Author Archives: acevedowrites

About acevedowrites

ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

Answering the Question: “Why Did You Write This Story?”

Recently, I sat with my marketing team at HarperCollins and discussed different ideas for promoting my novel, The Poet X. People often ask me what my novel is about (which is a question I hate! I don’t have my elevator pitch down and I often hem and haw my way through every plot point only to wrap up with, “anditisaboutslampoetryandloveandfaithanddaughterhood.”) but at this particular  meeting my publicist asked a question I wasn’t expecting, “Why did you write this particular story?”

I’ve been sitting with that question. I think I wrote The Poet X because as a teen Afro-Dominicana, spoken word was a place that I found I could express myself and question all of the roles that had been impressed upon me by my culture, and neighborhood, and school; roles that sometimes felt like too tight clothing I couldn’t breathe in.

I’ve taught everything from 8th grade English to creative writing in adjudicated youth centers to the award-winning cohort of youth poets, the DC Youth Slam Team, and time and again I was moved by the realization that many of the young people in my classes and workshops found poetry as an outlet to be their full selves. So many of these young people were also trying to stretch into the person they wanted to be. At some point in their life they’d been told they were too big, or loud, or black, or brown, or accented, or poor, or incarcerated, or dumb; and so The Poet X is for them. A place where young people who are “too much” can see themselves reflected back; a reminder they exist and are worthy of every piece of literature.

Between when I began The Poet X and when it sold, I wrote two other manuscripts. One was an urban fantasy novel set in the Dominican Republic and the second one was magical realism centering a teen mom who aspired to be a chef. I loved both those stories and each one of them taught me how to become a better fiction writer. In my heart I knew that I wanted my debut book to be a story that set a strong foundation for my career and if it was the only thing I ever wrote, I wanted it to be something that reflected the values and experiences I hold dear. So for writers working on their first project, here’s what I’ve learned while trying to answer the “why” that I think led to my telling the story closest to my heart.

  • Write with blinders on. That doesn’t mean to be tone deaf to current events, but it’s easy to want to write in response to a trend. I think about all the writers who wanted to write vampires or BDSM after those subjects became trendy, and it was clear what stories had been mulled over for years and explored and writtend irrespective to what was “hot” and the stories that were quickly slapped together to fit the times. If the story doesn’t nag at you, or tug on your heart, or make your palms sweaty that lack of rootedness will show. Write the story that feels urgent to you. Don’t chase a trend because what the market wants will change in a second, but what moves you will move others. If you return to an idea, it’s because you truly love it.
  • Give yourself permission to meander. I had to write a lot of different things before I could finish to The Poet X. Like a first time dater, I had a lot to learn before I could fully commit. I needed to play with other storylines, and try different styles and genres, so that by the time I returned to X, I was smarter, a better writer, and had a clear sense of why this was the story I wanted to be working on and putting out into the world.
  • Allow your book to be a mirror and a window. In The Poet X, I was intentional about how I deployed slang, and non-standard English, and Spanish, and Latinidad, and slam poetry, and urban imagery; I was mindful that not all of my readers would be familiar with ways to navigate those different experiences, but I trust readers will still be intrigued enough to peek in and stay awhile. For other readers, I imagine this world will feel really familiar and I’m so happy they will find a comfortable place to rest their head. Negotiating what needed context clues and what might require the reader to do additional work, was a tough balance to find, but I stayed true to telling my most authentic story.

My “why” will probably change as the release date gets closer and I keep mining the myriad of answers that spring up every time I think about my book. The heart of my answer will probably always be: Growing up, I wanted to find a blueprint for myself in stories but struggled to find a girl like me in books. So, I decided to write her. And so my last piece of advice: write into existence the story you most needed growing up; your younger self will thank you.

20131031-dsc_7508-copyELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

 

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Meet Our Newest EMU: Elizabeth Acevedo– Keeping it Real

The day my agent said we were going out on submission, I was completely taken aback. I’ve always heard publishing is sloth-slow, but exactly four weeks after becoming Joan’s client, we were sending the manuscript to editors! I didn’t feel at all ready. Although with Joan’s notes I had completed a full revision, although I had worked with two critique partners and felt ready to submit to Joan, although I had been working on this novel on and off for four years, the moment it became real that editors were going to read my work all I could think was “the novel isn’t ready! I’m not a real writer.”

But I didn’t say that out loud to Joan. What I emailed back to her was, “Wow. It’s happening! How exciting is this moment when anything is possible?” And that moment right before feedback, before any rejections, when the publishing world is your editorial oyster really is exciting. And then Joan sent me the words every fiction writer dreams about as they pick away at their keyboards late at night: the champagne and caviar dreams of unpublished writers who sustain themselves with whimsical fantasies: the words that I’d read about but never believed would be said to me: “We are going to auction, Liz.”

It was real. Not just one, but several editors were taken by this world I had penned. The auction? Was real. The interest level? Was real. The squeal I let loose at the restaurant in Kosovo where I was participating in a poetry festival? A whole real squeal. The day of the auctioned dawned with seven editors outbidding one another in an attempt to acquire my book. It should have been one of the most joyous days of my life. And it was glorious, don’t get me wrong. But it was still shadowed with the question: “What if this is all a hoax? I’m still not a real writer, am I?”

The question of “realness” is one I’ve carried for a long time. I found my way to creative writing through music (I really wanted to be a rap star in my teens) and slowly transitioned into poetry. Even while getting my Masters in Creative Writing, I questioned whether or not I should be in the program. Even while competing for—and eventually winning—a National Poetry Slam championship, I questioned if I was good enough to be on stage. So, it’s not surprising that the auction and book sale that should have been an incredibly validating experience was a mental exercise of pacing up and down the halls of self-doubt. When you’ve cloaked yourself in imposter syndrome for as long as I have, it’s not an easy thing to slide off your shoulders and hang up.

I don’t bring up the story of the length of my submission process and auction to brag; I know my process was quick and painless and not the norm. I was so, so lucky and the many years of studying and practicing writing and committing to the craft led me to writing something that resonated with folks. But I was wrong to believe there was a magic moment when something or someone would affirm me enough that I would no long doubt my position as a writer.

That will never be enough external affirmation that I am a real storyteller. There will never be any outside stamp, award, or sticker that will make me believe I deserve to occupy space in the literary world. Even when everything goes right, I question my right to be here, even a member of this EMU Debut blog group.

I grew up never seeing stories about girls like in books. I was the daughter of Dominican Immigrants, growing up in 90s New York City, dreaming of being a rap star or the first woman President and my story was on no bookshelf, in no library. I came from an untraditional path to children’s literature. I have too many scars of being told I don’t have the right to be in certain rooms to not always expect someone to pull the rug from under me. Which is why I know the only person who can determine if I’m a “real” writer has been the same person who had been determining since I was nine years old: me.

teen-liz

Teen Liz on her way to a poetry slam.

It sounds cliché, I know. But the reality is that when I began to actively work at seeing the world as a poet, when I began reading as a writer, when I began to scribble on grocery receipts and fill notebooks full of rhymes; when I wrote for hours and edited for hours more. When I followed ideas down rabbit holes, I never imagined being able to climb out of…that was when I became a real writer. When I was told directly and indirectly that these scribbles would never amount it anything it wasn’t the MFA degree, the book sale, the first collection of poetry winning a contest, not a national championship in slam poetry, it wasn’t any of those credentials that made me believe I was real. It’s been my continuously reminding myself I’m not just playing dress up. That someone isn’t going to magically snatch away what I’ve written.

Every day I think about my novel, The Poet X, being released into the world in a year. I catch myself going down the same path of worry. What if it isn’t any good? What if the world discovers I’m a fraud? What if…

And every day I remind myself to get back to my laptop and my current project and remember that magical moment before pressing send when everything is possible. Although writing means stretching the bounds of imagination, there is a tangible creation that is mine, and every time I make a poem, or a character, or a even something as small as a simple outline, that writing is real. And as its writer, so am I.

About Liz:20131031-DSC_7508 copy.jpg

ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

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