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Pep Talk from Elizabeth Acevedo

photo of Elizabeth Acevedo

Let me paint the scene for you.

It is the last week of October in 2013. I am in my second and official last year of graduate school. I am pursuing a master of fine arts in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. I am working on my master’s thesis in order to earn my degree. I am teaching a 2:2 workload and have active grading, office hours, and lesson planning to complete. I am taking three classes, including a craft poetry workshop. I am working a part-time job coaching a poetry slam team.

And on the night of The Big Inspiration, I was also watching The Food Network’s Chopped. There I was, sitting on an ink-stained sectional in a studio apartment I shared with my bae, when I swear to everything I love, a voice in my head began trying to tell me her story: “I’m better than all those chefs put together.”

I knew a character was trying to sneak into my life. And when I tell you I pushed that voice away? I mean it! I mean, I was in the middle of working on so many things, including a completely different novel that I’d been toying with for two years at that point. I knew I had no time or bandwidth to dedicate to a demanding character who interrupted my post-dinner leisure in order to bad-mouth food-show contestants.

But Emoni was like a series of speed bumps and despite how fast I tried to get away, she forced me to slow down. And so, with one day before November, I wrote up a quick one-page outline of what I thought could happen in the novel, I made a plan to write on the metro or during my lunch break, and then I went after it. Every day attempting my word count.

The first week was great! I had so many ideas. There was a lot of snappy dialogue. I wrote elaborate sections on each character’s name, the setting felt rich, and every time I sat down to write I had a new action to pursue.

The second week was hard but still good! I was definitely three-fourths through my shoddy outline, but that’s okay. And it was. I began stealing observations to include in the novel. I let myself play. Everywhere I went that early November, little scenes tugged at me. Walking past a playground would give me direction. While at the grocery store walking the aisles, I would think of how I could reach a daily word count by including some recipes in my manuscript. While at home cooking I found myself paying significantly more attention to how I stirred a pot of rice, attempting to codify the motions in sharp, bright language in my head.

On many days when I was struggling to meet my word count, I would write recipes for the book instead, or spend time writing a detailed scene, attempting to fill it with as many images as possible. The point for me wasn’t to arrive at the ending (I was huffing and puffing trying to make it to the finish line), as much as it was to see what it was about this character and her worlds that stoked my muse to such a pitch that I hurtled after her.

The third week dawned with Thanksgiving on the horizon. My outline was long abandoned, my main character was cantankerous, and finals—both for myself and my students—were right around the corner. I was not as excited and knew I had a bit of a mess on my hands since some chapters literally were headings and the directive to “return and insert exciting scene here”. But I kept going. Even while traveling, hungry and exhausted from over-indulging with family during the holidays, I still sat writing about Emoni’s Thanksgiving. Whatever it took for my 1,667 words.

I remember I was on a bus ride, the last day of NaNoWriMo upon me, 2,000 words left to complete. I knew editing would be like attempting to wrestle a kraken, all the different plot threads a many-armed being that wouldn’t be publishable, but in that moment I couldn’t care less. The thrill of being almost done, of tasting the ambrosia that would be typing The End.

There were so many days the writing and my life wouldn’t play nice and I almost convinced myself half a novel was better than no novel. Which was true. But, I’m glad the competitor in me refused to cry uncle to my own fatigue. And it’s like I got a jolt to keep going every time I entered my document into the NaNoWriMo word-count updater and saw the progress bar slowly move towards completion. Whenever a character surprised me or flourished in a way I’d hoped for but hadn’t thought I could pull off I was geeked. And if nothing else, I was so proud to have had to face my own insecurities about prose in such a manner that didn’t give me time to hem and haw over how awful my writing was.

Quote from pep talk

I completed NaNoWriMo that year with only three hours to spare. And a few years later when my editor asked if I had any thought for my second novel, I dusted off that project and returned to Emoni. As it turns out, I did have heavy revisions ahead of me, and I did end up changing a lot of what I wrote, but I’d also very clearly found a compelling voice who had stood up to all the years of waiting patiently on my desktop.

So, write. Find your recipes on the days that writing is hard. Slow down on the days the plot is throwing speed bumps your way. Lift dialogue directly from your life. Allow the play and experimenting and process to teach you as much as the finishing point. There will always be a reason why you cannot finish your project. Now go ahead and list all the reasons you not only can, but you most definitely will.

Pa’lante, mi gente.


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Graphic designed by Sandra Moore (our 100% amazing Fall 2020 Programs Intern)

Elizabeth Acevedo is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Carnegie medal, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award. She is also the author of With the Fire on High—which was named a best book of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal—and Clap When You Land, which was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book and a Kirkus finalist.

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