will focus on for this post are peer review and public readings. Rubbing shoulders with my peers in ‘real time’ has been vital. About six years ago, along with a couple of other Latinas, I helped co-found ‘La Pluma y La Tinta Writers Group.’ We decided that my Brooklyn apartment was probably the most accessible to transit lines, so we sat at my dining table and concentrated on the craft of writing on summer evenings with the windows thrown wide open and one of the members scratching her nose because she’s allergic to my dogs. She still doesn’t believe my dogs are hypoallergenic-no matter what I’ve said to the contrary.
In sharpening my craft, I’ve also honed the precious stone of humanness that I couldn’t get from networking via the internet. I loved sharing my work and reading the creative pieces the others brought to the table. I probably loathed my group the worst when one of the members emailed me in the middle of the night sharing that she had an essay published in an on-line mag that was the on the same topic of the novel I’d been workshopping with them for months. After a quick tune-up at my therapist’s office, I was able to move on and eventually my novel Covering the Sun with My Hand was published via Aignos Publishing Co.
Reading in public has proven to be one of my greatest learning experiences. I began reading in bookstores and cafes almost six years ago. Raquel Penzo, La Pluma y La Tinta’s other co-founder, in that jaded entrepreneurial way of hers, decided we needed to take our horse and pony show on the road. Since then we’ve added successful bookstores (the fact that these establishments are still open is my definition of successful) and bars to our list of ‘in’ places for new writers to read ‘in progress’ work, often in dismal light. One reader turned her tiny flashlight on and along with her eyeglasses, I’m happy to say, gave an excellent read!
I’ve read some of my unfinished pieces aloud in a too small room with a mic and have sometimes read in a too large room without a mic. I’ve read in a room that was almost empty save for a sympathetic relative and my spouse who applauded loudly enough to encourage me to keep writing. On the flip side, I’ve looked up from my white pieces of paper to see a crowded room with people trailing out of the door.
I’ve been one of four writers who showed up to read with an audience of three. I’ve read longer than my gut has told me that I should and probably made everyone as uncomfortable as I felt. It’s probably not a good idea to read until your listeners turn away, like mine have. I couldn’t help myself though, I was at my mercy. So far, I’m the only writer in the history of my family who has the audacity to read in public. I’m not counting my second cousin, Mikey Garcia, who stands on stage as a comic. Why? Because I’m jealous of his ability to stand in front of people telling jokes and actually wanting a laugh.
One of my favorite outdoor readings took place under the EL in East Harlem, NYC. The train barreled its way through each person’s piece. The screech of the metal brakes dissected everyone’s voices. It was okay. We all laughed- and this time it wasn’t at the writing. I should add that I mistakenly printed a draft of my poem instead of the finished product and I was glad that the audience couldn’t really make out what I was reading. Or maybe they were just really polite when they applauded and smiled at me.
An agent came up to me after a reading once and invited a couple of us to lunch. I made the mistake of looking her up online. Some agents want you to know their literary preferences. I don’t think she did, she seemed annoyed. She did mention that she looked at my website and found that my blog posts at the time were all about my calamitous experiences with agents and editors who never called back, even though they promised to because they ‘loved-my-work-so-much’ that they ‘couldn’t-wait-to-touch-base’ again. I was bummed out when she didn’t call me back but then again, I wouldn’t be writing this post if she had.
I’ve had the misfortune of calling someone who was pretty important in the book world by the wrong name. The claw marks on my cheek are now mostly healed. Once I forgave myself, we connected again. We are in touch pretty often and the event has been forgotten. *shakes crossed legs nervously*
My message here is that while I aspire to have great published pieces, the process has often been messy. I made lots of mistakes and others did too. Receiving feedback from peers and reading in public venues have been wonderful for my reading. I’ve observed peers and audiences listen intently, laugh when I hoped they would and appear deep in thought as I read the sections that I’ve held close to my heart. My anxiety has tripled when audience members have shared that they also have schizophrenic brothers and that they are sorry that my first novel is not a memoir. I’ve also been thrilled when someone who read my novel whispered in my ear, “I felt like you knew me and some of the things I’ve gone through.” While I can read these comments on posts it is so gratifying to experience them in person.
I keep writing, one day at a time, or not. Sometimes I can’t write because I have to take my dogs to the vet or one of my kids flies in from Texas. It’s all okay; writing is as natural as every other human thing I do. I can’t do everything that I’d like to every day. If I tried to I’m sure I’d be a nervous wreck. Getting to know my rhythms is important. I’m not Hemingway. If I sloshed my way through writing I’d be hung-over with nothing on paper to prove that I ever sat at my laptop. I’m not Jane Austen. My petticoats and fan have been replaced by newer inventions. Really, I must admit I am probably one of the silent few who never cared about what Mr. Darcy thinks.
I’d like to gift you a poem. It came to me while I was thinking of what to write for this post. Just do me a little favor and read it aloud.
Words tumble from my lips like seaweed
Slick and scalding
Familiar is that taste of brine,
Nauseating- but a reminder of things that matter
What I say can manifest worlds
that are explored by sea creatures and sharp billed birds
who dazzle and dart in phosphorescent foam
and disappear with the slap of one mighty swell of the Great Mother
who recognizes our yearnings to be perfect
Instead we are impermanent like the waves;
changing, tumbling, yet immortal
I invite you to check out my website, http://www.theresavarela.com. I rarely post anymore but I keep trying to be on schedule. I think I’ll put a note up like Julia Alvarez once had on her website- saying something to the effect of ‘I’m not blogging because I’m writing.’
Best of luck in the literary world to you all- Theresa