Writing Our Lives ~ Spring 2015 Edition


I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2011 in response to a volatile political environment, including the ratification of California’s Prop 8, anti-immigration legislation sweeping the nation and Texas State Education Board’s attempt to rewrite the history documented in textbooks. At the time, I was struggling through the writing of my own memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and penning essays along the journey. I’d been to the VONA/Voices workshops twice and had witnessed and experienced what could happen when marginalized people were given a voice and the permission to write their stories unapologetically. It was with that energy that I created a class where I could guide writers through the journey of writing their own personal essays and memoirs. As I evolved as a writer and teacher, and journeyed through my own writing, the class morphed and grew with me. It’s continued to develop as I complete my memoir in essays, Relentless, and continue to publish my essays on Huffington Post and other sites and journals like Human Parts and the VONA/Voices anthology, Dismantle.

At this point the question is no longer why I created the class but why I continue to teach it after countless renditions and reinventions, and having taught more than 150 students. Some of the reasons are the same: I am fueled by the incendiary times we’re living in where people can still claim with a straight face that all the important people throughout history have been white; I’m fueled by the growing number of Latinos in this country and by the reality that publishing isn’t reflecting this fact; I’m fueled by people like an old boss who had the audacity to tell me “Latinos don’t go on the internet” when I told her she should start targeting Latino youth—this is the same woman who referred to me as “the single Latina mom” in a Fast Money article about the organization, no mention of my Ivy League education or having been published; I’m fueled by my sheer love for all things memoir and personal essay, and my belief that while statistics and numbers are important, what makes people care, what touches the heart, what will effect real change, is story. “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” ~Muriel Rukeyser

Electric Literature declared 2014 the year of the essay. With the success of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, we can’t ignore that something’s shifting in the world of literature. People no longer want that cold, hard journalism that detailed what happened, not how it felt when it happened. People want to connect and that’s what essay does—it connects humanity. Essay collections that were once so hard to sell are now at the top of Best Seller lists. This affirms that I was onto something when I created Writing Our Lives in 2011, and increases my excitement and dedication to get more people of color writing personal essays and memoirs, helping them get their stories told and published. That’s always been the mission behind Writing Our Lives.

Some changes are happening this semester: we’ve moved days — from Sundays to Saturdays—and we’re moving location too — we are now at my alma mater Columbia University.

I will be teaching two different sessions of Writing Our Lives, an introductory class and a next level class, and as always, I will start with a one day free workshop offers a synopsis of what goes into writing an essay. The dates are as follows:

February 21 – FREE one day class, 12pm-5pm

WOL The Next Level Class 12-5pm on February 28, March 7, 14, 21, 28, April 4

WOL Intro to the Personal Essay Class 12-5pm on April 11, 18, 25, May 2, 9 (more on this class as the day nears)

Location: Columbia University


WRITING OUR LIVES: The Next Level Class

You ready to take your personal writing to the next level? Been thinking about how you can make your essays more powerful? Do you read essays voraciously and want to really dig into how they’re written? You thinking about publishing and want to get Vanessa’s help to get there? This next level class may be for you.

Dates: February 28, March 7, 14, 21, 28, April 4

Time: 12-5pm

Location: Columbia University Morningside Heights Campus

Price: $400

Project: Polish a 1000-1500 word essay.

This class is designed for writers who have written personal essays (they do not have to be published). The target student has taken a Writing Our Lives Workshop or another comparable essay writing class, and is interested in getting a piece ready for submission.

What does this class entail?

  • We will be reading essays, dissecting them for structure, and analyzing the pros and cons of different essay structures.
  • You will come into the class with an essay. It does not have to be a final essay. It doesn’t even have to be fully written. The point of the class is to write, edit and revise this essay. You will look at your work under a magnifying glass: Why did you make the decisions you made? Why did you choose that scene? That dialogue? Etc.
  • You will write at least three drafts of the essay. Two I will read and comment on. The last draft will be shared with your classmates and will be workshopped on the last day of class.
  • We will also be going through the essay submission process–what journals are we interested in submitting to? How do we decide? How do we know our essays are suitable for particular journals?

How do you know if this class is for you?

  • Have you taken the Writing Our Lives Workshop in the past (or a comparable class) and want to take your essay writing skills up a few notches?
  • Do you have an idea for an essay that you’ve journaled on? Maybe some streams of consciousness/rambling type writings, or even a full-fledged draft you want to develop?
  • Are you are ready to bring a piece from embryo to (close to) ready for submission status?
  • Are you interested in learning more about the craft of essay writing—structure, metaphor, lei motifs, etc.?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this class is for you.

Note: this class is not for novice writers. This class is for lovers of essay—you read essays regularly and have written or tried to write them and are ready to really dedicate yourself to the craft.

How is this different from Writing Our Lives, the intro class?

  • There is an “application process” for this class. (see details below)
  • The class will be structured specifically around what you need depending on what I find in the writings you share: character development, scene development, etc.
  • We will be digging into essay structure, the strengths and weaknesses, what structure might work for your piece, etc.
  • We will delve into the submission process. How do we get published? How do we decide where and when to submit? Etc.
  • You will write at least two drafts of a 1000-1500 word essay.

Application Process:

Please submit the following to vanessa_martir@yahoo.com with “Writing Our Lives – The Next Level application” in the subject line:

One paragraph description of your essay idea.

  • Draft of the essay: This can be a blog entry, a full attempt at an essay or a stream of consciousness. The point is that I want to see that you’ve started working towards something. Please note that I don’t expect a polished essay. The point of this class is develop an essay, and edit and revise it several times.
  • Brief description of your experience with essays and essay writing. Note: I want an idea not just of what you write but also what you read.

About the facilitator:

Vanessa Mártir is a writer, speaker and seasoned workshop facilitator. She is currently compiling her memoir in essays, Relentless, and completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. A regular contributor to Huffington Post, Vanessa chronicles her memoir-writing journey in her blog: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. She has studied the arts of memoir and fiction writing with such greats as Chris Abani, Elmaz Abinader, Staceyann Chin, Mat Johnson and David Mura. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Write Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists, an interactive workbook that gives young people all the tools they need to change the world. Vanessa has had her essays published in various journals and anthologies including the Fall 2013 Issue of Portland Review, Human Parts, the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle. In 2010, Vanessa resigned from her full-time editing position to write and teach full-time. Vanessa has been teaching writing for more than a decade, and has taught students as young as six and as old as eighty six. She is a five time VONA/Voices fellow, and now works on staff and serves as the editor of the newsletter. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship. She works as a teaching artist in NYC public schools and for community organizations, and created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2011.


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