The YouNiversity Presents our First Guest Speaker of 2015! Cara Lopez Lee, author of They Only Eat Their Husbands, Shares her Story
From November to February, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. Today we welcome Cara Lopez Lee, whose memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands (Conundrum Press) is now available.
By Cara Lopez Lee
The first draft is done, and I’m halfway through revisions, but sometimes it feels like I’m nowhere. Like I don’t know how to say what I want to say, don’t know how to guide readers through the journey I want to share, like I’ve done years of research and writing and I can’t remember what it was all about.
I don’t always feel this way.
I sent the first half to my dad. I normally advise writers to never show work-in-progress to family, who are likely to do one of two things: 1) lift you onto their shoulders like the Golden Child, the miracle that is blood of their blood, even if your manuscript is a bloody mess, or 2) tear you apart like hyenas tear apart one of their own the moment it shows weakness, a bloody cut or broken limb, laughing like they’re playing with you while they devour you, even if your manuscript holds the power of lions.
But this time my father the hyena has expertise I need. My novel is inspired by family history and he knows more about El Paso, and more about being Mexican, than I do.
I’ve spent five years writing this dream, this nightmare, all while paying bills by editing or ghostwriting nearly a dozen books for clients: memoirs, novels, business books, self-help books, spiritual books. I’ve also spent several years doing research for my novel: traveling to Toisan, China to find my great-grandfather’s actual village and to Chihuahua, Mexico during the drug war to find my great-grandmother’s imaginary village, touring the oldest buildings of El Paso and the poorest parts of East L.A.—by day it’s peaceful and I fist-bumped the stone lion in front of a proud rose garden, although by night you can still get shot by gangsters. All the while, I was still rewriting, editing, selling, and marketing my memoir.
Eight years I’ve spent on this novel, wedging it into my life like wads of paper under wobbly table legs. Eight years, and my father read half of it in one weekend, phoned and, without preamble, said, “Are you ready to take notes?” He didn’t give me many. He neither treated me like a wounded hyena nor the Golden Child. He liked the pace, believed the story, took interest in the characters, wanted more. From a murderer of childhood dreams, this was high praise.
Still I felt a loss. I put eight years into it, and he finished half of it in two days. That’s how it goes. Agents will read the entire manuscript in less time. They’ll tell me to cut it, change it, start over. All I need is one believer, but even the believer might finish it fast and talk about it as a commodity, not as if it were my viscera splattered on the pages. I won’t be there for the brief coitus, only the sad aftermath, no cuddling and no cigarettes, just a sense that words can truly connect me to another and still leave me alone again.
I must be crazy. This desire to saw my skull bone and crack it open like a treasure chest and beg people to rummage inside, ask them to chew on my heart, so we can share this meeting of minds and hearts that I will never witness.
The other night I rewrote the quiet I imagined falling in El Paso before the first shot of the Mexican Revolution, right across the river in Juarez. I had attended a workshop where fellow writers agreed on one thing: they loved the scene, but couldn’t quite see, hear, taste, touch, feel Segundo Barrio, where my character waited for war to begin.
The night before I reworked the scene, I lay in bed and a thought sat on my chest: “I can’t. I don’t know how.”
“You don’t have to know,” the other me argued. “You never know until afterward. Don’t think so hard. Just dream your way through it.”
“But my dreams have fuzzy edges, and I need people to see them.”
“Then give readers the fuzzy edges, let them touch those.”
The next day I floundered. It was an academic exercise, not creative writing. I followed the five senses like directions on a box of processed food: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Like a recipe or a grocery list, like a blue-book answer or a geometry proof. I felt my hungry audience standing over my shoulder, salivating.
Two days later I took another approach. I handwrote a diary entry for the protagonist, a young girl. What did she remember most about walking through that day in 1911? I started getting somewhere. I used her words like slurry to refinish the adobe huts, like mortar to repoint the tenement bricks of her neighborhood.
It’s a rough draft again, like I’m back at the beginning. Maybe that’s not bad. A beginner’s mind may be just the ticket. Maybe when we’re sure we know, that’s when we cease to create. How can we create from a place of knowing? Nothing new can come of that.
I was a journalist who wrote stories for TV news for ten years. I wrote stories for network cable shows for five years. I’ve been writing books for eight years. But each new story is a reminder that I must begin alone, knowing nothing. What’s more, I must end alone, knowing it might have meant something to someone, but accepting that I can never hold their hand and go there with them—even to that story place that came from within me.
It is perhaps the perfect calling for a woman who treasures equally time alone and time with others. A storyteller remains suspended between both worlds.
I must be crazy, because this act feeds the golden hyena child that prays within, and preys upon, my soul: loneliness as well as connection, uncertainty as well as completion, the hope of the beginning as well as the grief of letting go when it’s done.
Is it ever done?
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands (Conundrum Press, October 2014). Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, Rivet Journal, and Connotation Press. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She’s a faculty member of the youth program at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska, New Mexico, and North Carolina, and a writer for shows on HGTV, Food Network, and Discovery Health. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. She and her husband live in Denver.