Eighth Grade Writers’ Workshop With Yalitza Ferreras

On Friday, eighth graders were treated to an unbelievably inspiring creative writing session with author, Yalitza Ferreras. Ferreras is the recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a recent Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2016, Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Aster(ix), The Southern Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan where she won the Thesis Prize and is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Djerassi, Yaddo, Ucross, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women, San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and Voices of Our Nation. 

Before the session, students studied Ferreras’ essay, “Scrambled Channels,” published in the anthology, Wise Latinas. This personal essay explores family relationships and self-realization from a surprising angle: television ownership. During the workshop, Ferreras spoke about her personal background and writing process, answered students’ questions, and led everyone in the writing exercise that inspired “Scrambled Channels.” Throughout the entire Zoom session, Ferreras’ warmth, enthusiasm, and appreciation for writing shone on all of us and created an intimate learning environment.

Ferreras began by explaining that “Scrambled Channels” is a personal essay and shared about herself in the context of the essay. She told the students that she was born in Brooklyn, New York, and when she was three, she moved to the Domincan Republic to live with her grandmother because her parents were working a lot and childcare was challenging. She returned to New York when she was eight, but at that point she didn’t speak English. Even though she had been born in the United States, she lived a lot of the “immigrant experience.” Ferreras discussed how cousins in Dominican culture are like siblings, and how most of her family lives within a few blocks of each other. She is the only person who lives in California—most everyone else in her family is in New York or the Dominican Republic. Even though she is emotionally close with her family, she is geographically separated, and this physical distance gives her a different outlook.  

Ferreras spoke about her educational journey. She attended high school in Queens, and then went to Hunter College part time but stopped when she was 18 because she had a full-time and a part-time job to help her family out financially, and it was just too hard to also attend school. She became a graphic designer, and moved to California where she attended Mills College on a scholarship. This educational opportunity meant that she could devote time to school without having to worry so much about earning money. She began studying pre-law and then discovered writing, where she eventually shifted her focus. Her writing professors at Mills College, including Daniel Alarcón, really inspired and encouraged her, and that’s how she ended up applying to and attending Michigan for graduate school on a fully funded program. Ferreras was the first person in her family who had ever attended and graduated from college, and also the first person to go to graduate school. As a child, she never knew this path of being a writer was an option for her.

One student asked Ferreras whether she dove right in or hesitated once she fell in love with writing. Ferreras said that she hesitated. She knew she liked it but wasn’t sure how to fit it into the rest of her life. She found it hard to throw herself into a passion that requires so much work, where the process isn’t always fun, and there are lots of challenges. Once she identified herself as a writer, and once people knew how dedicated she was to it, they got behind her. She expressed gratitude for all the people who have been supportive on her journey as a writer—her family, teachers, friends, husband, and organizations. 

Ferreras also spoke about her writing routine. While it has changed with COVID, she does her best to keep a schedule. For her, she likes writing first thing in the morning while her inner critic is still a little sleepy. That way, she can write freely and revise later in the day. She tries to write at least three to four hours a day, at a minimum. She advised students to try different things to see what works for them, and then to continue on that path. She recommended documenting the schedule in some way so that it’s easier to stick to a plan. 

For the writing exercise, Ferreras asked the students to choose an object and then write about it, asking questions such as the following: Where did the object come from? Was it purchased, and if so, from where? Was it handed down to you? Who gave it to you? Did you buy it? If you bought it, did you work for the money? Was it from dog walking or babysitting? What about the family you worked for? Is the object yours or someone else’s? What does it look like? What is it made of? Where has it been with you? How does it smell? How does it feel? She encouraged the students to make a list, drawing, mind map, or any combination of approaches to get started.

Following the exercise, some students shared about what they wrote, and Ferreras then spoke briefly about her revision process, which is a huge component of writing. Most times, revision takes far more time than the original writing of a piece. She suggested that students could approach revision similar to the questions in the writing prompt. When working on a revision, focus on one thing at a time–maybe how you describe the object, or the setting, or dialogue (if there is dialogue). Breaking revision down into little tasks can make it easier and far more productive. 

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