Journey of a budding writer
I can't really remember the first time I fell in love with reading. I had always been a bookworm. Perhaps the event that accelerated my love of reading was the introduction of, "The Accelerated Reading Program." Sounds cheesy, I know. Basically what this program did was, for every book you read, you would be tested on it, and awarded points for getting over seven of the ten questions correct. The more answers you got correct, the more you got; the harder the books, even more points. I took it upon myself to read as many fourth and fifth grade books as humanly possible for a new second grader. I couldn't stop reading. The program not only gave you the possibility of getting points, but it would open up a store where you could use your points to buy useless toys that only a second grader would love. Just like good old America to instill a sense of consumerism by prostituting a child's love of reading.
I guess this love of reading stemmed from my mother and father. My mother was never around. I was always home alone. Living on an army base in the provided quarters got pretty boring. So I took to the written word as my escape from the boring white walls and desolate rooms. In the pages of a book, I could listen to Sadako Sasaki's wish as she struggled to make 1000 paper cranes. This was my favorite book. The story was about a little Japanese girl that had been diagnosed with leukemia. Japanese legend had it that if she were to make 1000 paper cranes she could fulfill her wish to be cured. Unfortunately, she never got to make them all. A year after I read this story, I found out it was based on a real girl named Sadako. There was a special on Nickelodeon about an elementary school that made the rest of the cranes for Sadako in honor of her memory.
My father's contribution to my love of reading was probably because he rarely read to me at all. When I wasn't at my mother's house, I was with my father. He would take me to work with him during the day. To insure that I wouldn't pester him with my complaints of boredom, he would hand me a book, a coloring book, an activity book, a sketchbook, and when the boss wasn't looking, his computer. At night, after a long day of coloring, drawing and reading, my father would make macaroni and cheese for me. To this day, I still believe macaroni and cheese should be a staple in everyone's homes. Anyway, when it was time for bed and I was all tucked in, I would watch my father head to turn off the light.
"Dad," I would call in the sweetest, most innocent voice I could muster.
"What is it, baby," he asked in his sleepy Spanish coated English.
"Can you tell me a story," I asked, trying to suppress a smile. He smiled sleepily.
I can't help but smile as I write about this. He would tell me the most beautiful stories. In one night, my father would start a saga of love, war, and evil on different planets and cursed lovers on unseen islands. Sometimes he would start with a story that seemed as though it would have a simple ending, but true to form, my father took the story in a completely different direction. I can still see the vivid images my father described to me. I felt as if I were there. He had this way of bringing me in to the story. I still have yet to read anything like the stories that my father had created. My father romanticized stories, and I couldn't help but fall in love with them.
Going to private school in Puerto Rico was very different from the public schools in the states. Just like American schools have classes to teach us proper English and introduce us to syntax and English literature, we had a Spanish class that did the same thing. My father had initially requested that I be enrolled in SSL, Spanish as a Second Language. He was afraid that the real Spanish class might be overwhelming. I was in SSL for about three months before they started to integrate me into the normal Spanish class. In addition to this Spanish class, I had to take an English class as well. SESO (Sociedad del Educacion Sur Oeste), my school, prided itself in being bilingual. This made classes very interesting. Spanish class was the only class taught in Spanish. My other classes were taught in Spanglish, a mix of Spanish and English. This worked out well for me since this was how my father and I spoke to each other. The day I got bumped up to the regular Spanish class was after a writing assignment we had due for SSL. We had to write a short story about a puppy and a butcher in Spanish. I know that sounds odd, but I took the idea and ran with it. I made this elaborate story about a little lost puppy who befriends a poor, lonely butcher. The butcher fed the puppy off scraps from his work and eventually the puppy grew up to be his guardian. There's a whole bit in the story where thieves come into the butcher's home and the dog attacks them. Unfortunately, the dog gets shot in the scuffle and he dies. When Señora Lugo read it, she felt the need to tell my father. From there, I was placed "at level" with my Spanish comprehension.
Because of my father, I began to experiment with stories myself. It was just out of boredom. I thought that if reading could take me different places, maybe I could control where I went by writing. My stories were always about a girl like me. My main characters were always alone, but I would add something to the character that would make them different. I remember I went so far as to make one girl into a witch. I never let anyone read them, but I was glad to know that I had written them.
Being able to write in two languages is a big thing; it would have been better if I could have written well in both languages. I continued to write predominantly in Spanish, and became rather good at it. Writing well in English wasn't stressed a lot at SESO. I had nothing to worry about, or so I thought. When I was sent back to the states, I was forced to learn how to write well in English. This annoyed me beyond belief. I had spent all these years learning to write a good story and paper, and then they changed the language on me. I wrote well enough in my English classes to get a passing grade. That didn't stop me from continuing to write in Spanish. I did, however, integrate what I learned in my American English classes into my leisure writing. I wrote in the same language I had spoken at home, Spanglish. I preferred to write in Spanglish than one or the other. Writing like this gave my stories a sense of atmosphere. When I first read The House on Mango Street, I was intrigued that the author, Sandra Cisneros, wrote in Spanglish as well. It may have been a different dialect, but it encouraged me to keep writing the way I had been.
A few years down the road, I met a roadblock. I was looking for something different. Not just stories. I needed to read, and to write, something with some substance. I read and read and was still not satisfied. Summer at my dad's changed that. Thanks to cable and HBO Zone, my father introduced me to something new, Spoken Word. This poetry wasn't all "roses are red, violets are blue," but it was harsh, pain stricken, angry, bitter, in love and out. It was a string of words and unbridled passion. Spoken Word rescued me. I had never heard people letting out so much emotion in such a beautiful way. You learned so much about the poet and their view on life through their poems. These poems evoked so much emotion within me and challenged the way I saw the world.
I soon began working on my own poems. Instead of trying to change my world, I became apart of it. I wrote about my station, my struggles with cultural identity and assimilation. However, in order to find out whether I could put my poetry where my mouth was, I had to take a huge step. I had to recite my poetry in a public place full of strangers. I went to the Kansas City, KS public library for a poetry slam. I was terrified out of my wits. It was like taking off a band-aid, do it fast and it won't hurt. I read my poem...I didn't particularly think that there was anything special about it. I felt a little intimidated by other participants. By the grace of God, I won. It was a rush when I heard my name called for best poem. I smiled, my stomach threatening to unnerve me, as I received my prize, a photo album and a gift certificate. Staring at the envelope and photo album fueled my desire to want to do more. I had to write more. I had to let people hear my voice.
I sent two of my poems in to Rainbow's End Theatre. They had an urban poetry set that they did every year and were looking for new poets. I didn't think too much about it. A few weeks later I got a callback, my first real, professional callback, at the age of fourteen. It went great. I got a spot. Not only that, but I got to meet the poet who had actually inspired one of my poems. His name was Louis Moten. He has an incredible book of poetry called Why I Write These Poems. I couldn't believe he was there. My heart pounded with inadequacy and zeal. I wanted him to like my poetry in the worst way possible.
I stepped on stage and recited my campy "I Write These Rhymes." I got a few good laughs in from the audience and an appreciative applause. The mood shifted as I began to recite "Addiction." I had worked long and hard on this one. It was about a girl in love with a man who was in love with drugs. I was trying to show that we all have our addictions at one point or another. It was this poem that I wanted everyone to feel the most. I cursed, but not like a teenager dabbling in obscenities. I didn't say the "f-word." I needed the audience to leave the poem thinking what I started out with, "damn..."
This is how it went:
Damn I hate you Mary Jane
took my man and caused me pain
I cannot begin to explain
from watching him use that Novocain
Damn I hate you Mary Jane
He cannot restrain
from your inhumane
and ignores me when I complain...of you
you profane thing...Mary Jane
you the source of his inspiration
the object of his admiration
yet with you I grow impatient
with all the smoke blowing
I will never make him as happy as you do
doin your voodoo
entrancing him in all that you do
But Mary Jane
I must complain
I don't want to see you run your game
have him screamin your name...instead of mine
I don't want to lose him
So I guess it's up to him
But before he does let me make my plea...
He's such a great guy
as he looks into my eyes
slowly slidin his hand between my thighs
makin me forget his twisted web of lies
his failed tries
and my...my mournful cries
He's so smooth forcing another bruise
causing me to lose
sight of whose
going to conclude
between me and this guy who is just so...damn...smooth
He's so FINE
with that little step in his stride
takin me out to dine
while he bides
to play with my mind
knowing I can't find
a way to leave behind
my heart because he's just so...FINE!
who kisses me
oh so passionately
praises me religiously
and abuses me so faithfully
Love is leading me blindly
so I cannot leave
even though he makes me bleed
I think he's what I need
because you see
nobody's ever loved me
See me and confidence are on non-speaking terms
because of what I heard
from this guy
never questionin why
was such a dime
this guy who took me high
higher than a plane
than Marry Jane in cellophane
and takin love's name in vain
and hell I don't even know why I'm complainin
his thought of oppression is what I'm obviously entertainin
even though he causes all my frowns
makes our relationship jump up and down
I still come around
it's like a drug his hug
and even though he causes my depression
and inflicts all my afflictions
I cannot leave because he...is my addiction...
I got another round of applause, and bowed my head graciously. I met Louis backstage and he shook my hand.
"Good job, girl. You really got something," he said. I smiled. I couldn't respond. So much was accomplished that night. Somehow I managed to engage an audience, and gain approval from one of my favorite poets, plus...I got tip money.
I kept these experiences to myself when I was at school. I didn't want other students to taint them for me. I continued to write and perform outside of school. I didn't think anyone at school would understand it anyway. Soon enough, some bold student started an annual poetry competition. I fought with myself on whether or not I should participate. I couldn't resist the call of the stage. Actually, I couldn't resist sharing "Addiction" again.
The day of the event was nerve racking. There were thirteen participants. I was number five or six. The audience was half the student body, and they were out for blood. A multitude of rowdy, hormonal teenagers was not the ideal audience for a poetry competition. They were incredibly rude to any and everyone. They laughed a girl off stage, and booed another to tears.
"Shit," I said softly. What had I gotten myself into? It was my turn. I get nervous just thinking about it. The lights are shining so brightly and beating you with their heat. You can see the annoyed stares on the students' faces. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. I thought of the urban poetry night, and I wasn't afraid anymore. I started off, but they were still talking. By the fourth line, the crowd had a soft murmur. Pretty soon, they shut up and listened. I finished, almost out of breath. It seemed like there was a wrinkle in time, because everything went still. Then I heard the clapping. Even with this incredibly generous gesture of approval, I ran off stage and hyperventilated in a corner. I won this competition, and a little respect from my peers. I went on to win it every year. I was even asked back to judge and read one of my new poems, which I did.
Rainbow's End Theater called me back practically every year since then to write for them. I participated in local talent shows and won awards for my poetry as well. At school I had to learn to censor myself. I was a good kid with a bit of a bad mouth. I wasn't going to let a four-letter word get me suspended. In talent shows and poetry slams I could express myself more freely. Working for a theater, I had to learn to put my biases aside. I had to write what I was told to write about. It wasn't the greatest, but at least I was writing.