A Chat with Juana M. Ortiz

Juana’s creative nonfiction piece Senorita with CP appeared in Niche’s fourth issue. It can be read here.

Meanwhile, we invited her to chat with Niche and she kindly agreed.

Juana M. Ortiz recently graduated from William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. She received a bachelor degree in communication, with a concentration in print journalism and a minor in English. Currently, and is currently working on her first book. Her poems, articles, haiku, personal essays, and translations have appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Quit Mountain Essays, ThisAbledNation.org, and Mi Revista, a Spanish language monthly published in her native Dominican Republic.

NICHE: Let’s start with the basics: How and when did you start to write?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: I started writing back in the early 90s, when I was in my late teens. I did it as a hobby until the summer of 2002 after I went to college. Back then, I was going through a tough time because my major goal was to graduate from college, but academically I wasn’t doing too well. Plus I was discouraged by a former school counselor and a vocational one. They assumed that I would not succeed in college.

Since I didn’t have much hope or support, I decided to drop out. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I didn’t have other options. Then, once I returned to college, writing became a symbol of freedom and hope, when one of my former English professors, Mark Hillringhouse (http://mhillringhouse.zenfolio.com/), encouraged me to create poems and later to write personal essays.

NICHE: How did Senorita with CP come into being?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: After I received my associate degree in Liberal Arts, I transferred to a four year university to pursue my BA. Last year, while I was taking Creative nonfiction, Professor Philip Cioffari (http://www.philipcioffari.com/) asked the class to write a story based on a real life event related to the teen years.

So that is how Senorita with CP came into being. I chose to write about that stage of my life because I wanted to expose the dark side of living with a physical limitation in my native country. Back then, in the Dominican Republic, when a person had a physical limitation it was impossible to move ahead in life since the country lacked resources and awareness regarding this issue. I was one of those individuals until I moved to New Jersey at age 15. After the essay was read by Prof. Cioffari, I had to share it in class. I got positive reactions from him and my classmates. Everyone was moved.

NICHE: Who are some of your inspirations, and how do you feel their work or writing has effected your own?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: Some of the people that I got inspired by are Professor Hillringhouse, who is also a published poet and essayist. Reading his work has influenced my own writing. I also have been inspired by Junot Diaz, Maria Gillan Mazzioti, Pablo Neruda, and Pedro Mir, a major poet from Dominican Republic. Their writing has influenced mine when it comes to creative non- fiction.

They have something special in their work that inspired me to create. For instance, when I read Diaz’s book “Drown” I felt familiar with the story due to the parallels between my life and the life of the characters. Gillan’s poetry motivated to write about the relationship between a daughter and a father. Neruda made me fall in love with language. Mir’s poetry became the voice of the voiceless in Dominican Republic. The country was under the rule of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo for 30 years from 1931-1961. Mir lived during that period. One of my goals as a writer is to advocate for those who don’t have a voice.

NICHE: There’s been some discussion in the past about integrating other languages into creative writing. Mainly authors have spoken about how knowing another language gives them another lens through which to experience and view the world. Writing then allows them to share the new perceptions with a broader audience. What advice would you give multi- lingual authors that seek to do the same in their own work?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: We are living in a globalized world. We are frequently in interaction with people who speak different languages. As authors it is our responsibility to bridge the gap between languages by familiarizing ourselves with as many languages as possible. The way to do it is by integrating their languages into our writing.

NICHE: With that being said, Senorita with CP is undoubtedly very personal, and yet, readers are able to relate to your experiences. How does an author go about writing something personal to them but leave their experiences open enough so that readers can share in those experiences as well?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: It is hard and it requires a lot of courage. When you write, don’t be somebody else, try to be yourself. Get deep in touch with yourself: your fears, anger, sadness, your dreams and joy. Once you accomplish that, the habit of writing will come easy. Readers will feel familiar with your work and will appreciate your honesty.

NICHE: What advice would you give those who are seeking to write and publish literary nonfiction?

JUANA ORTIZ: My advice is to write to relieve yourself of the burden that everyone carries inside. The ability to express ourselves freely is a gift. So take advantage of it by expressing your sadness, frustration, happiness and dreams. Be who you really are and the rest will take care itself. Regarding publication, if you are in high school or college you are in the right place. Educational institutions usually have reading clubs and publications run by students so get involved. They are always looking for new members to help them. Reach out to your teachers, college professors or school counselor.

Many of them are published authors and have expertise in the field. Submit your work to publications online and print. Don’t focus just on one. We are living in a world where publishing online is easy and fast, but not the only option. Look for print publication as well. Remember, there are still a lot of people who enjoy reading a book, a magazine and a newspaper.

Reach out to the people around you. If you are out of school, keep writing and submitting your work. Try to be creative and spread the word among those whom you trust about your projects.

Based on my personal experience, school is the best way to start building a career in writing and publishing. Also read other people’s work. As writers, we have a lot to learn from each other. See what others are writing. At the same time create your own style. Consider forming a writing workshop. Finally, don’t be afraid to be rejected from a publication because it is part of being a successful author.

NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readership to know?

JUANA M. ORTIZ: I am encouraging everyone to pursue their dreams regardless of how impossible it may seem. Having a goal in mind is as necessary as breathing. If your dream is to write poetry, short stories or a novel start by writing a few lines everyday.

If it is impossible to write every single day, then do it every other. The main key is to be persistent. Reading and writing goes hand in hand. Choose a topic that you are interested in and read up on it.

For years one of my goals has been publishing accounts of my life experiences. Last year one of my mentors, Dr. Tina Lesher, encouraged me to work on that. Now I am writing my memoir and looking forward to publishing my first book online and in print.

This interview originally appeared on Niche’s website on July 11th, 2014 

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