“What do you do?” It’s a question that I hate being asked. Like a scraped elbow or knee that leaves the skin exposed and raw it burns long after its been touched.
In the very beginning I used to answer: I’m a writer, but I teach. And for a long time it became I’m a teacher, but really I want to be a writer. It was only recently that I started saying I’m a writer and I’m a teacher.
I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t writing. I spent the summer I was turning twelve writing in composition notebooks a teen love story. My wrist stiff after hours writing on the windowsill of my bedroom watching the summer days slip in between breaks. In high school I wrote poems and song lyrics in the back covers of my old paperbacks. Notebook paper was not good enough for my poetry. I wanted it pressed against the scared space of words that had been published. Once in college there were writing classes in: fiction, memoir, essay, playwriting, and poetry. I would write against the glow of the computer screen in a corner of my room anxious to bring my drafts to class to be work-shopped. Seconds before the teacher and peer feedback I held my breath as if swimming under water. I always felt dizzy and out of breathe during the critique.
I write in my head all the time, when I’m driving and the sky is that perfect shade of blue and extends forever. Metaphors and similes accompany me on the passenger seat. Sentences form across my mind laid out on my back on a yoga mat during savasana pose. When I stare at a friend’s eyes when we have laughed to loud and drank too much. Something nudges me at the ribs and whispers: remember this and write it down. And the whisper gets louder and becomes a scream until I look up and take it all in. I list it off in my head: Hotel California overhead, the smell of beer soaked into the cracks of the wooden floor, and the dimness of the light. My legs wrapped around the base of the bar stool, and the sadness that glides over my friend’s eyes with every pause made when we talk. Like a forklift digging against the earth I scoop it all up and pile it up somewhere between my heart and stomach, in the center of me. I want it to be kept close.
I have been working on my novel for over twelve years that I have been in my writing group for teachers. I had already been teaching for a few years when I found this group. It didn’t start out as a novel. In the very beginning it was short stories. All the stories around this one character, a fifteen year old who shoplifted lipsticks and hair clips in her school uniform and Timberland boots. The Mami in the stories carried a rosario and shot off her wild comments like a guerelliero’s rifle. Her anger threatened to spill out across the margins. Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was the setting of every short story and became a character itself. I would take great care to describe La Quinta and the tall buildings with rusty fire escapes and the stoop of the brownstones in between.
“I think this is a book,” My writing teacher stared at me from behind her glasses. She tilted her head and waited for an answer. It was the end of our first year together and the start of our second. She had read many of my short stories by then.
“No, I took a break from writing my memoir.” I smiled and shook my head. Before this writing group I’d taken writing classes after college and written over hundred pages and fifty pages of what I hoped would be my memoir of my early twenties. It was filled with twenty angst and family dysfunction.
“Maybe this is teen you are writing about is the back-story of your memoir,” She said.
Her words hung in the air heavy and silent, the way truth happens to do, it waits to be looked at. I looked at the other teacher writers and gave a weak smile. I wasn’t going to write a novel when I hadn’t even finished my memoir. A memoir that like a fool I said I’d write in its entirety when I lived in Colombia close to a year. As far as my writing space during my time in Colombia all I did was write long journal entries about my broken heart and read the two-dozen novels that I had packed in my suitcase.
Months later my writing teacher reminded me of what she had already told me, “These short stories are part of a bigger arch— a novel.” I had asked her what I could do to make my main character less passive. “The reader needs to see you raise the stakes,” She repeated and looked at me with patience.
We both sat in her living room. My draft on my lap, “you think?” I rested my chin on my hand and tried to quiet the urge to scream, Help me! I need to write all of this down. I need to get these stories out there!
“All your short stories are the same character and it’s the same Mami, even if you change their names.” A matter of fact.
I stared at my writing teacher that I had come to trust and admire. I was doubtful and worried.
“Write what you always wanted to find in the library shelves, but came empty.”
And her words wiggled and burrowed deep inside. But I was scared to write what was hard.
“Write in fiction,” she offered.
“I’m scared,” I whispered.
“Think of what’s scarier… you not writing this book,” she looked at me and waited for her words to settle. And only when she knew they were planted did she look away.
It would take a long time for her words to take root and begin to bud. I had to get out of my own way to let light come in and shine.
So much casted a shadow and the first thing was I never got over the fact that I didn’t speak English until I was five, even though I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was as if my tongue didn’t understand location.
My parents came to America in the 1960’s with a Colombian hard work ethic. But I always saw myself as the dumb English Language Learner whose parents no hablan Ingles. I’d joke and say that I had forgotten more book than people read. It was as if I had to make up for them every time I took out a dozen books from the library, the maximum limit allowed.
Mami had no education growing up in Chalan, Colombia. A village so remote in El Departamento de Sucre, Colombia it was not marked on the map. She offered the following blue print: get a good job. My mother paid for my thirteen years of Catholic schooling and my sister’s as well. She told us daily to get jobs where we wouldn’t have to clean other people’s toilets like she did. And she would show us her ropey hands like a prosecutor on a case as evidence we wouldn’t be able to refute.
After four years at Hunter College I found myself with a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. After my stint in Colombia I was back in the States and soon after I married. I became a substitute teacher for New York Department of Education. A job that was meant to be just something to do in between, and I joked with the other subs that teaching was not for me. I would smile and say I had big dreams and I would whisper as if I was revealing some precious secret: I want to be a writer. “So, teaching is like Pacific Street,” I would refer to one of the busiest train stations in Downtown Brooklyn. “I’m just waiting here to catch another train,” I smiled.
But only through experience do you learn that your journey in life doesn’t always take the path that you had envisioned. I soon found myself pregnant and was doled out endless advice about what a great job teaching was if you were a mom. And TDA, pension, free medical, summers off, and working till three were the sweet murmurs of a lover’s seduction. Teaching offered me what I had longed for as a child, financial stability, and I wanted it for my unborn child. And I cheated on my first love and didn’t even see it as infidelity. How can you dream about doing what you love if you never knew that was possible? Really, who does that, not people like me.
So, subbing soon turned into a permanent classroom position and I found myself standing at Pacific Street ignoring the trains that passed by. However, teaching came with a heavy price early on, if I continued with the New York City Department of Education I had a short deadline to attain a Masters in Education. “But I want a Masters in Fine Arts,” I told the city worker who gave me my provisional license to teach. I was devastated that I would have to get a Masters in Education, and not the MFA that I had always longed for. MFA was that crush you have and tell no one, because you know that there is no chance you will ever hold hands. You will never rub your cheek against those interlaced hands. I hadn’t even spoken the words a loud until that very day in that dingy office. I wonder now what my face must’ve looked like because the city worker stared at me for the longest second and said, “get your MFA after if you want it that much.” I wanted to believe that it was possible so I smiled and assured him I would.
Shortly after I enlisted in an Education Masters program. The next couple of years are a blur: having and raising a baby, teaching full time, taking classes at night and on the weekends. My husband working two jobs to help pay for my degree. My daughter was almost three years old when I finished Graduate School. The two sat in the audience of the graduation cheering me on as I walked down the aisle. I watched her small hands wave at me. My eyes filled with tears. My dreams of being a writer faded like a summer song blasting from a car in Brooklyn. It was lost. Lost to lesson plans, observations, curriculum work, building seniority, a mortgage on a small apartment, laundry, cartoons, trips to the playground, and mommy and me classes.
The year my daughter started pre k I gave birth to my son mid September and the list that came between writing and me became longer. In the silence of nighttime looking out my bedroom window I was confronted with the truth, I had lost my first love. Writing had noticed the betrayal when I didn’t even think to call it that. And as I quickly as that thought crossed my mind I busied my heart with toting my daughter to dance lessons, toddler soccer lessons for my son, and play dates. I no longer was at Pacific Street. I had left the station completely.
I had fooled myself that I was doing the best I could by writing a few pages for writing group when we met every other week. Writing had now become the lover you once snuck behind to smell the back of their neck and wrap your arms across their chest all in one motion, to the one you just pecked on the cheek. Something inside of me closed like a tight fist, the knuckles grated across my heart. And I felt such loss. But I also felt tremendous guilt for wanting more than what I had. My family should be enough. But the question, can I want more lingered. Dare I ask for more? And like I often had done since I was a child I turned to prayer.
My prayer was answered with four letters, VONA. If my writing teacher planted the seed and tended to the buds, well VONA was the rain. The rain that you look forward to in that dry heat, the kind that cools and makes the street nights shiny. I was now being seduced by words and phrases like: your stories matter, write characters that don’t apologize, leave your soul on every page, social responsibility to write our stories, self care, and such. I saw writers that looked like me and I began to believe that this writer’s life was possible. My writing teacher’s words, “what’s scarier is not getting your story out there…” grab me by the wrist and lead to the glow of the computer screen because my story matters.