Writing for Life

Over the years, I've been interviewed about various aspects of my life, including my writing life. Here I share one group of questions with you all as we begin the new year. Writing not just for work or for fun, but for life.

What kind of writer are you?

I write in various genres – poetry, children’s books, novels, stories, journalism, essays, memoir, and now screenplays. I try to bring craft and rigorous work to my writing, but also an emotional center. It’s an odd combination of discipline and follow-through with levels of don’t-give-a-shit madness. At the root of my work is a revolutionary soul. I want to transform myself, my community, my world. Words as hammer, words as feather. I know I’m in the right space when I write and it scares the hell out of me.

Why do you write?

Why do I write? To heal. To dance (words as drum). To wake up something beastly as well as some beauty (women are beauty – even if they don’t look too hot; men can carry beauty if they do their art well). I write to stay alive. I feel the most whole when I’m in a deep state of transcendental writing. Writing then is my practice, my career, my life line. I learned this when I was in jail, on heroin and other drugs, drinking, and suicidal. Turning to my art, I found what could save me. My writing always carries the wounds of my life, and it’s the gift these wounds have to offer.

What made you want to be a writer?

I first wrote while in jail and juvenile hall as a teenager. Something about telling my story overcame me. I felt the need to voice these experiences, these traumas, the depths of what I saw and where I had come to. I began a life of “crime” at seven. At age nine, my family fought all the time and once my oldest sister stabbed her husband. At ten my best friend was killed after we broke into an elementary school. At 11, I joined a gang. At 12 I started using drugs – huffing, dropping pills, then heroin. At 13, I began getting arrested for stealing, fighting, disturbing the peace. At 15 I dropped out of high school and got kicked out of the house. At 16 I was put into an adult facility following the so-called East LA Riot. At 17, I was arrested for attempted murder in which four people were shot. At 18, I faced a six-year prison sentence for fighting with police officers, I was hooked on heroin and by then 25 of my friends had been killed. I needed to tell why. I needed to express the pains, the sorrows, the hates as well as the glories of this reality. After I left “the life” at around 19 years (including getting clean of heroin “cold turkey”), I worked in industry – I became a welder, pipe fitter, mechanic, carpenter, smelter, and a steel mill worker. Again, so many stories accumulated in me. The pressure of the stories was so great, that by age 25, after seven years of drug addictions and seven years in industry, I decided to become a writer – working in weekly and daily newspapers, in radio, as a freelance journalist, and a poet. It’s the stories, damn, the stories. I went to school at night, took part in writing workshops and circles, and began this writing life that I’ve done seriously now for more than 25 years.

What advice would you give to a fellow writer who was just starting out?

Writing is a practice, a passion, hard work, a business, a dream, and the most frustrating thing in the world. A writer must withstand all of this. Oh, yes, sometimes there’s money and sometimes there’s recognition. But that’s only sometimes. If you can’t help writing, then write. Write all the time. And always read. Despite my pathologies and rages, I loved to read. In the streets. When I was homeless. In jail. I never stopped reading. And, of course, I still read in this calm family home environment. Reading has been the one constant. Beyond that you must never give up. Persistence is the true test of shamans and madmen. Do it no matter what. No matter what obstacles and sacrifices exists. It shows in the work. Those who breathe in and exhale words, who can’t live without them, can’t help but write life-affirming work (no matter how dark). You write even when it seems the world says no. In every no, there’s curled up a universe of yeses. The only art that matters is the art that is not supposed to be there.

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