Fiction, my greatest escape. No surprise it became my greatest disguise. But underneath it all, is just me, Connie, trying to tell stories. But in order to tell them all, first I must tell Delores’ story. And though I am Delores and she is me, we are not the same. This is not an epiphany I was quick to arrive; no, it’s taken time, through the evolution of author and character. An evolution I did not know I was part of, until a series of events led to an interview, which traced our journey. Delores and I.
My thought for the day… at least now with writing opportunities you are living and not just existing. My dear friend and teaching mentor, Valerie’s words appeared on my cell phone screen as I drove home yesterday afternoon from teaching summer school. A week of summer school to cover a teacher/friend’s program. Yes, the extra money does not hurt, and part of it will go to help fund another writing adventure in August. But, giving up my summer even for a few days is a betrayal, not to mention I have my own children to take care of in the summer. Teaching has always felt like the mistress to my spouse, writing. But, able to bare it, if the summers were devoted to writing. And as every summer burst wide and snapped closed, little was devoted to writing. Time spent: being a mother of two, professional teaching training, graduate summer courses, hours spent on Netflix, endless to do lists, and self hate for not writing. Summers began with so much possibility, and ended marked by a great sense of loss. I ached for it to be different, for me to be different.
Valerie’s words, a pair of hands, which lead me to my laptop last night. Guilt hoisted on my shoulders, the words: never enough, spelled out on top. Writing very little since my return from VONA, fearful to disappoint others, but most, myself. But, writing, has been and is my altar. Where I kneel with clasped hands, prayer for salvation on the tip of my tongue. So, I wrote, Val’s words swirled around my brain, shaped from truth, they grasped my skull. Writing, a clear looking-glass, the world reflected back to me. And a true mirror, in which I see myself. Life shines brighter when I write.
I began to write my first novel soon after I decided to be a writer. I was eleven. Determined that I could write a better ending to the ABC Afterschool Special, Cheats. http://www.imdb.com I wrote my own version of Cheats. A blue ball point pen and a marble composition notebook, I set up residency in my bedroom. I wrote most of the time on my stomach across my bed. A thin scarf flung over my night-table lamp. The dim glow of the light gave the writer’s feel I sought. Later I would learn this is process, a writer’s ritual, an effort to create a mood. The mood to create. So, when it rained I set up camp on the thin windowsill of my bedroom. The street light of the avenue illuminated my handwriting, big, slanted, and curly.
My first main character was Samantha. She had long straight hair to her waist and wore small shorts because her legs were long and fit. Popular and from a big family, Sam was loved by her many friends and all her siblings. Beautiful, but not snobby, smart, but not nerdy, feisty, but not a renegade, Sam struck a perfect balance. American and from middle America, Sam was stripped of any culture. She didn’t appear in my imagination or third eye like writers often describe how they create characters. Nor did I hear a persistent voice like a tap on my shoulder, which wouldn’t cease unless I began to write. I created Sam like I’ve always written, I dipped into my life. Sam was me, by being everything I wasn’t.
My fiction has always been inspired by those around me, a quick name change made them feel like my own. Always a reader, everyone a character, the writer in me drafted stories from those in my life. My first fiction workshop class in college I wrote a short piece about a young Puerto Rican girl away at college. My best friend, Angelique. Then in my next short story I wrote about a guy who played handball at the park. He loved free style music and dreamt of being a DJ. He was Peruvian. My ex boyfriend, the first main male character I wrote. And so began a series of character driven stories, all Latinos with a story to tell.
It wasn’t long before I began to write about certain moments in my life, like the time my friend Lesslie, her older sister, and I went on a wild goose chase to hunt down a guy nicknamed The Russian. Or the time I was caught shop lifting as a teenager in the West Village. And, so I emerged, walked across the pages. But unable to untangle myself from memory and truth, I held the light towards other characters, and cast myself in the shadows. So, with no main character to claim center stage, Mami was pushed to the spot light. And this is how it was for a long time as I wrote myself as a nameless character who swayed and folded at Mami’s will.
An intense flashback scene from my first novel, and abandoned 3/4 in, uncovered a story behind those of my early twenties. Compelled to tell what came before I began my new novel. Only a few years since then, my main character remained nameless until my writing teacher, Colleen, asked me to name her. Named years later after her birth, her name perched itself on my shoulder like a fallen leaf. A character that existed since my very first story, just different versions. Morphed, but the same outline, the same character in my short stories, poems, personal essays, and even that first abandoned novel. Slow to evolve, but now impatient to live. Delores begs to be written.
At this past VONA, one writer/friend/sister, Salima, in my section wrote an interview between her and her character. She came to class and assured us it was freaky, but helpful. I listened. But didn’t think I needed to complete this exercise. I was my character, and there was nothing I did not know about her. And later that week, one late night as I spoke to Vanessa Martir, on the stoop of a house next to the bar restaurant we were chillin at. I confessed my anxieties and fears about finishing my novel.
“I’m so close,” I said and looked at her from the side.
“Writing a book takes time Ma, be gentle with yourself,” Vanessa said. Her eyes fixed on me.
“But V,” I clenched my fists on my lap. “I want this so bad.”
“What do you want?” Vanessa’s voice cool against the warm summer night air.
“I want to get this book out there,” I tilted my head back and looked at the night sky. “Publish it.”
“But what do you really want?” She pushed.
Silent. “Damn your good V, you are giving me a one on one and it took me a minute to get it,” I smiled her way.
A smirk appeared, “So, what do you really want?”
I bit my lip.
“Say it, you were just about to say it,” Vanessa insisted.
“I just want to tell these stories. I want to tell Delores’ story first. And then I can tell Mami’s. I want to write Mami’s story next, but first I want to tell a little of mine.” My eyes brimmed with tears. It seemed so simple, but could it be that simple?
“Well you got to talk to her tell her what you want,” Vanessa cocked her head to the side, her brown eyes filled with infinite tenderness. “And she will tell you what she wants.”
I swallowed and nodded my head.
“Yo, Connie talk to her,” Vanessa said one last time as we walked back to our table.
“When are you going to finish your novel?” A question that grabs my shoulders and shakes them. Hard and Ragged. Never asked by writers, or rarely. But, I shake it off and smile. So, much buried under my smile. “I’m writing it, page by page,” I offer. Persistence, my answer, but not seen as enough. Attacked by another question: “Well haven’t you been writing it for a long time?” Ashamed I offer the details of my life, my head bowed in contrition. “I’m married, have two children, am a full-time teacher, and have two sick parents, and have a full life.” My list has granted me forgiveness by the questioner. But. Relief evades me, only confirmation of an unfinished novel echoes long after the conversation. And resentment. Resentment for everything that stands in my way, even me.
In her interview with Guardian.com, author of, The God of Small Things and activist Arundhati Roy https://www.theguardian.com discusses her process as a writer and why it took her twenty years to write her second novel.
…fiction just takes its time. It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around. The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.”
An article shared by my VONA fiction section, part of our homemade weekly assignments. But that quote, like a traffic officer in an intersection, waved in my direction. Permission, to admit that writing a novel is fucking hard! That you sometimes have to do crazy shit like interview your main character so that you can write that last third of the book.
My Interview With My Main Character
Delores: Oh, so now you want to hear from me. Maybe I will just sit here with my arms crossed and say nothing. You think that you know everything, don’t you? So, go on Ms. Tiny Buddha. Ms. Writer!
Connie: Why are you so angry at me? Hell I made you up. That’s like being angry at God for having created you…
Delores: Man! Do you even hear yourself talk? Or do you need to see it typed up on a screen to get it?
Connie: What the fuck?
Delores: You and me are one in the same. Isn’t that what you always say. It’s like you want everyone to think you are so deep. And feel sorry for you. But that’s because you don’t want people see the real you. So ,you created me. But, we are not the same people.
Connie: I don’t think I’m deep and want people to feel sorry for me. I’m not an asshole. And you are part of me.
Delores: Yes, a part. Listen to your words.
Delores: Admit it.
Connie: Admit what?
Delores: That you still hide. You have all these gray hairs now and have old lady knees as you like to call them, but your still that scared eleven year old.
Connie: Fuck you! Now I’m tight. I should just hit delete. That would teach you.
Delores: Do it. But you won’t. You need me.
Connie: I don’t need you.
Delores: Ya you do. You see, Connie you need me because I make you less afraid.
Connie: Gimmie a break. Your not even real!
Delores: But I am! You created me so you could hide and exist and be less afraid.
Connie: I’m over this! Of course I created a character with a Dr. Phil complex. Tell me… what am I so afraid of?
Delores: Let me see… hmmm…Mami, success, the truth, dreaming… FINISH THIS NOVEL STOP BEING SO AFRAID
Delores: So your mad at me now? You are taking away my voice?
Delores: I can wait. I’m good at waiting. You have me waiting all the time, weeks, months. I’m good, abandon me. You always do…
Connie: That’s not fair!
Delores: You want to know wants not fair? You want me to exist. But you can’t give yourself permission to exist. We are not the same people. But I need you to be strong. I need you to exist so I can live. You think I like being trapped in that brain of yours? It’s crowded in there. Go and live Connie. But let me live too.
Writing is not for the weak. You gotta work, and stare at the screen for hours, your shoulders roped with tension. Your bullshit stares at you, and sometimes it strikes back at you. Your left with a hallow stomach and messy pages, chapters, an entire manuscript. You can rework it or delete it. Or you can revise with the truth. And my truth is that more often than not I am afraid to be exposed. My true self on tip toes above each sentence. But I push. And I write. Delores has grown strong and tugs at me till I get her on the page. This is how I live, and not just exist.