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

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.  

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.