Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life (2020 AWP Panel)

I’ll be presenting at two panels at the 2020 AWP Conference in San Antonio, both of which I conceived and put together. Both cover topics that are important to me, and they’re the first AWP panels that I’ll be a part of, which ticks off an item on my bucket list.

The first is scheduled for Thursday, March 5 at 12:10 PM in Room 006C, River Level at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and it’s the subject of this post.

Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life

The writing life is one of solitude and struggle, and for some writers who deal with mental illness it can seem insurmountable. Panelists will discuss how identifying and naming their mental health concerns informs their work and opens avenues to successfully navigating the challenging paths towards publication and participating in literary culture. From cultivating a consistent writing practice through marketing and publicity, panelists will share their experiences with coping while working.

I’ll be joined by Bruce Owens Grimm and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Below are the initial remarks that I’ve included in the event outline:

Managing my depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) while pursuing publishing success as a writer requires vigilance, informed life decisions and practices, and balance through outside interests. The first step towards management was to give my particular struggles their proper names. Once I was able to identify them, I was able, through certain interventions, to find balance. Writing is difficult for all writers and often lonely; writing while trying to manage mental health sometimes seems impossible. What strategies work best for handling the solitude that writing requires, the constant rejection, the pressures of networking and fitting in, etc. are as unique as our individual writing voices, but general practices through therapies such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have proven helpful, and I’m here to witness this. I’ve also found that avoiding loading so much of my identity into my writing has helped with perspective and coping. Alongside writing, I’ve found that fitness, bibliotherapy, music, and working with my hands have provided a crucial foundation from which I send my work out to be picked apart, rejected, and sometimes accepted.



This event is also important for me because it’ll be the first time I’ll publicly speak about my mental health, and I recognize that it’s a crucial first step if I’m going to pursue memoir/essay writing that explores my personal history.

I want to be open to all possibilities, and I want to open myself to others so that I might be able to offer help or an empathetic ear. I’ve also been planning on pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, and I’d like to explore my own experiences as a means with which to prepare. Ultimately, I’d like to serve under-served clients with personality disorder diagnoses, if possible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The panel comes first, and so if you or someone you know is attending the conference and may be interested in our topic, please consider coming or encourage that someone to attend. At last year’s conference in Portland, I noticed that mental health is under-represented itself on the list of panels. There were a few about trauma and writing, and writing about trauma, and they’re definitely necessary, but there’s so much more that needs the space for discussion. (To be fair, mental health topics are much better represented at this year’s conference, so cheers to the selection committee. This is a great step forward!) I also believe that there’s a need and room for an AWP mental health caucus, but that’s a topic for another day.

On Memoir and Philip Roth’s Patrimony

I’m relatively new to creative non-fiction/essay/memoir writing, and I’d like to blog some short review-ish pieces about what I’m reading as a way to stoke closer reading. My current craft guide is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and I’ve gathered some of her recommended readings for study. Not only was I reminded that I already own Roth’s memoir, but also that I’ve read it before, years ago. (More on that later.)

I’m still writing and submitting fiction, and in fact, I have a novel that I’m trying to place at this time. I also have another novel (my second) that’s about halfway complete, so I don’t intend on abandoning the genre any time soon. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about my life and my progress in dealing with my mental health, and with the encouragement of my partner (a licensed psychologist), I’ve begun to explore the possibilities of essay/memoir. So far, I’ve completed a short essay and lots of notes, and I’ve realized how difficult it is to write factually and to deal with all the related worries that it brings. I’ve had moments where I thought it might be better not to write CNF and avoid all the hassles, guilt, etc., but I’m committed now to carrying on.

That said, and with more to come in the future, let me get to Roth’s memoir.



Patrimony: A True Story, Philip Roth (Simon & Schuster, 1991)

One of the biggest struggles many memoir writers deal with is writing honestly and deeply about family. No matter how small the detail, unless it paints a perfectly nice and normal picture, there’s a chance that someone you love will take issue with it and with you. To be honest, one of my small concerns is just this, and it rubs right against my desire and determination to write my truths. Some of my various starter pieces clearly demonstrate this struggle, and so reading Roth’s deeply personal exploration of his father’s decline and death, preceded by his long life as an insurance man, husband, father, etc., was an excellent primer.

Patrimony begins with a frightening sudden change in Roth’s father’s health. It turns out to be a rare type of brain tumor, and the news sets off associations with Roth’s mother’s recent death, the author’s loneliness, and as we discover as the narrative evolves, his father’s almost constant recitation of events and recollection of individuals from his, his neighborhood’s, and his fellow Jews’ past as a coping mechanism. Herman Roth manages to pull himself out of his darkest moments only through these stories and also his near constant criticisms of his partner, Lil, whom he meets not long after his wife passes away, and who can never measure up in Herman’s estimations. It’s so consistent that I can’t help but read Herman’s fears here, as if he feels he’ll wither and disappear if he wasn’t trying to improve someone’s life with his, to his mind, sound advice.

Meanwhile, Philip is trying to deal and stay afloat with his sudden shift in familial responsibility. A common story: the child becomes the parent. Herman, even if he hates it, has inevitably become dependent on his sons (mostly Philip, it seems), and his dwelling on his past glories is another method of dealing and self-soothing. As a result, Philip understands a portion of his own self, a part of him that, as a young man, he might’ve denied or repressed. It occurs to him that, as a college student, he thought of his degree as enlightening both him and his father, as if he had done Herman a favor of sorts by pursuing an education in his stead. As his father’s health deteriorates and he shares his stories about a neighborhood now almost unrecognizable, Herman has become the educator, the one conferring his crucial knowledge to the son. Philip has begun to understand his true patrimony.

The narrative is straightforward, and the only difficulty may be witnessing a frank and unflinching depiction of a human being’s decline and demise. The structure moves from the present of his tumor diagnosis and his final months into the past, from the struggles of Herman dealing with his wife’s death into the old neighborhood in Newark, Herman’s career, and so on. The structure is familiar, often used in memoir, but it works. The tension is appropriately maintained throughout, and I often felt as if I was sitting in those waiting rooms myself.

So You’re Attending the AWP Conference for the First Time

Yes, this is another blog post offering advice on how to get the most out of your AWP Conference experience. No, I don’t consider myself an expert. In fact, the 2020 edition will only be my fourth, but since I’m always anxious to maximize my time and money investments (and since I really enjoy reading AWP advice blogs myself), I thought I’d go ahead and add my thoughts to the discussion.

Be Prepared

Before you go:

Practice due diligence. Read the blogs. Ask anyone who’s attended even once. Read and reread the schedule, and consider downloading the app instead of relying on the printed version. I’m the kind of writer who still loves hard copies of almost anything, but the app has proven to be a big help for me for the previous two conferences I attended.  Feel free to double book hours, then enjoy the exquisite pain when you have to decide between them, or ditch both to go to lunch with friends or for another visit to the book fair.

Take some time to honestly assess your needs, at this time, as a writer. My book was published just before my second AWP conference, and aside from planned events like an author signing, I wanted to attend panels on book promotion and marketing, and anything else related to the business aspects of writing. I also looked into agent panels with my eye to future manuscripts. At the book fair, I focused on gracious networking and finding ways to bridge between my book and publisher and other presses. I took the time before I traveled, to brainstorm and commit to my then current needs.  I assess my current needs as honestly as I can ever since, and I find that I’m rewarded with a successful conference, although there are inevitable audibles called.

When You’re There

Trust your planning, but be open to the changing flow of the conference. If you hit 75% of your goals (and so much of what comes from that after is out of your control), then you’ve done well. Make sure you have everything you need for the intense days of business, then set all of that aside and enjoy the off-site events or parties or both at night. Blow off steam, rest, then get ready for another wave the next day.

I’m an introvert, but I love the energy of the conference, and finding the energy deep inside is rewarding. Remember that you’re surrounded by people who totally understand your struggles, concerns, successes, and goals. It’s such a rare thing, really, so take the time to enjoy it. When you feel overwhelmed, find some space to reset. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you have to go back to your room for a couple of hours.

Talk to the writer. Chances are, they’ll be more than happy to give you a little of their time. Don’t take too much of it, though. If they turn out to be not so gracious, well, remember they’re human, too. Walk away and don’t let it get to you.

Remember that, although an event like this speaks of privilege in certain ways, it doesn’t mean that you don’t belong there. You do. Trust your talents. If you see a lack of space for certain populations of writers, find a way to help expand your presence. Find the caucus that speaks to your lived experience and help out.

What to Take

  • comfortable shoes
  • a backpack (your body will thank you!)
  • a notebook
  • business cards*
  • some cash (generally useful in an emergency, even in the days of Uber)
  • a sense of adventure (go out and learn about San Antonio and its lit scene!)
  • room for your book and swag haul in your luggage

*Consider whether you’re ready for the sort of networking that requires a business card. And, let me tell you, you’re probably underestimating yourself here. If you’re working with a lit mag, a press, an organization, or if you’re serious about placing your work or yourself somewhere, even if you’re currently a first-year MFA student, then you need  business cards.

Final Suggestions

  • Register on Wednesday, if you can. Avoid the crush and rush of Thursday morning registration.
  • Schedule in some self-care. You’re going to feel overwhelmed. Plan carefully.
  • Consider buying a book at a featured author signing event. They’ll be very appreciative, and you’ll experience one of the things that makes the book fair so special.
  • For that matter, consider buying a book from an author whose background is different from yours and from those of the authors you typically read. The goodwill of the conference is a good chance to expand your worldview.
  • And don’t avoid the book fair! It’s the biggest of its kind you’re probably ever going to experience.
  • Learn about programs that AWP offers, such as the Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program and the Writer-to-Agent Program. I’ll be serving my third season as a mentor with the former, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
  • Meet a few new people every day of the conference. I’m not used to pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but I’ve found it rewarding to talk to people I’ve never met before at the conference. Remember, there are about 12,000 people who have a good idea what it’s like to be a writer these days.
  • When the conference is winding down on Saturday night, start figuring out what you might like to do for KC in 2021. That deadline for panel submissions is coming up faster than you think.

AWP 2019 Portland

I had a great time catching up with friends and meeting new people in Portland.  The AWP conference always recharges my creative batteries, and I’m already looking forward to and planning for AWP 2020 in San Antonio.  For the second time ever, I’ve assembled a panel and a panel proposal, this time around focusing on managing mental health and the demands of the publishing writer’s life.  I’ll hold off on planning my presentation until I find out whether it’s going to be accepted, but I’m hoping it will be because this panel would address a great need for the conference.

At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I read from my recently completed novel.  The space was beautiful, and my fellow readers are wonderful and talented.

I’m also a two-time mentor participant in AWP’s Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program, and I spent some time talking about the program to interested writers.  It really reignited an urge to participate again.

Here are some pictures from #AWP19.

AWP and Update


AWP2019 starts this week, and I’ll be there.  I’ll be signing copies of my story collection, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, on Friday, March 29 at 11 AM at table 9063 in the AWP book fair.  If you’re going to Portland, come through and see me.

You can also find me at the AWP booth (table 3030) on Friday, March 29 at 1 PM.  I’ll be available to talk about the Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program, and my experiences as a mentor.  Spoiler: the program is great, and I definitely recommend it to both prospective mentees and mentors.

I’m nearly done with my first novel, and I’m excited about starting the process of getting it published.  I’m roughly 30 pages from the end (yes, it’s intuition, but I’m so tuned in with the project right now, that it’s accurate), and I’ll be looking for an agent, publishers, or both.

I’ll admit that 2018 was a tough year for me writing-wise.  I’d lost some motivation and was still recovering from the experience of adjunct teaching.  There was a lot to process, and I needed to figure out how writing would fit in with my life or if it would anymore at all.  My conclusion: writing means so much to me, and it’s one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever felt.  So, once I came to this conclusion, I got to work.  My novel used to be much longer than it is right now, and that’s because I had a second focal character who told a somewhat related, yet different story from the true protagonist.  One day, I realized that it’d be better to cut it out and just focus on the original focal character, and the novel opened up.  It was a quick trip from a slog through to completion to a novel that has energy and at times still surprises even me.  Sometimes, you need to not necessary kill your darlings so much as unburden them.

Year-end Thanks

My book, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, has been out for just about a year now, and since it was the first year of my first book, it was a special one.  I want to thank everyone who bought, read, and shared it.  I was hoping that it would do well, and since it has already seen a second print run, I can say that I’m more than pleased with its success.  The best things about the publication side of the writing life are the people you meet and the conversations you have.

The AWP conference in LA this year was a great time and taught me a lot about the business end of this.  I met or reconnected with a number of passionate writers, editors, and publishers, people whose passion advances the culture of literature.  (See an earlier post for more on the conference, including pics.)

2017, for me, will be exciting.  I’ll be relocating to El Paso, TX (my hometown) and hoping to finish my first novel.  There will be more readings/events coming up, including a big one in February that I’m dying to announce.  I’m excited about what’s to come.


NMSU Reading and AWP Pics & Notes

I’ll be reading on the New Mexico State campus this Friday, April 8 at 7:30 PM in the Health and Social Sciences 101A auditorium.  Below is info from the Facebook event page.


Like to hear a good story? How about two? Please make room on Friday for this very special night of story-telling. Paul Pedroza will read from his collection, The Dead Will Rise And Save Us, and MFA candidate Savannah Johnston will share her fiction from her thesis. It’s going to be such a treat! One that you want to share with friends, family, and acquaintances you want to impress.

NMSU Reading


The AWP16 conference was good times.  Not only did I get to spend a lot of time with writers and friends and writer friends, but I also enjoyed a successful book signing and a fortifying session at the AWP Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program table.  As a mentor, I enjoyed answering questions from writers who are a little hesitant about applying for MFA programs and are exploring their options, but I also learned a lot about the challenge of balancing full lives with writing dreams.

Upcoming Appearances, AWP, and Release Party Photos

If you’re heading to Los Angeles next week for the AWP Conference, stop by the Veliz Books table (#2039) at the book fair on Thursday, March 31 from 2-3 PM.  I’ll be signing copies of my story collection, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us.


I’ll be reading on the New Mexico State campus in Las Cruces on April 8.  The event starts at 7:30 PM in the Health and Social Services auditorium, room 101A.  Details about the reading series can be found here.


On February 19, my book was officially released at a special event held at the 501 Bar & Bistro in downtown El Paso.

The turnout was great, and it was a special night that I won’t soon forget.  Below are some pics from the event.  (Photo credits: Veliz Books, Laura Caldera-Marquez, Carol Fonseca)


My author page is now live over at Goodreads

If/when you read my book, I’d appreciate a rating and/or review.

The pre-order sale over here will continue through the end of the year.  save 20%, read the book, and let me know what you think.

News about readings, radio interviews, reviews, etc. will be shared soon.  Thanks for your support, and have a happy new year!