Love’s Labor: The Story of a Book, Part I

Ten years ago, I handed an essay to my creative writing professor. He read it, ran off to the department chair and lobbied for me to be accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at FIU. The essay grew into a master’s thesis, and now, at last, it’s a book.

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Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto is a 90,000 word epic with the most beautiful book cover ever designed by Kristi Peters and illustrated by the Orlando artist Victor Bokas.

This is what author Virgil Suarez had to say about it:

Every so often along comes a book that seizes you by the collar and arrests you on the spot. From page 1, LEAVING LITTLE HAVANA is a brilliant, voice-driven book that will make your heart skip a few beats. My experience reading this book was similar to the first time I read THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros when you instantly know you are reading a classic, a story so achingly beautiful and unforgettable you relish every last word as if it were the buzzing of a hummingbird at your lips feeding you honey. This book is about family, about what happens to family in exile, about how people come into a great world of struggle and manage to get by and survive. The author has a great gift for capturing that world-known enclave of Miami we love and call Little Havana. This might be the book that puts in the literary map for good and forever. — Virgil Suárez, author of LATIN JAZZ, THE CUTTER, and 90 MILES: SELECTED AND NEW POEMS.

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Leaving Little Havana will be available at a pre-release sale at the Miami International Book Fair from 10 am to 6 pm, Friday, November 22, (free entry) and on Saturday, November 23 and Sunday, November 24 ($8 at the door). Put this on your calendar! But there’s more: the official book launch and reading will be at 7 pm Saturday, December 7 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Put this on your calendar as well! BYOB???

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Now that I see and touch my book, a dream deferred for so many years, I feel as if I’m hurled like a storm of fireworks into an impassive sky, emitting sparks that shake up its aloof countenance, lighting up both illusion and reality. I now know what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said: “life was radiant and time a phantom and their strength eternal.” I wish I could fly into the Jazz Age, dance the Charleston and dive into a pool of champagne.

This is the man who started it all.

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Last spring, Dan Wakefield, my creative writing professor, mentor, novelist, memoirist, and television script writer, connected me with a publisher who he thought might like my book. He was right. Matt Peters, publisher of Beating Windward Press, related to the story and offered me a contract.

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Then he plowed into the editing process, pushing and pulling my narrative into publishable shape, making it the very best it could be. Most writers resent this process. I don’t. What could be better than joining forces with another creative professional who is just as invested as you are into getting the book into the hands of readers??? So lucky that Matt and I share a vision! Meet him at the Book Fair.

Writing is not the lonely pursuit most people think it is; a collaborative enterprise, writing draws in a variety of people – with a stake in the book’s success – who pour their creative talents into bringing a book to market. More often than not, their input distills the book’s soul.

This is my colleague, MIU professor Dave Bricker.

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He writes in his blog: “Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design.” Editing requires the same applications.

During the first round of editing, I transformed every “telling” section into a “showing” section: I constructed scenes, which make a narrative spring alive. I found all the passive constructions and made them active; I eliminated the generic verbs “were,” “was” and “is” and substituted action verbs in their place.

In the second round, Matt shoved chapters into place, creating movement throughout the entire book, providing harmony between its parts. He posed questions that had never occurred to me, so I did more research, adding historical context and facts from my journals to reconstruct important new scenes.

The third round – line editing – offered another chance to polish each word and pushed me to dig into the secret, dark vault that both stores and represses memories, holding them hostage until a trigger releases the ghosts. I faced what I feared most and constructed scenes for those scary sections. I concluded that editing has no end.

The novelist Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians, would agree. He revised his work until the end of his life, publishing several editions of each book with different plot twists, new scenes and details that he added through the years.

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Writers struggle with eking out precious minutes of each day to devote to their art and craft. Between editing sessions, I had to teach classes, help out with family emergencies, nurse the flu, buy groceries, and bathe the dog, among other things. Fortunately, at this point in my life, with a college instructor’s semi-flexible schedule and my children grown, I have the luxury of editing three and four days straight, twelve to sixteen hours a day, varnishing the raw product to my heart’s content.

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I wrestled with a slow process; when I got up to walk around every so often, I found that each time I did, the best ideas flew into my head so I had to run back to the computer and add a scene or a section. I discovered that editing did not stop as I went about life’s daily tasks. It forced me to step into another plane of existence I never wanted to release. Happiness, as writer Anais Nin says, is “the positive assertion of the will through the consciousness of creation.” Who would ever want to leave that space?

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Bedtime was agony. During the pre-dawn hours, most of my “brilliant” ideas demanded attention, ruthlessly compelling me to keep on working even if I had a morning class. Finally, wild-eyed and desperate for sleep, I emailed the final draft to Matt.

Thinking I could now relax, I found out that the work of publishing simply intensifies, as you will see in Part II of this post: after the final editing, promoting and selling the book take center stage and demand a creativity of their own.

I hope you will buy my masterpiece! Leaving Little Havana is available in paperback or e-book in December at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, SmashWords.com and your favorite bookseller.

See you at the Book Fair and/or the reading at Books and Books.
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Writing transforms every breath and step I take on this earth. Nothing to do but offer thanks.

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Welcome to My World of Writing!

In this blog, I will be publishing memoir, short stories, personal essays and poetry. I will be discussing writing, literature, culture and the creative life.

I will begin with sections from a book-length memoir, but  occasionally digress to other forms of writing to give you a sensation of reading several works at once.  Many readers, including myself, often stack  a handful of books on their night tables to savor as the mood unfolds.

The memoir, LEAVING LITTLE HAVANA,  has been my major creative undertaking.  For ten years, I have imagined and reimagined the narratives of my life and finally glued together all the flying — and  jagged — pieces of a particular time and place.

While the book tells my story, it brings to light the plight of thousands of people like me: the children of the first Cuban exiles who abandoned their homes almost immediately after La Revolucion in 1959.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

It is the story of a girl uprooted from her comfortable middle-class home in La Habana by parents desperately fleeing for their lives in Fidel’s communist Cuba. Haunted by memories of loss of home and family and fighting to overcome cultural and language barriers, she rebels against her immigrant parents and descends into drugs and sexual profligacy while she searches for love and attention. She deals with the pain of a philandering father, who eventually abandons the family, and a mentally ill  mother, who weeps for a lost life back in Cuba and hears voices outside her window.

The teenaged girl must fend for herself and struggles to survive in a low-income Little Havana neighborhood. She talks her way out of a
shop-lifting charge, plans her own quince mini-extravaganza, and sidesteps a high school ruling that bars her from graduation.

Only when her fellow students from Miami High School go on to prestigious universities like Radcliff and Harvard does she pull herself back together. She begins taking journalism classes and lands a spot on the community college newspaper as a reporter. She applies to half a dozen universities and gets accepted to all. She chooses the one farthest from home, marries her boyfriend and sets out — husband in tow — on a quest to construct a future as a writer.

In the same way that DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller and ‘TIS by Frank McCourt examine life in a foreign country, my memoir takes a look at how immigrant children either survive or self-destruct in a new land they must eventually make theirs. While many memoirs by Cuban-Americans, such as SPARED ANGOLA by Virgil Suarez and WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA by Carlos Eire, revolve around childhood scenes in Cuba and explore the experiences of a boy, my book is the first to focus on the journey of a Cuban girl struggling to learn the value of her own inner strength as she clears a path to her dream.

The immigrant experience leaves a permanent imprint on all children who start life anew in the United States.

I look forward to reading your aesthetic and intellectual responses to my work.

Leaving Little Havana by Cecilia M. Fernandez is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.