Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Writing the Onion

One of the hardest questions I get about my writing seems like it should be the simplest:
"What's the story about?"
For most of my stories, they start out being about a certain topic, but as I get farther into them, they grow layers, like an onion. Each layer is distinct, but makes up the whole. The surface layer is about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, or a girl falling in love. That's where the idea starts. It is usually that initial idea that introduces me to my characters. What gives them depth and hooks me to them is the layers that come later.

Sometimes I have no idea what those layers are when I sit to write. It is better to have something to work with later, than to have a bunch of ideas stuck in my head, so often I allow myself to get it out as it comes, even when I am not certain where it is going. This sounds like an easy, fluid task, but it's not. I have to constantly remind myself not to stop the flow to spot-check, or worry about timelines, but to let it come out as it needs to. I want it all to make sense, but it doesn't come to me that logically. To combat the feeling that the work might be lost, I create a Parking Lot folder. This is where I park scenes, ideas, conversations between characters, etc. that I haven't decided how they fit within the story, or am not sure how they move the plot along.

These parked items are valuable to flush out because they help me better understand the story, familiarize myself with the characters, try different elements of storytelling, and decide where I want the plot to go. It's a safe place for me to put those ideas that I can go back to as needed. The more layers that develop, the less I park. As the story takes on more elements, the original question becomes more complex. It's no longer just about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, it is also about how migrant families transformed a community. It is a relationship story between a boy and the older brother he idolizes. It exposes mental health issues as they relate to parents adjusting to as many changes as their children, even when the story is written from the child's perspective. It is about a girl mourning the loss of her father, longing for love. It is about a daughter scared her mother isn't strong enough to survive life without her soulmate. The story is more about two flawed people becoming stronger and healing together, than about a girl liking a boy.

Many of those layers start as seeds that end up in the parking lot. Some layers come about from writing out the story. Other times I stop writing and make lists, journal entries, or interview a character. Those parked items then morph into scenes and lead to major revisions. They have led me to omit or replace characters, change the setting and turn plot points that weren't immediately clear when I started the story.

This is the care that goes into the creative process. It doesn't look like in the movies where the writer writes furiously with a burst of inspiration that fits perfectly into the story. Often it is slow. I write and write for a few glorious minutes, and then I hit a wall. I read what I wrote. Sometimes with a smile, sometimes with disdain or confusion. Sometimes taking a few moments to read it and ponder whether it stays or gets parked sparks another idea and I go with it. Other times, I remain stuck. It's a maddening process that takes longer than I ever imagine when I start with that one idea. But, when I hit that sweet spot where I know my characters and they do as they need to advance and twist the plot, it becomes as exciting as watching magic. That's when I want someone to ask me, "So, what's the story about?" and I can say, "Do you have a few minutes? Let me tell you all that it's become!"

For Me, Not Him

I've blogged about my attention to healthy living before, and gotten positive, motivating responses. But, there have been less than positive responses, too and up until an incident this weekend, I hadn't realized how much I had internalized it.

When I began working out and wanting to get fit, it had absolutely everything to do with becoming stronger. I felt weak from the inside, and the outside showed it. Some would say it's a natural reaction to shock, and it's common with PTSD. Either way, I was out of shape and sick of feeling fragile. Working out changed that for me. As my body grew stronger, so did my emotional state. I began to see the world as a place I could take on, not a place that had taken my heart and soul. It brought me to life as much as writing did. It still does, and because of that I value my workout time as much as my writing time. I feel strongest and most powerful when I am lifting weights, pushing through miles of running, or pounding out a heavy bag.

As the results started to show on my body, I received compliments. However, a strong dose of those compliments came with a modifier - the implication that I was doing it to find a man.

I am not naive. I understand that widows have a stigma, especially among non-widowed women. We are seen as desperate to find a replacement, by any means necessary, a threat to their marriages and unions. I recall the comments about how great I look, and that of course I want to look good now. I got the message loud and clear. What went unsaid was that now that I was single, I was looking for another husband. That is a common misconception about widows and widowers, that we are always hunting to replace what we lost. In all my widow support groups and events attended in relation to widowhood, I have yet to find this widow. But, I know she exists in the minds of those who have never walked that path.

The comments did not deflect from my desire to be fit and live a healthy life, but I certainly have allowed it to affect how I carry myself. I am particularly careful around the husbands and boyfriends of my friends, even close friends. The fear that something might be misunderstood as a come-on or an attraction terrifies me. I watch what I say, how I dress, what I do. I am a guarded version of myself. I keep my distance, and generally feel less than comfortable in those situations. Before becoming a widow, I didn't think twice about being myself around anyone. It is a sad realization because in most cases, I don't care what people think of me. I never thought of myself as the kind of person who changed who she was because of what others may think. I live a transparent life and those who know me best also know that about me. This blog is a testament to that. However, I recently felt the shame and judgement and it brought back those times when I doubted how I looked because I falsely bought into the hype that a widow should be more modest than most women; widows do not spend time alone with men who are spoken for; widows should not be desirable; widows shouldn't look for love before seven years of losing their spouse. As ludicrous as those statements may sound, I have been told all of them by people I am closest to. So, when someone I am not as close to implies that I take care of my body in order to use it as a man-magnet, I am extra sensitive to it.

I do not want to perpetuate any stereotypes of widows being any more threatening that any other person. I try to stay as far from that as possible in the hopes that someone who might have that false mentality will see my example and conclude that their opinions are inaccurate. They are also inappropriate, hurtful and cut at the character of a woman who is trying to survive, yet facing a new slew of labels that she may know nothing about. After nearly five years of widowhood, I discover different expectations placed on me because of this label. For the most part, I navigate them with confidence and grace, setting a brave exterior. But, every now and then, like this weekend, I get raw reminders that I'm still vulnerable in ways that will take years to overcome. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

1st in Line, Leaving a Trail

I read an article about being a first-generation college student that shot me right back to my days pursuing my first degree. While my undergrad experience was wonderful in many ways, there was so much going on inside that it was also the hardest internal struggle I faced until I was slapped with widowhood.

Growing up, college was always a given, financial limitations be damned. That's why there were scholarships, and I was going to use my GT status to the fullest to get as many as possible. Before it was as easy as typing a few words into a search engine, I did hours of research, talked to as many people as would listen, and checked out mountains of books on the application process. I was a sponge when it came to all things financial aid, grants, scholarships, and student loans. A cocktail of these aids that included a work/study program while I took on eighteen credits per semester and worked an off campus part-time job made college possible. I thought that getting accepted to the college of my choice was the hard part. Academics were never a problem for me, so on my first day of my undergraduate career, I thought it was smooth sailing from then on. I had visions of the college life I had seen on Beverly Hills 90210 (the original series, not the one with the waif model), full of parties, all-nighters that were centered more on my social circle than grades, football games, and huge auditoriums where I could get lost in the sea of students and not stick out as the only Latina in the class.

Those things all happened and I enjoyed them, but internally it was a different story. I lived with tremendous guilt. Not only did I feel bad for going so far from home, but having the privilege of going away to school felt like something I didn't deserve. Who was I to get this experience while other Latinx kids just as smart as me were delegated to city colleges and full time jobs post-high school? Why did I get away from the violence of Chicago, while my parents and siblings were left to fend for themselves in that danger? It was unfair, and I felt undeserving. 

The guilt was palpable. It is still one of the things I remember very vividly about that time in my life. Going home on breaks made the guilt feel worse. I was different, but everyone at home expected me to the same. So much happened that I had no one at home to talk to who could relate. It's not that my parents didn't check on me and ask how things were going, but they mostly inquired about academics. What I struggled with was the feeling of abandonment. They were proud of me for leaving and I knew they saw it as my being a role model, but I constantly felt like I needed to apologize. I didn't understand those feelings and they turned into avoidance. I didn't like going home anymore, which added to my guilt. I was far enough away that I wasn't expected home often, but close enough that I could have gone home a lot more than I did. But being home felt out of place, too.

I loved being with my family, but I loved who I was when I was on campus. They were so distinct from one another. If I was too much of one in the other world I got strange looks and comments discounting my Latiness, my ability to related to other urban youth, my devotion to my roots and hometown. Both places were shaping me so rapidly and yet I had to keep them so separated. 

Luckily, I had first-gen friends who could relate to the duality, and some even came home with me and met my family and offered me some relief at managing both worlds. Their observations of the person they knew on campus vs. the person they saw at home made me at times uncomfortable, like I was a fraud, other times I challenged the notion that I led two different lives. But, looking back, that's exactly what I did. Part of it was that I had no idea the reaction others would have at my being first-gen. I never heard the term or thought of it as defining me before getting to college. I wasn't comfortable with the label because it felt exclusive. It seemed to imply some achievement, but I did not feel like I had achieved anything yet. Secondly, it felt dismissive the accomplishments of those before me. My cousin had gone to a university; my dad had taken some classes at a city college, and my mom completed a vocational program. I was proud of them for that. Saying I was a first-generation college student felt as though their struggle wasn't as valid as mine, and I resented that.

It took time to see the label for the positives it can hold. Years later I realized that while getting to college wasn't unique, it was more of an achievement than I had ever given it credit for. Making it to a major university away from home with little to no family guidance, and then surviving the challenges that came with it was big. It set the precedence for those who would come after me, so they wouldn't have to be the lone "first". They could look at me and see it was possible, and better yet, have someone to help them get through it, just like I had.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why I Read YA

As an adult, I still gravitate to YA (young adult) books. My mom doesn't get it. She says that the YA books I recommend are hard for her to get into. I don't understand it, because I love them, but it got me thinking about why I still love it as an adult. 

I came up with a lot of reasons, here they are in no particular order:

  • YA spans genres
When I go to a bookstore or the library, I don't have to go from section to section looking for something interesting because YA books are all shelved together. I can look through contemporary, historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and sci-fi all within the same group of bookshelves. I have found many authors that I would otherwise not know about, and genres I wouldn't have tried had they all been scattered throughout. 

  • They are the stories I would have loved to read as a child
Perhaps my reading growth got stunted somewhere between ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET, by Judy Blume, and HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende. One spoke to my place in the world, while the other opened my mind to the lack of Latina characters in the books I had read. 

Coming of age stories take me back to those days when I was tucked in a corner of my house, ignoring the world around me in order to dive into the one on the page. The most common themes I read had suburban settings and characters that had little to nothing in common with me and my surroundings. Those books still dominate the market, but there are more and more by Latinas who write about growing up in inner cities in the US and loving flan and brownies, having trouble speaking Spanish, and battling the same identity questions I did. I read those books now and I am happy they exist, but sad that my twelve year-old self didn't have them back then. They would totally have blown my mind.

  • They help me understand my daughter's world better
My childhood was different from my daughter's in almost every way you can imagine. From the type of city, to the number of family members and the proximity of cousins, her world is distinct. Reading YA is an additional tool in learning about how today's kids process things. While the works I read are almost exclusively fiction, I know from experience that it doesn't automatically mean that the works are not heavily based on truth. The research it takes to write a book of fiction is rigorous and thorough. The author had to place herself in that world in order to do it justice. He had to spend hours dissecting, observing, processing and regurgitating all that he learned when creating the characters, setting, and plot. I appreciate their work and how much insight it provides me in learning about my kid.

  • It is something I can do with the kids in my life
I'm the aunt who loves to introduce her niece and nephews to audio books, graphic novels, and signed books as souvenirs. As the kids grow up and their reading choices become more sophisticated, I plan to be the person the kids call on for book recommendations, to discuss the books they love or hate, for writing advice, or at least invite me to see the movie version of the book they last read.

  • They're entertaining and complex
As I mentioned, my mother can't get into YA. However, she enjoys a lot of pop culture movies and television series. Most of those are based on YA, MG and children's books. When a good story is combined with special effects, invested actors and screenwriters devoted to the author's vision, you get some very intriguing entertainment that even my mom can be found watching with enthusiasm.

There are lots of reasons I enjoy YA and they influence why I write it. I am not limiting myself to only reading or writing it, but it definitely offers depth that I appreciate, and challenges that keep me going. 

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