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

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

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.

Eliminating the Headache of Writing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Manuals

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are step-by-step instructions that act as guidelines for employee work processes. Whether written up in numbered steps or formatted as flow charts, effective SOPs are complete, clearly written, and based on input from the workers who do the job. When employees follow the SOP for a particular job, they produce a product that is consistent and predictable.

If creativity is key to your business functions, SOPs may not work for you. Strict adherence to standardized rules can restrict creative flow. However, if your goal is to produce the same product over the long term and increase your business productivity, the implementation of SOPs can have many benefits*.

Unfortunately, creating Standard Operating Procedures costs time and energy that an already busy and growing business often can’t afford.  While there are templates available online, the truth is that someone still has to collect the information that goes in them.

Nevertheless, if your business has plans for expansion, or government contracts, or even if you don’t want to keep recreating the wheel every time you hire a new person,  Standard Operating Procedures are not optional.

That’s where I come in.

From my experience as a documentary filmmaker, I know how to skillfully conduct and transcribe interviews with owners and employees that I can then translate into clear and comprehensible procedure manuals. And my experience as a writer and editor assures that the manuals are written and formatted with excellence.

While creating a manual can feel like a drag on company resources, I’m just geeky enough, and methodical enough, to find the process a genuine joy. It’s that strange niche we all hope to find, that thing that we’re good at, that people need, and that we enjoy. So if you, or your company, knows you’ve been needing Standard Operating Procedures, but just haven’t gotten around to creating them, get in touch and let’s talk about making it happen.

Email HanleyVega@gmail.com and let’s have a conversation.

On The Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character

A few weeks ago, I reread a series of online newspaper columns I’d written in 2011. The writing was clear, informative and grammatically sound, but it was also …boring. 

Around the same time, I picked up a copy of “To Show and To Tell” by Phillip Lopate*. In this book, dedicated to the craft of “literary nonfiction,” Lopate writes that nonfiction authors must not shy away from revealing their authentic selves, regardless of how flawed, weird, or even dull, they believe themselves to be. Ultimately, he writes, even when the subject is not memoir, it’s the writer’s unique perspective, their “character,” that makes their work engaging.

Lopate had me see that, in too completely concealing my origins and point of view — a Puerto Rican Jew from the Bronx, a person-of-color passing as white, perpetually angry about abuses of power, and equally passionate about the possibility of a just world — I’d omitted aspects of myself that might have made my articles compelling, rather than just informative.

In contrast, in “Between The World and Me,**”  Ta-Nahesi Coates’ anger, defiant atheism, confusion and despair inform every page, as do his tender love for his son and his grief for an old friend. He is frank about childhood fears, his inability to master the streets, and the fact that he cannot identify the answer to racism in the United States, only the problem, and the tragedy, that it is.

But through a lens of what might be regarded as imperfection, an intellectually persuasive and emotionally forceful human being emerges. It is no accident that the book has become a phenomenon and that, despite insisting on his own limitations, Coates — or rather, the narrative “character” he created – has become a prophet to many.

This is why editing is about so much more than just debugging and polishing your grammar, syntax and structure. It’s also about enhancing your voice so that readers not only acquire a new understanding of your subject, but also gain a greater understanding of who you are, as a writer and a human being.

*Lopate, Phillip. “On The Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” To Show and To Tell, The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. New York: Free Press, 2013.

** Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. (edited by Christopher Jackson, yay!)

Sitting Down To Write

The first step towards writing anything is deceptively simple. It’s sitting.

But it’s not just any sitting. It’s sitting in front of a blank page or screen — the prospect of which can be intimidating. While there are people who can sit down and get right to business, for others it can take time.  

If you are one of these people, do not fret if you find yourself:

  • Straightening out your desk, living room or kitchen
  • Watching Netflix
  • Making a cup of tea
  • Lighting a candle
  • Throwing out the garbage

Even experienced writers can dismiss such puttering as mere procrastination, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of nesting. It is simply what’s necessary to welcome your imagination into the room.

After all, the mindset with which we address daily life is different from the one required for creative labor, and it’s not always easy to switch gears. And while, of course, there will be times when inspiration hits you while you’re doing something else, devotion to a project demands that you be able to write on command.

Creating the proper setting for your imagination is an act of self-care that requires practice and patience.  So give yourself some grace and explore what you need to settle into a writing session: Do you prefer quiet or noise? A messy space or a tidy one? Morning or evening? Just as every writer develops a “voice” through choice of words and story, every writer also develops preferences for diving into the creative process.

Especially in the beginning, it can take time for your mind to turn away from the mundane details of daily life and towards creation. So don’t be ashamed if, as one highly accomplished artist once told me, it takes three times as long to prepare as it does to actually create. 

Your story is waiting to be told, and I encourage you to do whatever it takes to sit down and begin telling it.

Facing The Monster

Writers, Editors, Collaboration
A Good Editor is A Writer’s Best Ally

If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough. Any challenging pursuit will encounter frequent patches of frustration. Writing is nothing if not challenging. – Maxwell Perkins

Whether we’re seasoned writers or inexperienced newbies, there’s no question that facing the blank page, or even a page we’ve already written, can feel like facing down a monster.

Creativity is a major area of stress for most, if not all, human beings and few things are as sensitive as offering up our creative babies for feedback. At times, it may feel like our very existence is being judged and measured for worthiness, and when a project is particularly close to our hearts, even the smallest critique can sting.

People write because they have something inside which they feel compelled to get out. It can be an experience, an observation, an idea, or a dream, but, whatever it is, it can feel like so much is at stake when we offer it to another set of eyes.

Is it good? Does it make sense? Have I revealed too much? Should I give up?

Questions like these flood every writer’s mind once they’ve handed off their pages, and that’s why a good editor must be as gifted with psychology as she is with words. While I’m here to assure that your work makes sense, flows cleanly, and communicates a powerful message, I’m also here to hold your hand as you face the monsters at every stage of your project. I’m your collaborator, your coach and your ally.

Editing Brings Out Your Writing’s Clarity and Power

I’ve always loved exploring the deeper meanings hidden in art, movies and books. Themes pop out, patterns emerge, and I find connections that elude other people. I first used this gift as a film student, and then as a screenwriter, helping peers discover what they were trying to say with their scripts.

Later, this gift also made me good at reading tarot cards. Without even thinking, I could fill in the blanks, and tease someone’s life story out of a series of seemingly unrelated symbols and images.

I love stories, I love language…

And I love editing.

Editing calls on this gift for seeing the truths beneath the surface, while also offering the opportunity to support visionary professionals and entrepreneurs who inspire me. I’m particularly passionate about working with seasoned professionals who don’t consider themselves writers, but have a story to tell and wisdom to share.

So whether you’re an experienced writer or a beginner, a seasoned organization or a startup, I can help you refine ideas, polish language, and get your message across as clearly and powerfully as possible.