I go through spurts in writing. This past summer I wrote, and rewrote, more than I have in years. I got into a certain rhythm. The ideas were flowing, and my skills, such as they were, produced work I did not throw away. I experienced what I will only describe as a painful low, yet the summer ended with an unexpected bonanza. Yes, I will have new work next year, but I won’t discuss the details until the dust settles.
That’s why I stopped writing Chico Lingo three, four times a month. I had to focus on my paid gigs, so to speak, and this blog, which has strangely grown near and dear to my heart, was neglected. Chico Lingo is my way to discuss and explore topical ideas, even philosophical points. It is my way to be part of the cultural and political discourse of this country. It’s a community newsletter, an alter ego, a peak into my brain on any given week, and even a platform to jump into a question I want to explore further, perhaps in more crafted writing. I think it’s been a good discipline for me to write Chico Lingo.
After the flurry of writing and rewriting of the summer, I have taken a step back from my literary work this autumn. Yes, I am working on shorter pieces. Yes, I am in the middle of a few small projects that editors have asked me for. So the writing work never quite goes away. But the intensity is different, and I am also retooling. I am questioning how I write, from the micro level of the line, to the possible structures of stories, to the architecture of novels in my head. I always try to improve my skills, and I do like to experiment. I hope all of this makes me a better writer.
I work hard, then I take a step back to see if I can find better ways to work. It’s a recursive process, Hegelian, if you want to get philosophically fancy, or simply learning by doing, and then thinking about what you learned, and what you did. I imagine myself a maker of a chair, who made lots of chairs —a whole dining room set!— in a concentrated time, and now I take a step back to see how I can learn to make different chairs, with different tools and technologies, with new knowledge about stains, lathes, and woods. I might even try making a table.
One main focus of my retooling is to try capture and use a more poetic rhythm to my prose. To take my written words from not just clear writing and good storytelling, but to sing that song with words that will be my own.
It has been a long literary trek for me. Early on I think I wrote in a certain simple way because my native language was not English, but Spanish, or more precisely the Spanglish of El Paso. Years ago I was simply trying to get my point across. I was trying to survive, whether it was at Ysleta High, or Harvard and Yale. Also, I believed first and foremost in ideas, not words. Perhaps this is the curse of the philosophical mind, to know that what you write —its logic, argument, and import— is far more essential than how you write it. I still believe this is true, in a way. Heidegger, for example, was a terrible writer, but a great thinker. What he wrote, once you more or less understood it, reoriented what the world could be. Nietzsche was that great exception as a philosopher, a unique and important thinker for what he wrote, but also a gifted stylist by how he wrote in German.
So I needed to write simply, to get my point of across, to be heard. I loved thinking about complex philosophical problems, and so that also lent itself to writing simply and directly. When you read philosophical papers, the writing is often direct and relatively simple, but your head hurts trying to understand the argument and logic.
But the reason I left philosophy was because I found it too isolating. I married philosophy with literature in my stories, to try to achieve this nexus of exploring difficult questions, but through stories, believable characters, many of them from the Mexican-American border. Writing philosophy in literature was also a way to destroy stereotypes in Mexican-American literature. Over decades of writing, I became better at it. My English improved. I became more of a native English speaker, even though I never left my Spanish behind. After much struggle and self-education and self-reinvention, I again wanted more of myself and my writing.
That’s at the point I am now. Where I want more from my work in English. More poetry. More language that cuts through the colloquial and the cliché. Whereas early on in my writing career, I hardly read any poetry without being baffled or bored. Now I am primarily reading poetry, and lustily so. I gave a speech recently, which delved into my peculiar journey, “From Literacy to Literature.” I hope you get the idea. I still remember how Plato ridiculed the poets and warned against their influence, but now I happily inhabit that world in a poem, and it is that momentary beauty that nourishes me even as I try to take it apart.