In honor of Sandra Cisneros winning the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature this week, we invite you to a pajama party with Sandra Cisneros and Ruth Behar. From the Archives.
I usually meditate and I call my spirit allies—anyone in the spirit world that I’ve got connections with. Even in the spirit world you need connections! [audience laughter]. So I call my father, I call all the people I’m related to—my father’s father, my father’s mother, my mother’s mother, my mother’s father—all the spirit people, and then my spiritual ancestors, too, people that I feel very close to, that I think could help me, you know, my muertitos [little dead ones], all the people you feel connected to that are your heroes, and you ask for help in whatever task you’re doing. It’s bigger than you.
And you ask.
There are two things you need to ask for, to open up that channel, so you get the light. One is humility, because our ego is always going to block that guidance, and so you ask for humility. One way to get very humble is to dedicate the work you’re going to do to your community. And by community I mean that community you have a special vision for, that only you see, that no one else in a room sees. That special community in pain, that through a pain you’ve suffered, you’re able to have that vision, that super-ray vision. When you step into a room, you notice that one person who is suffering from the same thing you are suffering from, or that you suffered from. So you try to get very, very humble and say, “I will do this work, this talk, this paper, this degree, this job for this community.” Maybe that community might be your children, or it might be your town, or it might be for other people that are oppressed in some way, in some oppression that you’ve been privy to. So you say, “Please, I’m gonna do this work, diosito [little god] with all my heart, but please get my big fat ego out of the way.” The ego’s blocking the light from coming. And the second thing you’re going to ask for is courage, because what you’re going to be asked to do is bigger than what you think you can do. It’s always bigger than what you think you can handle, but you’re never going to be given something you can’t handle. So you say, “Okay, when you tell me what it is that I’m supposed to do, please give me the courage to do it.”
You meditate and then you can put on your pajamas, or you can imagine you’re wearing your pajamas, and you talk about your piece of writing in the language you would use if you were wearing your pajamas and you were seated at a table with your very good friend. And you wouldn’t have to get all dressed up or clean up the table. She could be there, and you could be just talking about important things and silly things, and it would just come, and you wouldn’t be afraid, and you wouldn’t stammer, and you wouldn’t say, “What’s the opening line?” I’d just say, “Hey Ruth, tell me about that pen you got,” and that would be your first line on the page, too. You’re not afraid when you’re speaking in your pajamas to that person that can see you in your pajamas.
So that’s an exercise to help you get into your real voice. That’s your true voice. You know how they say, “Find your voice”? That’s your voice, in your pajamas. And it doesn’t mean that you’re going to publish it or print it or people are going to see you in your pajamas. It just means you are going to construct the foundation in your pajamas, in that voice. And you say anything you want in any order. “Oh you know what, Ruth? You know what I forgot to say? I forgot to thank you.” I would put that in—it could go anywhere—and I don’t feel any hesitation to say it. That’s my first draft. And you know how sometimes you’re talking to people who love you and give you unconditional love, and you say…But you know what? Let me back up. I forgot to say, “You can do that, right?” You don’t hesitate and say, “Oh my God! I forgot to say that!” [laughter]. You just speak! And you say it all, until you have nothing more to say. And that’s your first draft. It’s done.
Now, when you edit, you imagine your enemy is seated on the other side of the table [laughter]. Your enemy! And your enemy is going to read that with a viciousness, because he knows where you didn’t work on it. He’s going to shake it and really aim for that jugular. So you are going to polish, and revise, and rewrite, and cut out, and shape it, so that your enemy has no place to grip it. That’s how you revise. But you don’t do the two at the same time. You want to be able to say anything when you do your first draft, because some of that goofy stuff that you think has nothing to do with it is probably where the mother lode is. So you want to leave yourself open to playing, to talk, to laugh, to be in your pajamas! Estar cómoda, to being comfortable.
Today was funny because we always have that dream that you go to school in your pajamas [laughter]. Walking down the hall just now, it really was like that!
I was reading all these male writers who were doing wild and wonderful things. It gave me permission to experiment. My friend, Dennis Mathis, was reading Eastern European and Japanese experimental writers, and I brought the Latin American writers to his attention, so we exchanged books and bounced off one another. And the good thing about Dennis is, even though he’s a white, he respected that I was doing something quirky with my English. He loved it when I would mix up the Americanisms and say, “That’s water over the dam.” I would get them all wrong. And he encouraged this. He’d say, “No, that’s great.” He didn’t say, “Oh, you know, that’s wrong. You’ve gotta change it.” He was very sensitive about keeping the unique way that I spoke English—it had a lot of Mexicanisms or Mexican syntax. So you keep it in because it’s adding something unique.
Back then I was looking at a lot of experimental writers, and I was very intrigued by short-short fiction, writers who would write little things, what I call buttons now, little vignettes. I remember I was very taken with a book called DreamTigers by Borges. He was at the University of Texas, Austin, and they collected some of his writings and put them in a little collection. It’s called DreamTigers in English, but it doesn’t exist in Spanish. It’s a little sampler. But that collection in English is what struck me, because in there he has his poems, and I was a poet as well as a fiction writer. He had short stories, and I was trying to learn how to write short stories, and then he had these things in the middle that were like fables, and I loved hearing fables. So there were these little fablesque things, you know, dream tigers, beautiful, beautiful pieces that when you read them had the power of a long piece, but they were prose, and they had the power of poetry, in that the last line wasn’t the end, it was a reverberation, like when you tap on a glass made of crystal, and it goes ping. So I never paid attention when people said, “That’s gotta be poetry. That’s gotta be fiction,” except when I was in a graduate program, and you had to claim your genre. But I was interested in cross-pollinating the two. I thought there was something lovely in the little vignette forms. I wanted to explore that.
Something similar happened when I started hanging out with the Macarturos. We started an organization that’s the only sub-organization of the MacArthur Foundation and we are called the Macarturos [a group of Latina/Latino recipients of the MacArthur “genius” awards]. Usually when I win something, I’m the only one of my ethnicity to get it, but this time I met all these Latinos, and I was so excited. I’d meet someone and I’d go, “What?! You won it for labor organizing? Can you come to San Antonio?” And they’d go, “Oh yeah.” Then I’d meet somebody else who was a wonderful playwright. “Can you come?” And suddenly I had twelve people that said they would come. And I didn’t know how it was going to be. And that’s how the Macarturos became a reality, where these very generous geniuses come to San Antonio and work together. . . . Wait, where was I going with this? Let’s rewind.
The ideal for me is to mix it up. When I have a writing workshop, I like to have people that are anthropologists and people who are poking around in other fields, I like to have them all in the same workshop, and not worry about genre. I like to mix it up, because the kind of comments you can get from a fiction writer about your poetry are going to be very different than what you’ll get from a poet. Or the comments you’ll get from a filmmaker about your performance are going to be very different. My writing workshop is about mixing it up, cross-pollinating, not only in genres but in occupations…