free writing–on why tell stories

I’m thinking lately about the reasons for writing short stories—for writing fiction. An old teacher of mine once asked me why I would want to write made up stories. Who cares? Who could be listening? Also she mentioned why I would want to send work out and receive the compulsory rejections. This is something I still wrangle with.

After an MFA program and hours at my desk revising and then sending out the material. I have to remind myself it is about representation. I am thinking of Carol Manley author of Church Booty and her comment in an interview I had the pleasure of recording. She mentioned her own concerns on this question. She described a trip to a bookstore and wondering what she had to contribute after all these books and words have been put together. And I have to agree. But again I am thinking more and more about representation. I’ve written on this blog exploring the low numbers of Latino professors and low numbers of literary fiction audiences.

In my mind I come back to the Grandmother’s kitchen and the old man who wasn’t my Grandfather. Sitting there early in the morning as Compadres barged in for breakfast and then later in the day the family who came over to talk and play cards. The old folks would talk and talk for hours. Always on the past and always intimately about their lives and experiences. With the Grandfather it was the worksites and the pool halls around Huerfano County. With the Grandmother it was always her father and his experiences—the way he treated women. Again these stories were always intimate and animated. As time went on I reveled in these kitchen talks. I sought them out.

I think of this because I go back to those stories and use them for my own writing. I want to represent the old folks lost to me and my current life as a teacher and writer. The only way to connect to them anymore. The old photos and the old stories coming together in my notes and thoughts and then down onto the blank page. It seems to be my only way to honor them.

I think of the Grandfather in particular. The man’s sole pleasure seemed to be to follow guests outside as they smoked and as he smoked to keep that story of the mill or world war II going for just a bit longer. The Grandmother would always yell for him to let those guests be. But he loved to tell stories. He would stand and sit for hours with Compadres and nieces and nephews to recount past cars and loves. I can’t help but think how most of those stories find their way into my stories. I think of how he would stand to emphasize a scene or a moment for those listening to him. How he flailed his hands about for the old folks and how he tried to get one last laugh out of his audience. How he tried to put the old folks in his shoes. He told stories of being on leave in New York City in the 1940’s as well as his life as a medic in Burma. His trip on the Queen Mary and also the story of opening a bar and gambling hall illegally in Huerfano County.

Those stories kept the old folks entertained for hours and kept me wanting to continue listening…

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

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