Saturday, March 08, 2008

Guest columnist: Corina Carrasco. Catching Fire.

La Bloga welcomes Corina Carrasco as our first guest columnist of 2008, sharing one of those captivating moments that last a lifetime.

"Every one of you has inside of you the power to catch fire. Right now, with your writing, you are simmering. But at some point in your life, at least one time, you will catch fire. My hope is that you will do it some time during this course."

We listened to his hushed, gentle, captivating voice as he spoke to us, becoming almost inaudible, when he spoke the words "catch fire." We had been brought together on that hot day in late September of 1975, in the basement of Casa Zapata, the Chicano theme house, to take a course in Chicano Writing from Arturo Islas, the first Chicano in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in English and who would, later that year, become the first tenured Chicano professor at Stanford University.

Arturo's teaching in the English Department was legendary and his Chicano Writing course was extremely popular. Students dreamed of getting in then feared that they'd fall short of Arturo's expectations once they got in. The class, taught only one quarter per year, had a maximum enrollment of ten students.

Professor Islas did not drown us in theory or lecture. He read excerpts of writing, published and unpublished, then led us in a discussion of the writing. What made it authentic? What grabbed our interest? What held the piece together? How did the point of view drive the piece? He would give us a premise to write about and challenge us to follow it; however we were always free to write what we wanted. Each week, Arturo sent us off and urged us to "catch fire." The following class meeting students would share their work, we would discuss it, and the writer would go away with ideas of how to improve the piece. Arturo's opinion of our writing was gospel. We revered him. We worked hard to make him happy – to "catch fire."

I was usually quiet in that class, more so than in other classes, because six of the other students were "heavy hitters" in our dorm. They thought they knew everything. They had the power to dictate who was in and who would be left on the periphery. They hadn't decided yet if I would be one of the favored ones or if they'd leave me out. This was important because their decision would be followed by the rest of the dorm who was, after all, my family and support at this time in my life. To make things more intimidating, they were all juniors and seniors. I was the only a sophomore that had been granted admission to this elite writing course.

One afternoon late in October, we sat in the basement riveted to the pieces of writing that Arturo was reading to us. He began a discussion about point of view, and then he assigned the week's writing challenge. We were to take a situation and portray it through the honest and unsentimental eyes of a child. He cautioned us that this would not be as easy as it sounded. We would have to reach way back and think of an event and our age at that time. Then we'd have to honestly portray the event in that child's voice. He challenged us to do it.

As we left the basement at the end of class, I overheard a couple of students say that they weren't going to try the assignment. They felt that it wasn't of benefit to them at this point in their writing. I thought about what a challenge it would be, and besides, I always tried the assignments Arturo gave us. I wanted to learn more about my passion – writing, and I would try every exercise I came across in an effort to learn my craft.

During the week that followed, I began to write about my childhood. At first, it was very difficult to break down the language into that of a child and still have it sound authentic. I kept working on it all week. The night before my writing class with Arturo, I finally had it. I had written the entire story. I liked it, but was afraid to like it. The next day, I arrived at class early and nervously waited for Professor Islas to arrive. When he arrived, I approached him and spoke to him.

"Arturo, I have a story that I wrote. It's the one about portraying an event through the innocent eyes of a child."

"Oh, good. I'm glad you chose to accept my challenge, Corina. Will you read the story for us this afternoon?"

"Well, that's the problem. I thought maybe you could read it first. I am not sure about this story. I think it's the best thing I have ever written but then again, it could be the worst. I'm nervous to read it in front of everyone. Could you please read it when you have time and let me know what you think?"

"You really should read it this afternoon." He looked at me and realized that I was shaking. His gentle look softened even more as he smiled and slowly nodded his head. "Alright, Corina. I'm sure it is fine, but if you really don't want to read it today, I will take it and return it to you next time."

Throughout the class I sat in agony, thinking that Arturo now had my story and would see the incredibly difficult job he had ahead of him if I was to become a writer. I waited all week to hear what he had to say. I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I had to know what Arturo thought of my writing. Finally the day of our class arrived. Arturo nodded at me in acknowledgment but gave me no hint of what he thought of my story. I became more nervous, convinced that he had hated it. He began class and one student read a short piece. During the discussion the others were quite harsh in their opinions of the work. I watched as the student squirmed, under attack. Once finished, Arturo asked for more volunteers. No hands went up.

"Corina has a story she wants to read." He handed me the paper with a smile and a nod. As I read, I heard only ringing in my ears. It was difficult to read, difficult to concentrate on my story, but I kept on reading. Finally, when I had finished, there was silence.

"Does anyone have any comments for Corina?" He searched the faces gathered around the long table. No hands went up. No heads nodded. No heads shook. Nothing.

In those few moments of silence, I knew that the story was the most horrible thing ever written in human history. I shrank in my seat, wanting to become invisible. Then Arturo bent toward me slightly, looked me in the eyes, smiled and whispered, "Corina, you caught fire!"

He went on to cite the ways in which I had done an extraordinary job and how I had captured the innocence of the child while staying away from becoming sentimental or judgmental. I missed most of what he said. My heart sang so loud that it rang in my ears, blocking out his words of praise. Then the others joined in. I sat, trying not to jump out of my body through my smile. I had not only caught fire, I had been the first one to do so that quarter.

More importantly, I knew for sure that I was a writer. I knew that I had it in me and that I should not ever stop writing. That day my writing caught fire and I was determined to not ever let the fire go out.

Throughout the years, when I feel like I cannot go on; like I cannot write; like I will not ever get anything published, I think back to that October afternoon so many years ago. I close my eyes and I listen to Arturo's voice as he says to me, "Corina, you caught fire!"

Corina Carrasco is a former public school teacher and a UCLA Writing Project Fellow. She has presented staff development to writing teachers in the public schools. A single mom, she has raised three children. The youngest child leaves for college this summer. Corina is looking forward to finally getting "her turn" and to concentrating on her writing and editing two novels. She currently enjoys blogging and writing.

A genuine pleasure to have Corina Carrasco as La Bloga's guest columnist today. Thank you, Corina. We're looking forward to welcoming you as a guest again, soon. Gente, La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. If you have an idea, or a finished piece, leave a comment or click here to discuss your invitation.


Rebel Girl said...

Wow - what a gift to find this today! Thank you.

Keep writing. Keep burning.

Aniko said...

What a great story, Corina, and what an amazing teacher you had!