This past Saturday, April 16th, I was lucky enough to attend an exciting book-themed event right here in Cambridge: The Literary Arts Festival at Lesley University. The festival is an annual ceremony sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta, an international English honor society founded in 1924 that’s dedicated to “promoting interest in the literary arts.” Each year the organization honors a different acclaimed author or poet as the featured keynote speaker. This year’s speaker was Manuel Muñoz.
At just 43, Manuel Muñoz has published a novel and two critically acclaimed short story collections, Zigzagger and The Faith Healer, both of which feature pieces inspired by his own childhood in Central Valley, CA. His writing has received many prestigious awards including the 2006 National Endowment for the Arts and the 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award.
As part of his presentation, Muñoz read from his most recent short story “The Happiest Girl in the USA,” which describes a brief, haunting encounter between a woman and a teenage girl from Mexico who meet on a bus to Los Angeles. The story comes to a climax when the woman checks the runaway teen into a hotel room for the night and gives her the sneakers off her own feet because the girl’s own high heels are causing her severe pain.
These themes of compassion and accepting help from others were prominent throughout the entire afternoon, as Muñoz repeatedly stressed how important it was for young writers to develop close bonds with people who will motivate them to achieve their goals.
Before starting the reading, he addressed the crowd composed mainly of undergraduate English and Creative Writing majors, and opened up about his own struggles as an author. He encouraged anyone losing confidence in their writing to spend time with the people they look up to the most in life such as their parents, teachers, or close friends.
“I’ve recently been going through a lot of doubt about continuing to write, so I’ve been asking my mother a lot of questions and I’ve been able to get out of my own head by hearing her stories,” said Muñoz.
One memorable story from his mother that Muñoz shared at the event was about how she once got in trouble with the California police for attempting to help a 15-year-old-boy illegally immigrate across the Mexican border. He laughed and reenacted the moment when he came across a photo of their first family car while flipping through family photo albums.
“I was like, ‘Mom what ever happened to that old yellow car we had? And she goes, ‘Oh it was impounded when I was arrested by border control.’”
Even though he spoke humorously of his background, Muñoz was clearly affected by the difficulties of growing up in a small town in rural California where his entire family made their living harvesting and packaging grapes.
The author described how at age 14, he took a job in a workhouse after school in order to pay for new clothes and school supplies for himself and his younger sister. Today, he makes a point to promote the works of other Mexican American writers and particularly advocates for the success of first-generation college students.
When his speech turned to the topic of leaving home for the first time to attend Harvard University in 1990, he described the pain of feeling like an outsider surrounded by his wealthy, East Coast classmates.
“The first day I got to my dorm room and cried my eyes out because I didn’t know who to turn to,” Muñoz said, “But things did get better.”
The point at which ‘things got better’ for Muñoz at Harvard was when he met two women who would forever change his life and convince him that he could one day have a literary career.
In the most heartfelt and unexpected moment of the presentation, Muñoz suddenly paused, looked up from his book, and announced, “Two of my mentors are hear with us today.”
Beaming with affection, he turned towards the audience and invited two older women in the back row to stand up. The honored attendees, Susan Maguire and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, gave Mr. Muñoz his first job in publishing at a college textbook company back in 1998. Both Maguire and Sands-Boehmer have since maintained a close relationship with Muñoz throughout his career.
I had the incredible opportunity to speak with both Susan and Kathy after the reading, and they expressed how proud they were of their former employee’s success. Maguire distinctly remembered how he used to visit their offices every Monday in order to share whatever writing project he was currently working on.
It wasn’t surprising to me that Muñoz then extended the same consideration to all his guests, inviting us to a reception and book signing after to ask personal questions about his creative process and discuss our own current projects.
But before heading to the meet-and-greet he took one last moment at the front of the podium to address the students, asking us to all close our eyes and “Take five minutes to think about someone in your own life who has shaped you, guided you, helped you become who you are today.”
As an English major and aspiring writer, these words meant so much to me because I feel that writers often have a tendency to isolate themselves. We spend hours frustratingly locked in our bedrooms with only a laptop and a desperate desire to find the perfect sentence or final line to a poem, and this behavior makes it very easy to spiral into self-doubt and forget about the outside world.
Writing is such a personal, intimate experience that many times people tend to get lost within their own imaginations and forget that there are so many people out there ready to provide inspiration and support. Especially during this past year as a college sophomore, I’ve frequently thought that to be truly professional and successful I must accomplish everything on my own.
But hearing Mr. Muñoz’s speech reminded me that asking for help is not a weakness. The field of editing itself is based entirely off of teamwork and mentorship. It’s about working with others to discover strengths and weaknesses. It’s about collaboration and seeking out advice in order to make your writing the best it can possibly be.
From my parents who read me a chapter of book each night before bed when I was little, to the advisor of my high school newspaper who encouraged me to take on the position of Editor in Chief, and to my English professors at BU who are always willing to extend office hours to help me work through a tricky paper topic, I want to say, ‘Thank you’. I have always had an amazing network of support for my writing that has pushed me to continue creating and built me back up in those moments when I’ve thought that nothing I made would ever be “good enough” to actually make an impact.
So, I encourage anyone out there who’s afraid to put pen to paper to take Manuel Muñoz’s advice and escape from your own head for a few hours by going out to lunch with family or friends to learn more about their lives. Take the time to ask questions and listen to their stories and you may soon discover a story of your own.
– Paige Breaux