YouNiversity Project 2014

Oracle Jack in the Blast Lands (rewrite) by Yma Johnson

The Magician was late so Oracle Jack reached beneath the stolen skyrider’s seat and pulled out a box of Red Penance. He needed to get high and make sure no one saw him. Jack scanned the loading dock and adjacent warehouse. A group of human-replicant hybrids moved with mechanical purpose between the building and trucks, probably loading up black market water and reflective tunics bound for rich districts beyond the Blast Lands. Nothing to worry about there.

The police had stopped coming here once Earth blew off-orbit frying half of humanity and most of the planet to hell. The Blast Lands rose from the ashes, isolated and lawless. A perfect place, the only place to dump a stolen skyrider. Also a perfect place to get dragged into the sun and have your dope stolen. Once an oasis of succulents, date palms, and blue streams, it had become a parched obscenity littered with black craters, outcroppings and boulders. An occasional tree twisted in the landscape, white and waiting to ignite in the relentless heat.

Sweat spread out in musty semicircles from under Jack’s arms. The skyrider’s cooling unit rattled with ominous inconsistency. He had run it hard to make his meeting with The Magician. If it died in the Blast Lands, so would he. Fleeting fear of death melted into gratitude for the second moon, extra light made an ambush unlikely. Oracle Jack jerked a test tube caked with Iridium 5 substrate from his tunic pocket and stirred in six drops of Red Penance. He shook the tube until its contents liquefied and glowed phosphorescent magenta in the peculiar light which wasn’t daylight, but couldn’t be called night either

Jack knew about the cameras and that The Magician hated his runners to get high, but the crawl of need crushed better judgment. He had snatched the skyrider as a special order, so if The Magician didn’t want him getting high by the docks, then he could steal his own shit. His guts clenched and steamed, with trembling fingers, he shoved one end of the straw in the liquid and the other in his nostril then inhaled. Too hard, too greedy. He choked on the burn as it cut corrosive lines down the back of his throat. Before the drug blew back from stomach to brain he knew he had taken too much. Oracle Jack’s skin glowed magenta. He clawed at the skyrider’s steering control, and as the drug crested he thought, I don’t want to die like this. Legs jerked, arms flailed of their own accord; his whole world shook with the percussive ricochet of gun on bone. In the seizure’s empty afterglow, chin dangling to chest he saw his marrow glowing white through flesh and started to scream.

***

Oracle Jack jerked awake in a horizon of pain which expanded as he became more alert. His eyes shifted into focus and the sting of his flesh on unfamiliar fabric alerted him that he was no longer in the skyrider. The bed with thick sheets would have been comfortable to anyone but a rave fiend in the belly of withdrawal, comfortable to anyone who didn’t want to peel their own skin off with a knife. He was in a large gray-walled room, perhaps some kind of metal. In fact, everything – the floor, ceiling, sheets, the twin sinks – was the same antiseptic shade of gunmetal gray. A cloth divider separated him from what? The question bloomed with an instinct to run his hands over his head. He was bald. Someone had shaved him bald.

“What the fuck?” Jack lurched from the bed in a clumsy frenzy. His feet tangled in the sheets, and he snatched at the dividing cloth tearing it loose from the ceiling as he lost his balance and thudded to the floor. A thin bald man, his skin also magenta from a recent overdose, scrambled to the other side of his bed, eyes luminous with terror. Oracle Jack’s heart throbbed in errant beats as he tried to rub away the pain where his knees had struck the ground. The junkie spun in and out of focus as Jack willed his eyes to work. Somewhat recovered from Jack’s startling entry, the man, who was also wearing grey flannel pajamas had edged back towards him.

“You okay?” he whispered.

“Fuck no, I’m not okay! Where the hell am I? Who shaved my fucking head?”

“I think it was scorch-proof hybrids,” he said in a loud whisper, half-covering his mouth with one hand. “They call me The Hanged Man.” He paused, looked over his shoulder then stared back at Jack, watery pink eyeballs trembling in his head. Saliva glittered at the corner of his lips. His words erupted in a stammered rush. “I guess they could be human. They look human, but there’s something … I don’t know, not human. They don’t talk. Well sometimes they talk. It’s weird man, I – ”

“Dude, calm down. Please.” Jack waved a hand in the air as though he might diffuse The Hanged Man’s mania. “Where the hell are we?”

The man lowered his voice until it was barely audible, “You tell me, then we’ll both know.”

Oh, God, thought Jack – the skyrider, all his dope, The Magician. Everything was completely fucked up. “How long have I been here?”

“Three maybe four days, not sure,” he said. “Not sure where here is exactly. No, not too sure. I’m The Hanged Man.”

“Yeah, you said that. Oracle Jack.”

“Yeah, yeah. Nice to meet you. Yeah, you been here three days, maybe four – it was a bad overdose.”

There was no such thing as a good overdose. You blew past the high and woke up sick, crazy sick, a ton of wasted rave mix and no buzz. The Hanged Man kept looking over his shoulder like he was trying to catch something or someone sneaking up behind him. His eyes skittered from one corner of the room locked on a spot then moved to another. Jack wished he would stop. The movement was giving him motion sickness, and he looked down at the floor to steady himself.  Jack’s face began to twitch, his hands trembled. He clutched his head and managed to say, “Do you have any dope?” just as the chatters descended. With flesh ache and sudden fury, he was sucked into a tunnel of blinding sound, immersed in the disembodied teeth click, click cracking over and over again.

The Hanged Man scampered to the floor and tried to lift him, “You better get back to bed.” He was smaller than Jack and lost his balance trying to steady both of their weight so he half-yanked, half-dropped Jack into a writhing heap on the bed. The Hanged Man glanced at the door and with a look of pure fright said, “They’ll bring you some mix. Don’t worry they’ll bring it. Push the white button on the side of the bed.”

Oracle Jack dragged the sheets and blankets away from the metal bed frame, and found half a dozen buttons. He mashed them all five or six times and his empty insides rattled as the bed jerked up and down, alternately raising and lowering his feet, head, and midsection.

“No, the white button! Hit the white button!”

Jack forced himself to focus, found the right button, and pressed it so hard his finger cramped. He managed to slow his breathing and burrow into the tangle of bedclothes. Warmth chased down the chatters to low level ticking which, combined with the hum of the cooling system, stabilized his body to a tolerable level of discomfort. This was just the beginning, he had maybe an hour maybe two before another avalanche of chatters descended. Over the next day, acute withdrawal symptoms would lengthen until they gathered into a ceaseless noise storm followed by hallucinations. Jack jabbed the button one more time and stared hungrily at the door. Maybe he could find where the mix was stored.

“Forget about it, man. We’re locked in,” The Hanged Man’s voice came as flat echo bulging in the air around him. “I’ve tried a bunch of times to get out. I don’t know … I was waiting for the Magician in block nineteen. You know The Magician?”

Jack nodded. Everyone knew The Magician.

“I had just boosted this skyrider and I guess the guy was a dope fiend because I found substrate cake and shit ton of Red Penance in the console.” Both of them stared at the door as The Hanged Man sped through his tale squeezing his bald head and rocking back and forth. “There were some works so I decided to bang it.” Jack caught The Hanged Man’s eyes and a jagged silence descended. “I don’t usually do that, I-I like I’m not super into that … you know banging.”

Right, thought Jack. Nobody just decided to bang mix. Needle users were executed, no trial, no jury. Just dragged out behind the black boulders and shot. Jack hated selling to them. They spent big money, but they were also notoriously and unpredictably violent. Bangers didn’t live long in the Blast Lands.

“I only did a little, at least it seemed like just a little, but I od’d. Wicked, wicked overdose, worst I’ve ever had.” The Hanged Man’s voice shook, and for a moment Jack thought he might cry. “But the bones… I saw bones, I saw my own bones through the skin. Now look at this, look at us.” He clutched the sheets, twisting and untwisting them, twisting and untwisting. Then he yelled,  “Look at us! We’re fucked up, man. We’re really fucked up and we’re locked in.”

Out of the sudden silence after The Hanged Man’s, came footsteps. Oracle Jack tensed and The Hanged Man’s eyes widened with fright. He could hear the door unlatch then it slid sideways into the wall with a slow grinding sound. It was made of metal and very thick. No escape. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have rushed the door or been waiting with a weapon. He had no compunction about beating someone beyond recognition to get out of a bad situation. Bangers risked immediate execution, but so did traffickers. After six years in the Blast Lands, he understood survival on a level that most people could never conceive. All that maniac bravado now narrowed to a single point – to stave off the chatters.

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Special guest interview with Luigi A. Juarez, who speaks to the YouNiversity about his new book, Covered Paces!

covered paces 

luigi

Jonathan Marcantoni: How would you describe your style? What is the story behind this book?

Luigi A. Juarez: My writing style leans literary (that is, away from the style of most genre fiction). I teach and study canonical works of literature as a career so I think that makes me subconsciously prefer the freshness of language (phrases and descriptions) over making sure I hit all the watchwords that plot the perfect action scene.

It’s funny, I was at a point where I was writing three short stories at once. The first was a Hollywood satire, the second was a fantastical tale, and the third, a domestic dispute, visceral and ultra-realistic. There was a woman in each of those, and I quickly realized that they could all just be the same person. And so, Linette Velazco came to life as a failed Hollywood actress who’s had her head in the clouds but needs to come back down. It then took me over four years to create a constellation of characters that make sure that happens, as she moves back East to pick up the pieces of her life.

JM: You mention how your style leans literary but that you are also a student and teacher of literary canons. Reading the synopsis I was struck how it reads very much like a traditional romance novel as far as the plot points go, but that the text itself is much more emotionally involved and complex than the usual romantic drama. Is it fair to say that genre tropes are a difficult thing to avoid even as you mold them to your own uses?

LJ: I would say that it was never about me wanting to “subvert” genre. It’s not like I had the romance genre in mind and tried to subvert it. Rather, my subject matter here happens to be the girl meets/loses/what-have-you story which also happens to be a perfect template for category romance, but I approached this with a preference for introspection, as more of a character study, as it were.

The literary writing style also, I believe, lends itself well to creating a timeless piece. I have these modern settings and youthful characters, but the language of introspection has a fundamental classic quality to it. One last thing: writing good genre fiction may be a different beast but in many ways it’s even tougher. There’s definitely an art to crafting the perfect romance or the perfect thriller.

 

JM: What was your methodology in figuring out what to keep and what to excise while you wrote the book?  

LJ: Edits are always difficult but always necessary. My process is I edit things as I go (for better or worse time-wise), but whatever you do has to be in service of the story. So in the case of the Hollywood satire inclusion, I toned that part down considerably to where it’s more about Linette leaving Hollywood but not so much about any kind of satire. Satirizing Hollywood adds nothing to the overall arc of the love story, really. This is just one example.

JM: What about your background or personality allowed you to enter the mind of Linette? Did you seek guidance for writing a female character or what or whom did you model her after?

 

LJ: No guidance, actually (although I did grow up in a very loud house of sisters and aunts). Linette happens to be a woman but the story I wanted to tell was all about how you can shove love off to the side but it has this way of always boomeranging back to you, especially when you least expect it.

 

JM: What emotional experience do you intend the reader to go through in this story?

 

LJ: I hope readers experience a whole range of emotions, actually. Linette’s journey is often sad, often funny (I’m thinking very much about Valeria and Paul’s interactions in the book), but there’s plenty of happy moments, too. Hopefully, I made it so that readers feel they are right beside her as she makes strides to get her life on a path where she assumes complete and total agency.

 

JM: Have you evolved as a writer during the course of writing and editing this book and if yes, how so?

 

LJ: Yes. I’ve evolved in this sense that I feel comfortable writing book-length stories now. Like many writers I know, I started out just writing short stories. Then, I got to the point where I had written enough that I said, “Let me try my hand at a novel.” From here on out, actually, I’d like to write novels.

JM: I think writers who try to do novels first miss out on the fun of short works, which really allow you to find your voice in large part because that lack of intimacy allows you to be more playful. A novel is very much about consistency in tone, character, pacing, etc. which is especially hard to maintain over a long period of time. How did your life, while writing Covered Paces, reflect on Linette’s journey and vice versa?

LJ: I think the important thing is not just to keep writing until you find your voice but also to have enough life experience. And there are some who might disagree, but this especially involves meeting people from parts of the world outside your hometown/city. In my case, I moved up north for college, and then again for grad school. But the point I’m making is that you don’t need to pursue degrees to replicate those things. It’s about making the journey itself, which is what Linette does. Whether you decide to live halfway across the country or accept a new job somewhere else or even just take a few road trips, you need to interact with different kinds of people in different kinds of places to be able to hone your voice.

 

JM: What drives you as a writer and how did that relate to this book?

 

LJ: I’m constantly thinking of original ways to express what I observe. That’s definitely the driver, because you feel gratified whenever you’re able to stand behind what you’ve expressed precisely because it’s your voice that did so. In this book’s case, I wanted to create a modern love story, I wanted it to be told in a classic way, I wanted to render big city life (LA, Miami, Boston) in an accurate way, etc., and all those things combined became my voice.

 

 

JM: What themes in your work stand out to you as particularly important?

LJ: As I’ve stated, love often finds you when you aren’t even looking for it. And that makes other aspects of your life a lot more complicated. This is especially true of your 20’s, which I’ve mentioned in the Press Release for the book (that it’s this weird time in your life where there’s a lot up in the air but you definitely know better about a lot of things). Finally, I do have to mention that it’s important that this be considered a Latino book as well. Like myself, Linette is a Panamanian-American, the first generation in her family to be born in the United States. And like I did, Linette definitely faces some of the burdens of the immigrant child: upward mobility at all costs, and financial-striving over emotional satisfaction. We all know there’s not a lot of money to be made being a writer, and when I told my parents that that’s what I wanted to be, it didn’t go over too well (but they eventually came around).

JM: I like that you brought up your heritage and the immigrant experience, particularly coming from a sub-group of Latinos (Panamanians) which not only Americans but many Latinos do not know much about aside from infamous figures like Noriega or the Panama Canal. What about your culture and your people’s history do you want others to learn from your stories, not just this book, but future ones as well? 

LJ: It’s interesting, I grew up in the Hialeah area of Miami which as many people know is predominantly Cuban. Being Panamanian-American, I’m technically a considered a minority there! So I’ve encountered weird but true Spanish-language differences all my life like how, what my family and Panamá calls “patacones” is what Cubans and many others call “tostones.” This is just one example of many word differences. So I do feel a responsibility to filter my unique experience moving about not just other groups but other sub-groups as well, while still staying true to my own proper heritage and customs.

 

JM: Do you have plans to write stories set in Panama? Do you feel responsibility to be a voice for your community, and if so, what message would you like to convey?
LJ: I’d definitely like to eventually be associated to the literary tradition of Panamá. I kind of “announce” this when I use verses from writer Rogelio Sinán as my novel’s epigraph. Like you mention, not a lot of the country has had the opportunity to voice itself out of common identifiers like the Canal, so I’d like to do so. Currently, the only other Panamanian-American writer who does this is Cristina Henríquez (check out The World in Half, by the way, as it’s pretty awesome). I currently have plans to set my next book entirely in Panamá. I actually test-drive this perspective at the end of Covered Paces, with a chapter that sends several of the characters there briefly.

For more on Luigi and how to purchase Covered Paces, visit his website http://www.luigiajuarez.com

For more on his publisher, Editorial Trance, visit http://www.editorialtrance.com/

Oracle Jack in the Blast Lands by Yma Johnson

For the month of February, our YouNiversity students will be contributing new works to be critiqued. After receiving their critiques from our readers and the mentors, the students will re-post their newly edited works. We ask that your critiques be helpful and honest. Abusive critiques will be deleted.

The Magician was late so Oracle Jack reached beneath the stolen skyrider’s seat and pulled out a box of Red Penance. He needed to get high and make sure no one saw him. Jack absorbed every detail of the loading dock and adjacent warehouse. A teaming mass of human-replicant hybrids, probably loading black market water and reflective tunics into trucks bound for rich districts beyond the Blast Lands. Only hucants could work in the scorch, humans bubbled like skin on a griddle. Although recently, rumors of mass malfunctions among the hucants were sifting like dust through the Leftover Cities. Jack was getting hot, face damp with sweat and the console’s cooling unit had a strange rattle going. He had run the skyrider hard to make it in time to meet The Magician. If the cooling unit died in the Blast Lands, so would he.

The police had stopped coming here once Earth blew off-orbit frying half of humanity and most of the planet to hell. The Blast Lands rose from the ashes, completely lawless. A perfect place, the only place to dump a stolen skyrider. Also a perfect place to get dragged into the sun and have your dope stolen. The oasis of succulents, date palms, and blue streams had become a parched obscenity littered with black craters, outcroppings and boulders. An occasional tree twisted in the landscape, white and waiting to ignite in the relentless heat.

Jack was grateful for the light of the second moon because he could make sure no one snuck up on him. It wasn’t always visible, but it was inextricably linked to the new Earth, the desiccated Earth, a planet with a stringy pulse ringed whose atmosphere had been replaced with viscous globs of pollutants. Oracle Jack jerked a test tube caked with Iridium 5 substrate from his tunic pocket and stirred in six drops of Red Penance. He shook the tube until its contents liquefied and glowed phosphorescent magenta in the peculiar light which wasn’t daylight, but couldn’t be described as night either.

Jack knew about the cameras everywhere and that The Magician hated his runners to get high, but the crawl of need crushed better judgment. His guts clenched and steamed, with trembling fingers, he shoved one end of the straw in the liquid and the other in his nostril then inhaled. Too hard, too greedy. He choked on the burn as it cut corrosive lines down the back of his throat. Before the drug blew back from stomach to brain he knew he had taken too much. Oracle Jack’s skin glowed magenta. He tried to grab the skyrider’s steering control, and as the drug crested he thought, I don’t want to die like this. Legs jerked, arms flailed of their own accord; his whole world shook with the percussive ricochet of gun on bone. In the seizure’s empty afterglow, chin dangling to chest he saw his bones glowing white through flesh. That’s when he started to scream.

***

Oracle Jack woke in a blazing horizon of pain which expanded as he became more alert. His eyes shifted into focus and the sting of his flesh on unfamiliar fabric alerted him that he was no longer in the skyrider. The bed with thick sheets would have been comfortable to anyone but a rave fiend in the belly of withdrawal, comfortable to anyone who didn’t want to peel their own skin off with a knife. The room was large with gray walls, perhaps some kind of metal. In fact, everything – the floor, ceiling, sheets, the matching sinks – was the same antiseptic shade of gunmetal gray. A cloth divider separated him from what? The question bloomed with a simultaneous instinct to run his hands over his head. His fingers still pink from the overdose scrambled across his scalp. Someone had shaved him bald.

“What the fuck?” He lurched out of bed in a clumsy frenzy. Jack’s feet tangled in the sheets and he clawed at the dividing cloth which tore from the ceiling as he lost his balance and thudded to the floor. A thin bald man, his skin also magenta from a recent overdose, scrambled to the other side of his bed, eyes luminous with terror. Oracle Jack’s heart throbbed in errant beats as he tried to rub away the pain where his knees had struck the ground.

The junkie spun in and out of focus as Jack willed his eyes to work. Somewhat recovered from Jack’s startling entry, the man had edged back towards him.

“You okay?” he whispered.

“Fuck no, I’m not okay! Where the hell am I?”

“You tell me then will both know.” The man, who wore the same grey flannel pajamas as Jack, was still whispering and his eyes jerked in paranoid little arcs around the room. “They call me The Hanged Man,” he said giving his street name.

“Oracle Jack.”

Jack touched his scalp and his face, which for the first time in months was free of rough stubble. “Who shaved us?”

“I don’t know. I’m freaking out.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been here?” Jack wished The Hanged Man would stop swinging his head from side to side, the movement was giving him motion sickness and he looked down at the floor to steady himself. He was dope sick and very scared, but tried to hide it.

“Three days, maybe four – it was a bad overdose.”

There was no such thing as a good overdose. You blew past the high and woke up sick, crazy sick, a ton of mix wasted and no buzz.

“Are we in jail?”

“You’re kidding, right?” Oracle Jack cocked his head at The Hanged Man who, upon second appraisal, looked younger than he’d first thought. In fact, with his raggedy thinness, light magenta skin, and shaved head he looked almost fetal. “This is definitely not jail. For starters, it’s clean and we have matching pajamas and sheets.”

“Then how come we’re locked in?” The Hanged Man pointed to the door which had one tiny opaque window cross-hatched with some kind of copperish material and no handle.

YouNiversity Critiques Entry 1: Emma Mayhood’s New Poetry

For the month of February, our YouNiversity students will be contributing new works to be critiqued. After receiving their critiques from our readers and the mentors, the students will re-post their newly edited works. We ask that your critiques be helpful and honest. Abusive critiques will be deleted.

Screen

Peering through the window focus trees

focus screen like memory in and out

approach and see one scene, another but

never together residue of the leaves on the

geometric black light squinting through the

squares frame comes into focus on the tree a

painting rustling in the breeze through your

hair though the window and your eyes are

closed and you are in a room without a

window without a view but within your

mind your memories create your

imagination create your memories inside

this box of sleep of dreams of daydreams of

what we remember.

On

Rotating

he was reminded

of the again

and again

he watched and

waited

wondering if

when

how

and the infinitesimal

why.

Repetition

he thought

was the answer to re

living

to fixing and re

doing

but he wasn’t

doing living fixing

any

one or thing

he was repeating himself

while others

move.

 

 

 

 

2

Those that present define one another

Ration an aspect as distinct, eternity

Ration as distinct eternity: a system

Measuring passage

I’m interval between two: youth

Est. life

In contemporaneous not prehistoric

The sign: experience of, an, the, it

Formal

Force son spare hope, take “I’m”

Define it?

Etc.: proper, ever indefinite

Into occasion vent fact, it’s poetic

Me, relative

Me, rhythm

Me, duration

Characteristic of

(of: an explosive device)

Lock moment: speed to fix 15 minutes

To fix (actions, events, etc.)

Minute

Late

Choose for: attack perfectly

Son, an effort limited before once

Simultaneously he’s young, he’s old

For being temporarily present gain delay.

Good at advance punctuality

Not me, I’m in for eventually

Understand one travels quickly with progress, move with hurry

Again and again, age at life.

 

 

 

 

 

3

The: of event as to (any) future continuous events succeed one another as a distinct eternity to come from measuring or limited between two particulars now end of a prescribed particular good (formal term) imprisonment take a definite point break extend rapidity of duration

rest

arching passage (dice) donate pertaining speed stoke late attack unison limit early never yet quit achieve good understand correct observe quick quickly alternate one’s own designate one’s experience (me) (one)

rest.

The YouNiversity Welcomes our Final Guest Speaker for the 2014-2015 cycle, Editorial Trance CCO and Author Charlie Vázquez!

charlie

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:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Charlie-V%C3%A1zquez/143602992367000?ref=bookmarks

Welcome Our Newest Guest Speaker to the YouNiversity, Eleanor Parker, author of A Decent Woman!

From November to February, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. Today we welcome Eleanor Parker , author of the upcoming novel A Decent Woman.

Eleanor

A Creative Journey – Nature, Nurture or Necessity?

“Creativity is a DNA imperative. It is impossible for us to not be creative. We make things by nature.” –James Navé

My favorite stories are those of intrepid souls with unshakable confidence, who pursue their dreams and passions despite crazy odds, challenges, obstacles, and inner demons. They do this while learning the ropes and the craft of what they set out to accomplish with little regard to the critics, naysayers, and the dreaded, internal censor. Hey, that sounds a lot like a writer. A writer continues on the creative path for years amidst a myriad of rejections from literary agents, a few disappointed readers, and book publishers they never hear back from. The writer digs deep into emotional, mental, and spiritual wells, while perfecting the craft of writing, discovering her voice, and finally accessing the dark place where a golden nugget hid from her until three in the morning. And at that exact moment, she ran out of coffee and cigarettes. Wait, wait a minute. That’s me. That happened to me. I drove to Sheetz in my pajamas, bought supplies, and wrote furiously until the sun came up. A writer, despite the odds, challenges, obstacles, and yes, lurking inner demons, toils night and day for years, and finally hits the right vein—the one that bleeds gold.

I’ve heard it said that real writers are re-writers, and I couldn’t agree more. In 2005, I wrote my debut novel, A Decent Woman, and trust me when I tell you this—the current version bears little resemblance to the original draft manuscript. It was necessary for me to experience life as a single woman, move across the Atlantic Ocean, cry a bit, and move to West Virginia in order to pursue my writing. And I had to meet my current editor, who I’d heard was a dream to work with. During our first telephone conversation, Ally told me she’d made writers and authors cry. I told her to bring it on; I could take it. She pushed me way beyond my comfort zone by challenging me to create better momentum, remove male POV, and change my ending. Of course this involved months of rewriting when I’d believed I was done, but I wasn’t deterred. Four months later, I still adore Ally; she was right. A Decent Woman comes out Spring 2015 with Booktrope Books. It is the book I was meant to write.

Yes, bleeding is involved in writing. The necessary sweat and tears will follow if you go deep with your story and into your character’s psyche, which to me is an absolute necessity in great storytelling. The gifted writer will lay open their fears, secrets, and the darker aspects of themselves while other writers open the door a creative crack to see what it feels like to stand exposed, naked, and vulnerable. Most people are frightened by the idea of vulnerability and shut the door with a definitive slam, while the adventurously-open, bull-headed seekers push the door open, shove past self-imposed limits, and defiantly walk through. Your story will remain inside, peeking from the darkness, waiting for you to deal with it…or not. For a brief moment, you had a taste, a glimpse of the essence of you and who you were meant to be—a writer. It is a choice; a crazy choice at times, I’ll give you that, but my world opened up when I decided to add writing to the painting life I’d led for over twenty five years. You know what makes me sad? Untold stories make me very sad and people who don’t pursue their passions in life. In my experience, no challenge has been as frightening as I’d originally thought, after I’d tackled whatever it was. Calling the IRS, however, does not fall under this category—they are freaking scary.

Please don’t wait until you retire, until the kids are grown or until you have enough money in the bank to live a creative life. All you need is grit, nerves of steel, staying power, fierce determination, and that necessary bit of delusion to become a writer. And, of course, you need a damn good story.

As writers, are we to satisfy our muse or worry about what readers think of our book, while we strive to appeal to the masses?

I say it depends on the writer, the writing style, genre, and the magnum opus. In each creative journey, whether it’s penning a novel, writing a song, growing a flower garden, or painting a masterpiece, we strive to express ourselves. As writers, we communicate who we are, what we believe in, and we offer our personal message to the world, and oh yes, we will be judged. You must have tough skin to be a writer, but please know this—we always more to give. I’ve learned that through a myriad of rewrites and the editing process with my debut novel. When I thought not a single thought more could fit in my head and I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get from point A to point B in my story, I did. And it was an awesome experience.

I write for myself. I’m not a commercial writer, and I don’t like being put in a box, so my target audience is anyone over fifteen who reads and anyone over one hundred who can still read. I’m told I write lovely prose and I’m not preachy in the messages of my books, but some books will inevitably irritate some readers; there’s not much an author can do because art is subjective. What appeals to me might make you cringe. We can’t please everyone all the time, so I don’t try. I write for myself and hope my stories will resonate with readers.

Is creativity born of nature, nurture or is it born of necessity?

I was a blonde, green-eyed baby, born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to a United States Army GI of Polish/Russian ancestry and a Puerto Rican mother who spoke perfect English with a beautiful Spanish accent. Growing up, I was known as “la rubia”, the blonde, and had two nicknames. I was known as Nuni to my American family and Pupita by my Puerto Rican family, and thus began my dual life on the island of Puerto Rico and wherever the Army sent my father. I spoke Spanish with my mother and English with my father, who didn’t speak Spanish, but sang, “Besame Mucho”, with operatic flair when he had a few drinks, which always made my mother and us kids laugh.

When I was two, the Army sent us to Paris, France, where my younger sister was born two years later.

I attended an école maternelle, a nursery school, where I learned French, hated the mandatory nap time, and it was there that I was introduced to painting. My mother kept that painting and all the Mother’s Day cards I made for her in the drawer of her bedside table until she passed away in 1992. My earliest memory is when we lived in France after my sister was born. My young neighbors, two American brothers, placed me in a cardboard box at the top of our old, wooden staircase, and pushed the box. My mother told me I didn’t cry when I landed at the bottom of the stairs. Instead, I laughed and begged to shoot down the stairs again. At four years of age, I was an adventurer, a painter, and a world traveler.

France was a happy time for my family, but all my treasured childhood memories took place in Puerto Rico at my grandparent’s house at Calle A, Urbanización Santa Maria in Ponce. Their Spanish-style home was always was my refuge and the happiest place on the planet for me as a kid.

Other childhood memories are from pasadías, day trips, to the beach at Caña Gorda, where we enjoyed Sunday lunch set in heavy calderos, pots, inside the trunk of my uncle’s Chevrolet. In other family photographs, I’m the kid with heavy doses of sun block cream on my nose and a tee shirt to cover my pale skin while I sat in the shade of a palm tree for sun breaks. My grandparent’s coffee farm in the mountains of Jayuya was the setting of decades of wonderful, magical memories and incidentally, the farm is the setting of the sequel to A Decent Woman, called Mistress of Coffee. All the grandkids took turns riding la llegua, an old mare, led around the farm by the farm overseer named Gógo, who had the patience of a saint. On rainy days, my cousins and I played school and the girls ran a beauty shop. On sunny days, we listened to the radio, danced to 45 records on my small record player, and explored the mountains.

Also at the farm, I experienced my first life reality check at the age of ten. My grandmother owned a long, black hair piece that my cousins and I fought over, which we’d attach to our hair with bobby pins. I still remember the hurt and confusion I felt when my sister cried it was her turn to wear it, and wishing to end the argument, my mother told me, “No te pega. It doesn’t match your hair. Let your sister wear it; she has dark brown hair.” Although I spoke Spanish fluently, I was born on the island, and was Puerto Rican in my heart of hearts—I was still “la rubia” of the family. My mother was a sweet, kind woman, but nonetheless, her comment stung my young cheeks. I suddenly felt out of place. I ran to give the queja, complaint, to my grandmother, who wisely told me that no matter what my hair color was, I was Puerto Rican. She also gently reminded me not to forget my blonde and blue-eyed father was American; I had two heritages.

From an early age, I painted pictures with a brush and with words. When I was ten, I painted my first portrait of a woman with the only palette I had at my disposal—my mother’s eye shadow set, using the tiny sponge with a plastic handle as my brush because crayons and colored pencils didn’t do it for me. Asking my parents for a proper watercolor set and brushes didn’t occur to me until I was a teenager, when I understood why I hadn’t asked—no one in my family drew or painted past the mandatory art classes in elementary and junior high school. My family looked upon art as a hobby, no more than a frivolous pursuit and past time. In high school, my parents realized I wasn’t going to stop drawing and writing when I asked for pastels, art and writing paper, and a good pen. My mother bought a new eye shadow set.

Back in the United States for the new school year, I looked like the American children at the Catholic school I attended. We wore blue and white plaid uniforms, sold statues of the Virgin Mary to raise money for our school, and we attended Mass every Friday with the nuns giving us death stares if we spoke or laughed in the church pews. I grew close to my cousins in Massachusetts during family visits and learned about my Polish-Russian ancestry. The common threads in both families are love and loyalty of family. I drew constantly, read Nancy Drew books voraciously, and was again uprooted for another tour in Puerto Rico, seamlessly adapting to wherever I lived. Back and forth we went across the Atlantic Ocean during my father’s tour in Vietnam and our summer visits.

I longed to paint and draw every day, but that wasn’t to happen until I married an Army officer and my beautiful children were born. I drew models from fashion magazines, copied several paintings by the Masters, and wrote poetry, all kept in an art satchel that I kept under my bed. Then, as the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”. I was ready and my teacher appeared in the form of a fantastic watercolor artist and woman, Elaine Hahn. I studied and exhibited with Elaine for three years until my beloved mother died unexpectedly at age 57, which happens to be my age today. After my mother’s passing, our next duty station was Brussels, Belgium–a huge turning point in my creative life.

Living overseas granted me the time and opportunity to stay home with my children and paint again. I became one of the founding members of the art group, Art Perspectives International, and exhibited several times a year during our thirteen year tour. It was during this time that I was given Julia Cameron’s seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, and my world opened up. I facilitated five creativity workshops in my home for artists, writers, singers, actors, and poets, who in turn, pushed me to write poetry again. As I offered my time, encouragement, and support to the creative folks who walked through my door for many years, I, in turn, was helped.

In 2005, I wrote a tribute in honor of my Puerto Rican grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. My husband read it and asked me to write an outline of my grandmother’s life. Afterward he said, “You have a book to write.” I spent the next six months writing A Decent Woman, and traveled to Puerto Rico several times to interview older family members, healers, psychics, and mediums. I did my research on the island and from my desk in Brussels. I had found my niche! I was ecstatically happy, but a year later, after twenty-seven years together, my husband left our home. The following summer, I moved out of our rental house in Brussels and closed the door on our French home. I moved back to the United States with my kids who were attending US universities, and went back to school while I worked as a Spanish language social worker in Northern Virginia. I loved my clients, but I was unsettled. By that time, I’d moved four times in four years, searching for the life that would remind me of France and Puerto Rico—of happier days.

In 2010, I knew it was imperative to give up my day job to write and paint full-time. How did I know? The timing was right, I disliked the city, and my sanity depended on it. We’d sold our wonderful French house and with my half of the proceeds I bought a house in West Virginia, where I could afford to live a creative life. My adult children, now working and living in Northern Virginia, were shocked and thought it might be time to have me committed, but I held strong. My gut screamed, “Do it.” By trial and error, paying attention, taking risks, making sacrifices, and being extremely stubborn, positive-minded, and delusional at times, I jumped off the cliff and landed in my creative life.

I unpacked the novel I’d written in 2005, read this very well traveled manuscript, and realized the story no longer fit me. The story about my grandparent’s lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico was no longer the story I wanted to tell. It was the story of Ana, my grandmother’s Afro-Caribbean midwife, who’d attended the births of two aunts, an uncle, and my mother, that I was passionate about. Ana had been a minor character in the original story, but she was the nugget of gold. When I tapped into Ana, she told me her story through whispers, nudges, and clear dialogue I heard in my head. I began rewriting and reworking the story with all I’d experienced, lived, and researched. It is time to birth A Decent Woman and introduce her to you in Spring 2015.

Did I find my idyllic, creative life in West Virginia? Not really, but it was a soft place to land. I still dream of France and Puerto Rico.

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.

caraphoto

Unfinished

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

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.

They Only Eat Their Husbands
The Los Angeles Times
Rivet Journal
Connotation Press
Lighthouse Writers Workshop