“Where are you from?”

While easy enough to answer for most people, it exists to some of us as one of the most complicated questions in our lives. It’s an impossibly loaded interrogation that has been long embodied in the small-talk canon, not taking into account a large number of factors that may distort the reply, and not caring. It demands a simple answer, a recognizable place on the map. It doesn’t take into account those of us that just don’t know, whether it be lost to history, or left enigmatic by circumstance.

In my case, I can’t establish or trace back to home-base. I never lived anywhere long enough to really set up camp and lay claim to a cultural or regional piece of identity. I’ve also come to learn that identity is everything to a person, and knowing where you are from is one of the largest pieces of the puzzle, and when absent, can leave you feeling blank.

 

Where is home?


What is home?

 

What am I?

 

Who am I?

 

However, my passport tells me I have a home — Guanajuato, Mexico. And while I can show you beautiful, postcard-like pictures of my little birth-town, and maybe tell a tourist brochure’s slogans worth about it, claiming it as my own would be a fallacy. I was never able to own it; I simply never lived there. And when I’ve tried, the cut-throat nature of Mexican culture has prohibited me from laying claim to it, not having met enough of its criteria: I have printer paper white skin and speak none of the language.

The reality is that locations are often just stops to people—distant memories. Nomadic as that is, a lot of us yearn for a “home” of our own — an answer to the ever-present question that we can just yell out with excitement and dignity. A “home” is a place which we can embrace and say, “that’s me.” A place whose colors and histories you can stand by, good and bad; a place that fills in the missing piece.

Really, we draw too much validity from places. Like children trying to conform and make friends in the classroom, always worrying about being ostracized and ignored because we’re the most different face in the room; but also, that we are not different enough, concerned that we may be boring and lost in a sea of average.

I can’t help but feel like we’re misconstruing diversity, diversity always being heritage and appearance, but seldom this implicit thing that can’t be categorized in absolutes. We can’t always be expected to look the part, and part the look, and more often than not, most of diversity can’t be seen. Living a wandering life has made me realize that. We can’t expect people to be pigeon-holed, or to pigeon-hole themselves. I’ve always been “American,” not by my own creed but because I look the part, despite only living here for the last couple of years and way out of my formative period.

We, as people, are collages of experiences, and that should be reflected in our writing. We are seldom token characters, and it pays to reflect the reality of what really creates diversity among us. The real world is complex, and so are we; we should all be making an effort to portray mélange in both the characters we create, and the real people we talk about—humanizing those we know little about, and avoiding cheap attempts at emulating or portraying pseudo-authenticity.

So, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them “I don’t know.” Because I don’t. I blank on the thought, and a big enough part of me is tired of giving one line lies or convenient truths that codify my life into something appreciably short enough: “I’m American.” “I’m Mexican.” There’s no way in hell I’m accepting the grand total of my genetic lineage as what I am, or where I’m from.

But I’d love to tell you who I am, and ultimately, I think that’s what diversity actually comes down to. Not a blip on the map, and not my skin-tone.

 

A Little Like Magic

An orange flyer hung on the wall, it’s bold words issuing a challenge. Read one hundred books; win one hundred dollars. I was a third grader with fifty-two cents in my pocket and only a Razor scooter to my name. One hundred dollars sounded like a fortune. Little did I know, I would be getting something worth more than a hundred dollars.

The school librarian dropped a stack of stapled papers on the table and called us to attention. Entry sheets for the reading challenge were now available. At the end of the school year, one student would win a hundred dollars at our last awards ceremony. I could see it now; while my classmates were getting awards for their exemplary grades and acts of kindness, I would be accepting what really mattered in a nine-year old’s mind: money.

The librarian explained the challenge. No picture books allowed. Each fifty pages equaled one “book” for entry. And the importance of integrity—a quick threat of we are all knowing.

I was already an avid reader, so the idea of cheating never crossed my mind. But I was in severe need of book recommendations if I was going to read 5,000 pages. So I planned out my strategy. Find the biggest books in the school library and read them all. My eyes caught sight of a massive green spine, situated in the Fiction section. But it was a sequel, so I turned my eyes to the first book in the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The synopsis intrigued me, and I checked out the book to take home.

Closets under the stairs, flying broomsticks, three-headed dogs, and why hadn’t I read this before now? I devoured the book, becoming a witness to Harry’s journey and his escape into a magical world. I returned to school the next week needing the second book. I had to know what would happen to Harry and his friends. I had to escape into the Wizarding World just as much as Harry needed to escape from his life with the Dursleys.

I went with Harry to Potions class, watching cauldrons simmer and bubble over. I felt the air rush through my hair as I flew beside him on the Quidditch field. I tasted butterbeer and ate chocolate frogs. I laughed with Hagrid and grew perplexed at the headmaster’s odd words of wisdom.

I had found solace in Harry’s world—an escape from my own normal life. I was shocked that something as simple as words on a page could inspire my imagination and transport me to new worlds. I was the captain of a ship, and fiction was my sea of endless possibilities. And I determined then that I wanted to share my adventures with other people through my own writing.

I didn’t win the hundred dollars. I can still remember staring out at the crowd of students sitting on the gym floor and feeling my heart drop when someone else’s name was called. But I realized that I earned something significantly more important than money. Reading Harry Potter encouraged me to imagine more and to dream bigger. The experience was a type of magic that existed not only in the imagination, but in the real world.

 

Being the Black Girl

Writing has been a part of my life since I learned cursive in the third grade, but I didn’t fall madly in love with it until well into my high school years, where I was often known as the “Black One” or “That Black Girl with the Weird Hair.” Writing became the channel that I never knew I needed. I struggled with my identity as a Black girl and what it means to be black. People often tried to quantify my blackness; my classmates or some of my family didn’t believe I was black enough because I went to a predominately white school. Through my writing I was able to find myself, and it illuminated the person I am today. I don’t know the kind of person I would be now had I not fallen for writing. Something as simple as writing my feelings on a blank page could extricate me from any bad mood or bad day.

Black.

Is the starless night

A hole in space that absorbs all that can fall within.

The colorless color fabricates as rubbish to the blind.

The sign of evil and frightening reminder of sin,

The magic of silver tongued casting witches twisting the mind,

Devils, liars, mystics, cheats, and criminals all absorbs in one,

Distorting the color, policing the image is man who places the bind.

 

Embrace your beauteous form whose curves thy dark caress on light ought,

Enthrall those who shun your essence in ignorance, for the future is fluid to sight.

A resilient experience has made the child in me wise,

Your pain knit in every fiber and strand within my heart and soul forever sown.

Black, is my pride, armor, culture mixed in a bowl, the essence that creates my mind,

A woman painted an image of a man, woman, child in thy color refined.

My identifier, the absorbing shroud over my mirror,

For one so illustriously dark and ebony, my opinion is ever clearer.

Thy inky hand caresses my hair and face sweeping down to my feet.

Acceptance, the windy cold mountain challenge, the greatest feat.

I am you, and you define me.

Black.

This poem created a vacuum for all the thoughts of what it means to me to be black, and how I should move forward, despite all the labels added to my race. Writing is a way to find one’s self-awareness, and I think that bleeds into my works often. To quote the well-known author Enid Bagnold, “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything… It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

Parenting is Editing

Editing and parenting are essentially the same craft. As in editing, I spend hours “correcting” mistakes, problems, and critical thinking errors only to have my work ignored or disregarded. As in editing, all my modifications are considered mere suggestions up for negotiation.

Consider this argument I had with my daughter:

She wanted to play outside in the nude. Social convention requires me, as a parent, to discourage public nudity; however, bargaining with a three-year-old is not as easy as employing logic or reason. A toddler simply does not accept the answer: “You have to wear clothes because nakedness makes people uncomfortable. Also it’s an actual law—public indecency.” Instead, there’s always a follow-up action. Sometimes it’s a verbal outcry of displeasure in the form of a whiney, “But, why?” And sometimes it’s a physical reaction like the limp-noodle-flop-to-the-floor-in-anguish maneuver. How you choose to handle the rebuttal defines your parenting/editing style.   

Most times, I find the refutation entertaining, funny even. But sometimes, my patience is thin and I take offense to objection. Nevertheless, I’ve found the most success with compromise—my measure of success being whether I’m capable of coaxing my child to cooperate or not.

Compromise is all about collaboration. Editing is not a solitary activity; I work with authors, co- and managing editors, typesetters, etc. Therefore, wielding authority when I am only but one part of the writing process is not the best approach. My editing style is the same as parenting. My role is more “guide” than “enforcer.”  

My daughter and I eventually reached an “agreement.” After I shamelessly reminded her about our extremely modest and grumpy neighbor, she retorted with, “Fine. I’ll wear underwear.” I countered, and asked her to wear a full outfit, she said, “No,” put on a bathing suit and ran out the front door.

I can tell her what to do or how to do it, but not both. I use the same premise when working with a difficult author. Ultimately, the work belongs to the author, just like a child’s life is its own. Each can be influenced, but not controlled.

It is also important to adjust for the “maturity-factor” of the author/child. My daughter is three, aso I considered the bathing suit compromise age-appropriate. If she were nine, I would deem this solution unacceptable. I use a similar evaluation method when I have disagreements with authors. It’s more valuable to choose battles that matter, because engaging in a verbal spar with a three-year-old is never a good idea.

In editing, there are so many things that must be judged on an individual, situational, case-by-case basis. There is no complete manual, nor universal style guide, nor dogmatic grammar/punctuation rules. There is no one “correct” way to format a document.

It is not an editor’s job to rewrite a story.

It is not a parent’s job to mold a perfect, law-abiding citizen.

Instead, editing and parenting are gifts meant to enhance, not change. Like parenting, editing is merely giving advice, care, and attention when needed.

How to Make a Million Bucks

I discovered my passion for writing by accident. I didn’t have a passion for writing right away, but I had the confidence to be the best. Writing was a huge part of my life during high school. In high school I won a poetry contest celebrating Oklahoma’s centennial celebration, which culminated in earning a college scholarship for creative writing. With my scholarship secured, I decided to pursue a church music degree at a Christian university instead of a writing degree.

If you’re wondering, I’m not a worship leader now. As an undergrad, I left the Christian school, and I went to the University of Central Oklahoma where eventually I dropped out. I partied too much, and I didn’t attend class. I started at UCO with a 3.5 and I left with a 0.08. I was determined to fail. What I needed now was a career change.

My career of choice was a maintenance man at my local church denomination. I spent my days fixing light bulbs, changing toilets, and fetching tools for my boss like an obedient dog. Eventually, this direction bored and it offered no purpose to my life. Cleaning toilets, helping old women move light stands, and stealing snacks from department break rooms didn’t suffice anymore. At the time I needed change, and I needed it fast. This epiphany hit me one summer day. 

This summer day was hot—one hundred degrees with one hundred percent humidity. Cleaning windows forty feet above the ground, for the umpteenth day in a row, is enough to make any man rethink his decisions. I said to myself, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it anymore.” Then, I concocted a plan to attend school again. Hot, hard labor made this man want that cushioned desk job. This epiphany wasn’t the only factor in deciding to be a writer; listening to sports radio was inspirational too.

One day I drove down 36th toward a postal office located on the service road. I was listening to The Sports Animal, waiting for recaps about the previous night’s Thunder game. A commercial came on before the recap. It was narrated by a Methodist preacher, and he told a story about how a woman discovered pie making. She made pies out of necessity to support her family, and she started selling them to the public. Eventually, the business was sold to a large corporation for nearly a hundred million dollars.


The preacher asked her, “How’d you make so much money?”

She replied, “I found something I was good at and did it.”

“That’s it!” I shouted, thinking back to how I received a college scholarship for writing in high school. After that, I decided on to go back to school. I started my journey as a writer and finally obtained my bachelors in English.

I’ve now worked several jobs as a writer or pertaining to writing. I’ve been a photojournalist, writing tutor, editorial intern, freelance writer, freelance editor, script editor, copywriter, copy editor, social media manager and marketing intern—where I discovered a passion for graphic design. Each position has challenged me as a writer and challenged my creativity. Currently, I am a grad assistant for the New Plains Review, which is a literary journal at the University of Central Oklahoma. This is my grandest achievement out of all my attempts at being paid as a writer.

That damn radio commercial has influenced my decisions for the past decade. Don’t ask me how to make a million bucks just yet. So far, I’ve only made a couple hundred. But I guarantee, I’ll let you know when it happens!

Interview with Constance Squires

I have an audio version of this interview, but the sound quality is terrible, so here’s a text version for you all to enjoy.

Constance Squires is the author of the novel Along the Watchtower (Riverhead), which won the 2012 Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction, and a novel and short story collection which are both forthcoming in 2017: Live from Medicine Park (University of Oklahoma Press) and Wounding Radius and Other Stories (Ferry Street). Her short stories have appeared in Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Shenandoah, Identity Theory, Bayou, the Dublin Quarterly, This Land, and a number of other magazines.  Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Philological Review, Largehearted Boy, and has been featured on the NPR program Snap Judgment.  A regular contributor to the RollingStone500 (thers500.com), she also reviews literature and music with work that has appeared or is forthcoming in World Literature Today and The Collapser. She composed the screenplay for Sundance fellow Jeffrey Palmer’s 2015 short film, Grave Misgivings, and co-edited the first and second edition of Speculations: An Anthology for Reading, Writing and Research (Kendall Hunt Publishing).  In 2014, she was the guest editor for This Land’s summer fiction issue, and she participated in the Tulsa, Oklahoma episode of Literary Death Match as a judge. Currently, she is working on a third novel, The Real Remains.

Dr. Squires teaches Writing Short Story, Writing the Novel, Fundamentals of Creative Writing, Rock and Roll Literature, Editing and Marketing and English Composition I and II at UCO. She also directs the Everett Southwest Literary Award, a bi-annual prize that awards $5,000 in alternating creative genres. She received the college of Liberal Arts’ for Outstanding Scholarly/Creative Activity in 2010 and the Faculty Merit Credit Award for Creativity in 2013.

Connie Squires/oklibs.org

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8 Things That English Majors are Really, REALLY Tired of Hearing

If you’re reading this right now, I’d like to assume that, well, you like to read, but more importantly, you enjoy English to some extent. As a language, a subject, a lifestyle, a muffin, whichever.

Some of us here at New Plains are English majors, and some of us, myself included, are Creative Writing Majors. All of us are (probably) tired of hearing the same things.

You’ve probably read lists like this at many other places, Buzzfeed included, but it only makes sense that we reassure you that yes, we are never happy when people say any of this to us.

1. So what do you want to do with that?

There are few questions that make me dislike a person so quickly. This happens to be one of them. What do I want to do with my degree, you ask? Whatever I want.

giphy.com

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Finding a Career as an English Major

If you’re like me (and most other college students), you’ve struggled with deciding on a major. I came into college nervous about my declared Pre-Optometry/Biology major because I knew it wasn’t quite what I wanted to study. Now, I am a much happier English major. The problem I faced was not knowing where my interests and skill-set best combined. When I changed my major to English, it still didn’t feel right. My analysis skills allowed me to excel in English, but I didn’t want to be a writer, and I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t know any other possible jobs prospects. After discussing my dilemma with English colleagues, though, I finally found my niche in the sub-genre of editing.

Source: The Odyssey Online

Of course, everyone’s process is different, but if you’re an English major, or considering to be one, then allow me to help you figure out your niche in this sometimes fuzzy study.  While I am not at all an expert, my hopes are that this post can be a guide of sorts to help you recognize and utilize your English skills and interests.

I’ve listed four areas an English major can pursue. Find the one (or more) that matches up with the skills/interests you like best! Maybe all four sound interesting to you.

1.Writers (Creative Writer, Poet, Blogger, etc.):
Writing, researching, creativity.

Maybe there’s a book you’ve always wanted to read, but hasn’t been written. Maybe you’re really great at writing greeting cards.

via GIPHY

2.Teachers (High school, TESL, etc.):
Interacting with others, sharing knowledge, reading, proofreading.

You can be the person that molds a young mind into another English major, or you can help young children in a foreign country conquer linking verbs.

3. Professors:
Research, reading, writing, sharing knowledge, interacting with others, presenting/public speaking.

Because who doesn’t want to be able to discuss Dr. Seuss as high literature? There’s a class for almost anything these days.

Source: University Primetime

4. Editors (Blog editors, book editors, copy editors, etc):
Analyzing, reading, organizing, proofreading, researching.

If you’re the friend that always corrects everyone else, maybe this path is for you.

None of these professions are straightforward. If you decide you want to teach, you could become a high school English teacher or teach English as a second language in a foreign country – two very different experiences. So if you find that your interests and skills fit in with one of these, I’ll leave it up to you to do your research. Otherwise, I hope you are one more step closer to a career full of opportunity, hard work, and big dreams!

Below are a few helpful websites:
Dear English Major blog
Standford University
Top Universities.com