Writing Pad student, Tammy Delatorre, has been busy. Her writing has appeared in LA Times, Salon, xoJane, Many Mountains Moving, Newport Review, and is forthcoming in Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts. She was a finalist in the 2014 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, a finalist in the 2012 William Richey Short Fiction Contest, a winner of the 2008 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, and is working on a collection of short stories. How does she have time to breathe?
Tammy talked with us about her new collection of essays, fiction writing, and how she avoids writer’s block.
1. You’ve gotten several essays published in several major publications. What do you think is the secret to getting noticed by big editors, if there is one?
In my view, three things are important to getting noticed—persistence, the pitch, and the quality of writing. In terms of persistence, I’m constantly writing and sending out work. Earlier this year, I was receiving several rejections a day. It became disheartening, so I created a rejection recovery box to cheer me up as the rejections piled up, or a particular story close to my heart got yet another form letter. The box included things like a bottle of bubbles, a fake banana, a hip-swaying hula dancer, among other things. It was a way to take care of my wounded artist. Ironically, as soon as I made the box, I didn’t need it. I’ve been receiving a lot of positive responses lately, which is a blessing.
For pitching and writing, I’m always learning. I’ve worked in public relations for over 15 years, so I have the opportunity to speak with editors and reporters on a regular basis. My PR specialty is insurance and healthcare, but the desires of editors are the same across the board. They want pitches that are thoughtful, concise and pertinent to their coverage and audience. The times that I’ve done my homework and researched the venue and editor, I’ve had much more success. And the quality of the writing, well, that’s the pleasure of our business, being able to play with language, tell a compelling story.
2. How have the writing classes you took at Writing Pad helped you get your work published and improve your writing?
Writing Pad, how do I love thee… Let me count the ways.
One, useful writing and publishing information. In my experience, a writer can take a personal essay or op-ed class, learn how to write the piece, send it out, and be a published writer in about two or three months.
Two, generous mentors. They’re trying to give me all the knowledge they have to make me successful—anything from structure to contacts.
Three, writing prompts in a lot of classes, which allows me to write by free association, the first thing that comes to mind. This kind of exercise keeps the writing mind dexterous for when I’m writing on my own work. And there have actually been some flash pieces that emerged whole and complete from these prompts.
Four, community. It’s really lovely to have a community of writers. You end up taking classes with other writers a few times, get to know their work, and support each other in writing accomplishments.
3. It’s easier to write about something personal if the story is humorous, and yours are very personal, but some are quite heartfelt. Is it difficult for you to open up about yourself in a serious way?
Humor is what’s challenging for me. When I was a little girl, my mother left me in the middle of the night, and since that time, the world became a serious and dangerous place. I was always anticipating an inevitable wreck. There is humor in that, but I tend to follow a dark perspective. Probably because I never forgave myself for her leaving; I felt responsible, and this is the formative perspective with which I write.
I personally love work like Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s writing that breaks my heart, and I strive to do the same with my writing—break my own heart—so it is very personal, and I try not to hold back in showing the reader what I did wrong—my faults and insecurities. What woman wants to admit that she got into a childish fist fight at a gym, or broke into her boyfriend’s place to find out he was cheating. Not me. I don’t want to admit it, but I did those things and I wrote about it as truthfully as I could. I owned it, and editors and readers have responded pretty well to those essays.
4. You are extremely prolific. What do you do to stay sharp and retain fresh ideas?
For me, writing begets writing. So I write every day. I write for my freelance PR business things like press releases and articles. I enjoy that because it follows a left-brain logic backed by research. And I do a lot of creative writing, including poetry, flash, short stories, lyric and personal essay. I think each type of writing feeds the other.
I also have tried a lot of stress management techniques to deal with having a demanding job, things like hypnosis, meditation, and tapping, and luckily, these things can clear the mind and unleash things from the unconscious, which is good for writing. But one of the things I love most, being from Hawai’i, is just hanging out at the beach, smelling the sea, listening to waves crash, feeling the sun and water against my skin. My father used to say the ocean was one of those things a person could watch for hours and think of nothing and everything all at once. There’s something primordial about it that brings me back to who I am.
5. Tell us about the collection of short stories you’re writing!
In terms of my short story collection, it’s hard to see and describe my own work. One of my writing mentors from my MFA program said my collection explored dark sexual territory. I love collections like Female Trouble by Antonya Nelson, and Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. I remember reading Gaitskill’s story, “The Girl on the Plane,” and being blown away by how she structured the flashbacks, how the girl on the plane is a trigger to the real tragedy, and the emotional impact at the end was a wallop to the gut. I thought… that’s how I want to write. There’s dark sexuality in that story, and it’s a territory that intrigues me as well.
6. How does fiction writing help with your personal essays or vice versa?
Most of my workshop and craft education is in fiction, which does help with personal essays. When I finish a first draft of a story, I go back and look for the core scene around which the story turns. I do something I call “boxing the scene.” I literally put framing squares around it on the page and build it out. Figuratively, I think of it as a box and try to draw in the readers mind the four walls of the box (the setting) and put characters in that box who are in conflict and need to duke it out to resolve the story. It’s a strategy that works well in essays as well.
Likewise, personal essays have informed my fiction. In an essay, I don’t have to come up with character background or storyline. I can just focus on finding the best way to tell a story I know pretty well. A lot of the personal stories I’m trying to tell right now are centered on traumas, and I’m seeing that these stories can’t always be told in a linear way. The events themselves left me disjointed, put gaps in my logic, and the only way to tell them is to lay scenes next to each other so hopefully the reader will say, oh, she’s doing that messed-up thing because this messed-up thing happened to her. It’s helped me look at my short stories with fresh eyes, to tell them in a more compressed way.
7. Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers?
We all love to write, but if you really want to improve and get your work published, you need to treat it like a business. I have a freelance PR business, which pays the mortgage, so I apply the same principles I use to run my business to creative writing, which I hope will one day pay the bills.
It’s also important to continually seek new writing mentors. For me, these are writers whose work I admire. They’re published in places I want to be published in or received recognitions, but more importantly, they can provide the type of feedback that is helpful in making my work stronger. Not everyone can provide critique with sensitivity. You have to be able to survive some of the digs you’re going to get along the way and know you’re still going to pick up a pen the next day. A couple weeks ago, I had a well-regarded essayist read one of my pieces and say it was disingenuous. I’ve had over a dozen writers read that same essay and say they loved it, but she was the first person who saw and could express to me why it wasn’t working, why it wasn’t getting accepted, and concrete suggestions on how to fix it.
Thanks so much, Tammy! That was fascinating.