To Find Your Story, Try Starting From The End

Age 16, training to be an actress at the Carnegie Mellon Pre-College Summer Conservatory of Drama

We’ve all got things we’ve learned along the way, and when we’re in the public eye, people expect us to deliver our nuggets of wisdom in ways that are entertaining and engaging. But they don’t want a dry lecture, they want to hear our story.

When you’re wondering what stories you have to tell, try starting from the end. Think about something you’ve learned along the way and remember back to how you learned it. What was happening in your life? What was important to you at the time? And did you learn from success or failure? You may surprise yourself with what you discover.

For instance, as an editor and a teacher, I often tell writers and students: Nothing is ever wasted. No experience, however painful or discouraging, is ever a complete loss. But if that’s all I say, they (especially the teenagers) are likely to think something like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, next!” So instead of just boring them with how smart I am, I can share when and how I learned that nothing is ever wasted and go back to an experience that was, in fact, painful and discouraging.

I’ve got to tell what happened because, as much as any credential or title, my story is the thing proves I know what I’m talking about. So here it goes, here’s my story…

When I was little, like so many kids, I loved playing pretend. So, when I was 11, and some neighbors founded a community theater company, my friends and I auditioned because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Even though I wasn’t cast right away, and was pretty shy at first, over the next few years I became an active member of the company and an experienced performer.

I loved acting. Not only was the stage a place where I could play pretend and be rewarded for it, but it was also a place where I was accepted for being sensitive and vulnerable; something that didn’t happen in regular life. Even more than applause, I also loved the camaraderie with the company members, and how inspired we felt when we were putting on a show, taking risks, and putting ourselves out there. After a few years, acting felt like something I was meant to do, and became the closest thing I had to a spiritual life. When I was onstage, I could forget who I was and connect to something greater than myself. It was bliss.

So at 16, I attended a summer training conservatory and, then, having decided I wanted to be a professional actress, enrolled in a college with a respected theater department.

But college wasn’t like community theater and, instead of belonging, I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t as confident and outgoing as the other students, and I rarely knew the words to the musical numbers they spontaneously sang. And though I was cast in a featured role during my first semester, my confidence started to slip, at first in little ways and then in one fell swoop.

I was auditioning for a play. The director and her friends were super talented, and I wanted them to like me. But I was so nervous and so concerned with seeming cool that, when I stepped in front of them to read, I lost control. My hands shook so violently that the pages of my script fluttered loudly and, with all that movement, I couldn’t even see my lines, let alone speak them. The director tried to calm me down, but it was no use. I didn’t finish the audition and left the room, humiliated. I decided, right then, that I was never going to audition again. And I quit acting…

I could end the narrative right here, and let you give this story your own meaning. But since I’m here to impart wisdom, I can’t just share an anecdote about a time I screwed up; I’ve got to close with the message I want to convey. I’ve got to close with the wisdom of the story.

For years, I was ashamed that I’d given up on something that meant so much to me, and ashamed that I hadn’t reached out for support when the going got tough. But over time, I realized that quitting acting wasn’t the end of my my life as an artist. Instead, I realized that my experiences as an actor were foundational to the person I became, and gave me skills I use to this day. For instance, acting taught me how important it is to take creative risks: not only on behalf of an audience, but on behalf of my fellow artists. And, because of acting, I know how scary it is to reveal yourself publicly or try something new, and I know how devastating it is to feel unfairly judged. Last but not least, acting taught me about narrative and what works in a story and what doesn’t. I might have learned those things anyway, but I did learn them through acting, and for that I’m deeply grateful*.

The moments that make up our best stories don’t always immediately spring to mind. Contrary to what people think, they often aren’t the biggest or most momentous events; instead they’re fairly normal things that occurred on a Tuesday night in April, when we were nineteen. And even though it might not have seemed like it at the time, these are the moments that changed our lives and made us who we are. It can just take a little time to remember them.

This summer, I’ll be leading a small group of entrepreneurs through the process of finding their own stories. The workshop is called Origin Stories: Not Just For Superheroes, and you can find out more about it here.

*Full disclosure: I’ve never actually shared that story with my students, though I have encouraged them to believe that no effort is ever wasted. And, in fact, I didn’t know how I knew that, until I sat down to write the story

Origin Stories

Miss America, aka America Chavez, the Marvel superhero written by Gabby Rivera, has a VERY complicated origin story.

What’s Yours?

We all come from somewhere and we all have a story to tell. Do a quick Google search and you’ll quickly discover that storytelling for brand-building is hot in the corporate world. But that’s not my jam.

I’m about people.

As an editor, I help people perfect what they want to say and give them the confidence to get it out in the world. And as a writing instructor and workshop facilitator, I support writers and non-writers alike to find their stories in the first place.

Unless you were blessed with a robust storytelling gene, it’s not always easy to know your own story. Looking back on your life, you may see so many twists and turns, so many ups and downs, that figuring out how it all led you here can seem impossible. And even though you may not automatically know how to tell or write a story, as a human being, you immediately know a good one, or a bad one, when you see one.

We’ve all been there. We’ve asked someone about something, and heard “first this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened…” and before we’ve known what was happening, our eyes have glazed over, and we’ve excused ourselves to get another drink. We’ve all been the listener and, even worse, the teller of a poorly structured tale and it’s never a shining moment for anyone.

But there’s a solution. On June 4, I launch my online course Origin Stories: They’re Not Just For Superheroes. Designed specifically for entrepreneurs, this four session course will cover everything you need to tell your own story: whether it’s for a bio, blog or article, or for a panel, interview or podcast.

Origin Stories are as unique as fingerprints, and once you understand how to put together where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, and where you’re going, you’ll be able to tell yours with confidence and power.

And you’ll never find yourself awkwardly struggling to introduce yourself, in print or in person, again. REGISTER HERE

REPRESENTATION: In Education, in the World and on the Page

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors.

Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I recently got me some hoops.

At a recent Town Hall meeting, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of her dad’s education at Brooklyn Tech, a selective NYC public high school that made a different kind of life possible for him – and I related. As a teenager, I traveled 90 minutes each way to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan because I, too, wanted a different kind of life. But attending this “elite” school (and the “elite” schools that followed) came at a cost.

In high school, I was the only Latina I knew. Because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx, I made the decision that not only did I not count as a “real” Latina, but that I should also avoid anything that could make people think I was one. Hoop earrings were, therefore, out of the question, as was gold bamboo jewelry, nameplate necklaces and tight, sexy outfits. I also did everything I could to erase any signs of a Bronx accent, including speech classes at 16 to cultivate a generic Mid-Atlantic cadence.

I did, however, always wear bright red lipstick and nail polish — because it looked so damn good. Then one day, a friend asked “Why do you do that? It makes you look like a Puerto Rican girl.” In a rare moment of pride, I responded, “Because I am a Puerto Rican girl.” But my pride didn’t go much further than that.

From personal experience, I know that the lack of black/brown representation in NYC’s selective high schools (as well as in highly selective colleges and universities) is an injustice not only to deserving kids who don’t get in, but also to ones that do. Just this week, out of a total of 897 kids, Stuyvesant admitted only seven black students to its class of 2023. For all the opportunity Stuyvesant offers those kids, how can it possibly compensate for the culture shock they’re about to experience?

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors. And because true power and fulfillment come from owning who we really are, an educational system in which extraordinary kids from disadvantaged communities are pressured to dis-identify with their authentic selves cannot be considered “just” or even successful.

The same goes for publishing and media. Human beings cannot become what we do not see; this is not mere philosophy, it’s neuro-science.* And this is why I speak, write and teach, again and again, about REPRESENTATION.

Because I am not in favor of a culture dominated by a Whiteness which insists on denying the value of other peoples, of their languages, their histories and their ancestry. And I am not in favor of a culture in which the cost of “success” is participation in the further eradication of one’s own people and culture.

Representation Matters. And it changes the world.

If you’re in the PNW, join me on March 30 for my one day writing workshop called “REPRESENT!” And express yourself as you really are, not who the White culture wants you to be so you can “succeed.”

*For a scholarly perspective on mirror neurons and literature, see Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation by Deborah Jenon and Marco Iacobini

Rewriting Your Own Story is Sometimes the Most Important Revision of All

For writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, this is particularly important. As they say, “representation matters.”

This girl thought she’d made all the mistakes, until she realized she’d gained all the wisdom. Or some of it.

Whether I’m editing, teaching, or public speaking, I’m not only committed to educating writers about how to write and publish better books, I’m also committed to being their champion and a constant reminder that they’re worthy of writing, and rewriting, their stories… especially the ones they tell about themselves.

For writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, this is particularly important. As they say, “representation matters.” And when we lack heroes who remind us of ourselves — ethnically, racially, socioeconomically or otherwise — it can be that much harder to see ourselves as the heroes of our own journeys, especially when the going gets rough.

Back when I was starting out in the entertainment industry, “The X-Files” posted an opening for a researcher. As a huge fan of the show and a whiz at research, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I’d already written a sample script in which Agents Mulder and Scully discover Puerto Rican independence activists fighting the Federal government with brujeria, and saw the position as a launching pad for the fantastic writing career I wanted.

Thrilled when I got called for an interview, I drove to the Fox lot with stars in my eyes. Having nearly memorized the show’s credits, I knew that the woman interviewing me had moved up the ranks from Executive Assistant to Vice President, and I looked forward to impressing her with my mad skills and abundance of arcane knowledge. And, to my credit, I did both. But then, as our conversation was wrapping up, she dropped the bomb. They’d already decided to hire from within, and while they had a writer’s assistant position available, she thought I wouldn’t want it because “assistants don’t get the respect that researchers do.”

At the time I didn’t know that, regardless of potential disrespect, working as an assistant was one of the best ways to get started as a TV writer. I also didn’t know that I should have taken anything she offered. But instead of saying “I’ll take it,” I said “No thanks.”

Then I put my script on her desk and walked out: right past Vince Gilligan, the writer of my favorite “X-Files” episodes and future creator of “Breaking Bad.” He must have assumed I was one of the new assistants because, as I strode by, he shot me a disdainful look, dripping with disrespect.

For too long, I told myself this incident proved I was destined to fail. WHO does that? Aren’t ‘successful’ people smarter than that? Wasn’t I supposed to be smarter than that?

As I matured and gained perspective, however, I rewrote this story — from one that confirmed my incompetence and stupidity, to one that celebrates the courage of a geeky Latina girl from the Bronx pursuing her dreams in Hollywood. Rather than a story about shame, it became a story about experience, and a badge of wisdom rather than a disfiguring scar.

When we rewrite the stories from our past, we rewrite out futures. Stories are that powerful. They give us who we are, and not only can they help turn us from victims to heroes with just a few words, they can do that for our readers as well — especially when those readers have been dying for a story with a heroine just like them: one who learns from her mistakes and grows that much stronger for them.

Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward…?

Books by writers of color are more likely to be banned. That’s right. In the above Bitch Media interview with Kristen Pekoll from The Office of Intellectual Freedom with The American Library’s Association, she states that more than three quarters of the books banned by school libraries in 2017 were by, or about, people of color.  “What does it say about our culture that people don’t want these books on the shelf?” she asks.

Even though offended parents, teachers and administrators claim that they object to these books due to religious, political, sexual, or other “controversial,” content,  what they all have in common is that they explicitly and honestly address the experiences of non-white Americans, or protagonists from other cultures.

And that can make a lot of people uncomfortable. As she says “Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward? Talk about race.”  

It’s not only difficult for most white Americans to face up to the racist history of our country, it’s even more difficult for them to understand what racism is, and how it functions on a structural and institutional basis. Unfortunately, however, because 89% of publishing industry professionals are white, the odds are against writers of color getting the attention and support they need to effectively explore the intersections of race, poverty, gender and class in ways that will awaken readers and challenge the status quo. 

Nevertheless, I have hope. And right now that hope lies in my commitment to creating spaces for writers of color to discover and develop stories that not only convey infrequently-heard truths, and possibly inspire a more just and fulfilling world, but where they also never have to hear the question, “Why does everything have to be about race?”

Register for my upcoming Circle for Writers of Color, launching in February 2019, or sign up for a free group coaching session for Writers of Color.

5 Things Writers-of-Color Should Look For In Their Book Editor

I recently attended a Northwest Editor’s Guild event called “Authors on Editing,” during which three writers spoke about their experiences working with editors. I gleaned a lot of useful information from the panel discussion, and it’s always great to meet other editors. But as great as the event was, I couldn’t help noticing what was not said, and the editors and writers who were not there.

If you’re a writer of color, you know what I mean.

That’s right. This room was almost entirely white — except for me and, even though I’m a Latina, I look white — and there was not a single mention of race, class, diversity or inclusion the whole time.

This doesn’t mean that the editors and writers present weren’t compassionate or skilled, or that they didn’t have contributions to make. It just means that some very important things were not addressed during the panel discussion and Q&A.

Namely — how much of a difference it makes to have an editor who not only gets your writing, but gets YOU. And one thing white people consistently miss is that race and ethnicity — i.e. not being white — do make a difference in who we are and what we have to say. As writers, they give us our histories, our perspectives, and our voices, and editors can miss certain nuances in our work when they don’t share those things with us.

Now, as you already know, publishing IS so white, and it can be hard to find an editor who exactly matches you in terms of racial/ethnic profile. But the first tip I’d give for seeking out an editor is to try to find an editor of color. There’s not many of us, but we are out there.

As for the other things your editor should provide, here are five you should seek out to make your partnership the best it can be:

  1. Face to face communication – Emails and notes are just the beginning. Telephone calls are OK. But eyeball to eyeball is best, whether you’re lucky enough to meet in person, or can jump on Skype or Zoom.  Writers and editors are on the same team, and face to face conversations can make your relationship feel much more like a partnership.
  2. Generosity –  Make sure your editor cares. The editing process is intensely personal, for both the writer and the editor, and if your editor doesn’t care about your project from the start, their feedback is going to reflect their indifference and you’re not going to feel the love you need.
  3. Egolessness – It’s not your editor’s book, it’s yours. When an editor can’t separate themselves and their opinions from YOUR work, it’s going to be a battle of wills. But, that said, an editor should be able to take a stand for the reader, and choose their battles wisely. So you want them to be generous, but also strong.
  4. Inquisitiveness – Editors have a reputation for being didactic. But rather than constantly telling you what to do, an editor who asks the right questions can open you up to ideas and inspirations you never imagined. The ability to ask the right questions can distinguish a good editor from a great one who helps the work evolve from good to great.
  5. A spirit of collaboration – Make sure your editor takes time to agree on a set of goals with you. What is this project about? Who are its readers? Where and how will it be published? What is this round of editing about? As simple as it may seem, getting clear on what you will accomplish, and by when, will prevent unnecessary confusion and disappointment.

If you’ve got further suggestions for what makes a great editor, add it in the comments. And if you’d like to have a conversation about an upcoming project or completed manuscript, I offer an initial 30-minute consultation, free of charge.  

The Self Publishing Revolution…

 

By now, every writer — and probably ever reader — knows that the publishing world has undergone a radical makeover in the last ten years or so. Thanks to Amazon and a variety of self-publishing platforms like Lulu and CreateSpace, writers no longer have to rely on “the big 5” to get their words read.

But there are pluses and minuses to every revolution, and this podcast from The Guardian presents a great overview of all of it — featuring interviews with self-published authors as well as agents, editors and big-time publishers.

If you’re curious about how the landscape has changed, and whether or not self-publishing is right for you (hint, for first-time writers, it probably is) take a listen. It’ll easily be worth your 34 minutes.