I remember being in my first workshop class—it was at the community college here in Austin—and the instructor asking us to write two short stories for the semester. Well, I would write a short story every two weeks and turn it in. They weren’t very long and they weren’t very good but I was so intent and motivated that I just kept cranking the stuff out. And I remember at the end of the semester, the other students were talking about what I’d handed in and one student said, “Well, this is nice and your other pieces have been pretty good. But can you write about something else? Why do you have to keep writing about this one town?” And of course, he had written stories set in China and then a sci-fi story. I mean, he’d been, like, literally all over the galaxy, right, and I had honed in on this one little community and the truth of the matter is that I could write 20 more books on this topic and I’ll probably just be able to scratch the surface.
For me, it was never really a question of should I write about this or should I write about that. It was just what I knew and what I knew to be true. And I remember having this whole other career in advertising and going up to present work to clients and of course, the client has dedicated his life to whatever product they’re selling and I’m in a position to just present an idea of how to sell this bar of soap or whatever they happen to be selling. And there was always this sense of, “Maybe I got it right or maybe I didn’t. Maybe you know your stuff better than I do.” And I remember getting up from my first reading and having that same anxiety, that same sort of nervousness, and then it dawned on me. This is my life and no one here knows it better than I do. … I’m not saying I’ve told it in the best way possible, but this is the real thing as far as I know it to be, and there’s no one that can take that away from me.
And so the process of writing about the border and such, I think, a lot of this had to do with having moved away from the border and gaining that perspective that time gives you. I think if I’d never left Brownsville and become a writer, I’d probably be writing about some other place and not about my own town. But the process for me essentially happened when I moved away. And when I came to school here at the University of Texas and got a degree in advertising and then I moved to the Midwest, to Minneapolis, for a couple of years and I couldn’t find a job and so I ended up taking all these odd jobs, working in a movie theater, working in a canoe store.
And then after work, I would go out with the rest of the guys that I was working with and we’d go to a bar and I’d start telling these stories about Brownsville, and they were stories that I’ve heard growing up and they were stories that I had lived through and I realized, after a while, that I was doing everything I can do to stay connected to, really, the only thing I knew so intimately that I was removed from that in every way, shape, and form, being out in the tundra out there, that I had to do something to keep myself grounded in that way.
And so I mean, the stories themselves were all about getting back and I suppose to a certain point, I mean, all my writing is about that. Certainly, my nonfiction is about that sort of yearning to go back and to reclaim something that was precious to me at a certain point in my life.
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