QUOTE OF THE WEEK

James Baldwin on the Purpose of Writing

READ MORE

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it. –James Baldwin

Today, August 2nd, is James Baldwin’s birthday, so for this week’s quote of the week, I thought it appropriate to choose a quote from among the many wonderful ones he has. I learned much about story telling from Baldwin–his beautiful, sharp prose, his meticulous construction of characters, pacing, and narrative structure. His essays were even superior to his fiction. He is arguably the best, most eloquent American essayist of the twentieth century. But the most important thing I learned from him was to maintain a clear idea of my purpose for writing.

I have admired James Baldwin since working on my high school high school literary magazine, The Magpie. I came across a piece he wrote for it while he attended De Witt Clinton in the Bronx. As an young aspiring writer looking for role models while getting a steady diet of old white, male writers, his words were a salve.

It is not surprising that his words keep surfacing in these troubled times. Raoul Peck’s recent documentary based on Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro, rekindled my interest in the writer. I showed the film, along with his powerful book, The Fire Next Time, for a course I taught titled “Race and Whiteness.” I did this after having the class read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me, which was has many affinities with Baldwin’s earlier book. I am happy that America is re-discovering Baldwin. Today, his words matter more than ever. They provide us with much needed wisdom and direction.

This quote never fails to move and inspire me. For me, it sets the foundation for my own writing. Along with Baldwin, I deeply believe in the power of the written word to transform and change. Although he alludes to literature, representation of diverse perspectives of reality is necessary in all narrative art. It is a concept fundamentally linked to the transformative power of narrative. These words written in the sixties, along with so many other ideas found in his work, established Baldwin as a visionary. All Americans should read his work; it is essential to understanding their country.

Amy Tan on Writing as a Gift

READ MORE

Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone“–Amy Tan.

I finally got around to watching the documentary on Amy Tan, Unintended Memoir. It is a riveting look at the groundbreaking writer, and the connection between her life and her work. After watching the film, it is easy to understand how Tan came to see writing as a gift. Her multiple talents (she’s also a pianist and artist) and her trajectory as a best-selling author fascinated me. Her commitment to truth, craft and aesthetics impressed me. But my main takeaway from the James Redford documentary was Tan’s struggle to make sense of her parents’ past, especially her mother’s, as she navigated her life as a Chinese-American. Her journey is similar to that of other multi-ethnic American writers who struggle to come to grips with their lives and past within this country. A country that sometimes is not hospitable to us or the stories we tell.

In this context, writing for us is not only a privilege. It’s a privilege that we have reclaimed and proclaimed as a right. Writing is also truly a gift to ourselves, because it is a form of cathartic empowerment. It is a gift to sustain our sanity, well-being and, more importantly, our survival. And what a gift it is for others! If, as Mikhail Bakhtin elegantly wrote, “language is a bridge built between me an another,” then stories are the vehicles that traverse that bridge. As BIPOC writers, we take readers to places never before explored and by doing so transform their lives. Our stories help us all to understand the holistic history of this country we inhabit. They help unite us as human beings through understanding, compassion and empathy.

Toni Morrison on Inspiration for Writers

READ MORE

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison

It’s almost two years since we lost the inimitable Toni Morrison. How I miss her wisdom, insight, and eloquence. This quote from her is one of my favorites, because it’s so fundamentally true. Yet, as a writer, you never think absence of what you want to read should be a primary source of inspiration.

Of course, you should write what you crave to read. That ache in your hunger for a specific story is probably felt by others like you. I’ve taken this quote as a mantra for my projects. I wondered why no one had written about a nuyorican returning to the island. So, I did it. Now, I’m working on a novella that tackles the insidious type of racism we find in Puerto Rico and other Latinx communities. I’ve always wondered why Puerto Ricans and Latinx people generally do not want to confront the real issues of our type of racism, which is indeed quite different, although no less virulent, than the one in the United States. I always wanted to read a novel that would touch on those issues, but it didn’t exist. So, I went to work on it, and the main character is Roberto Clemente. Hopefully, by the end of 2022, I’ll have a manuscript ready to send out.

Fuentes on Writing Against Silence

READ MORE

“Writing is a struggle against silence.” —Carlos Fuentes

What does Carlos Fuentes mean about writing against silence and how is it a struggle? Is it a struggle against the proverbial blank page, or in more modern terms the white, blinking screen–a manifestation of silence writers continually face? Or is he referring to the ability of writers, through their creative efforts, to break silences and reach the truths that are hidden by them. I’d like to think the world renowned Mexican writer was talking about something more profound than procrastination or mental blocks.

Given the current strategies by some in the United States to avert or deflect the horrific facts of our history, I would argue with Carlos Fuentes that, in this case, writing is a struggle to break the silence systemically imposed on the real truth of that national history. No nation can survive without taking a hard look at the ugly elements of its past and reckoning with its consequences. This is why I write what I write, whether it rankles some people or makes them uncomfortable.

Doctorow on Research

READ MORE

I’ve known several cases of writers who decide to write about something and they research the hell out of it and when they’re ready to write, they can’t move because they are so burdened. I start writing. Whatever I need somehow comes to hand. – E.L. Doctorow

I’m entering that phase of research before starting a writing project. Well, re-starting a project, actually. One of the stories in my collection, Migrations, is the beginning of a novella in progress on Roberto Clemente. So, I’m starting from those first fifteen pages. That project requires much more research, much like Migrations. As I begin the research, this quote from Doctorow, who wrote historical novels, most famously Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, struck me as odd.

I love research but can understand what Doctorow was saying. You can get bogged in it, partially out of curiosity and desire for learning, but also because the more you do it, the more you can procrastinate the writing. His advice makes sense. For me, I like to research generally and widely on the subjects related to my project before I even start thinking about writing. I focus on specific needs to help me structure the story and generate ideas. In the case of Clemente, there is also a need to read as much on him as possible. It’s important, though, to have a deadline for ending the research and forcing yourself to start writing. There is always time, as you write, to return to research if need be.

Oscar Wilde on Reading

READ MORE

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

— Oscar Wilde

Now that I’m beginning my retirement, I’ve reveled in the idea that I can read anything I want. No more reading to prep for classes or books to keep up with my field. So, this quote from Wilde has had me thinking about how I intend to fulfill my love for reading now that I have so many hours to choose whatever I want. I’ve come to the conclusion that there probably won’t be drastic changes to my reading lists or schedule. Perhaps fewer critical texts, although I cannot completely squash my curiosity for Latinx literary criticism after 40 years of teaching.

I will surely return to classics that I love or have not read. I agree with Thoreau that one should “read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” But most likely I will spend many hours reading contemporary novelists and poets, especially if they are writing from a multi-ethnic perspective. Reading these writers will primarily allow me to see what fellow writers are doing today, but it also gives me an opportunity to review their work on my blog. I firmly believe there aren’t enough critics reviewing these writers.

On my current to-read list are Whitehead’s The Nickle Boys, Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Llanos-Figueroa’s Daughters of the Stone, Vera’s The Taste of Sugar, and Frank Lima’s Incidents of Travel in Poetry. Because I always try to read as a writer, the usual book on craft will find its way to my stack of books. The latest one is Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life.

Without a doubt, I will continue to read to research future projects. I’ve accumulated several books on Roberto Clemente, Afro-Latinx and Afro-Puerto Rican history and culture, and race, in general, for my novella on him. I’ve started a list of books on the history of Central Park for a future short story collection and on a bookshelf several books on the Salsa scene in New York City await as I explore a potential topic for a future creative nonfiction book.

So, following Wilde’s logic, I guess I just can’t help being a writer. My reading is always centered on that part of me.

Truman Capote on Promoting Your Book

READ MORE
Truman Capote

” A boy has to peddle his book.”

One week after the publication date of Migrations and my mind has been on book promotion and marketing. The quote above is what Capote supposedly told John Knowles months before the release of his novel, A Separate Peace. Capote meant that you have to be more proactive in marketing your book. Easier said then done, of course.

I don’t know about other writers, but for me it’s uncomfortable to go out there and “peddle” my book, and by extension, myself. But I also understand it is a necessary evil because as it has been often said, “no one will buy your book if no one knows it exists.” Knowles took Capote’s advice and actively promoted the novel, which went on to sell 9 million copies. Book marketing has changed since 1959, when A Separate Peace debuted. Today we have social media, fewer publishers and bookstores, and readership is declining. All of this makes marketing more challenging, but Capote’s advice still holds true, perhaps more so, in a time when algorithms determine your book’s category and what constitutes a “best-seller” is cloudy.

George Orwell

READ MORE

On the process of writing a book

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Sandra Cisneros

READ MORE

On Latinx Writers and Publishing

“My weapon has always been language, and I’ve always used it, but it has changed. Instead of shaping the words like knives now, I think they’re flowers, or bridges.”

­–Sandra Cisneros

%d bloggers like this: