Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why I write

Here's the essay I wrote for my personal aesthetic assignment. I don't think I quite fulfilled the requirments, but I really like what I wrote (or maybe my caffiene goggles are on too tight!).

Sometimes the Magic Works

Ok, so I stole the title for this essay from Terry Brook’s excellent memoir based on his writing life. However, I’m pretty sure that I heard somewhere that if someone else has said something you’ve always wanted to say, but they said it better, than it’s ok to say what they’ve said. And so, this leads me to the purpose of this essay. My literary aesthetic and purpose for writing are deeply informed by my grandfather. I inhabit the same storytelling place as he does, mostly because it’s the first one I ever visited, and consequently, it’s the one I feel most comfortable in. I try to use the same paintbrush as my grandfather, just not the same paint. Where his stories approach life’s teachings using the spoken format, my stories seek life’s teaching’s using the short story. And in this format I seek to use what I’ve learned from him: I draw on the power of a strong image conjured by simple words to ensconce emotion and knowledge into the mind of the reader in the hopes that my themes will resonate deep inside.

I can still recall, with vivid memory, sitting at my grandfather’s elbow at the kitchen table on any given Sunday, and listening to him tell stories from his life in Mexico. I remember his massive brown hands moving like a conductor’s baton keeping time over his gruff voice: loud, dissonant, silent, tender, etc. He told adventure stories, fantasy stories, ghost stories, work stories, death stories. He told them as though they were true, as though they happened yesterday, and I took them as such. Sometimes his stories happened to him, sometimes to an uncle or a cousin, but always there was a lessoned to be taught and a lesson to be learned. His stories created a certain space in time where beauty sprung forth from horror and wonder could birth wisdom. As a child his stories held me in a trance from which the powerful magic of images could work into my soul and later be drawn upon when needed. My literary aesthetic comes from this place.

In my writing, and more obviously in my grandfather’s stores, there exists what Joseph Campbell would probably call the “hero’s journey.” What appealed to my grandfather, I believe, and to myself, is the idea that these “heroes” could teach the listener/reader truth. These truths reveal themselves as the character commits trials and errors in an attempt to quell some desire or nagging feeling; a journey of self discovery. After the hero gets to know himself better and is aware of his needs and society’s demands, he is then able to negotiate a path for himself. Joseph Campbell gained much attention for his work after he discovered this basic story telling element in the diverse myths of the world’s cultures.

But why is this “truth” so important? Personally, it’s my own hero’s journey that I am on when I write. This is a journey that I must take to discover who I am in a world where my insides don’t match my outsides. I cannot recreate the life my grandfather lived: cowboy, railroad worker, farmer, laborer, etc. My grandfather had the luxury, if it can be called that, to act and make mistakes and to learn out in the open world. I, on the other hand, have the luxury of sitting on my ass to read and write and not worry where my next meal is coming from or if someone is coming to steal my land out from under me. I search for my truth’s then in the open world of my mind and in the shared knowledge of all those storytellers who have come before, and I struggle to make their hard earned lessons fit my modern psyche.

The themes that my “heroes” tend to explore include culture clash/mash, familial obligation in a self-centered society, class structure, and the divided self. Growing up with a foot in two cultures (Mexican and American), I was in a position to feel the effects of two places struggling to invade my senses; one world was internal and the other external. The internal world was created by my Mexican family: the food I ate, the language I spoke, the traditions I followed. . . and the external world was created by American television, public school, white and black childhood friends and their families. This created a dichotomy within me that, at any given moment, seemed to battle for control. Octavio Paz once said that the Mexican-American was like a pendulum swinging back and forth between two worlds; he insinuated that we would never be at rest, never find peace. However, much like the Chinese idea of Yin-Yang, I tried to get both sides to coexist; the tortillas next to loaf of bread at the dinner table. But this was a Herculean task and in all of the negotiating and peace making I developed strong powers of observation as I witnessed my two worlds collide over and over again.

The protagonists in “A Season for Bears” (ASB) which I wrote last year, and “Juice and Kookies” (JK), are both young Latino males growing up in the Midwest, far from the influence of their homeland. Mijo from ASB is gifted student who feels the obligation placed on him by his Mexican family and white teachers to use his talents to “save his people” as an oppressive sensation. He feels that the world is “pressing down on him.” Mijo’s black sheep Uncle Gonzo arrives at a critical point to allow Mijo to shed the weight of obligation and to allow himself the freedom to be who he wants to be. Junior, from JK, also tries to discover who he is as he clears mud from his eyes that is placed there by his family (work hard, measure of a man, help your family, etc) and the American world of privilege and adolescent sex.

The language I use in both stories purposely seeks the meaningful, profound image that emerges from the observations of the characters. In JK Junior is witness to “plump and purple skies”, “crying walls”, and a painted fragile sailboat in the middle of the sea. In ASB, Mijo sees “shadows dancing on walls”, “eyes that talk”, whispers that hide their speakers, and questions that “disappear into pockets.” By using these images I hope to convey that what the characters are seeking (self discovery and a place in their world that will allow happiness) can be an elusive, abstract thing if you don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place. All the characters know is that they feel like they’re being pulled in a million directions and they don’t know why, and what I hope these images, and the language I use to create them, will create the same sensation in the reader.

Some could argue, I guess, that really the magic I’m describing, and the techniques my grandfather used, are the natural consequences of living in a society that values Magical Realism as a genre. To invoke the powers of the strange and the wondrous for a character to reflect upon can be an easy way to get your point across. However, I feel that, even though I approach that point, I try to not indulge in it. I am happiest when I am able to have my characters create the magic inside of themselves (via language and images), where it is available only to them and the reader. And by allowing the reader to view this magic, I involve them in a way that is intimate, and therefore, hopefully, make the story and its truth meaningful while spanning cultures, gender, beliefs, etc. This internal magic also allows me to find the truth of the character and hopefully the truth that I seek.


Charmi said...

It's good to see some of these working it out posts. I really haven't gone that far to articulate any particular writing aesthetic, although I think I understand the subjects that concern me. So, what are your plans after graduation?

By the way, I liked, again, the poems you posted.

Gloria Moya said...

That is a great introduction to a fantastic book. When will it published, what will the title be, and where can I buy it?

I'm already hooked!!!!

Anonymous said...

jesus...i liked it. Descibes my life a little too. I think it will describe a lot more peoples lves in the next 50 years. Let me know if you decide to publish it. You know i like to eat American breakfast on saturdays, and Paige like sto eat Mexican Breakfast on Saturdays. Did i tell you we have barbacoa here in San Antonio on every corner? Billy Gonzalez