This spring semester the graduate students of a creative writing fiction workshop at Our Lady of the Lake University had the opportunity to work with acclaimed visiting writer Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, author of Barefoot Dogs. For a highly praised author whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, and who has been a Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University, among others, Camacho was humble. It was this humility that fostered a confidence in myself as an aspiring female writer, teaching fellow, and avid reader.
On the day we were to meet Camacho, I arrived to class on time. He was already there, and was figuring out the best way to arrange seats for a more intimate workshop. We were a small group of six, only one of whom was a male student. As I made my way into the classroom, my nervousness eased a bit – a tiny bit – when I noticed that the group was all laughter and chatter. It seemed as though Camacho had always been a part of the group, as if he was a student like the rest of us.
After we sat down we all introduced ourselves. I sat rigidly in my seat pretending to be totally relaxed, worried about what to say when my turn came. How does an aspiring writer introduce herself to an award-winning author? I’m not the “OMG, I admire your work. Can you sign my book? I’m mean your book, but mine. You know what I mean”-type of person. And what could I say besides “Hi, I’m Bridget?”
So, what did I say when my turn came? I can’t remember. Though I’m sure I at least told him my name. Look, I was nervous, okay? Good thing my hair was down – it usually is – to hide my reddening ears. That I’ll never forget.
However nervous I had been up to that point, my nervousness began to dissolve into fascination as Camacho stood at the board illustrating for us the differences between traditional novels and the less familiar though just as valuable novel-in-stories, or linked short stories. When some of my peers asked questions, he listened carefully and answered their questions as enthusiastically as he’d drawn the graphs on the board. Truthfully, I did not fully understand then the lines, peaks, and valleys he’d drawn on the board, but I enjoyed the energy with which he shared his knowledge. By the end of the night, I left the classroom with graphs colliding within the walls of my skull, feeling confident and smarter.
However, my anxiety returned when manuscripts were due. I was part of the first group that had to submit a story for workshop. Writers, particularly novice writers, are a vulnerable bunch. We worry that our manuscripts are no good, or that the content is too controversial, too feminine or masculine, too culturally specific, or revealing. So when a facilitators lead workshops, it’s important that they are sensitive to these concerns and work to promote a safe space for all writers. Camacho did just that. He reminded us that all first drafts are rough. You won’t discover what your story is really about until the second or third draft, he said. He also kept the focus on how to develop craft, and not on how the manuscript was too this or that. On the topic of risks, he said we must take them. And so we did. Camacho both praised them and suggested how to manage them.
Even as we met with Camacho through Skype – he lives and works in Austin and, thus, wasn’t able to commute to OLLU’s campus on a weekly basis – and workshopped others’ stories, he maintained his humility, respectfully and carefully listening to everyone’s concerns showing genuine interested in our work. He fit into the group so well that I almost forgot he was a professor and critically acclaimed author.
As the semester as well as our time with Camacho comes to an end, I find myself reassured that even if the U.S. has a president who’s referred to women in the most contemptible of terms, and that there are men out there who dismiss a woman’s concerns with a wave of the hand – or silence – we also have compassionate souls that are willing to listen to all voices. Thanks to Camacho’s choice of titles we read this semester, our group listened to the voices of a heroin addict, a remorseful womanizer, a family searching for identity within and outside of an oppressive religion, and a middle class Mexican family torn apart by tragedy, among others.
Antonio Ruiz Camacho is the Spring 2017 visiting writer in the MA/MFA program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University. He will be reading new work on Wednesday, April 26 at 7 p.m. in Providence West Social Room on the campus of OLLU. The event is free and open to the public.