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Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

James Baldwin

On election day I was weepy all morning. My Facebook feed was full of images of friends in pantsuits and suffragette pins, of women bringing their sons and daughters to vote, of Susan B. Anthony’s stickered grave. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the potential history-making moment of electing a woman President, but I was.

Election night was obviously a very different story. I had an essay about women’s lives – how we write and talk about them – scheduled to be published the next day at LitHub, and I was asked to write an introduction that linked it to the election. Some protest words. Here it is:

How We Talk About Women’s Lives

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life is a case study in the limits imposed on even the smartest, most driven of women. Arkansans had never seen a First Lady like her, and she quickly learned to get rid of her glasses, use some hairspray, pluck her eyebrows, and take her husband’s last name (she had kept her own until then). Today, the most experienced Presidential candidate, man or woman, has lost to a philandering, pussy-grabbing, name-calling, interrupting, disability-mocking former pageant owner.

But perhaps Hillary Clinton’s life narrative is the true embodiment of Miss USA: the most qualified woman is forced to compromise her goals, change her name, and smile prettier—and she still gets called a Nasty Woman.

I wrote this essay a month ago, as the tapes of Donald Trump’s comments about grabbing women were being revealed, as women were coming forward with sexual assault lawsuits. Back when it seemed impossible that he would be President of the United States of America. All of which is to say: this essay about how we talk about women’s lives reveals only a fraction of the fury I feel today.

* * * *

Growing up I had a boy’s life. Or least that’s how I think of it now. I played co-ed soccer and basketball. I was the first one picked for gym teams. I could throw a perfect spiral, and I kicked home runs in cul-de-sac kickball. In college I was goalie and MVP of a nationally ranked Division I soccer team. But a year after I graduated from college, I got married, and a year after that I got pregnant. My life as a woman had begun.

The rest of the article is at LitHub.

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Today is the first stop of Désirée Zamorano’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.

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Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.

The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Read more by and about Désirée:

Short Story: “Mercy”

Novel: Modern Cons

Travel Essay: “The Ruins of Mexico City”

Interview: “Q&A: Désirée Zamorano on the Lives of Latinas and The Amado Women

Reading: Human Cargo

How Désirée Zamorano Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Désirée for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as third grade I thought being a writer was the most amazing thing in the world. Of course, I had no sophisticated sense of drafts and revising; I was simply dazzled by the stories and books I consumed. I, too, wanted to be the creator of something mesmerizing. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I wanted to enchant and entertain. As my understanding of writing and writing as a career deepened, I still clung to this goal, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of who I planned on being.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

While very famous people got their MFA from my alma mater, I had financial and emotional pressures that precluded that. So, instead, I went to writers conferences, like Squaw Valley and La Jolla. As I toiled away at short stories, my sister pitched us as playwrights. Together we wrote two plays that were produced.

cover-human-cargoI really think of the Joe Jackson song, “You can’t get what you want til you know what you want.” Like everybody in Southern California, my sister and I collaborated on a couple of screenplays, but with the demands of my children and day job, I really felt I had to narrow my pursuits to what I really wanted to achieve: writing novels. Sure, the fantasy of screenplay money was sweet, but the reality was thousands more dedicated people were our competition. And I wanted to write novels.

In practical terms I did what writers before me have done: carved words out of the day. Writing is so abstract and theoretical, especially if you’re not published or don’t have a deadline or a paid assignment. I made it the most important item on my to-do list and gave myself achievable goals. When I was raising small children, 250 words a day was a goal. I increased the word count as I grew comfortable and confident. Today, the goal is 1,000 new words on writing days. (And I’m not Stephen King or Lisa See; they’re not all writing days! I like scheduling goof-up days, as well).

After feeling particularly isolated, my sister told me to find a writer group, and there was one so close by there was no excuse not to join. Finding like-minded people really nurtured what I was trying to do. Over the years the group has changed, but we continue to cheer each other on, and today, with the explosion in social media, I think it’s even easier to find your soul’s community.

Modern Cons

  1. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I am grateful for my supportive friends and family. Since publication is unsure, I certainly needed a cheering squad around me. When I finished a novel, a group of my friends read it, then we’d have a mini-book club, with praise and criticism to help me improve it. That fed my attention-seeking artist soul!

At one point I wanted to excise the desire to be a writer from my soul. The lack of success was causing me too much grief, bitterness, and resentment. It was at that point I came across Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. It truly sustained me through the most challenging time of my writing life.

  1. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I met Dagoberto Gilb on the bookshelf of Pasadena’s Central Library. His collection of essays, “Gritos,” was riveting–about his life as a struggling Mexican-American writer, about his childhood in the same small town where I grew up. I admire his ferocity, his word play, his brilliance. I’m a big fan.

Dagoberto Gilb

  1. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Good luck! Every writer’s path is different, and you must forge your own way. My favorite words of advice come from the French film director Robert Bresson: “Make visible that which without you might never be seen.”

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of The Amado Women plus Désirée’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, what research entailed, and a whole lot more!

In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

Andrew Lam is the author of Birds of Paradise Lost, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. He’s an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets. He’s been a regular NPR commentator, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other journals.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Andrew’s story “Grandma’s Tales,” published at Talking Writing:

The day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas, Grandma died. Lea and me, we didn’t know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funerals with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.


“We have a big freezer,” Lea said. “Why don’t we freeze Grandma? Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what’s another day or two for Grandma now anyway?”

Since Lea’s older than me and since I didn’t have any better idea, we iced Grandma.

 [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

Read more by and about Andrew:

Story: “Grandma’s Tales” at Talking Writing

Audio of Andrew reading “Grandma’s Tales”: American Public Media

Book of Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost

Book of Essays: East Meets West

Book of Essays: Perfume Dreams

NPR Commentaries: All Things Considered

How Andrew Lam Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Andrew for saying yes!

 

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus while planning to become a doctor, I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, with studying for the MCAT, and so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen. 

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?
I took courses at UC extension. One of the teachers said, “Andrew, you are not going to medical school. You are going to creative writing school. And I already sent your stories to the San Francisco State University. They say for you to fill out the application, and you are in.” I said, “My mom is going to kill me.” I applied. Got it. And my first semester in my autobiography class I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why Did you want to become a Writer.” I talked about the Vietnam war, I talked about childhood memories, the falling bombs, the bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. when I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history, and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Many people helped me. My first English teacher in 7th grade was instrumental in providing a fun and safe environment – his classroom turns into a fun lunchroom and full of books; he gave us books to read in the summer – and I fell in love with the  English language as I was going through puberty, a literal transformation along with a new literary life. Richard Rodriguez became a mentor of sort, turning my gaze toward literary non-fiction whereas before my only passion was for the short stories and the novel. He gave me Joan Didion, James Baldwin, VS Naipaul, Truman Capote and a whole lot of the literary giants to read. My boss, Sandy Close, who won a MacArthur Genius award, who gave me opportunities to travel the world the years after  the cold war ended, and professor Franz Schurmann, of UCBerkeley, who made me think deeper and more seriously than I had before. My sister, who bought me EB White and William Strunk’s classic “The Elements of Styles,” because I didn’t have any writing confidence, English being my 3rd language after Vietnamese and French.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

James Baldwin comes to mind. His is a voice of grace. He wrote at a time when he is – a gay black man – is marginalized twice over, at a time of segregation. yet he wrote from that margin knowing full well that his voice mattered, that in time the margin reaches and changes the center, and integrates into collective consciousness of this country. He wrote with a generosity of vision and confidence that in time, his story belongs to America, to all Americans. It encouraged me, a refugee boy who comes from a defeated country that was encouraged to fight then abandoned by the United States, to write with that hope – that mine too, in time, become an American story.


5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be willing to live with disappointment,  with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain,  disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them. I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless,  and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I write to you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed. Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

You are writing today at a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding voice. So you must find the balance between the I and the we, between following your own conviction and finding a way to contribute to the greater good. But move forward, always. Don’t be afraid of failure. Or rather, move forward, despite of the failures and self doubts. And keep on writing.

I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child.

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Theresa Williams is a University Lecturer and author of The Secret of Hurricanes (MacAdam/Cage 2002). Her short stories have appeared in The Sun, Hunger Mountain, and other magazines, and poems in a number of magazines, including Gargoyle, DMQ Review, Paterson Literary Review, Lilliput Review, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, Apple Valley Review. Her chapbook, The Galaxy to Ourselves, was published in 2012. She is the creator of The Letter Project, an online repository for actual letters–written and sent.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers.

4142JPXV0ZL._AA160_Read more by and about Theresa:

Essay at Talking Writing: I Hear the Woods Beating

Novel: The Secret of Hurricanes

Chapbook: The Galaxy to Ourselves

How Theresa Williams Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Theresa for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but the desire to be a writer evolved much more slowly. The first step was when I took my first fiction workshop at East Carolina University. I took it on a lark. That’s what started my adult writing life. But I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child. I used to make newsletters to entertain my friends. I’m back to that concept now: writing for fun. It’s glorious!

278Williams T cov2. How did you go about becoming a writer?


University classes got me started. But it was hard to maintain the writing life after graduation. After I finished the MFA, I didn’t write for five years. When I started writing again, it was like starting all over. It took a lot of soul searching. I had to force myself to go into my writing room and slave away. It was like digging holes in hard dirt. Now my writing life isn’t separate from the rest of my life, and, as I said earlier, I’m having fun.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Without a doubt, the editors who published my early work. They gave me hope, and without hope, all is pretty much lost. I still credit editors of magazines, big and small, with keeping writing alive, not just for me, but for many people.


4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m inspired by writers and artists who overcame great obstacles to keep writing and making art. I look to writers like James Wright and Theodore Roethke who had mental conditions that affected their ability to write. James Wright wrote a lot of tortured poetry, but he also wrote things like:

Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Actually, I write lots of letters to aspiring writers. I believe in letters and encourage people to write letters. In my letters, I remind aspiring writers to read a lot and to write a lot. I remind them that they are unique and have things to say. I tell them that if they write with honesty, people will want to read what they write.

I also try to answer their questions about writing honestly and to give them the sense they have truly been “heard.” Despite all the connections we make on social media, I think a lot of people suffer from the condition of not being heard, so they learn to hide their innermost desires as a form of self-protection. It’s like putting their diamonds in a lock box where they will be safe. The problem with a lock box is that the beauty isn’t accessible. Eventually, one even forgets it’s there. The diamonds are our imagination, our art, our spirit–what keeps us truly alive.

Joseph Cornell, Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (Image from MOMA)

Most every writer I admire has been persistent; it’s best not let the bastards get you down and one should continue to plow ahead.

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Photo credit: South Bend Tribune/GREG SWIERCZ

WILLIAM O’ROURKE is the author of The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left (1972), Signs of the Literary Times: Essays, Reviews, Profiles (1993), and On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir (2006), as well as the novels The Meekness of Isaac (1974), Idle Hands (1981), Criminal Tendencies (1987), and Notts (1996).  He is the editor of On the Job: Fiction About Work by Contemporary American Writers (1977) and co-editor of Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years (2009). His book, Campaign America  ‘96: The View From the Couch, first published in 1997, was reissued in paperback with a new, updated epilogue in 2000. A sequel, Campaign America 2000: The View From the Couch, was published in 2001. He has been awarded two NEAs and a New York State Council on the Arts CAPS grant.  He was the first James Thurber Writer-in-Residence at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio and is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and was the founding director of its graduate creative writing program. He wrote a weekly political column for the Chicago Sun-Times from 2001 till 2005. Two books appeared in 2012.  From Indiana University Press, Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer; and from the Notre Dame Press, a 40th anniversary edition of The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, with a new Afterword.

Web site: http://theviewfromthecouch.com

9780253001818_medRead more by and about William:

Book of Essays: Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

40th Anniversary Reissue: The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

Memoir: On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir

Audio link: William O’Rourke discusses Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

Articles at Huffington Post

How William O’Rourke Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to William for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Because I didn’t do anything else as well.  I got it into my head in my early teens that I was a good writer.  In the grammar school I went to the nuns made a fuss over my writing.  I wrote an essay in the sixth grade and looked for it on a bulletin board and couldn’t find it.  The nun had arranged them in best to worst order and I finally found it in the first row at the front, not the place I had been looking.  And I’ve always been a strange sort of introvert; I figured my writing would speak for me and I wouldn’t have to put myself forward.

41Ea14q8AdL2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Another thing I liked about writing when I was young was that it didn’t require much equipment.  A pencil.  A pen.  Paper.  When I got to highschool the only female teacher I had (it was an all boys’ school) was the first class in the morning freshman year, typing.  She taught a room full of boys how to type.  I became a very fast typist.  And, then, I managed to badger my father to bring me an old typewriter from the company he worked for to use. It was an old Royal, long gone now.  I wrote for the highschool student newspaper, which taught me a number of things, especially not to plagiarize inferior, only superior, writers.  By college – I went to a local streetcar university in Kansas City, Mo., my home town – I had turned myself into a post-Beat generation arty kid, becoming involved in theater, painting, writing, a mix of all the arts, given there was so little to sample locally in just one.  And, by and by, I met two “real” writers during that time, Edward Dahlberg and Winfield Townley Scott, the former in Kansas City when he taught at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and the latter, in Santa Fe, NM, when I worked at the Santa Fe Opera for two summers.  Then it was off to New York City when I got accepted to Columbia University’s new graduate creative writing program, where Dahlberg taught for a year before he was fired for a variety of reasons.  His recommendation for me, I’m sure, got me in.  It was short.  I was told it said that I was the only intelligent person he had met in the Midwest.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

P01500Well, obviously, Dahlberg helped me.  And Scott, who led an entirely different sort of artistic life than Dahlberg did, rich in Santa Fe, whereas Dahlberg was poor, living in a tenement on Rivington Street in NYC’s lower east side.  Both of them helped by the example of their lives, opposite in kind as they were.  They are both writers now largely unknown by what passes for the literate readers of today. And a visiting professor at UMKC, one who took an interest in me, Lois Gordon, helped, too.  She and her husband returned to New York City the year I arrived there and, coincidently, moved into a large apartment around the corner from me on West End Avenue, when I was living on West 76th St., in one room.  The conjunction of New York City and Columbia University provided a great boost to my career, though I never thought of it then as a career.  My two years there led me to Provincetown where the Fine Arts Work Center was just coming into being.  Stanley Kunitz taught at Columbia and was one of the founders of the FAWC. The early 70s were, oddly, a good time for artists.  Reverence for the rich hadn’t settled in back then and there was a spirit of equality flowing across the land.  And it was while I was in Provincetown that I met Diane Schulder, one of the lawyers for the Harrisburg 7, who brought me into their world and prompted my first book, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, which came out in 1972 when I was 26.  I had never thought my first book would have been nonfiction and certainly wouldn’t have predicted it would have had the word Catholic in the title.

George Orwell

4. Can you tell me about an artist or writer whose biography inspires you?

In addition to those above, I was taken, as many are, by the example of George Orwell.  And by Normal Mailer, because both of them seemed to be the sort of writer I wanted to be, insofar as they wrote across the genres.  My latest book, Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer, has an epigraph from Orwell at its start and I didn’t realize till later he is probably mentioned, one way or another, in all my books.  He, certainly, figures prominently in a novel of mine about the last great strike, the NUM strike in Britain in 1984-85, during the Thatcher reign, called Notts, which came out in 1996.  Mailer, who I had the good fortune to meet a couple of times, made an impression, too.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Strange you would ask.  A decade or two ago I was asked to write a short piece just about that subject.  For a book by many hands; I received a contract and all, but the volume never appeared.  I have the ms. somewhere, but it was written right before everyone switched over to computers, so I can’t put my hand on it.  And I don’t remember what I actually said, though I have thought for a long time that persistence pays off in this culture, so I would recommend persistence.  Most every writer I admire has been persistent; it’s best not let the bastards get you down and one should continue to plow ahead.  Believe in yourself. Of course, it always helps if you have something to say.