I’d like to think I’ve always been a strong writer, but that just isn’t the case. In grade school, I had nice penmanship. I studied hard for vocabulary tests. I won 3rd place in the third-grade spelling bee. By sixth grade, I was deemed literate and forgotten by an education system so overran and underfunded that simply pumping out piles of functionally literate people is considered an accomplishment. I slept-walked through junior high and might have been pushed a bit harder in high school, but I didn’t go to high school. While most girls my age were sitting in limousines complaining about feeling fat in their prom dress I was headed to my second job to earn enough for rent on the apartment I had moved into at age sixteen.
Statistically speaking, my fate was sealed. There is no grand explanation for what drove me to strive for more, but there are a few, small, standout moments. One of which involved a guy at a party telling me that Stephen King had dropped out of ninth grade. That's not true. One of King’s most famous characters was inspired by the biography of an evil man who had dropped out of school and ran away from home in the ninth grade, so maybe the guy at this party had misconstrued something he’d seen, read, or overheard someone talking about. I’ll never know. Whatever the case, that silly lie was a saving grace in the bleak existence of a teenager who’d been pushed out of an airlock by troubled parents. Since I was looking for motivation to succeed I likely would have found it eventually, but that off-the-cuff comment in that moment undoubtedly prevented me from drifting through space for longer than was necessary.
I had identified as an aspiring author before and during college, but I knew it was a near impossible way to earn money. I majored in psychology, slipping in journalism and creative writing classes along the way. But, as always, my core nature prevailed, and after a Ronda Rousey style match with a stack of psych-program applications, I ended up in graduate school for creative writing. Fresh off the assembly line, armed with little more than the advice of one teacher to “vary the length of my sentences,” I felt ready to conquer the world with words. Kidding. I was a total wreck. I’m pretty sure I cried on multiple occasions during my first week and almost quit at least a dozen times.
Despite showing up to my first writing workshop with an abysmal pile of scribblings, a tiny, talented woman with a huge presence and kind heart defended my work during a verbal assault from a fellow writer. A bond was forged and she went on to mentor me through my first semester. I was appreciative for her feedback from day one and soaked it up like rock moss does water on a scorching afternoon. But I was also very humbled and admit to cursing under my breath on an occasion or two. (I suspect she did the same.) Had I known then what I know now, I would have seen the brilliant ways in which she ever-so-gently (and sometimes sternly) was guiding me in how to transform my turbulent imagination from functionally literate to a ball of fire I could skillfully wield at will to ignite others. But changes that grand take time. Time I rarely see other aspiring writers willing to give themselves.
Hell, that neat little wrap up could easily seem like the end of my story, but there were three more highly accomplished mentors and workshop leaders who came after. Each more generous than the last, given that they had to contend with a girl who at the start of every new semester was increasingly convinced that she was ready to rule the Library of Congress. Patiently, each offered up inspiring reading recommendations and forced me to tackle the weakest elements in my writing at times when even scrawling a grocery list felt impossible. Ever so slowly—as current standards go, I learned to write.
The MFA formula was an enriching experience for me, but it’s not for everyone. There are a number of ways to emulate that learning/teaching model without the extreme expenditure. Contacting any program for a list of graduates (or even professors), reading their work, then reaching out to the people you’re interested in working with for editing services is a great path. Teaching positions are sparse and underpaid, so there are a great many of us out here offering freelance writing services and you can pick our brains for far less than the cost of tuition to pretty much any university.
The most productive relationship with a client often develops when a writer is seeking guidance. Some editors may disagree, but for me, it’s nothing like trying to sell timeshare. I’ve been fortunate in having some really great people land on my doorstep. Also, some not so great—but I try not to focus on those. ;) My favorite clients are those who push to develop a relationship more like a mentorship. I relish these. Though I still struggle to skillfully wield the same fire as my former mentors and have no doubt scorched a few eyebrows in failed attempts, I continue striving to pay it forward by helping others hone their craft. All the while, eternally grateful that so many people have dedicated their expertise to helping me develop and enrich mine.
When I got married I went from having one of the most common Anglo-Saxon names, Anderson, to one of the most common Hispanic names, Gonzales. And besides the occasional questioning glance when a cashier reads the name on my debit card or driver's license, the transition has been easy. I even hoped the change might decrease some of the issues I've dealt with because of not having a middle name, which is more troublesome than some might expect. Mostly because everyone thinks you're hiding something. True story... Once upon a time, around age 19, after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation, I was held overnight at a very small police station in Delmar, Maryland because Vanessa C. Anderson was wanted in Baltimore for attempted murder. The information superhighway wasn't so super back then, so it took a while for Baltimore to facsimile over Vanessa C's info, including descriptions of her tattoos. So around 5a.m., the dragon on my ankle took on a new meaning: freedom. Although, frankly, I think the invite for the motorcycle ride with the officer who detained me explains it all. Ridiculous. Point is, give your kid a middle name or they're gonna get asked out on dates in really troublesome ways. So why didn't I hyphenate my maiden name after getting married? I'll let you put the initials together and figure that out. ;)
After signing a marriage certificate and submitting one simple name change form to social security, Vanessa Gonzales became my new middle-nameless identity. And I didn't give much thought to publishing under my maiden name until I actually got published. All of a sudden I was in a panic. Concerned about everything that could possibly go wrong, even worst case scenario—divorce. Yeah, I've been with my husband for 14 years, married for 11, but in our high divorce-rate society, the possibilities for disaster seem limitless. In a near frantic state, I made endless pros and cons lists. I also did research on pen names and the history of female writers who used them. I won't break into a history lesson, but I had somehow never realized that George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans! Drrrr. :) And it may be 2011, but even the middle-grade readers super-hero, Joanne Rowling (who also doesn't have a middle name :) was advised to publish with the ambiguous initials J.K. so as not to hinder her popularity with Harry Potter's initial target audience: young male readers. But following that formula would eliminate the portion of my name that is inherently me. And I've always loved my first name. Yay—progress! But I'm right back where I started, wondering what to do about Gonzales. Shouldn't this be easier?
I wondered if publishing under a Hispanic name would increase or decrease my potential audience. I consulted a few confidants and got conflicting answers. Then I worried that Gonzales might give the false impression of my having Hispanic ancestry. But like most of us, my husband's ancestry includes a variety of cultures. He doesn't look Hispanic, nor has he had much experience with the culture. Maybe we're both a big disappointment. We considered changing our last name to America. But after a quick people-pages search we found that it's being used by less than 100 people—most of whom are probably in the witness protection program (ha), but seriously.
At this point I turned to the only reliable place I know for important decision making relief: music videos on YouTube. While watching an old Joni Mitchell video, "Born To Take The Highway," I notice that she is introduced as Joni Anderson. How cool is that!? I'm off to Wikipedia. Sure enough, her maiden name is Anderson. Mitchell was her married name and despite divorce, she stuck with it. What a conflicting sign. But I started leaning toward the idea that if I establish myself as Gonzales, then come what may that's who I am to my readers. Also, I already own the domain vanessagonzales.com, which I purchased without hesitation on a day I wasn't over-analyzing my identity. The list in favor of Gonzales is getting longer. Still, I'm wavering until a TED talk I watched recently comes to mind, "The politics of Fiction" by Elif Safak.
Safak says that writers are, "Not seen as creative individuals on their own, but are seen as representatives of their respective cultures, and that we need to understand the value of representing and writing what we know." Great, I think, here I go again. But then she goes on to say that we should get out of our cultural ghetto and visit others to write what we feel not just what we know. And it dawns on me that having married someone with Hispanic ancestry, whether I know much about it or not, it is something that I feel, and getting out of my own cultural ghetto will inevitably lead me toward that one.
Vanessa Gonzales has been my identity for over a decade. Most importantly, I love the sense of confidence that comes with the realization that I don't need to change my identity to represent my writing any more than I need to change what I write to represent me. As long as it's all coming from the heart I owe no explanation to my critics.
And many thanks to all those who contributed to this decision; every once in a while I still lean strongly toward my favorite suggestion: V. Vanessa Anderson deGonzales Fancy Pants. ;)
Turns out, it's fabulous to be/feel "enlightened." But not everyone is, and publishing under Gonzales dramatically decreased my sales. And also resulted in a lot of hate-mail on social media sites. Sigh. I now publish under both names.