Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Writers' quirks, how some writers write

This past weekend, I took part in the Writer's Pavilion for the annual Orgullo Festival, which celebrates gay Hispanics in South Florida. It was a great bonding experience and it felt like we were all hanging out, sharing tips and experiences about our journeys in writing. Some of us have never met but after Saturday, I now feel a literary kinship with them.

After reading selections from our works, our organizer and interviewer Pablo Cartaya each asked us what was one of our quirks as a writer, what do we do in order to write. Everyone had a different answer and they were all entertaining as well as enlightening.

For writer and English teacher Cardidad Moro-Gronlier who read her short story Cuban Girls Don't Wear Tampons, she must take off her bra to write. She said it's about "comfort, not debauchery."

Speaking of getting comfortable...poet Carlos Pintado who read his poem Rome from his upcoming book Nine Coins, said he needs to take off his clothes to clear his whole space to write.  "I also drink a lot of coffee as well,'' he added.

For young adult writer and our host Pablo Cartaya, it's about music. His go to is Pitbull, Mr. Worldwide, Mr. 305 to get into the writing groove. Dale!

Also music driven is author E.E. Charlton-Trujillo who said she builds soundtracks for all her novels. "If I need to drop back into a scene, I have a song for that chapter or perhaps a particular character. That way, I can return to the mood and character regardless of where I am." She also has a habit of writing on anything from napkins to toilet paper.  (By the way, here's a trailer on her road tour to empower kids through writing.)

For Telemundo telenovela writer and author Jose Ignacio Valenzuela also known as Chascas who read a chapter from his upcoming novel La Posibilidad de Una Sonrisa (Possibility of A Smile), he likes to write in his pajamas with his shaggy hair all messed up. But he also mentioned that he loves pop music from the 1980s, 90s (Erasure, The Police), and that helps him set the scenes and build the character.  "Music is pure emotion,'' he said.

And for me (I read from from the first chapter of Looking for Providence,)  I wasn't sure how to answer the question. I find that writing anything, just a bit of dialogue, a few sentences or a small scene turns on the writing faucet. I could be jotting notes by hand in my notepad or on a laptop and it just pours out. I just need to write something and it builds from there.

Pablo Cartaya on the left, Mr. Giggles on the right.
I also find myself calling myself at work and leaving voicemail messages when I think of an idea or some dialogue for a scene so that I don't forget the detail.  I do this to the point that at times when I come to work Mondays, the red light on my phone alert me of new messages. When I listen to them, they usually start out with "Hey Johnny, it's you. Remember this line..."  Hey, we're all quirky, we're writers after all.

I also mentioned that having my traditional drink, a vodka with Diet Coke usually helps unleash some creativity. Not that I WUI (write under the influence) often but the times when I'm about to rewrite or revisit a chapter and I happen to have a glass, it adds a little something something to the writing. This may explain why most of my main characters drink some type of vodka variation.

One thing that was echoed by most of the writers was "to be fearless in your writing."  Because if you don't take a chance and put it on paper (or on screen), it can't be read and shared.

For you writers out there in cyberspace, what's your quirk, something you must do that helps you get your write on?

Friday, September 25, 2015


September is Hispanic Pride Month but it's also time for ORGULLO, the annual Hispanic gay pride festival in Miami. This year marks the fifth annual ORGULLO Festival which features a mix of musicians, artists, writers, dancers (and drag queens) Oct. 3 at Museum Park in downtown Miami. I'll be one of the writers talking about the craft that Saturday in the Writer's Pavilion, which also features writers Carlos Pintado, Charlton-Trujillo, Cardidad Moro-Gronlier and Jose Ignacio Valenzuela. The Writers Pavilion runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (I'm at noon.) At 6 p.m., there's a panel discussion with all the authors. The event is produced by Unity Coalition with partnerships with the city of Miami and The Betsy South Beach Hotel, which hosts weekly residencies for writers. So if you're in the area Oct. 3, come out and stop by for the festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. I'll be reading at noon Saturday at the Writer's Pavilion. For more details, visit Celebrate Orgullo.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Emilio Estefan's We're All Mexican

Miami music producer Emilio Estefan has produced a song and video called We're All Mexican to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. The fast-paced song, a mix of reggaeton, rap with some thunderous trumpets, features an all-star cast of Latino and non-Latino celebrities and entertainers (Gloria Estefan naturally, Carlos Ponce, Santana and even Whoopi Goldberg.) I wrote an article about the video and talked to Emilio Estefan about the meaning of the song which is aimed at highlighting the accomplishments of Latinos and immigrants.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Papal Pilgrims

Some South Floridians will travel far to see Pope Francis. Several groups are headed to Cuba, Washington DC., New York and Philly to see (or hear) the Argentine pontiff during his historic trips. I wrote an article on why some folks are traveling to see the Holy Father and what they're bringing with them.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Traveling to Cuba (and feeling less guilty about it)

Many Cuban Americans who grew up in South Florida remember hearing their parents and grandparents rhapsodize about Cuba. How the water was bluer, the sand softer, the mangoes sweeter.

Some of these Cuban Americans have dreamed of visiting the island but they felt conflicted about it. They didn't want to upset their families who may have worked in labor camps to flee the communist government. And they don't want to appear to be supporting the system by spending money there as a tourist.

So for Cuban-Americans or American travelers in general who want to travel to the island nation but not feel bad about it, how do you go about this?

I wrote a guide, a list of travel tips to Cuba for my paper, the Sun Sentinel. There are things one can do that can directly benefit the everyday Cuban workers and entrepreneurs.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Remembering El Oriental de Cuba

A new reader sent me an email yesterday and it triggered some fond memories for me.

 "Just wanted to share that I came across your eBook (Beantown Cubans) as I was eating a media noche and batido de guayaba. lol hahahhaa. Thought it was weird. What a coincidence that you mentioned the same thing, a media noche and batido de mamey, I'm Cuban and Mexican from Boston but now I live in TAMPA. with all the other cubans. just wanted to share, peace. - Angel"

He was referring to El Oriental de Cuba restaurant, the real-life setting in my third book Beantown Cubans where the two main characters Tommy and Carlos meet up each Friday to talk about work, their families and of course, guys! And immediately, a wave of my own memories of eating at this Boston eatery rushed over me.  

In Boston, El Oriental is a Cuban institution where Cubans and non-Cubans can find a scrumptious media noche, a creamy pink mamey shake and potent cups of cafecito. But it's also a gathering place in Boston's Latin Quarter also known as Jamaica Plain (JP for locals.)  

Besides food, visitors can grab copies of local Spanish-language newspapers such as El Mundo and El Planeta. Flyers for upcoming Latin concerts and festivals fill the window sills by the take out counter. Spanish peppers the air and mixes with the sounds of sizzling steaks from the stove. Framed photos of classic American Chevys and Fords and everyday scenes of Cuban life bedeck the walls. The place is an unofficial community center where New England media can gauge the pulse of the Latino community.

416 Centre St., Boston
When I moved to Boston, the restaurant reminded me of Miami. It was a piece of Cuban culture injected into this little corner of Centre Street in the Hub. It felt like Miami, like home.  And whenever I could, I would bring a new Cuban friend, non-Cuban friend and some dates (but not at the same time) to introduce them to this little local favorite. A lunch or dinner there served as a form of initiation into Boston Cuban culture. It was a great spot to interview local Latino leaders for story ideas.

I also brought my family here. I remember when my parents visited me for the first (and only) time in Boston, they realized I didn't have any Cuban coffee in my Dorchester kitchen. So off we went to El Oriental for cafecito and brunch. (It was only three miles away.) I think my parents also felt at home there too.  And so when it came to write Beantown Cubans, I knew exactly where I would have the two main characters meet up each week to gab. El Oriental.

When it came time for Open Road Integrated Media to record a video for the book a few summers ago, El Oriental's owner Nobel Garcia was gracious enough to serve the small crew the best of what his restaurant had to offer (Cuban sandwiches, bistec de pollo, chicken sandwich, sweet plantains, black beans and rice -- basically a sampler of the menu). He also plopped a blue Oriental de Cuba baseball cap on me during the shoot as I sipped on the mamey shakes. (I was so full you could have rolled me outside to the Hi-Lo market, now Whole Foods.) 

The photo above is a screen grab from the shoot. (That's me with owner Nobel Garcia.) The video is here.    You'll see the tall glass of mamey shake in front of me. Thank you Nobel and the staff of El Oriental for all the good meals and times in Boston.

(This was the crew from Open Road Media with me in middle after we pigged out at El Oriental. We then went to the Blue Hills to work it off.  From left, Danny Monico, Jeffrey Sharp, moi and Luke Parker.)


Monday, August 17, 2015

Sharks on Twitter

Mary Lee the Shark loves the Miami Marlin, Jimmy Buffett and hanging out in South Florida. Katharine the great white likes to be snarky (or is that shnarky?) with her followers.  They're some of the great whites and other sharks that Tweet.  I wrote a fun fin story on how some humans (the land sharks) Tweet as these real sharks that were tagged with transmitters by Ocearch, a nonprofit shark group.

(The photo to the left is from Katharine the great white shark's Twitter profile  @Katharine_Shark

Friday, August 14, 2015

Matters of the Sea by Richard Blanco

As Richard Blanco read his lovely new poem Matters of the Sea  Friday morning for the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana (go to the 5 minute mark in the video above), I raptly listened on NPR while driving my little Fiat on I-95 on my way to work. As he spoke, I instantly visualized and recognized his descriptions.

Among them: "our grandmothers counting years while dusting photos of their wedding days", "our fathers worn by the weight of clouds clocking in at factories,'' "our lips anointed by the same spray of salt-laden wind,'' "we’ve all cupped seashells to our ears listen again to the echo," "to gaze into the lucid blues of our shared horizon to breathe together to heal together."

His delivery was Zen-like, comforting and soothing like the sea that stood still behind him along El Malecon.

This is a long way of saying that I'm very proud of my literary Cuban Miami brother. In honor of the ceremony, I am reposting this entry below from when I interviewed Richard for his memoirish book The Prince of Los Cocuyos which was published last fall.

"A Cuban 'Wonder Years' or like a 'Running with Mangoes,'' a la Augusten Burroughs. That's how Richard Blanco describes his new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos that he just published.

It's the latest from the gay, Cuban-American, Miami-raised writer who presented his "One Today'' poem for President Obama's inauguration in Jan. 2013.

The new book chronicles his coming of age (and coming out) while living in Miami's Westchester neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s. (Cocuyos means fireflies in Spanish, in case you were wondering.)

I interviewed Richard for my paper the Sun Sentinel. Here's my story on his book, why he chose to write in more long form than his traditional poetry such as Looking for the Gulf Motel collection and how he hopes his stories may help gay youth know that they're not alone in their struggles. The book is warm and sweet like a Cuban cafecito.

Richard Blanco (and that's me smiling over his shoulder) at his book reading in Coral Gables for The Prince of Los Cocuyos