Keynote delivered July 28, 2018 at El Tallercito’s 1st Writers Conference, Dallas, TX
It was some years ago when I first heard the word ‘encorazonado’ but I understood it, felt the rightness of it, in that very moment. To live from your heart. To so embody your heart—your love, your generosity, your warmth, your light—that you would be known by those qualities. Known by your heart rather than by your mind or your reputation or your influence.
I believe that what the heart most deeply longs to do is to give. Its truest function is to make a gift of itself. And I believe that art is born from this same longing. From a desire to give, to give of yourself, to give what is uniquely yours to give.
We know this instinctively. Every book that we have ever loved, every work of art that has ever spoken to us—famed or not, monetarily rewarded or not—at some point was a gift from its creator. For many of us, there are songs, stories, films, paintings, dances that literally saved our lives, that consoled us in a time of grief, that helped us to retain our sanity in difficult times, that restored our faith in life, that inspired us to, in turn, become people dedicated to creating. Dedicated to gifting to others what was gifted to us.
When I started publishing my work, I thought writing was about self-expression, about capturing life experiences, about telling forgotten stories. What my readers and audiences taught me was that writing is an invitation. An invitation to a conversation, a deep and private one, between those thoughts on a page and a reader. An invitation to receive what the writer most wants to offer as a gift.
Often, we misunderstand what a gift really is. We think that gifts are easy things—something useful or pretty—their worth measured only by their monetary or sentimental value. But we’ve all known gifts so profound and necessary that we hardly think of them as gifts. Leaders and activists and teachers that make their everyday work a gift. Parents who sacrifice for their children decade after decade. And artists and craftspersons that spend their lives developing their skills and their mastery so that they can create the best work—the best gift— they can offer.
For me, understanding my words as a gift I wanted to give led to a different understanding of my work as a writer and as part of a community. I understood that I was not my work, that my work was something I had made. And so, whether my work is published or rejected, that acceptance or rejection has nothing to do with me—only with the work. It has nothing to do with my self-esteem or my belief in my work. I will go on to make other pieces. Secondly, if my work is a gift that I make without knowing who the recipients are, then my next task is to figure out how to get my gift to anyone who might need it, anyone who might be able to use it. And so, submitting work, promoting my books, everything that comes with building myself as a writer—that has nothing to do personally with me either. They have to do with getting the gift where it needs to go. And if I understand my work as a gift I make, then I understand other people’s work in the same way. And what a community that is—a community that simply wants to make and give gifts.
When I think of community, of my writer’s community, I imagine entering a vast room of writers—and when I see all of their faces and hear their voices, I don’t want to think, “these are my enemies and these are my competitors.” I want to enter that room knowing I will be surrounded by friends. Friends I honor because their work awes and inspires me. Because their bravery and vulnerability make me more brave. Because their brilliance makes my life a more beautiful thing. Because I know what a struggle it is to cleave passionately to the desire to create even as we live our lives and care for our loved ones and go about our days and suffer when we suffer.
This may sound idealistic or impossible or overly easy, but what it is, is mostly work. We must make ourselves into people, into artists, who can be a part of that community from the heart. We must teach ourselves to be encorazonadxs with each other. To make it a daily practice to reject envy, to refuse comparisons, to not equate acceptances or rejections with our self-worth. To be ambitious for our work, not for ourselves. To sit down to the page every day and strive to give something real of ourselves. To tell the truth. To not give in to the voices of society that say our voices are not important, not wanted, not of value. To not give in—especially in difficult times—to the voices that say our voices are too small, our art not important enough, our energy wasted. It is a daily practice to resist as we watch others compete, steal, lie, scheme, and betray each other for publication or power or fame. It’s a daily practice to not lie to ourselves. To sit there, to believe in ourselves and our work, to open our hearts and our guts and the deepest parts of our thoughts to others. And to do it, day after day after day.
Some of us were encouraged to make art. Validated and supported. Many of us were not. Are not. Sometimes we create out of joy. Out of freedom. Out of resistance. Sometimes out of pain. Sometimes because creating is all we have to remind us that we are free beings, that we are alive, that we feel. Sometimes because creating is all that we have to help us survive. To say, here is this thing that I can give. I am still human and I am still alive because I have something to give.
The heart wants to make a gift of itself. Its breath. Its work. Its heat. Its experience. What you find beautiful makes up the greatest part of the gift you will give. Recently I said that as thrust into pain and violence and suffering as my work may sometimes be, what I find most beautiful is survival. Survival and transformation and the unrelenting drive to create. That is what I want to illustrate, again and again, in an ever more profound and powerful way. This is what I want my work to embody—the heart, flawed and real, polished until the light comes through it. With all its shadows and shapes, its translucence and joy, its hurts and its lessons.
In order to do that kind of work, however, it’s essential to have a supportive community. Some of us were lucky enough to find mentors, to find those who support our work. Some of us had others gift us belief in us. Some of us had none of those things. Some of us have the hard fought lessons of figuring out on our own how to believe in ourselves, how to seek publication, how to promote a book how to read, how to create ourselves as professional writers, how to value our work as writers, teachers, editors, and speakers. Whether we were given these things or had to find them for ourselves, we can learn to share these kinds of knowledge.
As I’ve come to believe more deeply in myself and my work, I’ve found that believing in others is something I am more and more willing to do. That believing in others takes nothing away from me. It doesn’t drain my energy. It doesn’t unbalance me—instead, it grounds me, it expands me. I don’t believe in others more than myself, it’s out of my belief in myself that I can believe in others. I want to support others out of my power, not out of what I lack. I want my writing life to be the space that lifts me up—not the space that poisons me. I want my heart to have no space in it for regret or resentment.
Do not mistake me—to live and write encorazonadxs—is not a simple thing. We will not always succeed. Will not always be honest. Will not always be open. Will not always be as generous as we could be. Will not always work out of our power. But we can try. We can commit ourselves to this work. This community is also not a thing without limits. There are those who will not understand generosity, not understand respect, not understand giving from their power, not be open to the freedom in the flow of giving and receiving that has nothing to do with ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ There will be people who can’t or won’t commit themselves to the project of this kind of community—and you’ll have to let them go.
To live and write and create community from the heart is something you do with work and intent, with passion and care. You are here to fulfill a purpose, to meet a need, to create a gift. You are here to pour your heart into a thing. A life. That purpose demands respect and attention. It demands articulation. It demands that you develop yourself as the others in your community develop themselves. That is the community I want to be a part of. The community I want to help create.