Creating in Crisis: On Writing, Elizabeth Acevedo

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

For some, the oddity of the self-care and hyper-productivity conversations that have arisen in creative communities since the onset of the pandemic is partially due to the fact that the luxury of the former is a distant one and the familiarity of the latter is almost uncomfortable.

Creating from crisis is an all but new endeavor for marginalized communities.

Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral (born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga) wrote some of her most noteworthy poems through crises and political struggles. In 1914, she got the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Latin American writer to win the accolade. In 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic, Peruvian poet Cesár Vallejo published hist first collection of poems, “Los Heraldos Negros.” Now, authors, green and experienced, are grappling with our new reality whilst working to meet deadlines.

In my conversation with Acevedo, below, we unpack the idea of creating during a crisis, touch on the falsehood of writer’s block, and get into what she’s been working on now following the release of her third published novel, “Clap When You Land.”

Those familiar with your work have such a beautiful resume to pull from… when presenting you to an audience, they might say you’re a young Dominican writer and author with a National Poetry Slam Championship and a New York Times best-selling book under her belt. But how would you present yourself if given the chance? Let’s say you’re giving a Ted Talk on TKTK subject and have the chance to introduce yourself—what would you say?

I’m an Afro-Dominicana born and raised in New York City, and I’m a storyteller.

Sencillo. And what subject(s) would you want to speak on?

I tend to kind of look at poetry and how women of color are written and write their stories—like how do you write women of color but also, how does one write oneself and how is one written about when you are a woman of color. So maybe something along those lines.

I have one on the importance of being present that kind of meditates on running as an act of having to pay attention to your surroundings and your body and I have one on writing about violence against women and the hope for obsolescence—what [it means] to want your work to be obsolete.

Thanks for sharing that. I’ve been very into podcasts and visual talks lately which is a rather new thing for me. Along those lines actually, I listened to this beautiful podcast called “On Being: On A Life Worthy of Our Breath” recently. It was a conversation with author Ocean Vuong—I definitely recommend a listen to all writers who haven’t yet—but there’s a part that really stuck with me where he says “I don’t think writer’s block is real, I think its the mythos of capitalism, that you’re always supposed to be producing, and this idea of being productive and quantifying your self worth through word counts and page counts.” I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that—on this idea of productivity and writer’s block.

Yeah, I don’t think writer’s block is real either… I’m not sure I’ve ever touched on it quite the way that Ocean does in terms of a response to capitalism, but I do think of it as a response to anxiety that oftentimes when we think [what] we have [is] writer’s block [but] what we may be grappling with is that we are uninspired, and that to make you have to also be taking in, and you have to be taking in at the same kind of level as you want to put out.

And so if I’m working on a poetry collection it is helpful when I’m reading poetry or if I’m reading with a writer’s eye… Even if I’m not actively writing I’m always percolating, my brain is trying to make meaning and so I want to give it as much nutritious content as I can if that makes sense. And so I think the other thing we say when we say writer’s block is that we’re just stuck—we’re in the middle of something and maybe we don’t know where it goes or we don’t know how to finish the essay… and so we get anxious and tell ourselves we can’t, and I think both of those have an answer but it’s about figuring out what you’re actually dealing with. So, for me, I feel like writer’s block can often be an easy way to relieve yourself of having to do the work of what is it about creativity and this moment that I am stumbling over and how can I address it, right?

And I appreciate the agency there, of creativity is fluid and I’m really working with it to try to figure out where it’s located in my body and in my psyche, as opposed to creativity is a thing that I have to be feeling at all times, you know?

It’s there—I have to harness it and figure out what it’s doing and it’s okay if sometimes the well is depleted… that is also okay. Like [maybe] what creativity is telling you right now is [you] need to be engaging with other creators as opposed to trying to make.

That’s so comforting. So when did you finish writing, going through edit rounds of “Clap When You Land” and have you been writing since?

[laughs] I laugh because as recently as probably March I feel like I was writing a frantic email like ‘we need to get this last thing ready’ but I’ll say official last round in January. I did the audiobook for Clap When You Land and that gave me one last opportunity as I was listening to the language out loud to catch a few last things but it’s helpful that I get to do a couple of last rounds… Anything I’m gonna catch around language happens [at that point].

I’ve been making different kinds of things [since], I’ve been experimenting with what creativity looks like right now. I’m working on a screenplay; my second novel [“With the Fire on High”] was auctioned for a movie, so when the pandemic started I was working on the draft for that which I turned in around two weeks ago.

I’ve [also] been playing around with an adult novel, although right now that’s not sold anywhere, I’ve never published an adult novel so it would be a very different process for me and I’ve reached out to two other friends who are also working in new genres or new kind of styles and we’ve started a writing group- so we’ve been sending each other pages. This was the first week. It was [built] out of the desire to rethink the loneliness of writing and also this is a new thing—maybe it’ll be helpful to just have folks with me early on who can see what I’m trying to do.

Maybe what creativity is telling you right now is you need to be engaging with other creators as opposed to trying to make.

In a way, writing has always been lonely, that’s not really a new thing due to the pandemic per se, but it’s nice that it’s kind of forcing us—forcing you—to find ways to kind of work around that.

It’s lonely I think in different ways because there’s the possibility of let’s meet up and write or let me go to an open mic and listen to other writers, and I think we’re finding new creative ways to create that community. Writing has always been lonely but everything else also feels lonely [now] and so to create communal relief somewhere—that felt so important.

How did the experience of writing “Clap When You Land” differ from that of your previous two novels?

I feel like each book requires a different level of research. “The Poet X” was the most closely aligned with my own upbringing, and I know slam poetry [and] poetry styles pretty well, so it was less research for that book. “With the Fire on High” had a little bit more—she’s afro-Puerto Rican, it’s set in Philadelphia and it has to do with culinary school… so I had to dive in there. She’s also a teen parent.

This last book required me to really dive into the crash in 2001—flight AA587 and the intricacies of that crash. The research and the articles around the individuals who were on that flight… I [also] had to really sit with my own memories and grapple with what do I remember vs. what was true… I didn’t personally have anyone in my family who passed on that crash, but I remember how it ruptured our understanding of each other at that moment—like who was on that flight, what happened, is it terrorism?

What does it mean when you lose almost 300 lives in two and a half minutes? So the research required me to look back, but also consider everything from how do they find your remains to how long does a flight from New York to DR take, to sex tourism [and more]. The book holds so many different kinds of topics… I’ve been lucky [enough] to travel to DR to the Mariposa Foundation and so speaking with the young women while I was doing workshops there as to their experience with an area that has a high percentage of sex tourism and also child prostitution and so the research sounds haphazard but it was really my trying to locate each character, their reality and make sure that all of this information doesn’t end up in the book that I had a very clear sense of the world that I am trying to write.

In writing works of fiction like those and this recent one, some might think it’s not as healing or directly intertwined with the DNA of the author as, say, a memoir. Is that the case or do you find that parts of yourself have healed or been exposed to yourself through the writing process of “Clap When You Land” and your other novels thus far?

I think I always go into a project imagining that I’m not going to pour too much of myself into it, and I think it helps that I write for teens, so there’s a distance there—between the kinds of things I’m dealing with versus the things you deal with when you’re 16 and there’s a lot of firsts still to encounter. But I do find that often at some point in the draft—perhaps halfway through—there are things that start coming up that are really things I’m dealing with.

For example, I write a lot about boundaries and that’s not something I’m actively doing—like I don’t go into a book like I’m gonna write how this 16-year-old learns to say no, right? I go in like I’m gonna write like how this 16-year-old is pushing back against the kinds of expectations made of her and as I’m writing it I realize ‘oh what she has to do is be very clear with the other characters as to what she needs’ like that is the growth this character has to show. But I think it’s often reflective of the work that I’m doing, that I’m able to kind of come across this answer for the character because it’s something that I’m working on on my own. Or a lot of the relationships in my books are about the characters and their parents and this last book Clap When You Land is really about can you forgive a parent who is unable to ask for forgiveness. In the case of Clap When You land the father is dead, and so can you forgive him for what he’s done. And I think in my own life, there have been people in my life who I’ve had to realize this person is never going to say sorry and they can’t even see what they’ve done- how does my own healing require me to forgive even if they can’t ask and to also say I’m gonna have to create new ways so that you can’t hurt me right? And so I don’t go in thinking this is going to be a part of it- but something in a character will strike a chord and I’ll realize ‘maybe they’re the part of myself that I’m working on that I can have the character work on’ and see what happens, see if there’s texture there.

Touching on writing through tragedy, I want to talk about writing through a crisis like we are now with the coronavirus… I’ve been thinking about how, for Latinos, not only are we tremendously affected by this issue but this isn’t a singular experience—in a way I’d say a lot of us have kind of learned, through life experiences, to always create from crisis. What are your thoughts on that and is that something that you relate to personally?

I guess I’m circling the phrase create from crisis, which I think is really powerful. I think so often how people, particularly poets, begin first writing out of heartbreak, out of loss. Like I think most people’s early poems are because they are so emotional over something and this is the only form that feels safe, I can get it out on paper, at least that is how I remember writing and when I often encounter a young poet it is because of a thing that they are almost trying to exercise out of themselves and writing is the way to turn… and that does feel like creating from crisis.

But I also think of how often, when you’re first-generation, your parents don’t have the ability to self-actualize. They are working, or at least my parents were working to make sure there was food on the table, to make sure there was money they could send back to their own families… There wasn’t a lot of time for my mom to say I’m going to take care of myself and this is a practice and a thing i’m going to do outside of church. I don’t think I have a clear answer to that as much as I think there is something there with the idea of creating from crisis in the way that, to be an immigrant in this country there’s a lot of uncertainty and instability you’re constantly dealing with anyways, and for a lot of people what we feel is that this is jarring because there’s uncertainty for the future, there’s an inability to process it, but I think my mom—when I watch how she was able to like okay I just don’t go outside, I wear my mask, I call my sisters every single Monday and we do a one-hour prayer circle—the way she was able to just adjust while I was still kind of floundering… I wonder if there is a little bit of that we’re going to figure this out because she’s more familiar with uncertainty and with that relationship of having to roll with the punches in a way that perhaps I am less attuned to having to do.