First Sentence Interview Series with Vanessa Mártir: “You have to make time”

My guest this month is Vanessa Mártir, a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles her journey on her blog. Vanessa’s essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.

Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010). She’s the founder of the wildly successful #52essays2017 project. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and a two-time Tin House fellow.

When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first time you called yourself “a writer”?

I started telling myself stories when I was just five or six years old. I would climb up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and there I would imagine a different life.

When I told my mother I was a writer, she told me a story of when I was in kindergarten. The teachers complained that I was distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting on the rug in a circle with all my classmates, I would walk around, dig into the bookshelves, do everything but sit and listen to the story. When she scolded me, I told her: “But mommy, I already know how the story goes. I get bored.” “Oh, really,” she said. “So how does the story go?” She said I got really excited. I stood up and started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell a story of my own making.

My mother was telling me that I’ve always been a writer. Still, it took me a long time to name myself that. I used to say it out of the side of my mouth when I was in my teens and twenties, but I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to, I wasn’t taking workshops or classes. I wasn’t invested in it as much as I wanted to be. After the elite education I received via boarding school and Columbia University, coupled with the immigrant ideals that were instilled in me by my family, I felt like I couldn’t go into the arts. I had to go into corporate America where I’d get a steady paycheck, have health insurance, and could save for retirement. The arts was too unreliable to go into. I had to keep in mind that my family came from the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. Taking such huge risks like pursuing my writing was in many ways a dishonor to them and the sacrifices they made that in turn made my blessings so possible.

I wrote here and there. Was even published a few times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter that I assessed my life and realized that I needed to make some big changes. I was miserable in corporate America, and I knew firsthand what misery could do to a family. I didn’t want that for myself, my child or my family. I asked myself: “Where is your heart?” The answer was clear: in my writing. So I followed it. I filled six journals while I was pregnant, and wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry, while I was nursing my little girl. I left corporate America and never looked back. I was also finally able to call myself a writer and believe it. 🙂

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular reader or audience in mind when you’re writing?

When I write, I write for Loba Pack. They are a select group of folks with whom I can be my full, vulnerable, soft-but-unfuckwithable self. I can laugh and cry and rage and dance. I imagine we are in my kitchen. We have just eaten a meal I just cooked–pollo al horno, a caldero of arroz con fideo, a salad. We are sipping on bourbon and I am telling them my stories.

Where does fear show up for you — and how do you deal with it?

Fear shows up often for me. I write about trauma, mine and my families. I am revealing secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for generations. I write about my life, who I am, what I’ve learned, how I exist in this world as a queer woman of color. I have spent much of my life being told directly and subliminally that I don’t matter, my people don’t matter, our stories don’t matter, so when I dare to write them, to publish them and get them out into the world, fear leans in hard. I more often than not push back at it.

I think fear is natural. It’s how we react to fear that matters: we can let it catalyze us or paralyze us. I have been both catalyzed and paralyzed. When I’m paralyzed, I read a lot, go to therapy, and I spend time in my body hiking and biking and rollerblading and working out. Trauma exists in the body so moving it helps me work with it to get these stories down. It’s a journey. I’m still working on it. But this is my journey and what works for me may not work for others. It’s important you find what works for you.

What do you tell folks who say they “don’t have time” to write?

The only people who have time to write are in prison. You have to make time. Make time in the morning. Or make time at night. Write in the cracks: on your commute to work, while waiting on line at the market or elsewhere, while waiting for your dinner to be done. Write a page. Write a few sentences. Write for ten minutes or write for an hour. Give your art the time it requires and you want. You can’t want this life and not be willing to put in the time and effort it requires. It just doesn’t work like that.

One essay a week is a lot to show up for. How do you decide what to write? Do you have any “rules” about this process?

I don’t usually know what I’m writing until I actually sit down and write, but I do pay attention to what’s coming up all week. What stories have been circling. What energies are in the air. Then when I sit, I write. I’ve written on the train, in my writing room, in the park while sitting on a bench under a tree. My one rule is: show up and write. Don’t try to control the process. Just write. Get out of your own way.

How long have you been working on “A Dim Capacity for Wings” and when will you know it’s done?

I’ve been working on this book for ten years. When will I know it’s done? I’ll let you know. 🙂

Do you have any favorite words or expressions?

The only way out is in.

Be relentless.

First Sentence is a series featuring interviews with writers — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each conversation is intended to offer readers and fellow writers a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

More about the First Sentence series, including links to previous author interviews

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