I’m getting a bit of a late start this morning, thanks to five inches of ice and an untimely power outage. (Yes, I choose to live in NH!) So, let’s live vicariously for a bit and visit Vanessa Ziff in California.
Tell us a little about yourself and your writing life. How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. Seriously. Not that any of my stories ever made sense, or were even legible (have you recently seen a little lefty’s penmanship?) I’ve rummaged through old bins and boxes a few times, just to reconnect to the start of my writing obsession, dusting off journals, homemade books, and class projects – all worth a good laugh. Man – I wrote some really weird stories. Most made no sense. Plot problems spewing out all over the place. But the stories sounded good. Intense. Metaphorical. Deep. I’ve always had a love affair with the sound of words, the way they roll around in my mouth and slip off my tongue, their cadence, innuendo, weight. Words have always mattered to me. And that’s how I entered writing. Through sound first, story second.
Now I’m halfway through my sixth year of teaching in Los Angeles. As a 5th grade teacher, I get to introduce my classes to the mouth-watering world of language, through every subject! How lucky am I? I LOVE watching kids’ minds expand. They feel so empowered – and happy! Teaching is just as hard as writing, and just as rewarding. Every day is inspiring (whether it’s obvious or not.) Every day I file away in the “research and development” folders tucked within my head and heart. And when I find a stolen moment, I capture the words on paper.
That is inspiring. Your students are lucky. Teaching IS hard. (Recently, I started subbing in my daughter’s high school, and every day, my eyes are opened more.) And I love the idea that writing came to you as sound. The oral nature of story is ethnically and historically so profound. Can you let us in on some things you have done that have helped your writing? Any bumps along the way you care to relive?
If you can stomach them and still stand up straight afterward, bumps are definitely best.
I’m saving that line!!
It’s all fine and good to surround yourself with agreeable people, but the best writing comes from struggle, turmoil. One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Elbert Hubbard who said, “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” We can’t live in a fishbowl when an ocean of experience surrounds us. Here’s a random list of the most important steps I’ve taken to help my writing:
- Become an active member of SCBWI
- Read voraciously and often from every genre and age range
- Study the craft
- Earned my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts
- Consistently reference craft books
- Written my fair share of critical essays and a behemoth thesis
- Read in front of an audience. Scary! But fun…
- Regularly attend teaching and writing conferences and workshops
- Regularly stay in contact with fellow writers through email, blogs, forums, etc.
- Regularly meet with my critique group
- Teach. Keep things fresh. Get out of my head and into the real world of children
- Commit to writing time, no matter how small, no matter how ridiculously early in the morning, no matter how scary the blank, white page
- Embrace rejection. What else can you do?
- Attempt magazine writing. See above bullet point.
- Practice the 3 P’s: patience, persistence, perseverance
- Always keep my eyes and ears out for good ideas
Okay. Probably the biggest bump I’ve ever encountered was during semester #2 on the road to receiving my MFA.
I went for the scary advisor (Um, we shan’t name names.) Not that I had a death wish (some might have thought otherwise.) It’s that somewhere inside, per usual, I needed the “Advanced Placement” course, the one that would kick the living crap out of me and make me feel…humbled. Truth is, you can’t steel yourself against these types of experiences. That would be fatal. Nope. You have to relinquish the ego, take a deep breath, and balance on two conflicting levels (good luck!): Observing the experience as if you’re a scientist inspecting the innards of a living specimen – you; and Living the pain so it affects you to the core. Yeah. So. This advisor? Kicked my butt like I was the karate kid. I was Ralph Macchio, mangled on the floor. By the end of the semester, only paragraphs of my creative work were deemed “acceptable.” A crushing blow to the ego. But my critical work? That scientist’s eye? Soared. I sucked! Excellent. So what -- Quit? Or climb?
I remember you that semester. I’m glad you used that experience to grow. It is so hard to step outside the comfort zone, but that is EXACTLY what we have to do. I think when we finally take a risk—ie: take the plunge—we end up changed. And we never think the same way again.
Is there a book that has changed the way you look at writing?
Hmm. This is one of those “favorites” questions everyone’s always asking that I’m terrible at answering succinctly. What the hell, here’s a couple more lists for you as a running start. (Don’t ever count on a Libra for a one-word response.)
- Reading Like a Writer (Francine Prose)
- Sin and Syntax (Constance Hale)
- A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver)
- Steering the Craft (Ursula Le Guin)
- Writing Fiction (Burroway)
- Take Joy (Jane Yolan)
- A House on Mango Street (Cisneros)
- Every Time a Rainbow Dies (Williams-Garcia)
- Autobiography of a Family Photo (Woodson)
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll)
- Feed (Anderson)
- How I Live Now (Rosoff)
- The Wee Free Men (Pratchett)
- Bridge to Terabithia (Paterson)
- The Mists of Avalon (Bradley)
- Many Stones (Coman)
- The Chocolate War (Cormier)
That is a great list—and diverse. What advice can you offer to other aspiring writers?
I guess the 3 P’s really apply to this question: patience, persistence, perseverance. No truly eye-opening advice, but the truth nonetheless, and each word lived to its fullest should reap the rewards you seek. Above all, the Mother Theme is, Always believe in yourself. Your voice is your thumbprint.
This is great, Vanessa! Please tell us about your current project.
My current project is a fantasy W.I.P., recently under major construction. However, I did just sign with an agent!! (Yeah, Sara Crowe!!) The story we’re trying to find a home for is a multicultural middle grade entitled April Fools, and it’s about this 14-year old kid, Jesús Uribe Valenzuela, who’s kind of a social drifter, but definitely no thug. Still, he’s singled out to take part in a major school crime at the risk of ruining his name. Afterward, with his beat-up face and black-and-blue ribs, Jesús is presumed innocent by everyone--except his father. Publicly, Manolo swears by his son’s virtue; behind closed doors he demands, for their family’s sake, that Jesús keep the twisted truth under wraps. While Jesús emerges as the new hero on campus, he ends up wrestling with a guilty conscience. Why did he help? How long can he face himself, his family and schoolmates, sweeping lies under the rug? By summertime, Jesús discovers that the biggest battle in life is not against bullies; it’s in owning up to himself and facing the consequences of each choice he makes.
Here’s a snippet of chp. 1 as it stands so far:
Chapter 1. The Favor
Snap! Oscar’s fist sent a tremor through the bench that jarred my innards like a stun gun. Stan and I should have known better than to dare sit at the far table after school--prime thug zone. Burning our butts on the asphalt seemed genius right about now.
“Eyes on your math book, Stanley, and keep your mouth zipped,” I warned the baby hippo of an eighth grader studying beside me in Homework Club. The words tumbled out fast as my finger jabbed the math problem on his page.
Better check yourself too, Jesús. If Oscar or Erik singled us out, we were either smear on the sidewalk or a spark to the flame--especially on a scorcher like today. When the San Fernando Valley topped one hundred degrees, who knew what the locos would do.
“Weatherby’s an old pedo.” Oscar’s voice always carried into everyone else’s business.
Stanley peeked one beat too long, like always. He had a year on me at Adelaide K-8 Charter, with the social smarts of a second grader. Hadn’t changed in the seven years I’d known him. I shoved Stan’s head back into the book and pretended to check over his answers like a good Homework Helper. Meanwhile, Stan scribbled loop-dee-loops on his sheet, one eye still glued to Oscar.
“You know she failed me again in English?” he said. “Made me spend every afternoon last semester in some loser remedial class just so I could come back to her fuchi hole and flunk again. Tío ain’t gonna find out. I’m not getting another beating because of that bruja. Someone’s gotta put her in her place. You listening to me, Erik?”
This time I snuck a peek.
“What?” Erik peeled his eyes off the girls’ table.
“I said someone’s gotta put Granny in her place. What do you think?”
“Who you buzzin’ about now?” asked Erik.
“Man, I feel your whole sob story. Just lookin’ at somethin’ a little finer than you, is all.”
Both Stanley and I glanced over, Stan’s pencil still in motion, marks sliding off the page. Erik pulled his cap frontward and tipped the brim toward the table. Three girls smiled. One flipped him off. Erik licked his top teeth and threw her a kiss. She hurled her water bottle at his face, missing by an inch. Flashing a smile, he twisted his cap sideways and gave Oscar full attention, hands folded like some kind of mafia meeting between the Godfather and the hit man.
“So, whatchu you wanna do about it?” Erik asked.
Oscar sat there smiling, eyes glazed over. Clue another plan by El Chulo was in the works. Like last year, tagging the minimart because Mr. Li refused to let him in without a shirt. Or the day he keyed Mr. Zeuhauser’s new T-bird after Mr. Z made him stay with the fifth graders instead of going with sixth to the space center. El Chulo was puro malo.
As deacon of Holy Spirit Parish and president of the Neighborhood Council, Papi was forever preaching, Love your neighbor like you love yourself, which is how he, along with Adelaide churchgoers and other council members, kept this barrio respectable. But behind closed doors, Papi called kids like Oscar damaged goods. Said they rarely amounted to anything, and God forbid his kids link up with such lowlifes.
Oscar ducked down and Erik met him. Couldn’t make out what they whispered, but Erik’s eyes were huge. Stanley stared at me staring at them. Algebra, remember?
I snapped back to attention. “Right. 4(b + 9) equals--”
“Psst, Juice,” Oscar muttered. I loved that nickname as much as I hated it. It meant I was cool enough to own one and stupid enough to get mixed up with one. Especially with Oscar and his tough carnal, Erik. You wanted those guys on your side only because you didn’t want them against you. There was no in between.
“What’s up, Oscar?” I asked.
My body turned cold as a corpse.
This is FANTASTIC!!! Congrats on signing with Sarah Crowe--and thanks for visiting us at The Tollbooth!
I can't wait to read the rest...IN PRINT!
Tomorrow, is my final post. I'll be interviewing VC grad and co organizer of the Novel Writing Retreat at VC, Cindy Faughnan. So stay tuned. If you're on the East Coast--safe driving! Or better yet, stay home and write!