Sunday, July 26, 2015

How Writing Transforms

Before heading to a mini-conference at Gemini Ink on "How Writing Transforms Community," I changed my clothes three times. I'm always semi-tempted to wear dresses, then don't. They're not me (on most days), and although I was nervous about heading into this event and presenting on behalf of Gemini Ink's Writers-in-Communities Program, a program I believe in deeply and am proud to direct but am just getting to know. I had to go in as me.

And perhaps this is the reason I was so nervous. To quench my nervousness, I watched my absolute favorite TedTalk, The Art of Being Yourself, and sat for a few moments in silence before heading out. Because sometimes we just need to remember to say fuck it and be ourselves. Especially when we care about what we're doing.



Presenting alongside such strong community voices as Aaronetta Hamilton Pierce and Jennifer Bartlett, as well as an inspiring panel by Our Lady of the Lake's Writing With an Emphasis on Social Justice program, I quickly realized we all had the same stance - writing can be empowering, and we need to use it as a tool for communal growth and change. Funny how nerves step aside when you believe in what you're doing. 

I took this job because I believe that writing—or any developed creative output for that matter—once a part of our lives, becomes a companion, and this companion transforms our view of self and our ability to communicate. Writing, delivered by a passionate and driven teacher, can lay the foundation of transformation not only on an individual level, but on a community level, because the pain that many hold it, once released, loses power. Meanwhile voice, one shared with others, gains power. 

While listening to others present and even when introducing my own panel and hearing/sharing stories of teaching in communities, I was reminded to reevaluate my own work for value and voice. Where am I holding back? Where am I taking the easy route? Where am I ignoring issues?

I'll add pics from the event to this blog as they come in. In the meantime, in lieu of a writing prompt, I'd like you to think about what writing really means to you and how you can use it as a tool for change or awareness. Something as simple as inserting a scene that confronts a current societal issue or something as complex as telling your own truth in a memoir, will get you there. As an exercise, try to write about something that's bothering you but you'd like to change - do it in narrative form. Taking stock can help us get back to the root of why we do what we do. It can also only work to strengthen our voices as artists.

xo Jen

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

7 Days in Roatán, 7 Things to Do/Not Do



I went to Roatán, and I have a lot to say...

Roatán, one of the three bay islands off the coast of Honduras, was the destination of my first international trip. My husband and I left on Independence Day. The island, which is about fifty feet long and anywhere from one to five miles wide, is primarily known for its scuba diving and eco-tourism. I over-prepared in many ways (see packing and vaccinations) and under-prepared in others (see packing). Because I was meeting people there, not going to a resort or fancy hotel, I got a good glimpse into the day-to-day of the island. In seven days, I managed to eat quite a bit, snorkel, explore, hike, visit West End, West Bay, Coxen Hole, and Flowers Bay. I heard stories and myths about the island, heard horror stories, and I slept comfortably without air-conditioning. I heard the ocean in my dreams.



The ride from airport to the cabana near West Bay was marked by a runaway cow that three kids were chasing, a few close calls with cabbies on steep hills, and a lot of shifting of gears. Thing is, it didn’t seem road rage was as much of a thing – more a thankfulness that you aren’t creamed. The turns and hills were endless and sharp during that first half-hour drive. At the tops of hills, we could see the ocean on both sides. At the bottoms, there was a lot of loud breaking. We passed hitchhikers which, I would later learn, are more commonplace than exception. “Pick them up… they’ll knock on the window when they want off,” we were instructed. So later, when leaving the West End (nearby West Bay but a hell of a walk), we picked up three people on our way home who waved happily toward the bottom of West Bay before we arrived at our temporary home. This brings me to the first recommendation when visiting the island. 

Road to Flowers Bay Methodist Church
1.       Explore (drive with care)

The roads are cracked and tough, the homes are candy shell bright, and the food is inconsistent, but when you find a place that’s good it’s really, really good. We visited Flowers Bay the second day, where my father had walked a few miles from Keyhole every day for months (some years ago) to design and create stained glass panels for the Flowers Bay Bethesda Methodist Church, a historical building, that sits a quarter mile from the ocean. It’s side door remains open, inviting the saltwater breeze. 

Stained Glass by Mark Knox
Flowers Bay
In full exploratory mode, I sat in church for the first time in twenty years, confused by the quiet, aloof manner of folks before and comforted by the way they opened up as they began to sing and share stories to buy time – then more time – because the preacher didn’t show. Nonetheless, it was a heartfelt service, marked by only one unfortunate event in which a man with a dreaded beard yelled at a dog from outside the open door then picked up a large rock as the dog continued to bark. He yelled toward the church, nonsense, “the false prophet,” they called him. I wanted to run out and throw the rock back at him, but he was crazy and at the same time a part of things more than I was. I needed to be respectful. He was a crazy part that ran off, and the dog didn’t appear to be hurt – it too was long gone in the other direction. This bit of ugliness was quickly remedied as my father was mentioned in sermon, called up and thanked. The singing got better as the service went on. The preacher never showed but a few women stepped in to see the program to completion. We navigated the street above on the way there and back.  

By the end of seven days, we had seen much more of the island and had eaten here and there and, well, everywhere. I recommend you do the same.

2.       Eat and drink widely

Foster’s (on Foster’s stretch of the beach) on Lobster Night and Mangiamo’s for breakfast (a corner store/breakfast nook that has amazing breakfast and lunch) were my favorite places. In fact, Fosters again for afternoon coconut shrimp and rum punch. I heard Oasis was wonderful too, but I missed this meal when taking a night to explore the West End—the divers’ spot, it seemed—for a night. We ate apple-bananas, the best papaya in existence, and island sugar in our coffee.

The second day we were there, we had a barbeque and saw more of the tropical jungle—just enough—and were told story upon story of the land we stayed on, up the hill from West Bay. We had island lettuce, a buttery dark leaf, on our sandwiches. We tried to get Monkey Lalas on video (Monkey Lalas are clumsy lizards that run rampant on the island. I saw one run into a coconut tree and get right back up only to run away faster on its back legs). There is a drink named after these guys, as well there should be, and the Monkey Lala, a sort of Mudslide with banana, is the island drink to try for tourists. Think dessert and drink in one. 

3.       Zipline (there are many options – I recommend South Shore)

After ziplining (another first – quite fun), we met a man who expressed anger at the mainland, said the crime kept trying to bleed over but “We won’t let the corruption in. All the drugs over there … shame. The drugs will make you kill your entire family.” He went on. He said Roatán won’t let that happen, the island is too strong. I hope so. I saw a crease of worry through the anger and wondered what had happened, exactly, to make him so angry. Honduras is the murder capital of the world, though not often given much mind in international US news. I wouldn't have known if not visiting the island.

4.       Snorkel (but check your gear before you go – a bad fit or bad buckle can mean no gear)

The island brings in money, mostly from tourists, and yet it remains largely undeveloped. The ecology is notable. Don’t step on the coral. If you dive, swim with the dolphins (one thing I’d like to do when I return), snorkel or even swim out, be respectful. In many areas, it seemed the economic stimulation felt both necessary and in direct opposition to the natural beauty. Small piles of trash can mean small tears in this pristine, picturesque setting.

5.       Park carefully if you rent a car

We got a parking ticket, went to Municipalidad de Roatán in Coxen Hole. Coxen Hole is worth seeing, but I’d recommend not going to the Municipal unless you have to. Downtown traffic was so bad that my father was able to get out, find a policeman, walk to the building and pay the ticket by the time we parked. The officer he walked with, however, was very nice and ensured the boot was removed from our rental before we even handed over the Lempira. Luckily, we had a backup ride, or that could have been a day gone instead of a few hours. 

6.       Take a water taxi

The short ride from West Bay to West End costs about $150 Lempira ($20 lemp = $1 dollar). The highlight of our trip was when, halfway, the driver yelled at us to put on our vests. “I’ll get yelled at. Marines!” he said. We grabbed the soggy vests and indulged, laughing as we watched the looming ship pass by, imagining this anxiety-ridden driver getting yelled at as though by a parental figure.
 
7.       Listen to stories, tell stories. There is no need to make things up.

There were stories of love, of those travelers falling in love with the island, and those who only want to leave getting the opportunity to travel themselves. There were sad stories of bodies washing up on the property shore after Hurricane Mitch (1998), toys and clothes appearing in quantities from the mainland. Útila, another of the Bay Islands that currently hosts a research center for whale sharks, was torn apart by the storm back then. 

There were stories of magic and fortunetellers, murder and voodoo, retaliation and myth. There were stories of extortion told over Cuba Libres (rum, cola and lime) as we stared out at the water crashing yet serene. There was more anger or fear regarding the mainland, but there were also stories of family there—homes there. The people we met around town were helpful, showing us around and telling us what not to bother with. It all made me wonder about the stories I’d hear back home, if I knew of all that happened in my immediate neighborhood and what could be said about the violence here that is often unreported or ignored by officials. Development means structure, but it doesn’t always mean shelter or safety.

 Fidel, the Keyhole dog, liked to sit out by the ocean and stare at the waves
We listened. We danced. We climbed laughably steep hills and felt our hearts reach out for the many free roaming dogs on the island. The homeless cats. We met a woman from London who said she came to visit and couldn’t leave. We met a diver: same. Businesses opened on-time or not, so we waited by doors. We swam and soaked up the sun, and it didn’t sear.

I feel I know the island well already. We haven’t just met, we’ve dated. Getting to know the island more intimately before 2020, a target date for doing my part to help establish an artist residency there by this keyhole. This myth-rich island, with its unparalleled beauty and extremes, is a place every truly artistic person should visit. Visit with care, visit with art… visit with a willingness to give up what you know for a time and open your eyes (or just go and stay at a resort and soak up the scenery). It's a truly remarkable place.    


Saturday, June 27, 2015

On publishing short fiction

I have been offering workshops on how to begin a short story, how to revise and polish the story, and how to publish the story for NISD here in San Antonio. Most of the time, my lectures begin with self-evaluation. I ask my students what their goals are as writers, what they currently have to work with (the product or WIP), and how confident they really, truly feel about the work. From there, we construct a plan of action because unlike stock advice, everyone's on a pretty unique journey when it comes to writing. That said, as I developed my notes on the publication process, it felt pretty universal, so I thought I'd share it here at my sorely neglected blog. If anything has come from those prompts I've been posting, this could be useful....


How to submit your stories:
1.      Be sure your story is completely done—that it is polished enough to be published right now. Be sure…
a.       you can read it out loud without pausing
b.      you have let it breathe (for some that's a few days, for others it's a month or longer - however long it takes you to get perspective on your work)
c.       you are truly ready to share – this is a biggie
d.      you can summarize your story in a sentence or two; for example, my short story The Suit (in After the Gazebo) can be summarized as… A woman’s only reprieve from the unfortunate behaviors of her meth-addicted daughter is public companionship—she’s everyone’s mom and friend, the sweet lady on the bus. But on a normal route, she meets addiction up-close and has to face the anger she’s been suppressing for years.
2.      Find a few journal/magazines that publish work in your genre. Here are some free resources that will help you:
a.       New Pages: http://www.newpages.com/
b.      Poets & Writers Magazine: http://www.pw.org/literary_magazines
c.       Duotrope (subscription of $50/year): www.duotrope.com
3.      Write a simple and straightforward cover letter. Don't tell them how you started from bottom, and now you're here, and don't over-explain the story. Offer a summary only if they don't overtly ask you not to.
4.      Familiarize yourself with the journal or magazine’s content (read a few issues - BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM THIS WHOLE LECTURE) and also review the guidelines.
a.       Determine whether your story is the right length, genre, and style
b.      Find the appropriate editor’s name to address your query letter to
c.       Be sure to format your submission appropriately (double-spaced, Times New Roman, etc…)
d.      Look for wait times. Most journals will let you know the average wait time for a response. This can range from a few days to a year.
5.      Work on other things as you wait. A lot of factors go into a journal's decisions ("Another woman who isn't related to anyone I know? Ugh." (Just kidding (kind of))), and even very good work is often rejected. Keep the faith--the good work with shine through. Keep track of where you have sent your stories. Don’t be afraid to simultaneously submit work, so long as it’s not against any given journal’s guidelines. Follow protocol. I learned this the hard way. Save yourself some time. xo Jen