Sarah Cortez (SC) writes about her life in Houston–and so much more. Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston, her 2012 memoir, published by Texas Review Press, was awarded Honorable Mention in both the Los Angeles Book Fest and the Southwest Book Awards. Her 2013 book of poetry about police work in Houston, Cold Blue Steel, also published by Texas Review Press, has garnered rave reviews. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, Sarahhas authored two acclaimed poetry collections based on her own experiences as a beat police woman in Houston and has won the PEN Texas literary award in poetry. She also edited Urban Speak: Poetry of the City and Windows into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives, winner of the 2008 Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, Indian Country Noirand You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens, which was short-listed for the 2012 International Latino Book Awards. Kirkus Reviews hailed the anthology as “a consistent, well-crafted collection,” while the starred review in Booklist says the book “presents stories that are notable both for their authenticity and for their language. In 2013, her edited volume, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, co-edited with Sergio Tronosco, from Arte Público Press was released.
Sarah was interviewed by Dr. Debra D. Andrist (DDA), Chair of Foreign Languages/Professor of Spanish, Sam Houston State University, who has known Sarah for nearly twenty years—as Sarah has agreed to participate in numerous professional conference panels that Deb has organized over the years and as an enthusiastic presenter many times at university events Deb has organized at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, when Deb was on the faculty there, and in Huntsville at Sam Houston State University, where she met Paul Ruffin of Texas Review Press, one of Sarah’s publishers.
DDA: Sarah, you’ve followed quite an exciting and varied personal and professional route to where you are now; please summarize your personal/employment “history/journey” to being an award-winning author and successful teacher of writing, known not only locally in Houston but nationally and internationally!
SC: Both my employment path and personal path to where I am today with my writing, editing and teaching careers have been circuitous. In fact, if you look at my university degrees, including two advanced degrees, you could draw the conclusion that I am a living monument to over-education. And none of those degrees are in creative writing or the subjects of English or English literature.
My history includes a successful corporate career of 14 years and a policing career of twenty years. However, one of the most precious of the dreams that has sustained me since a young age has been the desire to be a published writer. And, I should add, not a self-published writer, but a writer published by traditional publishers with sterling reputations and high standards.
Certainly, I have studied in various one-week workshops with some excellent teachers through the years and I did have two excellent semesters with fiction teachers or poets early on in night courses. But most of what I have learned is self-taught. Perhaps this is what has garnered me such an excellent reputation as a teacher of writing. You see, I have had to teach myself, so I understand in an intimate way the writer’s psyche, the writer’s challenges, and the writer’s methods of mindful self-editing that must be in place for the successful professional writer.
Now, I thank my lucky stars that I did not attend an MFA program in creative writing. It can be remarkable how much isn’t taught in those two or three-year programs—there isn’t time.
DDA: Please tell us about your educational and intellectual preparation for writing and teaching writing.
SC: Again, with the hindsight that is always 20-20, it appears that almost everything in my academic and professional lives has been in preparation for the teaching and editing that I do now (and have done for years). But, of course, it never seemed that way at the time.
I was lucky enough to attend excellent schools that stressed high performance. We spent hours learning how to diagram sentences, punctuate properly, master vocabulary, and translate Latin. (My first graduate degrees is in Classical Studies—the translation of Greek and Latin and the learning of those ancient cultures.)
Let’s see—intellectual preparation. Well…learning to use your mind really is an art unto itself, isn’t it? The schools I attended until Rice University were private, Catholic schools where the majority of teachers were Dominican nuns. Let me tell you—those fine, smart, upright women were the match of anyone I’ve ever met not only on the intellectual plane. They were fabulous role models for the benefits of learning to use the logical mind and the careful tending of the spirit.
Perhaps, it would good here to mention that one of the great rivers that has run throughout my entire life is the paying attention to detail. I would guess that this tendency is part of my nature, but it is certainly a skill that can be bettered through training and diligence. To be a good writer and editor (as well as police officer), you have to pay attention to details. You also must be intuitive and skillful enough to be able to sense and articulate the “whole” that the details add up to.
DDA: Sarah, you’ve always been a teacher in so many ways and are now guiding other writers in workshops and master classes! Please tell us about some of your experiences as a teacher.
SC: I think teaching has always been in my blood. After all, my mother’s fondest dream was to be a teacher–a dream she realized after taking eight years to complete her first college degree because her farming family would work until they saved enough money for her to go to college one semester at a time. Then, she would return to the farm and everyone in the family would work until they saved enough money to send her back for another semester. See how intense was their commitment to education and to her future? They did this for each daughter and son in the family.
I love teaching because I know what a valuable difference a teacher can make. Here’s one of my amazing moments in teaching. Years ago at UH in a memoir creative writing class I had two students who were engaged to get married to one another and spent most of the semester giggling together in the back row. I didn’t think they even liked the class or learned too much. Years later I received a communication from one of them and found out that of all the college classes she had had that one class was the one to set her on fire–both in her own writing ability and in her own career as a later teacher and librarian.
I think that as a good teacher you have to be willing to plant many seeds and never know if any of them will sprout. You have to plant the seeds because it is the right thing to do rather than to try to gain anything for yourself in a selfish way. So many of my students have now published books, won awards, and gone on to teach writing themselves. I am so proud of them!
It is also important for teachers to model appropriate ethics in the classroom. I’ve seen a lot of ethical abuses in creative writing graduate classes and even in community writing classes sponsored by non-profits. So, I’m careful to follow copyright law, not talk badly about other faculty or writers, give credit for ideas to the people who generated them, and, most importantly, not allow students to engage in humiliating, bullying tactics toward one another. As someone who takes a lot of pride in being a professional teacher, I know it is important to follow professional guidelines in classroom behavior.
DDA: What do you like best about writing and about teaching writing? Why? Least about each? Why?
SC: About writing, I like the careful teasing out of true meaning in the form I am writing in—poetry, fiction, essay, etc. (I’ve also written textbook chapters, prayers, book reviews, essays, magazine articles, journalistic pieces for newspapers, etc.) Sometimes it takes me years to finish a poem, to get it exactly right. When I’m working on a piece of writing, I am in the Never-Never Land of pure creation. What a joy!
Each form has its own demands, its own way of setting up and fulfilling the expectations of the reader. I find it endlessly fascinating to work with writers—in the classroom, as a freelance editor, as an editor for the anthologies I propose—because in understanding the diction, style, voice, expectations, skill level of each writer, I also am privileged to enter that writer’s internal space of creation. I say “privileged” here, not only because entry is gained by understanding, which engenders respect, but also because entry is unique to each writer. In other words, I (as an editor or teacher) have to be preternaturally intuitive about how to best work with each writer. I enjoy this challenge.
There have only been a few moments in my many years of editing/teaching that have made me think “I will never do this again.” In brief, one moment came after I had spent hours crafting a tactful email to a writer about one point in her short story that desperately needed to be revised. Her disastrous choice was to send a reply email that attacked me personally, then listed her past awards, then (even worse) told me why I wasn’t qualified to edit her writing. I found out later that she is known in the industry to be a mediocre writer with a hot temper and immature behavior towards anyone who doesn’t bow down before her.
DDA: Do you ever get the proverbial “writer’s block?” What do you do to move on?
SC: I think writer’s block is a huge myth. People buy into the myth, then psyche themselves out of enjoying the freedom of the blank page.
Perhaps, people buy into the myth of writer’s block because they lack confidence in their ability to revise. It’s very easy to feel intimidated if you think that whatever you write has to be perfect the first time. Although, that’s sheer craziness.
I think of the blank page as my best friend. It will accept whatever I write; it will record any and all of my moments—the dark and the luminescent, and everything in between.
Many experienced teachers of creative writing often say that the true mark of a professional writer is that he/she can revise his work. I recall the wonderful teacher I had in my first semester of fiction writing who said that the true purpose of all writing classes was to teach people how to self-edit. In other words, the goal of someone learning to write in a particular form is to learn how to make his writing better and better, to see the flaws, to understand the rhythms and flow of not only ideas but also the mechanics of structure, to pick the “perfect” vocabulary, the “perfect” title, and on and on.
DDA: In this same vein of sharing your expertise, one of your upcoming projects is to (again) participate in the Houston Hispanic Forum Career & Education in February 2015 as a panelist. Please tell us about this project and why this part of your teaching, outreach to young Latinos, is so near and dear to your heart, whether writing and editing literature for them or overtly offering your expertise in such projects?
SC: It’s important for young Hispanics to see role models who aren’t criminals, who aren’t engaged in illegal activity, who aren’t losers. You know that violence has its own seductive power. That’s part of why those of us, such as police officers and soldiers, who have stood up and continue to stand up against illegal criminal activity, must be willing to talk to young people, to encourage them in their pursuit of literacy in the English language, to affirm their belief in honor and integrity, to show them the value of discipline, and the focus of a mission statement.
I’ve taught in high schools where there’s a lot of kids in gangs. And you know what? The kids who want a better life through attending college and working hard, those kids are more savvy than adults in identifying the gang-bangers as “losers.”I like to encourage everyone I work with, young and old, to pursue excellence. Unfortunately, this has become an overworked concept that is given much lip service and sometimes too little real punch in daily life. Each person must decide many times a day whether to do a “good job” at a minor task or to do a sloppy job. This is an individual choice that comes from within. Those who can do small things well generally will do likewise for so-called “important” jobs. It is the classroom teacher’s job to model excellence in all that she does so that the student learns this attitude. It is also the teacher’s job to point out poor performance.
DDA: And, finally, please tell us what you’re working on now—and your next project after.
SC: My most recent deadline was for an essay in response to an article written by Texas Monthly writer, Skip Hollandsworth. I wrote a lyric essay that incorporates the voice of the buried bones of a victim of serial killers Dean Coryll and Elmer Wayne Henley along with my narrative of my own experiences on Lower Westheimer during the time period of the early seventies when these horrific murders occurred. This essay will be published by Lamar University Press in a book of essays entitled A Shared Truth, edited by Cheryl Clements.
My next published book will be out this fall from Texas Review Press. It will be an anthology entitled Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. Its goal is to give voice to those poets who wish to remember Mexico before the ravages of narco-violence and the destruction of the middle class there. Poets of national stature will sing their poetry next to lesser-known poets in this volume that is shaping up as an eloquent celebration of Mexico.
After that…well, I have several anthologies in the works and a book of my own essays.