On Letting Go of My Writing and My Voice

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

With Chasing the Sun exactly six months away from publication (wow, did I really just write that?) I’d be lying if I said I don’t have the occasional moment when I’m suddenly excited/terrified/overwhelmed at the thought that it’ll be out there. That people will actually read it.

I wonder a lot about how it’ll be perceived. Not so much about whether or not people will like it, but whether or not it’ll be understood. Will the story be interpreted in the ways I hope?

A couple of days ago, I was reading Nina Badzin’s blog (one I read, time and time again, because Nina has a way of smacking you across the face with pure wisdom when you’re least expecting it). She shared 5 life lessons she’s learned in 3 years of blogging. Number 4 left me waving my hands in the air, shouting, Yes. This. I totally get this:


And it got me thinking about my voice. Literally. You know, the one I use when I talk and words come out.

Because every once in a while, when I’m working on article or a freelance assignment, I have to record my interviews. And then later I play them back to transcribe them.

A lot of cringing ensues. Every time I hear my voice, I think: Is that really what I sound like? The voice in the recording sounds nothing like what I hear in my head.

It’s widely acknowledged that this happens to nearly all of us, but since I’ve never known why, I of course googled it. It’s fascinating. It turns out, everyday sounds we hear like lawn mowers, dogs snoring, the sounds of keyboards being pressed maniacally (i.e. what I’m currently hearing) become sounds when they strike our ear drums and cause vibrations in our inner ear that are sent to the brain as signals for interpretation.

But when we speak, our inner ear doesn’t only catch the vibrations in sound waves moving through the air; it catches vibrations in our actual vocal cords as well.

Here is the better scientific explanation: “…your inner ear is stimulated both by internal vibrations in your bones and by the sound coming out of your mouth and traveling through the air and into the ears.” The article further describes that the combination of vibrations coming from two different paths is what causes us to hear our voices differently than the rest of the world hears it.

So yeah, really: we cannot control how people hear us. And it’s the same with our writing. That translation from the mind to the page—we’re so close to it we’ll never perceive it the way others do. Everyone who reads it will be in their own heads, with their own experiences and emotions informing what will ultimately reverberate and resonate in the mind.

What can we really do about it? We can either speak our minds and let it go. Or we can keep our mouths shut and tuck our stories away, safe and alone.

You can own the story, but you can’t own the interpretation. And thank god for that, because that’s how communication and discussion and listening and discovery happens. The world would be such a boring place without it.

Revising My Approach to NaNoWriMo

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

Project 365 #200: 190713 The Finishing LineI’m not a runner. I do bootcamp, and dance, and volleyball, but when it comes to running I just know it’s not my style. I envy writers who clear their minds and get their best ideas as they run. A couple of times a year, when the city closes the main streets outside my building for a marathon, I look out my balcony and think, Man, look at those people go. 

I’ve always looked at NaNoWriMo-ers in a similar way. Write 50k words of a new novel in one month, in one November? That’s a huge undertaking. It takes commitment and guts and a little bit of crazy. It’s its own marathon, so while I’ve always admired and cheered on the writers who do it, I’ve always thought it’s not my style. I write slow and steady. I burn out if I sprint.

But this year I got a little bit of crazy into me. I woke up on October 31 with absolutely no intention of jumping into the race. Then I went to bed and decided, why the hell not?

Day one, (which also happened to be my 5-year anniversary) I went to the library and wrote 1700 words. I thought, this can totally work.

Day two was a little harder. I hit my word count goal but started to realize I had no idea where my story was headed. (This being a last-minute decision, I had no outline or notes, just a spark of an idea.)

Day three felt like pulling teeth. I was tempted to step away from the page and outline or brainstorm, but I felt I had to go, go, go. Day four through eight weren’t any better. I didn’t hit 1700 words. I wrote between 50 and 800 words some days. I felt like absolute crap about it. I thought, I’m barely a week into this and I’m totally failing at NaNoWriMo.

And then today, as I failed yet again to hit the daily 1700 word mark and instead wrote 1100 words, I realized I’d done something even crazier than attempt to write 50k words in one month: I’d managed to turn writing 7800 words in one week into failure.

On what planet does that make sense? If it’d been December and I wrote that many words of a completely new manuscript (some of which I’m actually proud of, some of which surprised me in the best possible way) I’d be ecstatic. I’d feel accomplished and motivated to keep going.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think the concept of NaNoWriMo is amazing. The writers who participate are even moreso—they’re the ones who’ve been cheering me on and telling me not to focus too much on word counts, that progress is progress and that I should feel good about this.

Me feeling overwhelmed by it is completely my fault. It’s a result of me setting unfair expectations and then being too hard on myself when I feel I haven’t lived up to them. It’s me only focusing on what I haven’t done rather than what I have.

So I’ve realized it’s time I change my approach to NaNoWriMo.

I haven’t hit my daily word count goal. I probably won’t write 50k words this month either.

But what I have done is start a new story that I might’ve waited months to put down on paper.

I’ve opened up that document every day this month, and written something. Even if it’s just a line or two, I’ve made progress.

I’ve committed to a new story.

And I’m grateful for other writers who are in this race, whether they’re speeding past me (go, go, go!) or keeping the same pace, or even taking a breather by the water fountain. Who knows when I’ll get to the end. I’m just happy that I started.


photo by: comedy_nose

The Real and the Magical and Everything In Between

Friday, October 25th, 2013

dragon flightSo I’ve been taking a magical realism course at a local writing center. Once a week, I get to hang out with a group of about eight other writers and, led by a really great instructor, we discuss reading assignments like Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” (seriously, bookmark it for when you have five or seven minutes. It’s short but powerful.) and workshop each other’s stories.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, magical realism is a style of writing that incorporates magical elements but grounds them in the real world, where they’re not necessarily treated as extraordinary, but used to push the story forward and reveal/bring about change in the characters.

So to get us to started during our first class, we did this really great exercise (want to try it?) that involved us thinking of a magical element and pair it with a character.

Hence, I’m currently working on a short story about a graffiti artist who creates paintings as an offering to a sea dragon, but he fears for his life because the sea dragon keeps washing his work away, each time causing more and more danger to the artist and his town, and he can’t figure out what it is the dragon really wants from him.

Crazy, right? And fun. Although I’ve always loved reading magical realism, this is the first time I’ve tried writing it. The way it’s challenging me has shed some light on why and how I write.

When I’m working on a story or a scene, the moment it clicks for me is when it starts to feel real. Real enough that I can believe the character or the situation or whatever it is they’re feeling. If I look back at my last few works, they were all grounded in things I knew to be true—like my grandfather’s kidnapping, or an abandoned property my parents once owned—and having that as a starting point gave me permission to imagine everything and anything else.

We talk a lot about truth in fiction not needing to rely on facts. How as long as it feels real and stays loyal to some aspect of our human experience, there’s truth in it.

Working on this story, I find myself starting from a place so far beyond reality, I know it only exists on the page. It’s forcing me to redefine my criteria for truth, to let go of the idea that for something to feel real, I have to think it could actually happen.

Maybe the real magic is in the leap, in that moment when what’s most extraordinary isn’t something like an all-knowing toaster but the way a town reacts to it. And it’s not just in this one style of writing. In all fiction, there’s the real and the magical and everything in between.

Have you ever written magical realism? 

photo by: lecates

The One Writing Rule I Absolutely Won’t Break

Monday, October 14th, 2013

::Books have knowledge, knowledge is power, power corrupts, corruption is a crime,,,::

Last week at The Debutante Ball I basically gave a big ol’ pshaw to the idea of writing rules. You know you’ve heard them: Write every day. Butt in chair. Read, read, read.

Oh, wait. Back up a second. That last one?

That’s the one rule I absolutely won’t break.

Which is funny, because I also think there is no room for absolutes in an art/practice that is so incredibly fluid. Saying there’s only one way to be a writer is like saying there’s only one way to be human. We all have different experiences and different paths to take, but for me, reading is the compass that keeps me coming back to the page. Whether you’re the kind of writer who always needs to be reading something, even while you’re deep in the creation of your own stories (like me), or you’re the kind of writer who needs to step back and not read others’ work while you bring out your own, the point is, we read.

We read because we love words—and not just our own.

Because as much as we want to be storytellers, we also want to be told stories.

Because books are where love of words started and we can’t change who we are.

Because sometimes if we can’t write our way out of a writing problem, we can probably collect a hint or two in another story.

Because a book that keeps us up at night is the best reminder of why our writing dreams are worth pursuing.

We read because words fuel us, and stories are labyrinths we get lost in to find ourselves.

Why do you read?

photo by: » Zitona «

NYC in Pictures & Takeaways: On Community, Diversity in Publishing & Being Grateful

Monday, October 7th, 2013

I’m writing this from the plane as I head home to Austin after a whirlwind of a trip to NY. It’s funny how each time I’ve got gone back, it feels less like a city I barely know and more like a place where I recognize pieces of myself and friends who make it feel like a home.

This trip was a mixture of the planned and the spontaneous. Dinners and tea breaks I made a point to schedule with writers I’d met online, only to surprisingly lose track of time as we chatted the evenings away like old friends. A last-minute lunch with a classmate from my undergrad creative writing days, during which we spoke for hours about writing and getting MFAs and not getting MFAs and freelancing and the identities that tug at us as we work on our fiction. Spending an afternoon with my agent, editor, and marketing manager, solidifying what I already knew: that I’m extremely lucky to be working with them. And the Las Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference, which is only in its 2nd year but was one of the most vibrant, information- and community-rich events I’ve been to.

It’s all a bit too much to explain here. But I’ll try, in pictures and takeaways:

On life’s plans and our life plans: I wandered a bit around Columbia University—it always makes me feel as if I’ve folded a map of my life, connecting two places I’d never imagined were related. As a high school senior, I spent a couple days at Columbia for a journalism conference. At one point, I ended up in a one-hour creative writing workshop, and it was the first time in my life that I realized studying writing as a craft was something I wanted to do. Now I give a silent thank you each time I walk through Columbia’s beautiful campus.


On MFA vs no MFA: There are things all writers need: feedback, community, and space and time to write. Where we each find these things is up to us and our life circumstances.

On things email can’t do: This is me and my agent, after lunch with the team at Amazon Publishing. They’re even more amazing than I always imagined they’d be based on our phone calls and emails.

On stories that win our hearts: In true NY fashion and publishing legend, I missed my subway stop because of this book.


On book publicity as parenthood: Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between us, was the keynote speaker at the Las Compadres & Compadres Latino Writer’s Conference. During the Q&A she compared promoting all her books—not just her most recent one—to having kids: just because you have another child doesn’t mean you stop raising the older one.


On identity and all that we are: This panel on fiction with Mario Alberto Zambrano, author of Lotería, and David Unger, author of The Price of Escape, was full of so many amazing insights. But one comment by Mario Alberto struck a chord in me. Asked about how we should bring our identity into our work, he mentioned that we all have multiple backgrounds, identities and obsessions. Lotería made him pull from his Mexican-American experience. His next book, set in Paris and about a dancer, connects to his past as a professional ballet dancer. We are so many things, but not every story will have room for all our identities, and we should be okay with that.


You all remember he was September’s Fresh Ink interview, right? Here I am getting my book signed.


On the state of publishing and diversity: This:

“The business can’t succeed if it doesn’t look like the society around it.” — Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books (second from the left)

and This:



On a quiet moment on the subway: A pause, and gratitude in every moment. May it always be like breathing.


On finding pieces of autumn and wishing I could take it home with me: (My mom used to tell me to look up when I walk, but every once in a while I feel like I might miss something if I don’t watch my footing.)


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