Outside my kitchen window I see a swirl of snow. It matches the swirl of words in my mind. My first thought when NYC schools were closed for today was—I can write and read in long swallows and not just quick sips. And because I write in small sips, I’ve learned to write anywhere: on my bed, on my rocking chair, on my couch with my laptop balanced on the arm rest like a makeshift desk. Or like now, I write in the kitchen on a tiny table surrounded by a bowl of bananas and rows of bottled water. I can write in any physical space, just yesterday a thought came to me during spin class. I pulled my phone and wrote a few lines in notes before the thought disappeared like the foggy details of a dream. Once the words were settled somewhere other than my mind I could climb back to third position. I pumped my legs in unison to the beat of Biggie’s Hypnotize, at ease that my words had not drifted away from me. A writing journal is always in my backpack, my phone acts like a digital memo pad, and words scribbled on my hand with eyeliner have become the impromptu loose leaf and pen. My mind writes all the time, unfazed by where I am or what I might be doing. It’s very much like my ability to sleep in crowded trains or buses and during flights, unlike sleep though, writing demands for me to stay woke.
And for a few years I was dormant.
“I’m so excited!” I turned my head and smiled at my daughter and son in the back of the car as my husband weaved in out of City traffic.
I was on my way to a five-hour workshop with Vanessa Martir on Writing Fiction From Our Lives. My backpack on my lap, stuffed with: my laptop, my black binder– manuscript, a folder with required reading texts, and my writing journal. I didn’t know the particulars of what this class would entail, but being that I’ve already taken a workshop with Vanessa over a year ago I knew the class would be dynamic like the teacher. And Vanessa was filled to the brim with VONA magic. Since our email exchange earlier this week about attending this class I’ve been giddy with excitement. The night before her class I was anxious to fall asleep, so it could hurry and be the next day. Five hours to write, I was intoxicated by the thought.
“I’m so hungry!” My son whined.
“When we get close I will see what’s around,” I scanned the streets for a Subways or a deli, or a pizzeria.
“I’m hungry too,” my daughter chimed in from the back seat.
“I could go for some food,” my husband nodded his head.
“Pull over,” I pointed to a pizza shop on the corner of the next block. “I will go in grab you a couple of slices and then run to my class,” I offered. The thought that I should be home making a meal for my family instead of attending a writing workshop crammed into my head. A list of defensive arguments ensued, as I pleaded my case to myself, and with the same amount of passion as la doctora Polo that Mami always watched. You need this. It’s only five hours. You did laundry Thursday night to make this happen. Pizza is tasty, cheap, and better than fast food.
I raced down the street with fifteen minutes before the class started. As I waited for the slices and chicken roll to be heated I stepped outside. I drew up my shoulders against the cold February winter, and jammed my hands in my pocket. The bustle of the City unfolded in front of me. Though I was in Downtown as opposed to Uptown, Hunter College memories flooded my memory. It was the end of my sophomore year when I took my first fiction class. I spent hours polishing my short stories during the long train rides from Brooklyn’s 9th Avenue to Manhattan’s Lexington and back. I would alternate between drafting and reading short mentor texts given to me by my professor. A tall black woman who changed her last name to be a fusion of her two favorite writers, and wore head wraps and African print dresses. I sat in my overalls and envied her spirit. She fed us a steady diet of short stories by writers like: Zora Neale Hurston, Maxine Kingston, and Maya Angelou. We sat in a circle, our desks touched, and she would look every one of us in the eye, and whisper: sweat the language. I would shake my head and murmur to myself certain that she just gifted the class some great writing wisdom. But the depth of what she said would take years to cultivate in my mind, and later my writing.
Back inside the pizzeria I was given a pizza box and the change from my twenty. I ran up the block to my car still parked with the directional on. I placed the pizza box on the dashboard and grabbed my backpack. “Me voy,” I stuck my head back in the car and blew a kiss into the car. I turned on my heel and power walked to the building where the class was located.
“I’m here for a writing class,” I told the front desk my face loaded with a smile.
Once inside the classroom I picked a spot in the front, but to the side. This was where I felt most comfortable in life, tucked to the side. I placed my writing arsenal in front of me in a neat row: laptop, binder, folder underneath, journal, a purple flair pen, pencil freshly sharpened and a barely used pink rubber eraser on top. I ran to the bathroom before the class would start and then scurried back.
“Connie did you sneak in without giving me a hug?” Vanessa called out as I sat down.
“Sorry bathroom,” I explained. I walked up to her and hugged her tight. And in that short embrace there was layers of unsaid things. V’s weekly personal essay posts for the entire 2016 year started out as one thing for me, but later shaped out to be something greater for me. Already a fan of her short fiction, nonfiction narratives, blog posts, her essays were a welcomed read. https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com/ It was later that I realized they would become a scaffold to help guide me to me. Week after week I read and applauded Vanessa’s tenacity and fire, as well as her unapologetic sense of self. It was sometime in the Spring that her words began to grip me by the shoulders. Often time her writing felt tailored made for me and what was happening to me in that instance. Her words inspired me to want to chase my own writing dreams and live with that same fire. So, when the #52essays2017 challenge came up I was more than interested, but worried that my secured spot in life to hide on the side would be compromised. In a comment on V’s post about launching the 2017 essay challenge I wrote: This keeps calling to me. In which she responded, so do it. And I did.
As I walked over to what would be my desk for the next five hours I took in the room. Behind the laptops and pretty lined journals poked out about a dozen Latina faces. I would soon learn that those faces represented a large span of Latin America: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, were presente. No, icebreakers were needed, our writing would break the ice soon enough. Writing groups, workshops, retreats, and conferences create these soul connections among writers that leave profound imprints no matter how brief the encounter. It’s that artistic space where shared words are a map’s legend to the soul.
And that was what I did prompt after prompt, I yanked and pulled and left a part of me on each page. I wrote for short bursts. My pen like a pair of runner’s legs covered a long distance in twenty minutes. When the timer went off I’d lift my head breathless and disoriented. Then like a boomerang I was back in the class from the place the pages of my writing journal transported me to. As the day went on the writing took on an intensity very much like a fever that threatened to leave me laid out. I could not hide behind well composed paragraphs and well placed symbols and vivid sensory images. It was raw and painful. I wrote about the shit that I pressed down, crammed and shoved away like a luggage slammed shut by will and weight.
Artists always have muses or themes. Edgar Allen Poe wrote about Annabelle Lee, John Lennon had Yoko, Botero has a thing for gorditas, and I have Mami. My biggest muse as a writer has always been my mother. Damn my novel is about an adolescent girl and her relationship with her mother. My short stories always have a maternal figure drawn from Mami. My nonfiction narratives can always be counted on to have Mami tucked into a handful of sentences at the very least. And in my essays Mami always steps out for an appearance like Spike Lee in his movies, however brief. But, this time Mami didn’t come out to play during Saturday’s five hours. She was there, but unlike herself off to the side, and in that void the men in my life came out to play. And like a band of misfits, my father, my ex boyfriend, my estranged cousin, my husband, and my dead cousin filled the stage.
After each writing excercise we jotted a few lines on slips of ripped paper and they were collected and read a loud by a different writer in the room. Our names to be signed underneath our words. We owned our words even minutes after we wrote them.
“So, you can hear your words in someone else’s mouth, because they will sound different,” Vanessa said as she walked around the room and collected the bits of paper. She walked around again and gave us different slips and we read them a loud. The words were given revereance only the way other writers can.
The first go around I punk’d out and picked something safe and to the side to be read. After my words were read I fought the urge to raise my hand and say I wanted to write something else. What I had wanted to share was: I listened my eyebrow cocked and lips twisted to the side. My husband would never stand for that list. There was little that he could stand for. It was his machoness that made me fall in love with him.
Later on I told the group I was embarrassed to write down on the scrap something that I written. “That I fell in love with my husband’s machoness,” I took a deep breath and waited for the onslaught of side-eye glares.
There was none.
“That’s what we are raised to think,” Vanessa smiled at me. “What about been there and done that,” she laughed.
In that safe space I wrote and shared and dug. And when I tought there was nothing more to write I dug deeper and wrote more and shared more.
My notebook was filled with five very rough short story possibilities at the end of Saturday’s workshop. Some I will use and others I will dissect for good lines or an image I could dress up more. I’ve been writing my novel for so long that I forgotten so many more stories reside in me. My essays are like a new relationship I’m courting. It’s exciting and fresh. My novel, years in the making, is my heart. It’s gone through many evolutions as I evolve so does my manuscript. But lately I’ve heard an urgent whisper as riffle through my pages of my novel kept neat in my black binder. Finish the rustle of the pages whisper back to me. The tone is calm not manic, certain and not unsure, but it is persistent.
Sweat the language I tell myself on the days that I work on my novel late into the night or early early in the morning. Write it all down, get it out and down. And only now after so many versions of Connie do I get what my college professor, my first writing teacher, meant so many years ago. You have to work that language, work hard and sweat from that dig that writers must do. The one Vanessa had me lean all my weight and fear against this last Saturday. And only when you have done that will your soil be rich, and your stories, all the ones that live inside you sprout. Sweat the language.