I began writing in secret as a kid. I wrote about the same things that inspired me then to draw—clouds, sky, wind, sunsets; things that flooded my heart with feelings hard to name, but that needed naming. I was a girl who preferred keeping company with trees. They listened to me without laughing.
It seems writers begin writing when we realize we’re stranded in the solitude of our lives, and then, if we become successful, we’re condemned to a lifetime of solitary confinement. I’m joking about the “condemned” part. Truthfully, I prefer solitary confinement to any social obligation. I still enjoy the company of trees, and yet my writing is about and for others.
I see my profession as both a responsibility and an honor to serve those I love, especially now when our president vilifies Mexicans, immigrants, refugees, the poor. My writing is a response to his ignorance.
For me, art can and does change the world, one person at a time. I have witnessed it change the lives of my readers and their families, people who had never found themselves in books before, and who became empowered by this encounter. Perhaps change is gradual and not grand.
When I was an undergraduate, I began writing about my neighborhood without any self-consciousness about what I was doing. Then in graduate school I drifted into imitating my teachers who wrote confessional poetry. This wasn’t a great fit for me, because nobody wanted to hear my confessions. One day, while at graduate school, I realized I’d never come across a book written about my community in all my years of education; I was outraged. This rage fueled me to begin writing The House on Mango Street. Since then, I think of rage as a useful energy if we know how to transform it positively instead of letting it transform us.
What has writing taught me? That I am on a sacred path, and so is everyone and everything in the universe. That writing is a sitting meditation; I can start wherever I am, with whatever small emotion, and the writing will take me to a more enlightened place. That I must transform my demons, or they will transform me. That humility is necessary in order to be of service. These truths I know more or less.
What do I know for sure? Whatever I do with love, on behalf of those I love, with no personal agenda, siempre sale bonito (will always turn out well). Writing has taught me this.
I know another thing for sure thanks to the MacArthur reunions. The more diverse the community we bring together, the more creative our solutions to our dilemmas. This was brought to light co-organizing los MacArturos, a caucus of MacArthur Fellows, who serve the underserved. With my MacArthur colleagues Joan Abrahmson, Baldemar Velasquez, and the late Joaquin Avila, I became an organizer. I am grateful to them for mentoring me.
When the Twin Towers fell, no one thought to remember the undocumented workers who worked at Windows of the World. They died too, and their families, here in the U.S. and in other countries, suffered greatly.
The poor, the immigrants, the working-class, women, children, the undocumented, and the refugees aren’t history, and don’t count unless their story is told. So much of what they suffered has been forgotten. Their stories must be documented, or it’s as if their lives never mattered.
The stories I want to tell I can’t research in a library. They exist if at all in the footnotes, in the margins, in the imagination. I can collect what I hear said and how it’s said, but I have to imagine what was said in places where I haven’t been a witness.
I’m trying to be of some use. I can’t cook. I can’t sew a button on a shirt. I don’t know my multiplication tables beyond 7 x7. What good am I except as a writer, and what good am I to the people I love if I know their pain and do nothing?
For me writing, speaking, is a way of transforming wounds into light. I am not a curandera, but I want to heal. With words.
Copyright © 2018 by Sandra Cisneros. All rights reserved.
The MacArthur Fellowship celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached awards. Since the program began in 1981, more than 1000 people have been named MacArthur Fellows.