Tag Archives: am writing

Thank You, Ariana Grande: The Necessity of Writing About Hometowns

Up in the hills facing Lake Elsinore, dramatic mansions look outward onto Lakeshore Drive. The homes are relics of the early 1900s, when the city was a hidden hotspot for celebrities trying to get away from the Hollywood scene. Before July 4th, whenever I drove down Lakeshore, I would stare up at the domed rooftops of immaculate quasi-castles and wonder why celebrities would want to come here, escaping to this smudge of a city that people only really knew by its position along one of the routes to wine country and San Diego.

Then, of course, Ariana Grande licked some donuts in my hometown, and now nothing is the same.

One of the big revelations of my undergraduate career was that it is perfectly acceptable to write about home. Initially, something about that act felt cheap and, somehow, inauthentic; so many of the books we studied and talked about were set in huge, amorphous cities with names that end up on t-shirts (New York, London, Paris). These larger cities dominate the bestseller lists. They’re the places that get demolished in superhero movies as the villain battles our protagonist across the screen. I think major cities have always functioned as imaginative settings because they are inherently immersive; we see a character surrounded by that grid of buildings and we are easily transported out of less cinematic cities — like my hometown, Lake Elsinore, where the our version of a skyscraper is the Holiday Inn off Diamond Drive.

Lake Elsinore’s uniqueness is in its quirks that seem to characterize the forgotten cities within the Inland Empire, the surprisingly large area of Southern California bordering Los Angeles County; consider, for instance, the cemetery that entombs most of Elsinore Valley. It is located immediately next to an IHOP, which I never thought was weird until I travelled through areas of Los Angeles and found large expanses of isolated graveyard spread along hillsides like theme parks of sadness.

Or, alternately, consider the landmark importance of Wolfee, the donut shop at which Ariana Grande tongued some countertop pastries. One, it is an independent shop, which is difficult to pull off in franchise-ridden areas like Lake Elsinore; and two, it is open 24 hours a day, which is, in and of itself, a rarity in this city beyond gas stations and the Del Taco drive-thru on Central Ave. These qualities completely explained why many residents of Lake Elsinore (Elsinoreans? Lake Elsinords? Demonyms are lost here) were quick to defend the shop, despite its quick descent to a B health rating for keeping its donuts within licking distance; Wolfee should not be defined by its mistakes, for it is a part of the Lake Elsinore landscape, and therefore we shall defend it with glazed fingers.

And really, this is why borrowing from hometowns matter — they come with an inherent set of experiences, people, and places that serve as sample sizes of an entire nation’s complexities. When Storm Stadium, home of Lake Elsinore’s minor league baseball team, partnered with Wolfee, they posted a 26-second video to Facebook to promote July 15th’s game as anti-Ariana Grande night. Storm’s general manager, the owner of Wolfee, and the baseball team’s mascot (a gigantic, neon-green dog named Thunder, naturally) called for Grande to come to the game and “publically apologize for all of the Americans, Joe from Wolfee, and the lovely Lake Elsinore community.” The resulting comments from area-dwellers were as diverse as Lake Elsinore itself, and it felt fitting that such a weird event would generate so much conversation about and around and among the city’s people. After all — just like any number of the pockets of thriving humanity living off innocuous freeway exits — my hometown is weird, and that is wonderful in every sense of the word.

There will always be room in fiction for big cities, especially for the authors that are shaped by those places. I can literally track the movements of the characters in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude as they walk through Brooklyn, which makes the story feel even more authentic — not necessarily because it’s true to Google maps, but because it is true to the unique landscape as Lethem understood it — and through my reading, I can get a sense of the author’s personal landscape. And, after all, that’s the beauty of fiction: it lets us share glimpses into our lives so that others may live in our shoes, too.

There are dialogues currently forming about the shifting representation of characters in the media; we are experiencing the entrance of marginalized individuals into the mainstream, which is both historically significant and personally exciting. But Ariana Grande’s Donutgate incident reminded me of the importance of marginalized places, too — those corners of existence that can capture a microcosm of America in something as simple as a series of Facebook comments. I know many of the people responding to Donutgate, of course. I went to school with them, worked with them, and even visited Wolfee with them. But what struck me most about these comments was neither the mixed responses nor the fact that people were aware of the businesses’ obvious publicity grabs — really, it was the fact that we were talking about this at all, pushing forth a series of conflicting opinions that were rooted in as much absurdity as the action that had caused everything in the first place. We were speaking from the deeper, more complex layers of the people that live in this not-so-small city; we were a sample size of America, brought together because our little-big city hit the national scale.

I think, at the end of the day, that writing about hometowns — writing about the places that have shaped us — is a necessary exercise because it informs writers that their hometown humanity can weird, troubling, beautiful, and complex: everything we could hope to capture in the written word. Through an honest portrayal of home, readers from outside our spheres of experience can start to understand the way others live, too. I believe in Lake Elsinore’s ability to showcase the diversified livelihood of striated, middle-class life, and I believe in its ability to represent something larger than myself.

I won’t write about Lake Elsinore forever, of course — oftentimes, I just borrow from it, catching glimmers of my hometown show up in the ways I write about mountainsides. But what matters is this: for writers who come from the places that barely have a Wikipedia entry, we should recognize that our homes — our small cities — can have just as much appeal and character as the larger ones.

Big-city celebrities once fled to the forgotten hills of distant pockets of civilization off the 15 Freeway. When I drive down Lakeshore today, I can start to understand why — everything is a little different in Lake Elsinore, my home.

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You Learn to Write With Integrity

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

You are an undergraduate Creative Writer without quite knowing the meaning of the term, but that’s okay, because it’s fun — fun to read innovative contemporary fiction, fun to speak with professors who have Published Things, fun to sit and write a story for homework. It’s fun except when it’s not, and then you really have to grit your teeth when workshops run terribly or when you know your story blows but you waited until the last minute because you hated it or, worst of all, when the hot-shot professor casually states that he’s not even sure Creative Writing can be taught to undergraduates and that comment stays with you for a while. You question it but keep the question to yourself, head down, words attempting to be loud. You see your friends start talking about MFAs and you know, deeply, that you are not ready for a graduate program — not mentally, not professionally (whatever that means).

You can’t even call yourself a writer without sneering the word across your tongue.

You graduate with honors because your degree was academically straightforward and you’ve always worked hard in school — you were told that was what you had to do to succeed. As you cross the graduation stage, you are handed a roll of paper meant to represent your diploma, and the empty symbolism of your reward feels somehow significant. You get a series of jobs — freelance copywriter, barista, tutor — that pay the bills if all three jobs are pursued concurrently, and you are always tired. Too tired to write, of course, or experience any of the things you should be experiencing on your gap year. That’s what this is — a gap between now and the ultimate goal, grad school. The MFA. Legitimacy. And yet you write nothing beyond some idle, half-serious bullshit that you immediately delete because it feels so grossly pointless, all of it, your waste of a degree and waste of brain-space that thinks you can make up stories and people that matter. You remind yourself that you are largely sheltered, that people in places are dying because of atrocities you have only heard about and cannot picture as part of the real, hard truth of living. In this mindset, of course you stop writing. None of it matters in the real world, where other struggles seem so much louder than you own. You remember that one professor who said writing cannot be taught. You figure you might as well remain silent.

On your endless commutes, you listen to podcasts about writing and read about writing and talk about writing to your old classmates, many of whom are in the same amorphous place as you are. You linger in the terrible space of “What now?” for what feels like too long. At some point you stop talking to your classmates, even, because at a certain point you feel you’ve reached the maximum number of complaints you can make about the ambiguities of life and your role within it.

A year passes and two very important things happen. One, you listen to a podcast interview featuring Mat Johnson. He shares things you’ve heard before, but it is the genuineness in his voice that surprises you, especially after consuming so many interviews where it seems as though the writer is in a perpetual state of mental anguish and self-hate. These qualities may be true for Johnson (they are true for many people), but you focus on his authenticity as he discusses the things that matter to him about mixed race and identity — and the difficulties he has faced finding a “place” for his fiction and experiences. Despite those difficulties, he did what you could not do — he continued writing and producing because he believed, and continues to believe, that his ambiguous background — and the thoughts that bleed through it — matters. And it does. By exploring that ambiguity, Johnson is expressing a contemporary truth. He is offering a mode of understanding to people whose lives are not clearly defined; he is speaking about the people who are composed of torn-off pieces of many different labels. He believes in this endeavor. You are jolted into awareness as you listen because you, too, have struggled with ideas of mixed identity that make you feel unqualified to discuss — but they are your struggles, and true for a growing population of people, and they carry weight. You think about your own labels — woman, Latina, Californian — and consider the fact that you’ve never felt comfortable labeling yourself a writer because you’ve never felt as though your experiences and thoughts are truly worth sharing — and even then, who would read them? Who would care? You think about these questions in terms of Johnson, and you realize his answer: he cares, so he writes.

Two, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing two letters of recommendation for a student who is receiving educational consulting at work. This is your first big task as part of the team, so you tackle it fully, ghostwriting on behalf of the professionals who have asked your student to write her own letters. So, in a sense, you pretend to be a student pretending to be her professors, and you realize halfway through the writing that you feel completely, irrevocably wrong. Even though you are assured that writing on behalf of recommenders is common, you don’t realize until after the fact that you essentially sold your skills and pushed aside personal convictions (idealistic, romantic notions of the role of recommendations) to get a job done. You feel like you did when you were copywriting freelance blog posts for faceless companies — like you produced nothingness, just worked for an hour on something that would never impact the public consciousness, never reveal the truth of a single layer of humanity to another soul beyond the admissions representative who would glance, passingly, at the effusive praise of your empty writing.

The word “integrity” enters your mind and you turn it around in the area of your brain normally reserved for existential crises. You pick the word apart and wonder why it sticks. “Integrity,” you say as you speak to your boss about your reservations. “Integrity,” you say as you stand up for yourself and your writing, thinking of Mat Johnson and his sense of purpose, thinking of that professor who said writing cannot be taught. “Integrity,” you type into the glowing keyboard of your Mac at home. This is what it tells you:




  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principals, chiefly in regards to your worth as a creator and your (presently tenuous) ability to state, loudly, that your beliefs, perspectives, and life matter; they belong in the conversation of human existence because no other person     is you, and you are able to share yourself as a person who subverts labels and lives       somewhere between woman/Latina/Californian because only parts of those labels truly             define you.
  2. Honesty, not only in your own abilities, but also in your own writing — because that vulnerable, steadily growing strength is what will remind you of your own personal      legitimacy.

You consider the stories that have sprung up from your multifaceted experiences as a second-generation, none-Spanish-speaking, Hispanic female. You think about the time you spoke in your professor’s Mixed-Race Novel class about growing up marking “Mexican” on scholarship applications but knowing, absolutely and entirely, that the truest label that can possibly describe you is “American.” You remember how openly the classroom of other mixed-race students accepted your perspectives, saying that they, too, felt shoved somewhere in the middle of two camps. You are not a writer of women’s fiction. You are not a Chicana. You are, if anything, a Californian human who has felt the seismic shifts of receiving something like a National Hispanic Scholar Award and wondering why you have to be identified by your race and not your accomplishments. You are, you are, you are — and you must write every detail you have noticed about the world around you, every person who has lingered in your mind, every experience that lends itself to story because, as you remind yourself, everything will be filtered through your unique lens as a middle class, Inland Empire, mixed-race-mixed-culture individual, and that alone means that your writing has something important to say. You write forever and don’t even begin to capture the smallest portion of your existence — and yet, that’s okay, because you have no reason to worry or doubt your ability to work. You have integrity. You believe in yourself and the stories you want to share.

You agree that writing cannot be taught. It must be felt, and that cannot be taught in a classroom or through assignments. It must come from an unshakable place of the writer’s mind that is self-sustaining, autonomous, and receptive to the surrounding world. Another professor once told you that the writer does not matter — the story matters. The reader will not know anything about the author, but the reader will know the world you create and the experiences you allow them to feel.

You believe it. And so, you write.


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My Top 5 Necessary Follows for Reading and Writing

Source. Downtowne Books, Riverside, CA.

Source. Downtowne Bookstore, Riverside, CA.

While I was in undergrad, it felt stupid-easy to keep track of important readings, literary goings-on, and overall Creative Writing drama because I was surrounded by people who knew all the info I didn’t know. I could smile and nod as professors spoke about things like “Pushcart nominees” and “National Book Awards” and “a big reading in LA.” I was, for all intents and purposes, a literary leech, but it worked.

This leeching completely shifted once I graduated; all of a sudden, I felt like this literary conversation was still happening, but three blocks away from me and on the nicer side of town. And, as is true for most things after college, I had to figure out how to get information on my own. For the sake of entering that conversation, here’s my list of resources I’ve used over the past year to stay in the loop and learn new things about writing, reading, and publishing.

1. Literary Hub’s newsletter. Oh, blessed be this list. Aside from hosting tons of great features, Lit Hub compiles articles of note from around the web and delivers them to your inbox on the daily. The links range from interviews to articles about writing, and span the gamut of websites emerging writers should know (The Millions, LARB, and The Rumpus, among others). The best part: in case you forget to check out a link, or accidentally delete a daily as you’re frantically clearing all the potentially virus-heavy spam from your Gmail, Lit Hub sends a weekly aggregate of the biggest stories.

2. Electric Literature’s Recommended Readings. On the whole, Electric Literature is a wonderful website to have bookmarked, favorited, and frequently viewed, but its Recommended Readings Tumblr specifically features beautiful (and weekly) new stories recommended by editors and writers. Featuring both familiar and emerging authors, each story is accompanied by an in-depth editor’s note. It’s a lit journal without the commitment, and if you’re an inbox-happy person like I am, you can subscribe to get an email every time a new story is published.

3.  Short Story Thursdays. New fiction is vital, but keeping up with the classics is also a necessary part of being a well-read and decent human being. Short Story Thursdays follows a simple philosophy: email shutyourlazymouthandread@shortstorythursdays.com to join, and then read the classic story that is sent to you every Thursday. Each email is prefaced by a beautiful, meandering, and occasionally violent intro from founder Jacob Tomsky, which adds to the charm of each story and potential shame of not reading them.

4. The Nervous Breakdown’s Book Club. It’s super easy to fall into a rut of reading the same type of fiction, especially if you’re like me and think literary fiction is a huge and stupid label and how do I even find what’s happening from smaller presses? TNB’s book club sends its members a book every 30 days for $10 per month. It’s an endlessly easy way to read a diverse range of authors and genres (fiction/nonfiction/memoirs/everything), and you can become that cool person who lends books out to people because “It reminded me of you, yo.” As an added bonus, each featured author is later interviewed by the website’s founder on Otherppl, a literary podcast that has become a staple of my otherwise non-literary commute.

5. Twitter. Yes. Twitter. All of it. When I graduated, I went on a frenzy and found as many literary magazines/organizations I could find, and followed the hell out of them. If you lurk your Twitter feed and infrequently tweet like I do, there are so many benefits to this act of frantic lit following: not only do you get to keep track of any open submission periods, but it also exposes to you to the variety of journals available as other journals become recommended to you and, occasionally, cold-follow you. The Reject Pile is one such follow that I’m super excited to track once it gets up and running, primarily so I can submit all my future rejections in a show of “I’m okay, I’m a writer, I’m okay.”

Those are the resources I’ve grown to love since I graduated — what websites do you use to keep track of new releases and the latest lit news? And yes, it feels strange and awkward to write that as a question into a blog article. But you should tell me anyway, so I can check it out. Yes? Do it.

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The agony of taking one step toward writing/literally anything potentially icky

"Bewitched Park" by Leonid Afremov

“Bewitched Park” by Leonid Afremov

My gig for the summer is working as a reading instructor for kids and adults. I’m teaching students how to tackle textbooks, how to improve their reading speeds, how to care about a book that seems totally outside their life experiences, and how to talk about great fiction. This job is exhausting. I never realized how draining teaching could be. Most nights, I immediately collapse on my bed in whatever I wore to work for the day, smelling like Expo markers and book glue.

Despite the general exhaustion, here’s one thing that I’ve pulled from this experience that has benefitted me entirely: the idea of taking one step forward.

In the classroom, it looks like this: If I know a student is struggling, or if I know I should speak to that student directly, or if I need to step in and talk about a behavioral issue or something else potentially icky, there are two paths I can take. One, I can avoid the situation and hope it resolves itself. Or, the better of the two, I can take one step toward the situation. I trust myself to know how to handle most classroom situations, and at bare minimum I can flub my way toward a compromise, but taking that first step is the hardest part, because it’s the first step in committing myself to trying to figure out a problem. It’s opening up the potential for failure, too, and the longer I delay that step, the longer I can delay potentially failing in my duty as a teacher.

But if I take that first step, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the situation at hand. Usually, I realize something like this: Oh. I didn’t need to hesitate. I do, in fact, know how to work through this situation.

This is important.

This is the part where I bring the point of my introduction into the topic of writing.

I’m experiencing a lot of false starts in my writing. I currently have three windows open to three different projects I want to work on, but they’ve been largely untouched because every time I sit down with the intent of continuing their stories, I end up freezing up in some way. I’ll write endless To Do lists, spend time “researching” (read: Facebook/Twitter/Reddit), or just write an outline of ideas instead of actually bumping up the page count of whichever story’s first draft.

But today, I took one step forward. And it has made all the difference.

It’s so easy to perpetually exist in a state of I’ll-get-this-done-eventually. And a lot of the time, once I actually, seriously, actively focus on writing, I can get work done. The difficult part, of course, is taking that first step and committing myself to a project that I’m afraid of seeing fail — or something I’m afraid won’t matter to anybody but me.

(Those are bad thoughts. They’re normal thoughts, but they’re also toxic. I have to remind myself that, when I’m writing a first draft, I’m writing it for me, not an audience.)

I have to sit down and take a step toward my goal — writing 1,000 words per day, finishing a scene, adding four more paragraphs — because, however small or large my goal may be, taking one step is just part of finishing that first draft, and getting closer to understanding what my story might be. That’s what I did today — I told myself I’d write one page in one hour, and I sat down during a free block of time and took one step toward continuing where I’d left off. I wrote a sentence. And then repeated. And repeated.

And I reached two goddamn pages. #murica

It’s a rough scene and it doesn’t totally establish what I want it to establish just yet — but it’s moving my story along, and helping me realize its larger purpose. And that’s a success.

The potential for failure is terrifying, and it’s so tempting to listen to that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I should have been literally anything but a Creative Writing major. But then I remind myself: I have a story to tell, and the only way it is going to be told is if I take one step forward.

And then I step.

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Revision, as opposed to destruction, also known as avoidance

From "The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball," Wired

From “The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball,” Wired

In one of my intro classes last year, my writing instructor had us hold up the first drafts of our stories and crumple them into paper balls. She’d told us it was representative of the power of revision, and the necessity of our willingness to recognize that the first draft is never the last. I don’t agree with the crumbling analogy, though — I feel like I would have gone with something less destructive. Because, really, beginning revision can be one of two things:

  1. Surface-level line edits, in which a few commas are placed and some sentences rearranged
  2. Total, annihilating, apocalyptic destruction of the original story

I’ve been guilty of #2 for a while. I’d bring a story into workshop, gather notes, and decide I needed to totally switch the story because I’d suddenly realized that this should be told from the supporting character’s point of view, you guys, obviously. Fitzgerald did it, why can’t I? Or I’d completely alter the character; same name, but now this guy is like, super tough and angry, when before he was too much of a pushover, you know? Or, a little more commonly, I’d dump the idea altogether because “I just lost interest in it,” moving onto another story idea and waiting until the last moment to write it for a class deadline.

I realized something, though. With some of those stories I’d written and forgotten, I hadn’t “lost interest” in the story — I was just afraid of revising it, endlessly, forever, never quite knowing when it was finally done.

It’s one thing to write a story and feel like it’s so utterly full of promise. It’s a false success; you feel like you’ve accomplished something and can set it aside. And yes, you can, and should, but the hardest thing to accept about creative writing is this: the first draft is only the beginning. It’s easy to look at something and say that it’s just rough right now, but in a few drafts, it’ll really shine.

The hurdle, of course, is actually getting revising the damn thing. And the biggest thing that has been holding me back is fear.

I experienced my first truly successful revision a few days ago. I had written the first two chapters of a novel in third-person narration, set in a place like my hometown, involving a big cast of characters reacting to a robbery. My protagonist is male, and I had decided to stick to omniscience because, as I realize now, I was afraid of writing a character whose gender is not my own. In my workshop, my classmates had told me that the narration was too distanced; it felt counterproductive, and like we were spending too much time seeing what was happening in the landscape instead of getting to know the characters.

So, on a Sunday, twenty-four hours before its deadline, I rewrote the thing. I allowed myself to enter the mind of my character and wrote it from his point of view, constantly asking myself if I was writing lines that felt like his, or just writing them because they sounded pretty. I wanted to avoid being authorial; I wanted to let my character dictate the actions, movements, and focal points of the story. And, by the time I handed it to my professor, I felt proud — I’d actually revised the story, and hadn’t demolished it entirely. I’d listened to my classmates and my gut, and had cut out the flowery prose that had initially come from my own heavy hand. I’d taken my time with the characters and world, and condensed two chapters into one introduction.

And it’s still so rough. But that’s okay.

With my earlier failures at revision, I was always drawn to scrapping my initial attempt entirely, which is absolutely a form of avoidance. I wanted to avoid the slog of having to go back into my story and really look at my weaknesses, and where I’d failed. And, really, I’d also wanted to avoid the realization that I wasn’t going to receive instant gratification with whatever project I was working on; writing, as I’ve come to understand, is a long-term thing. And to do it successfully, you have to stick with it for the long haul. You have to look at your rough drafts and maintain the willingness to polish them.

It may take twenty more drafts until I feel legitimately solid about this story I’m trying to tell. One of my professors told me that she revises projects at least one hundred times, which is terrifying, but also something that a part of me understands. After my first successful revision, I’m closer to the story I want to tell, but I’m still along way from really understanding many of the characters and what makes them tick. And really, it’s kind of like getting to know someone for the first time. Rarely do you know everything about them after you first meet; you have a first impression, but to really know someone, you have to spend time with them. Each revision is my attempt to spend time with my characters, world, and story, and right now it feels like it’s going to take forever.

But this time around, I’m not afraid.

Well, okay, I’m still terrified. But I’m writing.

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Ends and beginnings


Courtesy of Jonathunder

I finished my undergraduate career today. I still have one project to complete — a revision, as part of a final submission packet — but everything else is done. My coursework, and everything leading up to this point over the past four years, is finito. Complete. Terminado.

Although, I wouldn’t quite say I’m finished.

I majored in Creative Writing, and although I’m walking out of UC Riverside with just one completed story and a bucket full of first drafts, I’m leaving with ideas. I have dollar store notebooks scrawled with blue and black, both covers stuffed with scraps of paper where I jotted down a line or image that caught my eye.  I have authors and stories that inspire me, and infuriate me, and get me thinking about the stories I’ve started and forgotten. I have writing friends to whom I can say, “Ugh,” and they know exactly what I’m talking about.

I have beginnings.

And, really, that’s the most important thing for me to have. I have story ideas and characters and images I legitimately care about, which is more than I could have ever asked for at the beginning of my undergraduate career. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first switched into my major, and I didn’t know what I wanted; one of the questions I kept dodging was, “Why do you want to write?” I didn’t know. I still don’t really know. I think it’s because I bought a Moleskine, and I feel like I need to write something important in it to justify the expense. (It cost, like, $10. On sale!)

But I do know that I finally have stories and settings that I’m passionate about exploring. I guess that’s why I don’t feel like I’m finishing my degree — really, in a lot of ways, I’m just beginning.

And that’s endlessly exciting.

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