Behind the Lectern: Cristina Rivera-Garza – How to Write

Perhaps it is Professor Cristina Rivera-Garza’s unconventional philosophy toward writing that makes her one of the most prolific Mexican writers of her generation. The award-winning author of six novels, three short-story collections, five collections of poetry and three nonfiction books doesn’t agree with the widespread notion that the novel is a sociopolitical commodity, an object to be scrutinized, interpreted and siphoned for every drop of topical criticism it may contain. Instead, Rivera-Garza sees it is as a vessel for exploring the limits of our own humanity, a medium with the power to solve the most perplexing paradoxes of our time.

She doesn’t acknowledge the standard process of writing, in which an author meticulously maps out a story from point A to point B, filling the space in between with eloquent prose. That would be much too “boring,” she says, and much too easy.

For Rivera-Garza, writing is a critical practice that stirs the spirit and connects back to the “ceaseless work of community.” Her work is as much a laborious meditation on the self as it is a fearless outpouring of her innermost thoughts, ideas and emotions.

“I write to investigate enduring mysteries, what we might describe as enigmas,”  Rivera-Garza told the UCSD Guardian. “The things that are impossible to explain; questions that have tormented or allured philosophers. When I find that my subject can be easily normalized, I lose interest and begin again with something new.”

According to Rivera-Garza, the purpose of writing is to create vivid literary realities that will remove her readers from their time and place, revealing to them another angle of the human experience and challenging their preconceptions of what it means to exist. She is not as interested in telling them how to perceive truths and untruths.

“We don’t write to represent ourselves,” Rivera-Garza explained. “But to leap — this vertiginous, maddening, at times glorious leap — out of ourselves and into the lives of others: What is it like to be a plant? A rock? A man? A planet?”

Her experimental writing style of beginning without a predetermined end often leads her down many dead end paths. Sometimes it takes two failed attempts, sometimes 10 and sometimes more, yet as her writing career shows, with diligence and unreserved passion, great literary works are made.

“It takes discipline and a deliberate choice to sit down and put your thoughts to paper,” Rivera-Garza told the Guardian. “Even if you only write one sentence a day, that’s 375 sentences in a year. That’s the start of something.”

As one of Mexico’s best-known writers, Rivera-Garza offers students a unique educational experience in writing creatively using the English language instead of Spanish, her native language that she writes in. Undoubtedly, much of the meaning of foreign literary works are “lost in translation” when converted to English, but, for Rivera-Garza’s students, much is gained as they are taught innovative ways of structuring sentences, crafting stories and selecting subjects as they draw from the poetic nature of their professor’s native tongue.

Moreover, Rivera-Garza is highly aware of the ways in which people are reading literature today, noting that while the physical book is on the wane, it will never entirely disappear. Still, she is a supporter of the digital realm as a venue for publishing creative work, actively blogging and breaking ground on Twitter, where she coined the term “tweetnovel” — a timeline of tweets as tweeted by a fictional character. Through her work she focuses on ways in which millennials can broadcast their writing sans the traditional print publisher.

With the classic 140-character limit on Twitter, every word is critical. But to Rivera-Garza, online and off, every character is more than just important; the power and influence of the written word is central to Rivera-Garza’s interest in writing. With every letter, word and sentence, she asks herself how her artwork might affect our world and what that might entail.

“As writers we must be aware of how our writing will change or influence the world,” Rivera-Garza said. “We must know our aims. Then, and only then, may we create.” [icon name=”stop” class=”” unprefixed_class=””]