When it’s Cold In Miami

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When it’s Cold In Miami

It’s snowing in Miami! I’m kidding but one would have trouble knowing with the UGGS and parkas making there way through the streets of my birth city in late February. When the temperature drops here, Miamians take it seriously. Of course our northern brethren are strolling around in flip-flops and shorts and as the two cultures pass one another there is a knowing glance. The nod of understanding that suggests that 65-degree weather in Miami can mean both a cashmere sweater or a bright orange tank top. It is an I know you know I know where you’re from and I know you know you’re not going to give me a hard time about it at least not to my face. So what does this all have to do with literature or the writing life? Well, quite a bit actually.

Writing as we all know is a subjective art form. What we chose to write stems from our own experiences, biases and cultural references. Green might remind me of an avocado but remind a Vermonter of Christmas trees. We have different experiences and in that we share a collective appreciation, or at least we should, of each others nuances and particular experiences. Its what we can see in each other that best reflects how we see ourselves and how we see ourselves in our own crafts.

I can appreciate my writer friends who are introverts but I can’t honestly say I am one. By the same measure I love reading ghost stories, Dumas’ 1001 Ghosts is one of my all time favorites but I can’t for the life of me write in that genre. But I appreciate it when I see it. As writers we go through challenges with our stories and how to make them the best version of our intended vision. Then we hope to share them with people who can connect with our words and achieve. I find it fascinating how we work on our crafts and yet have entirely separate lives that help feed the craft we work on. Until we all become J.K Rowling or Pinchon or Roth or Atwood we are here feeding our craft, and working under the auspices of whatever it is we are doing. My work outside of my writing leads me to meet many different types of people. Yes, sometimes they’re wearing parkas in sixty-degree weather. Sometimes they’re hanging out in shorts. What makes me happy is that they are here. In Miami. Regardless of their attire. This makes me happy and allows me to reflect on the varied nuances of my craft.

We write because writing is what we wear inside of us. As we put it out in the world, we show the confidence that what we wear has no bearing on who we are but what we are and how we chose to be with our surroundings.

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Writers Need Social Stimulation as much as Solitude

Yes, I know AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) 2016 was a few weeks ago, but I’ve been thinking about how to write a story that didn’t just cover the enormous conference with it’s over 20,000 visitors, hundreds of booths, panels, readings, and parties sprawled over the enormity of the Los Angeles Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles. Something didn’t feel quite right about the conference. It was conference of paradoxical proportions.

Writing books was supposed to be a dying art form. Poetry cast to the age of the dinosaurs—extinct with only the fossil remains of long dead masters of the craft. Parties? For writers? Puhlease! Writers aren’t fun. Writers don’t… party. Or do they?

What I found at this monstrous conference was a thriving community of writers, writing programs, poetry journals and publishers, literary magazines, and more parties than even Kim and Kanye can handle. The secret is out, writers and poets. You guys party. And read. And write! What the Fudge?!

I was staying at a friend’s house in West Hollywood, a place so pristine and beautiful I felt like I needed to do a hundred ab crunches in the house before going to the gym to workout. The hills and perfect weather in LA is ridiculous. I hadn’t been here in ten years and suddenly felt the urge to have a juice cleanse and go hiking while eating a bag of chia seeds and listening to “Hamilton” on my iPhone. Which I did. Several times. #notgonnawastemyshot

My friend’s house was about a twenty-minute drive (everything in LA is twenty minutes away according to my Über driver—and Alicia Silverstone’s dad in Clueless) and I found myself navigating between my friend’s life in LA (he works in TV) and the writers and poets of AWP.

I went to a panel called “Genre-crossing and Poetic Truth: Lyric Nonfictions, Reported Poems” where Tess Taylor, Camille Dungy, Robert Polito, Tom Sleigh, and the wonderful Brian Turner spoke about how the genres collide and inform one another. Camille Dungy spoke of the difference between Northern California and Southern California and compared it to the two forms. As the discussion went on each panelist gave his or her version of the differences between California’s two iconic regions and nonfiction and poetry. There were fantastic ideas presented.

A few favorites:
“No discoveries for the writer, no discoveries for the reader.”
“Be honest of what it is you don’t know.”
“Ideas have to be visited then and there.”

I began thinking of the parallels of nonfiction and poetry and moved to the differences between the movie and TV industry and the book world. Two seemingly disparate industries—one with vastly more glitz and glam and another more reflective and, well not as lucrative (nobody’s getting rich on writing poems people. Nobody.) But there was something I was experiencing being in both worlds during the week I was there. I went to a few “Hollywood” gatherings with my friend and I went to a few AWP “writer” gatherings. I found that both were full of exciting conversations, interesting people, great drinks, and the biggest thing of all? Writing. That’s what every party I went to, centered on. Writing.

Sure it was fun and the Hollywood party had its cool things and the AWP ones had theirs but the common thread at both? The thing that joined both seemingly disparate industries was the one thing we can all claim. We all use words.

Words in Hollywood can employ many people (as one screenwriter pointed out). Words of poets create universes out of the tiniest phrases. Words directed to young readers create worlds to escape into. This is our link. This is our Pacific Coast Highway connecting Northern Cal to Southern Cal. The parties are the times we get to talk about them.

So why do I keep talking about parties when I should be concentrating on craft and how AWP really goes all out in showcasing a brilliant array of panels, keynotes, and booths that host an incredible amount of literary programs from every walk of life? Well, I think the short answer is we spend so many hours in front of a computer, creating words that the need to be social is a natural tonic for the life of the writer (a gin and tonic in my case). I digress. Honing our craft in solitude is necessary. But it is also necessary to be social, to engage with fellow writers, to move between industries and learn from each other, to go out and be “seen.” I’ve had some of my best ideas spring to life in a conversation at a social gathering.

Yes, not all of us are social butterflies but we all, in some capacity, want to connect with someone. I don’t want to alienate those that struggle with social anxiety because I know that is a very real and serious thing and I totally respect and honor you. But the point that I saw from AWP and from the week I spent in LA was that between industries—be it television, film, fiction, writing for children and young adults, poetry—we all share something. We all share words. Words are the common ground – the connector of our varied crafts. And that connection is joyous when we share it with each other.

Writing isn’t dead. Poetry isn’t lost. Writing programs and literary journals and writing residencies are alive and well. And the folks who inhabit those spaces and places are thriving. Together. In the quiet of their writing spaces. By a fire reading. Or at a party working their best Beyoncé, #whoruntheworld. Thank you, AWP and LA for reminding me of that.

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More than just a tan

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More than just a tan

I’ve come a long way with Miami. I was born here but I grew up in New York City where I spent my formative years in classrooms that resembled more of a United Nations summit than a typical American middle school. There was an Iraqi, Israeli, Iranian, Russian, French, Spanish, Sudanese, one kid from Singapore, two from New Jersey, and me, a first generation Cuban American kid, all sharing the same eighth grade classroom. I grew up hearing stories from dozens of countries in multiple languages. We had Latin as part of the curriculum, we had school visits to art museums and obscure theatres in the village where Stanley Tucci gave staged readings. My artistic sensibilities and comfort around multiple cultures cried to me that I belonged in New York! New York was the place for me.

When my father moved us to Miami the summer before I turned sixteen, I felt plucked from the multicultural surroundings that had become embedded into the fabric of my personal development. Even if Miami were home to hundreds of thousands of people hailing from the same heritage as I. What could Miami possibly offer me that I didn’t already have in New York?

It turns out, a lot more than my limited thinking allowed me back in those days. After stints in Los Angeles, New York, and even Spain, I found myself living once again in Miami. Now grown-up with a family of my own, I have quickly learned Miami has evolved into something much more than the tanned, scantily clad inhabitants who eat mangoes and sway their curvy hips to hypnotic salsa and rhythmic late night club beats. For the record: that still exists and honestly, what’s wrong with that? It’s just one of the many layers this magical city reveals to its visitors. But as an artist, this city has become a haven. A place where ideas are free to thrive. Take risks. Fail. Rise. This city will embrace you. If you allow it to.

As a writer and though my work with various cultural programs in the city, I have been around some of the best literary minds in town (and many from out of town). Literature in South Florida is alive and thriving. Flocks of artists, writers and thought leaders are coming down here to explore new levels of their creativity that may be locked in more established places like New York, LA, or Paris.

Miami is a city of many passions, none the least of which is its literature, art and culture.

Here’s my ten second Miami sound off:

The Betsy-South Beach’s Literary Programming (All Year)
O’Miami (Poetry Festival in April-programs All Year)
Miami Book Fair International (November – Note: 3rd largest book fair in the world)
Art Basel Miami (Around 50 thousand collectors, art dealers, artists, curators, and art enthusiasts attend annually)
Books and Books (considered one of the best independent book stores in the US. Author visits year round)
Wynwood District, Downtown, Midtown, Coral Gables (all have chic restaurants, bars, arts organizations and little festivals that pop up practically every weekend.)

I am proud to say, Miami and I are in love. She has given me the very multicultural atmosphere I lost so many years ago in my middle school classroom.

 

 

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The Writing Journey

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The Writing Journey

I decided a crazy thing in 2008. I made the choice to become a working writer - probably the least stable profession anybody could possibly choose. It was especially mind boggling because it was at the height of the Great Recession. New York City at that time with a one year old was a risky, actually pretty insane decision.  I was working as a catering manager in a restaurant and got laid off. My wife’s work was teetering and at any minute she could have joined the hundreds of thousands of others who were without work at that time in New York.

But instead of frantically looking for any work I could find I decided that I would take care of our little girl and write when she napped. We did this for a while. I landed a book contract for my first picture book and things were pretty good. But the publishing industry I would learn takes its time with nurturing art. Later, I would come to value this greatly. But New York is a tough place to have just one middle class income and a little advance money was hardly enough to get by. We made the difficult decision to leave our beloved city and move down south to Miami where my family lived. In Miami we needed work. 

I was a busboy, a waiter, and ultimately the beneficiary of two small grants from two incredible institutions dedicated to creating literature and art events in my community. I continued working on my craft whenever I could while working jobs that afforded me the time with my daughter as well as my writing.

It was a struggle at times. The work load, the lack of funds, the humbling experience of watching friends you went to high school with eating at a restaurant you’re running food at, smiling politely as their lawyer lives seem worlds apart from your own creative one. Art is dirty sometimes. But I would rather be washing dishes so my children can see their father working toward accomplishing his creative goals. As artists we have to look at our art as the true measure of who we are. I made another crazy choice along the way as well. I decided to get my masters degree – in writing for children and young adults! Who in the world would make that decision with any semblance of sanity? But something told me that if I wanted to truly be an artist in my field, I needed more education, more knowledge, more experience. I was accepted to Vermont College of Fine Arts and spent two incredible years and five residencies learning, growing, and building my creative abilities. In graduate school I found a voice to build on my own cultural identity. I was pushed closer to my artistic voice. A voice, it turns out, has a lot of Cubanismos in it. Now as I gear up for the launch of my first big book of my writing career, I look back at everything and a smile crosses my face in appreciation of that initial, crazy decision. 

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BEA and BookCon 2015: A Week-long Magic Carpet Ride

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BEA and BookCon 2015: A Week-long Magic Carpet Ride

Alan Zweibel author, comedian, actor said at a panel at BookCon 2015 in New York City, “if you’re really lucky, you get to be friends with the artists you admire.”

From May 26 to 31 I felt a buzz about me like none other I’d experienced as a writer. I walked into the Javits Center located at the far west side of 34th street near the Hudson and saw immense banners boasting advertisements for upcoming books and author’s new works. Stacy Schiff had an enormous banner of her new novel Salem. Jeff Kinney’s wildly popular series Diary of a Wimpy Kid towered about 50 feet above me and sprawled across the caged underbelly of Javits like a winged beast welcoming me to the book world’s main event. Diary wasn’t even the biggest banner promoting a book at this year’s Book Expo America. That distinction went to Harper Lee’s long awaited new novel, Go Set a Watchman, available July 14, probably all over the known universe. Side note, I went to a HarperCollins party and some of the swag was Go Set a Watchman bookmarks. I took about forty of them. I don’t know why. What is it about highly anticipated books from super star authors that bring out the book maniac in us? Anyway, I had never experienced something like this. Books and authors and publishers were the stars of this week and it made me feel special to be a part of it.

I wore a few different hats while at BEA and over the weekend at Book Con. Primarily I was tweeting about authors I saw, cool companies that print lines from classic books on t-shirts and a bevy of costumed fans and promoters peddling advanced reader copies and encouraging you to get in line for an autograph. I admit I didn’t really get in line because I was like a kid who’d wandered into some magical playground and couldn’t be bothered with standing in line when there were so many cool things left undiscovered! I zigzagged in and out of the booths and through the publisher pavilions, catching glimpses of staff members at the publishing companies happily promoting book after book. I kept going back to the Penguin Random House area half wanting to yell out, “I have a few books coming soon with you guys!” But I didn’t and that was an incredibly empowering thing. Let me explain.

As I continue to either lead or assist in programming at The Betsy through The Writer’s Room, I have come to learn, through the guidance of wiser minds, that there is power in supporting your peers. There is empowerment in empowering. To me, being out there supporting my peers, tweeting about authors I admire, congratulating editors and publishers and book sellers I respect, supporting friends whose books are about to come out, is what I enjoyed most about being at BEA.

It was bumping into Norman Manea who was Florida International University’s visiting scholar as part of the Writers in Exile series in partnership with The Betsy. I listened to Professor Manea’s conversation and when it was done he recognized me and called me to the stage for a hug. He asked what I was doing there and I said I was there to enjoy books. In his typical deadpan way, he responded, “there are books here?” He gave me another hug, said he was very happy to see me and off I went to another event.

I love that my entrance to BEA came with a badge that said press as much as I love that my business card says, Literary Programs Manager at The Betsy-South Beach. I love that all of these things make a whole for me. I like to promote my peers as much as I love my writing life. Which is tough sometimes. Managing editorial deadlines, creating new material for my agent to submit, fear that my last great idea was two months ago, managing the creative space with the family space. It’s tough. But being surrounded by the amazing people who made up BEA2015 I was reminded that there are many hats we all wear in our industry – writing books is hard work, but seeing the record crowds, authors, fans, publishers, editors, marketers, journalists, it all made sense to me.

BEA and Book Con 2015 was a weeklong magic carpet ride. I saw my industry in all its flash, brilliance and dedication to the beauty of the written word. I was reminded that the hats we wear help us to connect more with this incredible world of books. More importantly though, it felt like I was among friends.

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The Noise Between the Brain and the Heart - a Little Note on Cuba

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The Noise Between the Brain and the Heart - a Little Note on Cuba

In light of the historic news of renewed diplomatic relations between U.S and Cuba I was compelled to share an excerpt from a creative nonfiction story I’ve been documenting for the better part of five years. This is the very beginning of a book for young adults about teenagers who fought in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba on April 17, 1961. The following is my take on one of several interviews I had with a few veterans of the CIA-trained, Brigade 2506 who were barely out of school when they joined the conflict. My father was one of them.

Coincidentally, one of the other subjects I’ve interviewed, Carlos Leon y Acosta said something to me the other day that has gotten to the core of my feelings about everything. When asked how he felt about the news of Cuba, he told me, “The noise between my brain and my heart is deafening. My heart isn’t allowing me to accept what my brain is telling me makes sense.” It’s a haunting thought and one that I hope to explore as this period of history continues to unfold before my eyes.

The noise between my brain and my heart is deafening. My heart isn’t allowing me to accept what my brain is telling me makes sense.
 

THE INVISIBLE FIRE
The Young Adults of Brigade 2506and The Bay of Pigs Invasion
Part One: Carlos

Several months after his 17th birthday, he had already trained to jump out of an airplane and carry ammunition for a 30-caliber machine gun that was built to take down aircraft. His job was to load the gun and carry the ammo. He was at the bottom of the military totem pole but that didn’t matter to him. What mattered was that he chose to do it. To be a part of it.
Why? Why this? I asked him.

Because that’s what you do when it matters. You become part of something.

And there he was, April 17, 1961, in the midst of it all. Hundreds of feet above the beach, waiting to jump into the swamp with more than eighty pounds of ammunition connected to a rope tied around his waist. His objective was to rendezvous with the small battalion of paratroopers whose mission was to blow up the bridges and trek deep into the heart of the Sierra de Escambrar to begin the resistance.

But the plane passed the drop zone. The militia was covering the road. A sea of powder blue uniforms everywhere.

Come to think of it, he recollected over coffee one morning, it was the first time he knew something was wrong. In that moment though, there is no time to think about anything when artillery is exploding all around you and fate becomes the only decider of fortune; good or bad.
Before he could inhale, he had already jumped toward the swamp with the GP bag (holding the folded machine gun) and the rope tied to the bag of 30-millimeter shells. He plummeted to the swamp below. There was barely a thousand feet to jump from. The parachute reacted quickly and once opened, violently whipped back causing his body to get tense. When his feet finally skimmed the water, the second lasted a minute before fast forwarding angrily. His boots dug into the mud and he face planted into the murky water. He sprung up quickly and surveyed the landscape. The road was a few hundred feet away. The militia was swarming the exit. The bridge was completely surrounded. If they spotted him before he unhooked his chute, they would open fire and take him out within seconds.

How did he feel? I asked. Did he want to snap the chords of the chute and go guns blazing toward the militiamen? Did he want to find Bernardo, set up the machine gun and open fire on those Communist bastards?

No.

What then? What did he feel? I peppered again and again. He looked at me calmly, a small smile growing on his face.

He was shoulder deep in saw grass and mangroves that grew out of the murky ocean water. The enemy was already searching for him, he had no idea where the rest of the battalion was and the bag of ammunition was dragging him into the water. How did he feel?

He was scared shitless.

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