Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, author of the recently released Pig Park, has some advice for young writers.
As a kid, I had more dreams than could fit in my head—the biggest was to be an author. My school didn’t have money for new books, let alone an author to ask for advice, and Skype hadn’t been invented yet. But here is some of what I wish someone had shared, some of what I’ve learned about writing so far:
Dear Young Author,
1. Read everything you can get your hands on. Reading teaches us what we like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t work. A great piece of writing can be mirror, window, door, roadmap or all. Reading shaped me even when it was hard to find more than a handful of protagonists that looked or sounded like me. I found other ways of identifying. Reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I imagined I was poor Huck. Likewise, I imagined myself the immigrant subject of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. That was the beauty of reading books at that age. That said, it was the writing of Sandra Cisneros that encouraged me to pursue publication, that showed me that people read stories about Chicano kids too. As readers and writers we have the power to change books as the world around us changes too.
2. Look for stories everywhere. My first book, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, started from a short story I wrote for a class. I used it as a skeleton and attached words like chunks of flesh until my book took shape. Conversations with my family helped a great deal because the story was based on real events they took part in. Chela, my protagonist, struggles through the sixth grade. Her life doesn’t exactly happen like mine did. Nevertheless, writing allowed me to remember many things about that time in my own life. Some were painful. Some were great, like the rumble of my father’s laughter. With Pig Park, my characters started out as strangers that I slowly got to know. The idea came to me while reading an old article about the plump delicious bread at my favorite bakery. I grabbed ideas from all around me.
3. Work out problems through writing. During middle school, I hated everyone and everything. My dad had just passed away, and I lashed out. But, experimenting with poetry finally allowed me to express myself in a way that didn’t get me in trouble. It wasn’t just a matter of venting or professing emotion. Writing became a problem-solving tool. The thing about written words is that they have a permanence that requires careful consideration. They allow us to get down the facts and sort out events so we don’t get carried away in the moment. Simply put, writing slowed down the thinking process, helping me to see more clearly before I opened my mouth.
4. Don’t worry too much about what others think. It’s understandable that you should feel some apprehension about sharing your work. However, don’t let that dictate what you write. One day, I poured my soul onto a piece of paper and turned it into my ninth grade English teacher. She took me aside after class and asked if I’d copied it. I ground my teeth and blinked back tears that she thought so little of me. “She must’ve thought the poem was that good,” my sister said. This is a humble brag, of course. But if you’re serious about writing, you have to learn to take the criticism. When I have a new piece, I share it in a safe place like my writing group. Once your work is published, you don’t have this luxury. Editors, publishers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, and all sorts of other people have something to say — good and bad. Of course, these are individual opinions. You can grow from them, or decide they offer you nothing and move on. A friend used to say, “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an ugly girl, just girls who aren’t of my taste.” Writing is exactly the same. Writing that one person hates, can find another person to love it.
5. Don’t just talk about writing, write. If you have a story in you, sit down and go at it. Write and don’t stop until you’ve told it. Writing is hard work in many ways. Baring our souls isn’t always easy, but I suppose it’s the nature of the creative process. Developing your ideas will require effort and commitment. When I found out my first book would be published, my editor called me on the phone and said, “You know it won’t be glamorous. You still have a lot of work do.” And, that’s the truth.
Claudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos, 2008) and Pig Park (Cinco Puntos, 2014). She grew up in sunny El Paso, Texas where she learned that letters form words from reading the subtitles of old westerns with my father. At age six, she already knew she wanted to create stories. She now lives and writes in Chicago. For more updates follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.
Pig Park is now available.