The YouNiversity Welcomes our Final Guest Speaker for the 2014-2015 cycle, Editorial Trance CCO and Author Charlie Vázquez!
From November to February, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. Today we welcome Charlie Vázquez, co-founder of Editorial Trance, amongst other literary ventures.
An Alchemical Path to Storytelling – by Charlie Vázquez
The first natural raconteur in my family that I remember was my father—from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico—whose mysterious country tales always rang of tragedy and romance, set in a distant island I wouldn’t set foot on for another thirty years. Hungry days and nights in Earthly paradise. In the 1950s.
He collected salsa and soul vinyl in the gritty 1970s (his healthiest escape) and I’d marvel over the exotic record cover designs—from Barry White to El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. He would translate Spanish lyrics for me and explained the poetic metaphors at play in songs such as Bobby Valentín’s “La mujer y la primavera”.
I moved to the West Coast when I was seventeen, where my maternal grandmother took the family storytelling role over with tales of her childhood in Santa Clara de Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. I found her stories humorous at the time, but also understood that they were much greater than just entertainment.
They were our true history. Not the history taught to us in school.
These days the family sagas come from my mother, who was also a curious child once and recalls family folklore with great clarity. Some of the tales she recalls are frightening, others tender. So I’m writing down as many as I can, so they can be passed on after I’m gone.
I bought artist sketching books in my late teens and 20s, which I’d fill with free verse and other nonsense I considered poetry. Some of those pieces even became song lyrics for bands I was in at the time. Little narrative fragments grew in scope and length as I lived life hard and experienced things—very painful things—that I wanted to fictionalize for others to read.
The beginning of this abandoning of a secretive cocoon was my first novel Buzz and Israel (2005) which will be republished after I clean up the choppy manuscript. A year-long fling with an HIV+ heroin-addict artist petty thief tested the limits of my sanity at age 25 and I tried to romanticize it as a work of fiction. A self-dare that took seven years to “complete”.
Since then a second speculative fiction novel followed (Contraband, 2010), which was an improvement, and now I’m finishing a third, a paranormal detective story. I’ve had erotica and Puerto Rican terror tales published, as well as occasional poems. A couple of essays in LGBTQ anthologies.
The editing of three anthologies and the curation of an East Village underground writer’s reading series for three years, which helped other writers break through.
The coordinating of literary presentations for Festival de la Palabra de Puerto Rico, launching Editorial Trance with Marlena Fitzpatrick, a digital publishing platform for Latino literature, and serving as director of the Bronx Writers Center for the Bronx Council on the Arts.
So what have I learned that I can share with you?
That the listener, the observer, the reader, needs just as much consideration as your characters and plotlines do, if you’re going to write narrative such as fiction or memoir. If you hope to connect with readers, and believe me you do, you should remember this. That a lot of young writers write to entertain themselves and cannot understand why others don’t like their work as much as they’d hoped they would.
That the reader has countless other options for spending their (often) little free time and decides to finish your book because she or he absolutely must. Or put it down to read another one. That successful writers consider their readers very much, deciding when and where to dazzle them with strategic storytelling techniques such as dramatic irony, reversals and revelations.
That as writers we should learn to read differently than non-writers…
That wise and experienced writers listen to constructive criticism and either flush it down the toilet or consider it to improve an aspect of their craft. That criticism is only as useful as its source. Someone who trashes you out of envy isn’t going to help you the way one of your peers—who pushes you harder to make your dialogue sound more realistic—will.
That the thrill of a story is first experienced by the writer and gets passed down, if done right, to the observer. That if your story doesn’t scare you it won’t scare the reader either; that if it doesn’t dredge old and unresolved sadness out of you, then it won’t for someone else. That readers get to experience the seamless end result of months and years of typing, cutting, rearranging, agonizing and celebrating—the final performance.
The final draft.
I’ve learned that what’s become most fun to write—after years of inventing characters and worlds—has been the retelling and fictionalizing of my family folklore. My latest cycle of reworked family sagas has taken all of the things I’ve mentioned above into consideration. And it’s taken me over twenty years to figure out that some of the most powerful tales I have to tell don’t need to be made up.
They happened to the people who lived so that I could write this.
I’ve learned that writing can be as exhilarating as it is maddening. That the story is what counts. That all the special effects in the world will never make a shitty storyline soar. That without a great story to tell we have nothing as writers. That a riveting story told with simple words will always win over a mediocre one told with flowery and pretentious language.
That folktales never die for a reason.
That some of us must write.
Charlie Vázquez is a published author, director of the Bronx Writers Center, and the New York City agent for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra.
Follow @Charlievazquez or his Facebook author page: