Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo was named a 2012 Los Angeles Central Library ALOUD Newer Poet and the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner. Her poetry manuscript, Built with Safe Spaces, is inspired by her grandmother, Los Angeles, and the Arizona borderlands. In August 2011 she volunteered as a desert aid worker with the Tucson-based humanitarian organization, No More Deaths, which informed many of her borderland poems. Her book Posada is available now. In Los Angeles, she is the creator and curator of the quarterly reading series HITCHED and a co-founding member of the literary organization, Women Who Submit. She is a first generation Chicana born and raised in San Gabriel, California and currently lives in the shadows of Dodger Stadium in historic Solano Canyon. She spends her nights listening for the ghosts and coyotes of Chavez Ravine and her days maneuvering the 110 freeway to teach drama and English to high school students in Arcadia, CA.
Craft Tip: Think about the character’s motivation. What does the character want?
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Rachael: Welcome to “How Do You Write.” I’m your host, Rachael Herron. On this podcast, I talk to authors about how they write, what their process is, and how their lives fit together. I’ll keep each episode short so you can get back to writing.
Well hello writers, welcome to episode 34 of How Do You Write!
I am so glad that you’re listening! It is a gloomy, rainy day here in Northern California and I have to say that I am not tired of it yet, at all! I love the rain. I love the gloom. The more it rains the happier I get. I swear to god I could live in Seattle. Everyone tells me that I can’t, that no one can, and no one should. It’s a lovely town of course, but I think I could handle the darkness and the rain. Maybe someday I will give it a try. For now I am perfectly content in Northern California and super happy to be exactly where I am, which is in this seat, talking to you at this moment and that just thrills me.
A little quick update on what has been going on writing wise around here…
I am continuing a pace with the thriller. It is not killing me so far, that always makes me worry, but I am about seventeen thousand words into it and I just hit the inciting incident right on time, right where I wanted it to be, which is always a nice feeling. For those of you who are wondering what the heck I am talking about in terms or timing and incidents, I subscribe to the Larry Brooks method of story structure. He actually has a wonderful book out called, Story Engineering, and some people like it, some people don’t. I personally love it. It has solved some major problems for me in the past. When I am structuring novels there is no rule that says you have to do anything any way. Period. At all. You could write a prose poem using just the word, I wanna say, “beaver,” and that’s the word that came to me, so I am going to go with it… say the word beaver over and over again until your prose poem is finished fifty thousand words later. Have at it! However, if you want to move your books along and have the pace continue in a way that satisfies the reader’s brain, then there is the traditional three act structure which has been around for centuries and centuries.
The three act structure for me doesn’t quite work very well. I have never really just got it in my bones the way I enjoy Larry Brooks’ four act structure, which is exactly the same as the three act structure it’s just set up a little bit differently in terms. The first quarter is the set up. The second quarter is the reaction phase when our main character or characters are reacting to the things that are around them. The third quarter is right after the context shifting mid-point. The third quarter of the book is about those main characters becoming actors rather than reactors. The fourth quarter is the resolution. There is a worksheet that I use which is why I am mentioning this, I am going to link to it in the show notes. Jamie Gold does a lot of planning stuff for writers. She has got a lot of forms and excel spreadsheets and fun stuff like that, if that’s the way your brain works, which mine does sometimes. She has on there a free link to the Larry Brooks story breakdown. The cool thing is that you put in your word count that you are aiming for and it breaks down exactly where at approximately, (these are not rules), but at approximately what word count your novel should be for the inciting incident for the first plot point, for the first pinch point. All of those things might be words that you are not familiar with, but that’s absolutely fine. Just keep writing! You are doing it the right way! If you ever want to attach structure into your work, and I have definitely done this after I have written first drafts, I have gone back in and restructured to make these kind of things work. These kind of things can be helpful. So, that’s a little plug for that. I will link it in the show notes.
I am also working on my Patreon essay right now. The thesis for it is finding what feels natural to you in your own creative process leaning into the way that we work. For example, I have ADHD, emphasis on the hyperactivity part and knowing that and knowing that’s the way I work, and harnessing that has been one of the most useful things for me as a writer. I haven’t quite figured out my, “Aha!” moment for the essay yet. It is in there. I am kind of flailing. I always start the creativity essays like this, with a bunch of flailing, a bunch of research, a bunch of scientific articles that I am kind of combing through and putting in my brain and letting everything kind of percolate in there and then move around and form connections. I have to fix my stove after I film this, so I am hoping that in the drive over to the appliance store to get the glow coil, (because I am going to try to be butch and badass and fix it myself), I am hoping that something will spark in there or maybe when I am sleeping.
The self-conscience is a powerful beast. I love that it does work for me.
That is pretty freaking awesome in terms of brains. Thanks brain!
Let us then just jump right into the interview, which I know that you’ll enjoy. This is with, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, and she is awesome and smart and funny and I know you are going to enjoy the interview, so why don’t you go on listening! I am going to fix a stove and lets all get to our writing! Okay, talk soon!
Hey, you’re a writer. Did you know that I send out our free weekly email of writing encouragement? Go sign up for it at rachaelherron.com/write, and you’ll also get my “Stop Stalling and Write” PDF with helpful tips you can use today to get some of your own writing done. Okay, now on to the interview.
Rachael: Well today I have the pleasure of talking to Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. Hi there!
Rachael: Hello, thank you so much for being on the show. Let me give you just a little introduction for those who may not know you. Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo was named a 2012 Los Angeles Central Library ALOUD Newer Poet and the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner. Her poetry manuscript, Built with Safe Spaces, is inspired by her grandmother, Los Angeles, and the Arizona borderlands. In August 2011 she volunteered as a desert aid worker with the Tucson-based humanitarian organization, No More Deaths, which informed many of her borderland poems. In Los Angeles, she is the creator and curator of the quarterly reading series HITCHED and a co-founding member of the literary organization, Women Who Submit. She is a first generation Chicana born and raised in San Gabriel, California and currently lives in the shadows of Dodger Stadium in historic Solano Canyon. She spends her nights listening for the ghosts and coyotes of Chavez Ravine and her days maneuvering the 110 freeway to teach drama and English to high school students in Arcadia, CA. I am not sure which is more alarming, the 110 or the high school students to me.
Xochitl-Julisa: Well the entrance to the 110 is probably more scary. Probably scarier, yeah.
Rachael: I live near a high school and I swear to god that those are human beings that I don’t understand. I just, I try, but they scare me. Sometimes when I see them walking around, I am like, “Oh my god. I’m a freshman again and they are all so cool and I am so not.”
Xochitl-Julisa: Yeah, they can be intimidating.
Rachael: What is the best time of day for you to write and where do you write?
Xochitl-Julisa: I would say in the afternoons when I am being really good and on my stuff. I tend to read in the morning, because I fall asleep when I read, so I have to read as soon as I get up when I am like fresh, and then I will take a walk and then after that that’s when I will start writing in the like early afternoon. I usually sit on my couch. I like couches. I don’t like to sit at desks. They fell really stinted and uncomfortable and, “Oh, I am going to be really professional right now,” so I like to be comfy on the couch with blankets and pillows.
Rachael: Nice. I also like doing that, but that’s when I fall asleep sometimes, when my computer is on top of my tummy and I am all comfy. I usually have to stand to write. And how do you write when you write? Is it longhand and on the computer?
Xochitl-Julisa: I have been trying to do more journaling just because I think it’s good. I am a big fan of Wendy C. Ortiz’s work…
Rachael: Yeah, she is great. She was on the show a little while ago.
Xochitl-Julisa: It seems like it is a really good way to just be like a historian to yourself, so I try to journal but I am not that great at it. Usually after I take a long walk I will try to jot some things down in a journal, but the actual writing happens on the computer.
Rachael: On the computer, are you in Microsoft Word or do you use Scrivener?
Rachael: Yeah, yeah. And how do you refill the creative well when you are running dry?
Xochitl-Julisa: Walks, reading, hikes, I love being out in nature. I have been kind of listening to some Yogi books on tape and thinking about how to be in the world and enjoy the world, because it is really hard to do right now with everything that has been happening.
Rachael: It is awful to do right now. It’s terrible.
Xochitl-Julisa: Yeah, so I try to take a walk, look at the trees, take deep breaths, and just replenish myself that way.
Rachael: Do you manage to do that everyday?
Xochitl-Julisa: Probably like four days a week is what it is at right now. Three or four days a week.
Rachael: Is there a Yogi book that you could recommend, that you have been liking? That’s purely selfish, because I want to listen to it too.
Xochitl-Julisa: This is new to me. My friend… I was saying, oh I can’t sleep and I am having this anxiety, and he put some stuff on my phone…
Rachael: Oh, how cool.
Xochitl-Julisa: Which was really sweet of him. He was like, “Give me your phone!” and he just put a bunch of stuff on it.
Rachael: That’s awesome. I have always struggled with insomnia, but my insomnia has always been the vague garden variety where I just worry about the coming earthquake or whatever and right now all the worries in the middle of the night are so vivid. You know, they are so much scarier, so that sounds like a great idea.
Rachael: What is the worst writing advice you have ever been given?
Xochitl-Julisa: I think the worst stuff is the stuff you sometimes hear in workshop, the like, “never do this,” “never do that.” You know, “never use that,” “never use just.” Get rid of those words. Never use, “it is,” the contraction. Stuff like that is just like useless. Well I am a poet, you know, so it’s like sometimes, “it is,” has more impact than its and I want to say, “just,” and I need that “just,” so you know.
Rachael: And it’s exactly what you want.
Rachael: Yeah, that actually, I remember hearing never ever start a sentence with “and” or “but,” and sometimes you have to.
Rachael: Sometimes that’s where you get the mileage. What secret writing tip of awesomeness did you discover the hard way?
Xochitl-Julisa: Secret tip of awesomeness… When I was in grad school I did a paper. My long paper was on poetry of witness, how people process through poetry, and how poetry can help you survive. There was a great book called, Poetry Survival, by Gregory Orr, that had a lot of really great stuff to say about when our world is disjointed and we experience trauma poetry helps you to put things back in order and give it new language. That’s something that I understood logically, but then I feel like every time I sit down to write I am relearning it. Cause you know when you have something and you’re in pain, often I don’t want to write. I am like, “no, I just want to ignore it. I just want to run away from it.” Then when I finally do sit down to write it is such a relief and release and I am like, “oh, yeah. This helps.” So, I feel like I learn it over and over.
Rachael: Those lessons we learn over and over again, yes. I hear that. Can you give us a quick craft tip of any sort?
Xochitl-Julisa: I just finished writing a novel, my first novel…
Xochitl-Julisa: Oh, thank you. So, I was a long time poet and so the novel fiction writing is still really new to me, but I think something that really helped me is that I have a theatre background. I got a BA in theatre and I did acting and directing. Thinking about the characters motivation, like what does the character want, who are the people who are going to help this character get what she wants, and who are the people who are going to get in the way of what she wants. I have often heard that character is really closely related to plot, at least for some writers, and I think that is true for me. It’s like the conflict and the character arc are all really tied in close, because I am thinking about, what does she want, how is she going to get it, and who is she going to get through. So that I would say, think about character motivation.
Rachael: I love that. How did you find the transition from being a poet and going in to this first piece of fictional prose?
Xochitl-Julisa: I was scared. It was an idea that I’d had for a long time and I didn’t know if I could do it. Writing a fiction book has been something I have always dreamt about since I was a little girl. I always wanted to have a novel, but I didn’t know if I could do it because it is so long and poems are so short.
Xochitl-Julisa: You know, a book of poetry is maybe one hundred pages. Maybe more like sixty, seventy, or eighty pages. So it was a scary endeavor, but I started an epistolary novel…
Rachael: Oh, cool
Xochitl-Julisa: so they are all little short pieces and I kind of tricked myself that way and said okay well you can write a poem in a page, you can write a letter in a page, and if you write three letters a day maybe you will get to something and that’s kind of how I tricked myself into doing it.
Rachael: I love that trick. That’s exactly how I get things done. I am always tricking myself. I am gullible that way. On really bad days if you couldn’t write or teach, what other profession do you wish you had?
Xochitl-Julisa: I just often wish I had something where you got trained and you were an apprentice, and like you knew you were going to get paid because you had this skill.
Rachael: Yeah, like a hands-on kind of skill
Xochitl-Julisa: Yeah, like an electrician. I mean I have a theatre background, I always really liked technical theatre. I always thought it would be cool to be like an electrician or something that’s like, I have a skill, if the zombies come I will be useful. You know?
Rachael: Yep. Yep, that is actually pretty badass actually. If you were starting over as a new writer, right now, what advice would you give yourself?
Xochitl-Julisa: I think I would just tell myself to start small, write as much as you can, write every day, read, and just start doing it. It is funny to think about who I was when I started at the beginning of my MFA program over ten years ago to where I am now.
Rachael: What were you like then?
Xochitl-Julisa: Well, the writing was really horrible.
Rachael: I hear you.
Xochitl-Julisa: I just went into the MFA program because I just knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew I wanted to be in a writing community, but I had no idea what that looked like and how to do that. So I went into this MFA program and I was really like this fresh faced girl and I would go to these events and be like, “oh, what’s that?” and “who’s there?” and “what’s this about?” So, it is just interesting to see how much I have changed. I don’t know, I just think about that sometimes. How much has changed in over ten years.
Rachael: Yeah. I think I got my MFA like seventeen… eighteen years ago now, and I do look back at that baby faced girl and you know, I just wanted to be around writers. That was all I wanted.
Xochitl-Julisa: Right, and it seemed like so mysterious.
Rachael: So mysterious!
Xochitl-Julisa: How can I be a writer? How can I hang out with writers? Oh, you know?
Rachael: And the funny thing is the answer is just to be a writer, to write, then you get to hang out with writers.
Rachael: That was way too easy for me. I chose to spend fifty thousand dollars instead.
Xochitl-Julisa: Right, exactly.
Rachael: And what would you like to plug right now? Where can we find you? What should we be looking for?
Xochitl-Julisa: My first book of poetry came out in October, it is actually called, Posada Offerings of Witness and Refuge, and it talks about my parent’s immigration history and also some time I spent on the border, which was in the bio, doing volunteer work and humanitarian aid work. The book is about how I got to that point, which is really scary. I didn’t expect to be in the desert. I got there and was like, “Holy shit. What am I doing here?” but it came from a desire to honor my parents and their journey and their stories. So that is what the book’s about and that’s out of Sundress Publications. You can find it at their website, Sundress Publications. That’s what I am excited for right now.
Rachael: Perfect. Well, congratulations on that! That’s huge and so exciting. And big congratulations on your novel and everything you are doing. Please keep working with those high school students and I will try not to be so intimidated by them over here.
Xochitl-Julisa: Yes, yes.
Rachael: Thank you so much for chatting to us. I really appreciate it.
Xochitl-Julisa: Thank you, Rachael, for having me.
Rachael: Have a great day.
Xochitl-Julisa: You too!
Rachael: Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of “How Do You Write.” You can reach me on Twitter, @RachaelHerron, or at my website, rachaelherron.com. You can also support me on Patreon and get essays on living your creative life for as little as a buck an essay at patreon.com/rachael, spelled R-A-C-H-A-E-L. And do sign up for my free weekly newsletter of encouragement to writers at rachaelherron.com/write. Now, go to your desk and create your own process. Get to writing, my friends.
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