Writing the Way at 826LA: Students Meet Author, Cristina Henríquez

Here at 826LA, we encourage our students to believe that each one of their stories are worth sharing. A recent visit from Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans, stopped by to echo that sentiment to our students and remind them that everyone’s experiences matter. Thanks to the Hawkins Foundation, Henríquez was able to join 826LA students at the Manual Arts Writers’ Room and TNT Tutoring at Echo Park to speak about her novel, her journey into writing, and how to be a better writer!

After speaking to the students at Manual Arts, Cristina was able to jump in and give professional writing advice to students editing their stories for the upcoming 826LA Young Author Book Project publication. Read excerpts from the Q&A from Cristina and 826LA students below.

“Read as much as you can…”

Student: Have you written any poems?

CH:  In college I thought “I want to be a writer. I’m gonna do this,” I thought I wanted to be a poet. And so I took a bunch of poetry classes, I wrote a lot of poetry in my notebooks, and what it turned out to be was that my poetry was just really, really awful. So, so bad. 

And not only that—because I think you can also overcome it—but I happened to take a fiction class, and I had this moment where I realized, “this is what I’m supposed to do.” It was still difficult, but in a way that I felt like I understood it, you know? There was something in my gut that was like “I get this, at least.” I just decided—fiction is probably the thing for me. It’s really, really hard to write a good poem.

Student: What do you do when you get writer’s block?

CH: When I feel like, “Oh, I’ve hit a wall. I can’t do anymore today,” I’ll set the timer on my phone for twenty minutes, and just make myself do another twenty minutes, because usually, 90% of the time, when I do that, at the end of the twenty, I keep going even longer. So, that’s helpful to me. Often I think I’m done for the day, and then it turns out if I can push myself just a little bit more, I actually get way further than I thought I would.

Student: Do you map at all or do you just write free?

CH: When I started off I used to think, “Okay, this is the story I wanna tell. I know what’s gonna happen in the beginning, I know what’s gonna happen in the middle, I know basically what’s gonna happen in the end.” I would sit down and I would write it. And those stories were okay, but then I took a different approach at some point which was sort of like flying. I just write without knowing anything about what’s gonna happen. And I will just tell you that those stories suddenly were so much more alive in a completely different way.

If you read something and you can feel the author pushing the story in certain ways, that’s not a satisfying feeling as a reader. But when the story unfolds in these ways that are surprising even to you as a reader—that’s awesome when you’re reading something. I think in order for that to happen, as a writer, it’s better the less you know because the story will surprise you too.

Everybody’s different, but I just start with a sentence. And it really could be anything. Like this whole novel started with the sentence “We heard they were from Mexico.” It’s a really simple sentence.  I normally, for a first draft, try really hard not to see any further than once sentence in front of me. And that’s a kind of crazy way to write. It can feel dangerous.  You have to just proceed on with faith. But if you can get yourself to do it, if you can talk yourself into it, I feel like the story is so much better. And then in the second draft, and the third, you look back on it again, and then you start to feel like “Okay, now I know.” But for first drafts, just go a little bit at a time.

Student: Has your family read your books and your writing?

CH: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, yes. My parents, who I mentioned are not really readers. They have read my work, and I don’t know if they completely get what I do. But, I know that my mom—and you’ll understand this more if you ever read this novel—my mom read this book and then she called me afterward and she was said “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you write a happy ending?” So…I don’t know if they completely get it. But, I also mentioned that it was translated into Spanish and published in Spanish. That was really meaningful to me because that was the first of my books that’s ever been in Spanish, so all of my family in Panama (for the first time ever) could read what I’d written, so that was also special for me.

Student: If your favorite genre to write is fiction, what is your favorite genre to read?

CH: Fiction…I think there are a lot of people who think “Oh, I should read non-fiction because its gonna teach me things,” but there’s a difference between information and knowledge…Fiction, to me, gives you a truth that’s below all that information. It gives you real, deep knowledge… At the end of the day, what I care about is sitting down and writing something better than what I wrote the last time I wrote.

Student: I was wondering what you can do to improve your writing?

CH: Read. Read as much as you can…

826LA thanks Cristina Henríquez and the Hawkins Project!


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