"This is what I want to do for the rest of my life": Jack Cheng and Yesenia Montilla on Writing
This month on WMFA, a podcast where writers talk writing
I started WMFA to talk with other writers about writing: to hear, in the middle of what can be such a lonely endeavor, what someone else is thinking about their work. Every conversation has left me energized in different ways: ideas, inspirations, perspectives. Sometimes these gifts are new, fresh approaches that blow dust off an old problem or tired pattern of thought; sometimes they’re familiar, and then the familiarity itself is a salve, a reminder that the worries, fears and doubts that plague one writer usually plague the rest of us, too.
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On avoiding the preternaturally intelligent kid character:
“I think when we read characters in books that seem too precocious a kid, it’s more the author trying to use the kid and the kid voice to prove a point and convey something that they know now as adults that they didn’t know as kids. That’s not generally the way I approach writing fiction.”
On writing for young people:
“There’s this thing that the physicist Richard Feynman says about teaching, that if you can’t explain this complex physics subject in plain English, chances are you yourself don’t know it well enough. I think it’s similar in the kind of fiction I’m interested in writing for kids: I don’t want to shy away from complex topics, but to present them from that kid perspective, it really requires an even deeper understanding of them. To be able to think, ‘How do I convey this really nuanced thing without going over the head of a 10 year old?’”
On creative problem-solving:
“Some of it is what you might expect: finding creative ways not to use bad words. Another one is this character that I had smoking cigarettes. It was this question of, ‘Does she need to be smoking cigarettes, especially if she’s someone who’s so sympathetic and a role model in the story?’ And I found that I could replace the cigarettes with her nervously opening a package of gum, and it would have the same effect.
On traditional vs. independent publishing:
“The way I’ve come to think of them is as two different systems. It’s not that independently publishing a book yourself is more pure than going through a publisher. I feel I’m more compatible with the latter, with being able to just focus on my writing. I’m really glad I did go through the process myself. To have tried both routes, I’m very grateful for both experiences, but I hope to keep publishing books with publishers.”
On quitting design to focus on writing:
“When I was getting close to doing the Kickstarter campaign for These Days, I sat down for dinner with my friend, and I was telling him about how much I was enjoying the writing process. I said something like, ‘I’d be willing to move back to Michigan and live out of my parents’ basement to keep doing it,’ and I couldn’t say that about my day job. And he was like, ‘Well, why don’t you just do that?’ That was a moment of permission, and the moment where I started thinking of myself as a writer.”
EPISODE 9: YESENIA MONTILLA
Yesenia is a New York City poet with Afro-Caribbean roots; she is the author of The Pink Box, released in 2015 by Willow Books, and her work has appeared in literary journals such as Adanna and The Wide Shore. A 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, she received her MFA from Drew University in Poetry and Poetry in Translation. Yesenia writes poetry in the mornings, before her full-time job in IT.
On discovering poetry as an undergraduate:
“I fell crazy in love with everything you can do on one single page—you can create a world in one page, and that was like a puzzle to me. I was like, ‘Man, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ The first book I read was Marie Howe, What the Living Do. That was it for me.”
On doing a low-residency MFA while working full-time:
“I spent two and a half years not taking vacation from work—my vacation was my low-residency. But it was vacation in a way, even though I was doing a lot of poetry work. I feel like people wind up where they belong. I belonged at Drew.”
On writing toward who you want to be:
“I can figure out what kind of human being I want to be on the page. That’s really important. Patrick Rosal, I was at reading where they asked him something like why he writes, and he said, ‘I really like that guy on the page. I like that dude. And so I write to become closer to the person that I want to be.’ I think that’s what I do, too. I really love my voice on the page, I’m in a love affair with that voice, and the only time I can get close to it is when I write.”
On playing with Spanish and English in her work:
“If someone doesn’t speak Spanish and is reading my work, it’s a way to challenge them. If I read something that has German in it, and I start looking up the words, that excites me, because I know I’m learning something new. I wanted to give that same gift to my readers.”
On writing into conceptions of “the other”:
“My dad’s side is Dominican, and the island is pretty much an island full of black folks, but they don’t accept that; they sort of believe that they’re either white or native. They refuse to even have “black” as an option on the census. So there’s a lot of deep-rooted racism within themselves. I remember going to my grandma’s house after I stopped relaxing my hair and blowing it out straight, and I had my wild, curly hair, and she said to me, ‘What’s the matter, are you ill?’ There is something about wanting to be other, and usually that is wanting to be whiter. That’s something I’ve struggled with as a young kid growing up in a household that didn’t accept who they were, and it’s also something that I struggle with as an adult. It’s really being part of an oppressed group, a colonized group, to struggle with identity all the time, all the time, all the time.”
Courtney Balestier's writing has appeared in The New Yorker online, Lucky Peach, the New York Times, Oxford American, New York, and Wired. She has been anthologized in Cornbread Nation 7: The Best of Southern Food Writing and nominated for a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. She is a writing editorial board member of Looking at Appalachia. A native West Virginian, she is at work on a novel about identity, class and the Appalachian "Hillbilly Highway" migration to Detroit, where she is currently based. She also hosts the writing podcast WMFA.
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