On Becoming a Writer
by Nilsa Rivera
I’ve written short stories since childhood. I wrote in my journal. I wrote to figure out how I felt about the world and how to express myself. When I started college, I wanted to become a writer. Back then, I was a single mom and my advisor told me that writers don’t make enough money to support babies. I turned to a secure government job, becoming a manager with a promising career, a loving family and many hobbies.
My fears always stopped me when it came to writing. No hopes of money. It took too much time and attention. My writing was too dark. I am Hispanic: I don’t know how to write good enough, I thought. I ignored the stories in my head and the restlessness of my fingers. I tried other things like reading, scrapbooking and art journaling to fill the emptiness I felt in my staged ‘full and happy life’. Nothing worked.
After some encouragement from my husband, I decided to give writing another chance. Words gave me my breath back. I wrote every morning and night. I wrote until my eyes burned, watered, and I fell asleep with my fingers on the keyboard. At first, I didn’t share my writing with anyone, not even my husband. I wanted to keep writing as my secret; my drug.
Then a character grew in my mind. Lilli, a human trafficking victim turned assassin, who went after her captors. Her story wrapped around my life like weeds.
I started writing throughout work, in my car at lunch and while on breaks at my desk. One day, a co-worker asked me what I was doing.
“Let me read it,” she almost snatched the page out of my hand.
“I write about dark topics that people choose to ignore. Nobody’ll like it. To share my stories would tell the world a dirty secret. I don’t want people judging me.”
“Well, that’s selfish. Someone can learn from what you write.”
Those words hit me hard because they meant that someone else saw me differently than how I saw myself. My co-worker inspired me. I polished a short story about how I fled from domestic violence in a relationship and submitted it to Miami’s Lip Service Stories: True Stories Out Loud. I thought it was horrible. I just knew there was no chance Lip Service would select my story.
They loved it. I was chosen to read the story to an audience of more than a hundred people. Public speaking never scared me before, but telling such an intimate story in front of so many people terrified me. The paper shook as I read. When I finished, the audience applauded. They didn’t boo me off stage or throw tomatoes at me.
The real magic happened after the show. My heart was lighter. A sense of relief and closure overwhelmed me. Then audience members told me they loved my story. A couple said they were proud of me. Two women even shared they had similar situations in their past.
That was the night I started to value storytelling because I learned that through our stories we connect, share and grow. I wrote with a new respect for the craft. But, if I was going to share my stories, I knew they had to be well-written.
I joined the Writing Class Radio podcast where the teacher, author Andrea Askowitz, gives students a writing prompt and magic happens. Funny stories, sad, powerful, and even embarrassing stories sprint out of writers who may or may not even know what they are writing about at that point. The stories are read out loud into a microphone. I met other writers like me, with careers, with families, with busy and exciting lives. I wrote. We wrote. We laughed, cried, connected and grew. During three hours, we were free to write, without distractions, about anything that extended from our soul into our fingers.
In 2016, my father was diagnosed with dementia, my teenage son lost his long-time pet and plunged into depression and my marriage had become strained. My family needed me. I was overwhelmed and struggling to balance my career, a family, and my writing life. I refused to neglect my family, my job, or my writing. I pushed myself to fulfill all the added responsibilities.
Toward the end of 2016, I was extremely stressed-out, exhausted and emotionally drained. I decided to quit the career I had built for myself for a part-time job making less than half my salary.
Now, I schedule small chunks of time for each area of my life. While it’s still not easy, my life is more balanced. Writing is a habit, like brushing my teeth. One that I must do each day because it is part of who I am: a writer.
So far, my writing journey has brought me joy, challenges, wisdom and many friends. I’ve finished the draft of my first novel and I’m writing its sequel. I am working with the prominent Haitian-American writer M.J. Fievre to polish my debut novel. I was accepted into a prestigious writing workshop and will soon be interning at Sliver of Stone Literary Magazine.
Every morning I wake up happy, make coffee and continue to write.