365 Books to Bliss: Book 4 — “The House on Mango Street” By, Sandra Cisneros

Cover of "The House on Mango Street"
Cover of The House on Mango Street

It’s late, and I had a wee bit too much durian tonight — so I’ll try to make this quick.

I got WOWED.

I broke my fiction fast with “The House on Mango Street” because it was one of those gleaming golden nuggets that survived my book purge today. I brought it from Chicago. Somehow stole it from an old roomie. Thanks, Tina!

When I was 8 or ten my fave books were  tied between those “Choose  Your own Adventure” novels and the Harlequin Romances that my neighbor Kathy would let me borrow. I thought I was cool reading about kissing and men with “Roman Noses.”

Between the ages of 8 and 12 I read one book — “A Wrinkle in Time” — which is still one that I buy for everyone I know, with the hopes that they will enjoy even an ounce of what that book did for me.

As a teen, reading became uncool for me. So did getting good grades and wearing jeans. I didn’t read an entire book all the way through until I was 17 and in Mrs Galvin’s AP English class. And, that book was “The House on Mango Street.”

The first time, I gobbled it up by the time my bus from the Harold Washington Library reached my stop at 63rd and Nashville. I was officially a reader again. And, finally the stuff I’d been writing made sense. So, I wrote a very passionate letter to Sandra Cisneros. Yeah, she totally didn’t reply.

Today, I didn’t begin reading until at least 8pm. It was tough to decide which book would float my boat today. After not being wowed for 3 days in a row, I was afraid to commit.

The library swears I owe 48 bucks for some ludicrous fees for not bringing back movies???? I promise I will take care of that. I didn’t make it to the bookstore because Dougie was too hungry ( go figure).
So, back to my shelf — I had to choose from “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” and “Mango Street.” I let my gut decide.

Every word rolls like butter from the page, and I read the first three chapters (vignettes) out loud to Dougie — who dug it til he fell asleep.

When you write in short short stories like she does — every word counts. And, when you read this book, you will want to hold onto every word. As a writer, I am re-inspired. This book is juicy and chunky with imagery and emotion.

It’s not easy to write so short. I mean, see here I thought I was going to keep THIS short. You gotta know what to cut and what will pull at folks’ heart strings. But, this book — this book feels like you are sitting there listening to a little girl dream and dream, and all you want to do is jump rope with her.

I’m from Chicago — where “Mango Street” is set. Reading it brought me back to the “block” with our jump-rope marathons, “ghosts in the graveyard”, curfew.. the Catholics and the Publics. My story. Not Esperanza’s (the main character). It was like I was seeing hers and mine intertwine.

She grew up poor and mentions that a lot. Me — we never thought we were poor. In fact, most of my friends thought we were rich. But, it was our attitudes that made us rich. Our house was where all the kids could come after school for a snack.

But, I know there were weeks and weeks where we ate chicken and chicken and chicken that my grandma sent from the bulk store to help us out. And rice patties. My mother made things so simple. So delicious. And never once did we feel like we were hurting.

I remember a guy on our block. I think his name was Rico.. if you lived on my block…. please help here. Rico would climb on his roof and howl at the moon every night. Sometimes he’d blow off fireworks. Then, one day the kids on the block said he died from falling off the roof into a tree or a pool. Is this true? Anyone? I don’t know.

But, the best stories come from times like that. From the blocks and neighborhoods inside bigger places where kids make their own worlds, and little girls can dream about making it big as a writer and coming back to get all those beautiful souls who could not leave as easily as her. Like Esperanza. And me.

I’ m reading 365 books this year. Clickity Click here to see what’s up with that

xo

G

Hey There Vanilla

#76 - The Harvest Writer
Image by JohnONolan via Flickr

By, Gina LaVerde

Not too long ago, a client (in a distinctly unsatisfied tone) dubbed my writing, “VANILLA.”

And, I, on the other side of the  phone line, closed my eyes – feeling for the gift in her remark.

See, I’m at this place in life where I’ve finally recognized that each moment truly brings a gift. If I manifested the vanilla comment, then I can only stand to gain from it.

I’m passed being offended by criticism. As a professional writer, like most of us – I’ve grown a pretty thick skin for vanilla-ish commentary. I figure that clients are people too, and, sometimes they just can’t find better words to express what they need. Heck, that’s why they hire writers. For Words.

An editor once told me that my work was “more suited for advertising” – as if that were a bad thing. I’ve been told that my restaurant reviews left the reader “too breathless” – as if that were a bad thing. I’ve been told that I am “more of a story-teller than an article writer” – as if that were a bad thing.

I’ve been asked to speed up, cut to the chase, slow down, get into or out of a character’s head, switch perspectives and possibly my total fave critique came from a fiction editor who told me it was “impossible” to write from the perspective of an unborn child. Gotta love it. The thought that even in fiction, things could be “impossible.”

And now, “vanilla.” And, I like vanilla. I mean, it’s no chocolate, but some vanilla in my morning tea or smoothie really brings out the other flavors.

Was my client trying to say that my words provided her with a deliciously subtle yet strong foundation from which she could build the spiciest pizazziest work?  Mmmmmm, I took a short pause on the phone, and began to miss those vanilla lattes I used to drink. But, then I snapped back.

Oh yeah, she didn’t mean the least good thing about this truly exotic spice. Or the work being judged, for that matter.

Truth is, as a writer, of course I want to please my clients. I chose the job. If I can keep my clients happy, I can get paid and move on to the next gig. They can expand their businesses and skip off to vacationland. Everyone wins. So, I stopped to REALLY listen to her AGAIN.

What had I missed? I’d recorded all the conversations we had, and there were many of them. I had a lot of material to work from and was using her own words in the drafts I sent her.

So, how was I gonna please vanilla lady? If my work was vanilla to her, how could I make it chocolate for just one moment? Or, should I recommend her to someone else –because name-calling’s just not nice?

Well, I decided that it wasn’t a good idea to pawn her off on any of my writerly friends, because none of them deserved the potential heckling.

And, the process that followed the decision to stay has been quite eye opening. And, yes a gift.

I stayed. And I wrote. Vanilla-laced-cinnamon piece after fruity, salty, bland doo doo piece after another. Never chocolate. Never. But, I didn’t know that as I wrote. Even pieces that came from deep within my soul didn’t hit the mark for my client. And, later I realized that they didn’t hit the mark for me either.

Her vanilla comment lead her to (in not so many words) refer to me as a liar, lazy person, bad communicator, and yes, even stupid. For a few weeks I actually found myself going out of my way in search of my gifts that were quite obviously sewn between the seams of her words. I let her believe that I lied. I figured there might be a lesson in that too. I even enlisted my spiritual advisors.

I kept sending gratitude for the challenge. I knew there was no way I was in this situation for no reason; I knew I would hit a major breakthrough. And I did.

In the end, there was no pleasing my client. The experience brought me back to a recurring one I had with a family member who used her words to praise my friends and put me down.

When I decided I’d had enough, I sent the client the best work I had, didn’t charge her more, and left her with love and more gratitude than she can ever know.

Her words to me were my manifestation. A mirror of how I was feeling about my writing. Truth hurts, baby cakes. Thank the goddesses that she didn’t call my work “shit.” I’d have a harder time coming up with sweet sounding words about why shit ain’t so bad.   But, I decided that I’m no vanilla. At least not when vanilla means boring. And, I’m not going to attract that kind of crap anymore.

And, so you wanna know why I felt vanilla and she was just strong enough to call me out on it? Because for years, I’ve been writing for other people, while this spicy voice inside me died a little each time.  And, that frightened little writer girl inside me went out searching for another soul who could hold her down. Not inspire her breaking loose. You know – the comfort zone.

I chose pleasing others and making money above publishing my own work. Writing for this client was grueling. Each time I sat down, I got headaches and nausea. Each word was a complete struggle.

Finally, that writer inside is stronger than my fear of failure or being broke on my butt. I’m no longer trying to find people who keep me down. Because, if you look — they are there. Always willing to make you feel inferior.

Here comes MY work.

I can’t fit into anyone’s box anymore. Even if it is a tempting box of chocolates.

Keep it spicy loves!

G