Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

Writing Identity TToF

If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Summer is almost over, and the most wonderful time of the year is right around the corner. And no, I’m not only talking of the Fall, with its scents of cinnamon and burning leaves, the taste of everything-pumpkin-flavored, and Halloween. I’m talking about NATIONAL HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH.

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When I first started writing (back in 2009) a Utah school invited me to visit them for Hispanic Heritage Month. I still remember my nerves as I, an unpublished writer, prepared a presentation for all grades attending this bilingual school.

To start, I read a couple of my short stories, but my favorite part of the day was sharing my love for the books that marked my life as a kid growing up in Argentina. Although I believed EVERYONE should read Juan Ramón Jiménez’s classic Platero y Yo and all of Isabel Allende’s books (especially her trilogy for teens), I would’ve wished to share books by Latin American authors. US-born and/or immigrant Latino authors who represented the kids who looked at me with such wonder and admiration.

All these years later, I’m thrilled that the list of Latino authors I’ve read and met is so extensive that I can’t name them all in a single blog post, but I’ll feature a few of my favorites—many of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person and some I count among my friends.

I believe that in order to become better writers, we should read voraciously. I became a writer because of my love of reading, and never was I happier when during my years at my MFA program, I could count reading time as “school work.” Even after graduation, I never got over the habit, I’m happy to say. What I love the most about books and stories is sharing my favorite with the world. Here they are:

matt_sidbr.pngMatt de la Peña:

Matt de la Peña isn’t only a New York Times Best-selling author; he’s also a Newbery Award Winner for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. His Newbery Medal acceptance speech is empowering and life-changing. He’s also the author of multi-award winning novels Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie, and We Were Here, among others. A confessed former reluctant reader, he’s spoken widely about his attitude about male emotion and his relationship with his father. Matt’s books are dynamic and stereotype-shattering.   

Zoraida Córdova:

zoraida_vlc_photo2.jpgBorn in Ecuador, a New Yorker at heart, Zoraida is the author of the Vicious Deep trilogy (amazing mermaids!), the On the Verge series (steamy young adult), and the Brooklyn Brujas series (speculative contemporary YA). Her latest novel, Labyrinth Lost, was a Tor.com Best Book of 2016 and has been optioned for film by Paramount Studios. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic, which is obvious in the way she writes about brujas saving the world right in the middle of Brooklyn. Her new series Hollowed Crown was recently acquired by Disney Hyperion, and is loosely based on the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, but adding a thief of memories. I can’t wait for summer 2019 to get my hands on it.

Margarita.jpgMargarita Engle:

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but from a young age she developed a deep love for her mother’s country, Cuba. She’s the current National Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her numerous books have won multiple awards including: The Newbery Medal Honor, The Walter Dean Meyers Honor, Pura Belpré Medal, PEN USA, Golden Kite, etc. etc. Margarita’s books are pure magic made words. My favorite of hers are: Enchanted Air, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, The Surrender Tree, among others. Besides being a very prolific writer, she’s an agronomist and botanist.

Daniel José Older:

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I had the pleasure of working with Daniel during the last semester of my graduate program. He’s not only the author of the acclaimed, award winning Shadowshaper cypher about teens with the power to infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories, but also the magical Bone Street Rumba series about in-betweeners who walk in the realm that separates life and death, and sometimes ride ambulances to save the world. He’s also an activist and his Buzzfeed article “The Twelve Fundamentals of Writing the Other” (and the Self) should be required reading for all writers.

medina_high07.jpgMeg Medina:

Another Cuban American writer that’s changing the world! Her YA Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass won the Pura Belpré award and is being developed for a TV series by the producers of Jane the Virgin. Burn Baby Burn was longlisted for the National Book Award. She’s also written picture books (Mango Abuela and Me), and Middle Grade fiction (Milagros Girl From Away).

Anna-Marie McLamore:Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 9.39.05 PM.png

The queen of modern magical realism! Reading one of Anna-Marie’s books is like diving into a pool of technicolor images, alluring scents, intoxicating flavors, and magical textures. I will forever read everything she writes. I can’t get enough of her stories.

The Weight of Feathers is kind of like a Romeo and Juliet but featuring two families of entertainers: mermaids versus ravens. Palomas versus Corbeaus. It’s so gorgeous I dreamed for weeks in the rhythm of the words.

When the Moon Was Ours is a magical love story with the background of a lose version of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman of Latin American folklore. It’s so incredibly well-written and mesmerizing it was longlisted for the National Book Award.

And Wild Beauty (out October 3) tells the story of the Nomeolvides women, who have the power to bring flowers out of barren land, but who are condemned to pay back to this land with what—and who– they love the most. I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of this book, and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to fall in love with Estrella and her cousins just like I did.

Courtney Alameda:Courtney+Author+Photos2013_117.jpg

Born and raised in California, but now living in Utah, Courtney is a force to be reckoned with. Because each of her stories is so unique and carefully written and researched, she’s also one of my insta-buys.

In Shutter, she brings together the first families from the classic Dracula to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual.

In Pitch Dark (upcoming in February 2018), she introduces us to Laura Cruz, a shipraider whose family looks for human history among the stars (it’s amazing!!!!!). And in Seven Dead Gods, she collaborates with another Utah author, Valynne Maetani, to bring to life Kira, a seventeen-year-old loving in modern day Japan, who brings together seven “death” gods to save Kyoto from destruction. The “foxy” love interest is the most alluring character I’ve read in a long time. I’m in love with him.

Courtney also writes the comic Sisters of Sorrow.

Other writers to read and get to know: Pablo Cartaya, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Celia C. Pérez, Yuyi Morales, Juana Medina, Rene Colato Lainez, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Francisco X. Stork, etc.

These wonderful authors and stories shouldn’t be relegated to one particular month in the year, and I hope that you’ll be motivated in getting to know these names if you don’t already know them. Come back and tell me in the comments which one was your favorite.

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

Failure and Knowledge

It takes me about 7.62 times of starting a story to get it close to right. It will feel a little right, but then not, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m normally not a fan of go back and edit because progress gets thwarted, but if the beginning is really, really off, there isn’t enough in the middle or end to get it back on track. 
I spend a LOT of time in the beginning thinking, researching, reading, thinking. And each time that I have to start over, the whisperings of failure start appearing in my mind. 
“What if I never get this on track?”
“What if this isn’t really a story?”
“What if my characters are meh?”
“What if I’m not really a writer?”
“What if I’m the biggest fraud that ever lived and my family has had to deal with me ignoring them and I have put all this time into something and cried tears and laughed joys and all of it ends up with me being a great big sucking loser?”
Ahem. That last one may be an exaggeration. Maybe.
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My high school writing students are finishing their second story of the year and they are starting to know enough to understand the story isn’t where they want it to be, or to feel that something isn’t working, but they don’t know (or read) enough to know what and why and how to fix it. We do a couple days in class of what we call “Decrapification” where they have the chance to edit and tweak and fix and ask me questions before the final is due. I can see the stress on their faces as they recognize what they just wrote might not be the next multi-million dollar novel. 
My daughter recently performed a piano duet with her cousin for some judges. They felt their two pieces were where they needed to be, played reasonably well, bowed, and sat down while the rest of the students in the session had their turn to perform. One of the other partners played a piece that was the same as my daughter’s. 
They played it better. 
And I’m so glad they did. 
As she was sitting there, my daughter commented on dynamics, speed, enjoyment in the performance, etc. She is starting to know enough about music to understand the elements in her performing that weren’t as good as the second one. She saw where she did some things better, but how those some things didn’t count as much when the bigger elements (playing up to speed for one) weren’t present. 
I can’t think of a single author who, either while writing or going through their first edit, doesn’t make comments about how it is splotchy, or too big, or too vague, or, or, or. Sometimes they can identify on their own what needs to be fixed, sometimes they have to rely on supporters/editors/readers to point it out. 
But all of them learn something during every single book.
But for most of us, that failure that lingers in our minds is an invitation to learn – learn more about the craft, about the characters, about the business, the writing life, the time it really takes to accomplish a goal, what we, as the creator, need to do to pursue and not punish. Those doubts that creep in should be greeted with a “Well, so and so does it well, and I might not know how, but I know they do.” Self-degradation isn’t the highest form of productivity and bemoaning that something is wrong doesn’t make it better. It is dedication to continually improving that makes well-known authors well known.
What do you do when failures arise? Any favorite resources when the learning needs to be amplified?
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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here