On My Writing Process and Writing Practice

Before I am anything else I am a poet–I was formed as a poet, I survived my youth because of poems and poetry, and I’ll die as a poet.

It was the first kind and form of meaningful writing I experienced, that I felt connected to, was able to see myself reflected in, was able to freely and fully express myself through, and the first kind and form of writing that I fell in love with, and still love most.

I approach all forms of writing (personal essays, memoir, academic essays, recipes, etc.) as I would a poem, which typically is by discovering and laying down the title, or the first/last sentence, or a word that caught my ear or heart with interest and that I organize the rest of the writing around. Begin with the ending, middle or beginning, feel and work my way backwards or frontward, instinctually.  Fill the rest in with movements, colors, feelings, sights and sounds.

I’m called to task typically from inspiration, or steel-eye focus, or desire, or curiosity or a driven mission to: reveal, understand, discover, or come to terms with.

My advisor recently asked me to write a reflection on my writing process and writing practice.

How does one describe a constant breaking, a mending, a finding, a losing?
A (re)discovery of tongues, and language, and pieces of one’s self that were never there to begin with?
Never meant to be whole?

“How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
No.
By slowly becoming everything.”
–Arundhati Roy, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A novel”

To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. At least, for me, they both go hand in hand. I have always been an avid reader. In my family I am known not as a reader, but rather as The Reader. Singular title-possessor, capitalization and all. From my foundational years as a toddler in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, I began my intimate relationship with books and reading as a proud library card carrying tiny citizen, begging my mami, tia and babysitters to take me to the library near the train station weekly if not daily. I consumed picture books voraciously, and escaped into worlds within worlds, far away from my own. Through reading I learned that there were other worlds out there, and that other worlds were possible.

Years later, once I began working and earning physical money, I began to buy books. By then I had stopped going to public libraries, and stopped borrowing books, because my relationship to reading had changed. Reading was no longer an intimacy between my eyes, sight, words and text, but now included my fingers and hands; included the act of writing. When I began owning books marked the pivotal moment I began writing on pages and in books: underlining words, writing questions and comments on the margins, documenting reflections and reactions to what I was reading. I wrote to understand, make sense of and with. I needed to own my own books to do this kind of writing. Able to possess and claim them as my own.

I guess you can technically say that I began writing after I learned how to trace and form letters in kindergarten. Slowly I began to understand that these shapes were letters that formed words that formed sentences and paragraphs that were contained in pages bound in things that were called books. I didn’t truly understand or feel connected to writing. Up until then, and all throughout my primary schooling, writing was more of a task that served a particular purpose and function that took place in mandated tasks: countless classnotes, book reports, assignments,  etc. There was no choice, and thus, did not feel intimate or have the similar intimacy the way that reading did.

Writing took a turn for me in middle school when I started to write poetry. It began the same night after I saw Billy Corgan, from the band The Smashing Pumpkins, being interviewed on the Regis and Kathie Lee morning talk show, where he described his writing process for songs, song lyrics, and music. He shared that he kept a writing journal next to his bedside, in which he wrote down his dreams and memories, and these would sometimes turn into inspiration. That night, I too began keeping a writing journal next to my bedside. I didn’t think much would come of it, but little by little, I began to fill out the pages. I was always an avid dreamer.

That same year, my mother’s friend let me borrow a small copy of Maya Angelou’s poetry collection. Reading it on the way back from Jersey to our apartment in Queens, I didn’t understand most of what Maya wrote about concerning love and heartbreak. But even at that young age, still, I felt something inside me stir. I know now that Maya’s words and poems solidified for me back then that writing and poetry was what I wanted to to do. To create. To aspire to. So I began to write poems.

Writing poetry is how I single handedly survived middle and high school. Otherwise, I would not have survived. That’s a fact. I will always say, acknowledge and give credit to that fact. Poems and poetry were the creative outlet where I was able to express myself, see, describe and author myself. Write myself into existence. Write myself into a world that constantly and actively wrote me out of it. Denied me. Tried to take me out.

When I didn’t see myself in any of the curriculum, texts or assignments I was given at school, I wrote poems to discover and understand myself better. When church would call the likes of me as abominable from the pupil, I wrote poems to convince myself that my life mattered. When my mother would pray to God to cast demons out of my body, I wrote poems as prayers to heal and reconcile myself.

Writing for me back then, as it does now, is fully sensory and embodied. To write, I need to feel connected and a connection to. Need to feel the need and desire in my body. Writing begins with a feeling, or an emotion, or a sound or a movement. It might be a word that I deeply love, or one that I do not know, and want to know better. It might be a throwaway line heard in passing that lingers and haunts me until I write about it, and soothe its longing and aching. It might be a title, a quote or passage from someone else’s writing that captivates and enraptures me, and serves as an anchor that grounds my own writing.

For years, I have documented such words, lines, quotes and passages across physical and digital documents that exist across mediums: scraps and pieces of papers, journals, Word documents on my computer, iNotes on my iPhone and on online cloud platforms. I go to these first when I am feeling stuck or in need for inspiration.

However, academic writing–that is, writing that is written with the purpose to be seen, evaluated, given merit and value to and by viewers and readers in the academy–does not come as easy. It is similar to what singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan once described, in a live concert, her songwriting as “scrapping blood from a rock.” Similarly, for me academic writing is not easy. It is work, and it takes work. It is not my primary or desired form of writing. For this poet, it will never be.

How does one describe a constant breaking, a mending, a finding, a losing?
A (re)discovery of tongues, and language, and pieces of one’s self that were never there to begin with?
Never meant to be whole?

Writing is my Universe-given talent. It has taken me a lifetime not to understand that, but rather to claim and accept this truth as my own. To be able to wear the identity of a writer like a second skin, my own skin, that cannot be replicated or worn by any other than my own bones. Unlike some of my friends who possess/ed more physical, artistic talents, like singing, dancing, acting, playing sports, etc., or my own “father” (or sperm donor as I often refer to him) who is a well known painter and art professor in Honduras (and shouldn’t that kind of talent be transmittable? inheritable?) my talent did not always feel like a talent because it had/has always been bound too close to schools, schooling, “formal” learning and “formal” education. A creation bound to be created in an aesthetic-less, sterile vacuum. How does one learn to develop, cultivate, and hone in on one’s talent, on one’s craft, when it is exists within constraints and constructs? Within structures and confines that historically, currently, and never has not, silenced, invisibilized, rendered worthless, eradicated and erased its creator from existence. When the defining of the talent, craft, and artist is always being defined by the colonizing colonizer?

And then I think about my grandmother, mother and sister. The three women in my life, the three pillars of individuals who have most shaped my life, having only received an elementary, a high school, and a partial-college education, in that order. Three generations in my family where “formal” learning and education played little-to-no function or purpose: my grandmother, having gotten pregnant at a young age and given birth to too many children back to back, settled into a life at home caring for her children and grandchildren; my mother, once a small business owner, having fallen in and out of love with said art professor, moved to the states with her two small children and settled into a life of cleaning other people’s apartments in addition to her own; and my sister, who navigated New York City’s public and bilingual education systems, who had choices and access beyond her forebearers, never found her calling, passion or purpose, gave up, and settled into a life not too far different than that of our grandmother’s.

What purpose did schooling or education serve any of them? To any of my family’s lives, aside my own? But also, what purpose does school or education, does writing, serve me or my own life when my own family does not understand what it is that I do? When my own family is so far removed from the things that I think, the things that I read, the things that I write? From the ways I move, navigate, exist and operate in the world? When I, after all these years, still don’t fully understand myself what it is that I do, or what I want to do? Does writing, my learning and education, then serve any purpose or function at all?

Ironically, my mother blames my education–and later on when I went to college, my “liberal education”–for “corrupting me,” “turning me away from the Things of God,” and making me a “sinner.” She “formally” found out about my sexuality when I was a junior or senior in high school, when the mom of my best friend back then–who too was on a self-discovering path of her own sexuality, used me and our friendship as a connecting bridge to her cover ups of all her outings and escapades that remained question marks to her mom–knocked on our door to inform my own mom that her maricon son had corrupted her daughter. It was an unremarkable Thursday evening, 7:00pm, and my mom was in the kitchen making dinner when the doorknock arrived. Straight out of a tv sitcom.

But let’s be honest, formality or not, she had always known, because this is the kind of intimate thing that all mothers know, on some kind of level: on the surface, superficial, deep rooted, or ignored. And it wasn’t the fact that I had been raised by women, as ignorant people would often say to me back then and still today. But rather, I was brought into the world, her world, as both her saving grace and her cross: the sweetest taste that resembled and reminded her of her very own image and reflection, while also being that which challenged and uprooted every facet of her faith and conviction. And somehow, to her, my education is what caused it all.

How does one describe a constant breaking, a mending, a finding, a losing?
A (re)discovery of tongues, and language, and pieces of one’s self that were never there to begin with?
Never meant to be whole?

“How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
No.
By slowly becoming everything.”

PDF here: José Alfredo Menjivar, Reflection On My Writing Process and Writing Practice

Advertisements