In grad school I was often encouraged to explore my family's history in my writing, but I had spent my entire life with this story and didn't think it remarkable or worthy of examination.
When he was twenty years old, my father moved to the United States from the Basque Country in Franco-controlled Spain, a part of the country ravaged wholly during Spain's civil war and the 36 years of dictatorship that followed. My father lived in a 7'x14' sheep camp in the foothills of Central California for six years where he worked as a shepherd. During that time he met my mother, whose father had also come from the Basque Country—the French side—to work as a shepherd. Instead of returning to the Basque Country, my father eventually purchased the land that I would spend my childhood roaming and working on. The work, though, is hard and ceaseless, and the only respite I had from it was to dream myself elsewhere (quite often this involved turning the shepherd's staff into a light saber) with one daydream leading naturally and effortlessly to the next. Now that I was in my early twenties and taking classes far away in Madrid, why would I ever dream myself back?
Near the beginning of one of my favorite novels, Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek, Zorba diagnoses our narrator (though it could have easily been the writer I was in my twenties), telling him, "You keep a pair of scales
[and] weigh everything to the nearest gram, don't you? Come on, friend, make up your mind. Take the plunge!" Like the narrator, I had become too careful with my writing, too cautious. Grad school workshops battered my self-confidence, and I was overly concerned about making any more mistakes. Most every book on craft will tell you that you must be fearless in your writing, but I refused to take the plunge. Now, before I would even allow myself to write a word, I'd begin with an exciting premise. Then I'd cook up a few interesting moments of conflict, something new yet timeless. I'd practically diagram Hitchcockian storyboards for the whole thing, from the first scene to the closing credits. In order to make it all work, I'd piece together a character who could execute the plot I'd strategized. Yet, regardless of all this effort, each attempt resulted in failure. The space of my psyche where my dreams once interacted with the page had become a sterile warehouse that held a very impressive yet nonetheless useless pair of scales.
It wasn't until a couple years after I finished my MFA that I sat down one day in front of my computer and, without any premeditation, wrote, "He sat under an umbrella outside of Bar Ondarra." I knew the bar. It's across the street from San Sebastian's Zurriola Beach, a beautiful shell-shaped stretch of sand that abuts the perennially green Mount Ulia. I lived in an apartment near that bar when I was twenty years old. The umbrellas were placed out during the summer months to offer the clientele some shade while they people watched, so I knew it must be a hot day. I continued writing and soon I could all but feel that familiar heat coming off the sidewalk. But who was this "he" and what was he doing out there? Continuing with no outlines this time, I learned that "he" was an American, that he had a long, unfortunate scar running from the corner of his mouth to his left cheekbone, and that he was waiting for a fellow ex-pat. But why? And when the man did show up—in fact, there he was, coming up the street—what would this man with the scar tell him? For hours I wrote and the answers to these questions and others revealed themselves to me. In one rapturous sitting, I finished the story.
But writing is, after all, re-writing, and I revised the story for seven months before finally sending it out to several literary journals. Two months later, I opened my email to find an acceptance letter. It was my first story to appear in print.
It took me a long time to understand that "Explore your past" was code for something more, something much larger, a sentiment expressed by Zorba later in the novel: "Don't calculate, boss. Leave your figures alone, smash the blasted scales, shut up your grocer's shop, I tell you. Now's the time you're going to save or to lose your soul." Not only should I be open to explore my family history, but I should also be receptive to the dreaming part of me rather than the thinking part—to return to how I once told a story. I needed to be fearless and take the plunge, and all the better if I could provide myself with a light saber should I come across another flock of sheep.