One of my dreams came true just a few days ago—I talked about my debut novel IF I BRING YOU ROSES at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. My friend, the fabulous Tayari Jones, was on the same panel for her new novel SILVER SPARROW. Tayari and I met years ago at a novel writing workshop taught by Cristina García, one of my idols. After the panel, Tayari and I had lunch and I told her how that workshop changed my life.
“That’s your first She Writes Countdown post,” Tayari said.
I make it a point to listen to people I admire, so here goes.
I’d traveled from Oklahoma, where I was living, to California to study with Cristina García at the VONA (Voices of Our Nation) summer workshop. It was so important to me that my husband took vacation to care for our children while I enjoyed San Francisco and Cristina’s class. We students had sent the first chapter of our novels in advance for group discussion and critique. By chance, my chapter was scheduled last. (Cristina García would read my chapter!) Cristina García is not only a talented writer but a gifted teacher able to pin point the weaknesses of one’s work and offer advice on improvement. I remember clearly that Cristina wore a black gauzy blouse over black pants when she set my chapter down on the table and placed her hand on my typed twenty pages.
“This is a well-crafted chapter with good workman like prose,” Cristina García said, before pointing out a few examples. One was how I’d written something general about my character’s hands when specificity is the secret to good writing.
I sat in that chair como nada without showing how devastated I felt. Another writer later complimented me on how well I could take criticism. Cristina proceeded to teach us an exercise to help us elevate the language in our writing. She had instructed us to bring a volume of poetry which we opened at random and read aloud a stanza or two. A few days before I’d walked to Chinatown and had found a used copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I opened the book and my eye fell on the poem Stings. I read aloud the following:
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.
I told myself it was a coincidence.
Cristina told us how whenever she is at an impasse in her writing, if she turned to a volume of poems, somehow she would be sure to open to a page where a word or phrase would catch her imagination and inspire her writing. This exercise also has the additional benefit of helping to move your own writing out of the assembly line and up to the lofty level of the prose of which you dream. I left Cristina García’s workshop determined to make the time to read poetry before writing prose. I’ve found poetry has helped me to become attuned to the cadences and nuances of the voices speaking in my head. Sentences show their clunker personalities sooner. I’ve also found that it can help me learn to empathize with a character. For example, one of my protagonists in my novel IF I BRING YOU ROSES is a factory worker. I chose WHAT WORK IS and THE MERCY by Phillip Levine to help me understand how a man feels working at a menial job. To gain better insight into the Puerto Rican male, I relied on IMAGINE THE ANGELS OF BREAD by Martín Espada and MARACAS by Victor Hernández Cruz.
After ten years and many workman-like manuscript drafts dumped in the recycling bin, my debut novel IF I BRING YOU ROSES will be published by Grand Central Publishing, August 2011.
On the cover of IF I BRING YOU ROSES:
“A richly told tale of obsessive love…deeply sensual and mysterious.”
-Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban
I still aspire to be like Cristina García, whose beautiful prose is akin to poetry. And I will always be grateful to her for calling my writing well-crafted and workman-like because, although at the time it was very painful, it taught me to be humble about my work yet to strive for beauty. I honestly don’t know if I would be a soon to be published author without that criticism.
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