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Beatriz Terrazas

Today, our staff spotlight turns to Beatriz Terrazas, who reads, consults, and teaches at Carve. She has published with D Magazine, Texas Observer, Dallas Morning News, and Mamiverse, to name a few. Her trophy case holds a Pulitzer, her work in journalism garnered her the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, and her name appears on the credits of several projects as producer, writer, and photographer.

Yes, when she’s not sleeping she’s busy being amazing, and along the way she’s stopped to answer a few of our burning questions about life, love, and literature.

You’ve won a number of awards for your writing. Is there one in particular that you hold most dear?

I was a photojournalist on a team of people who won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for a series about violence against women around the globe, and I’m proud of my contributions to that project. Plus, it’s the Pulitzer! But for writing, two awards come to mind. In 2006, the Society for American Travel Writers awarded me first place for a series I wrote about the Rio Grande. A photographer and I traveled along the river exploring what it means to people who live along it. This work made me realize that the landscape on which we live shapes us in indelible ways. It imprints itself on our skin and seeps into our blood to become an integral part of us. For me, a child of the United States-Mexico border, the river had always been in the backdrop of my life; this project brought it to the forefront where it demanded I think about its significance in my life. The other award that has particular meaning is from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The winning piece was about my mother’s Alzheimer’s forcing me to reconsider my own identity. For years I equated who I was with what I did — photography, writing, I was a professional! — and now I had to think of myself as a daughter, as a person who could face her mother’s illness and let it teach her to be a more compassionate human being. This remains a valuable lesson.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a photographer. If forced to pick a medium to tell a 1,000-word story, which would you choose?

This is a tough question because currently most of my earnings come from working as a producer/photographer. In my producer hat I think of the project and the script; in my photographer hat I think of the visuals. It’s easy to say that some stories lend themselves better to photos and others to words. And to a certain extent that’s true. But both media have served me well at different stages of my life. As a young photographer, having to approach people with camera in hand broke down my shyness; it gave me a passport into others’ lives and forced me to interact with them. But as a survivor of sexual assault, giving voice to the trauma with writing not only helped me begin to heal, it also saved my life. I hope it’s helped readers with similar stories begin to find their own voice. During the years that my mother was ill, I felt a great need to write about our family journey. I explored what it means to function as someone else’s brain, the identity issues that arise when the person who knows you best no longer remembers you, the lessons I could glean and the strength I could draw from my ancestors. I knew I’d be at this juncture only once, so I wrote about it as much as I could.

My mother died earlier this year. One day I’ll write about her last days, her last moments. But I cannot write about that at this point; I can’t write anything literary, period. I hesitate to call myself an artist, but photography and words are an outlet for me, and in the absence of creating essay, memoir or fiction, I’m turning to images again. I’m seeing nature and people and objects in new ways, and opening myself to the possibility of working on a personal visual or multimedia project.

As a literary consultant for Carve, what is the number one piece of advice you tell your authors?

It can’t be said too much: you’ve got to read in order to write. I’ve had students who have wonderful ideas for stories but have never absorbed the rules of grammar and punctuation they need because they’ve not read enough. You can go back and learn these rules, but it’s more difficult to go back and learn language usage, pacing, rhythm and precision. Where will you find those lessons when you’re struggling with your own work? Read the type of work you want to write. Re-read the work that moves you. If something you read punches you in the gut try to figure out the reason it affects you. Is it the way the writer structured the story, ratcheting up the tension and releasing it at just the right time? Is it the lyricism of the language? Read great writers! They’ll teach you how to write.

As a reader for Carve, what are the most common mistakes you see in submissions?

The most common mistake I see is something that trips me up as well: submitting work before it’s ready. As writers, we’re eager to publish our books, essays, and stories. Every time I come to the end of a “final” draft that I’ve revised and rewritten numerous times, I think it’s ready. I can’t wait to publish it. But there’s always a way to tighten, always a phrase that can be more precise. Sometimes there are big picture issues: Are the characters well developed? Is there unnecessary backstory? Is there insufficient backstory? Before submitting it’s better to put away a final draft for a few days, or weeks, sometimes even months. It’s amazing what you’ll catch when seeing a piece with fresh eyes.

The other mistakes I’ll just call the language trap: tired language, clichéd language, vague language, and stereotypes. Tired phrases such as referring to teeth as “pearly whites” and vague terms such as “beautiful” or “horrible” bug me because they show laziness. But stereotypes are a much bigger turnoff because they raise questions: Does the writer have an agenda or a bias, or is he simply ignorant? Is the purpose of this story propaganda? Why should I continue reading if I’ve been offended by intolerance? You don’t want to have a reader decide it’s not worth it to read to the end of the piece. And I will stop reading.

What is the single most influential piece of fiction you’ve ever read? Nonfiction?

Different pieces have influenced me at different points in my life. But let me give you a couple of instances. When I was in college, Pat Mora published a chapbook titled Chants. I have no idea if the poetry was autobiographical or not, but it was the first time I saw myself and my culture reflected in words. It was the first time I realized that my life could be worthy of words. 

Fiction is my absolute favorite kind of writing. It’s been said before, but there’s a truth that’s born of not being beholden to facts. Fiction gives me permission to explore people and places in a way that’s not possible with non-fiction. Fiction opens up so many more ways to view the world. In 2001 Louise Erdrich published “The Shawl” in the New Yorker. The story is about a troubled family and a local legend that’s marked its members indelibly. The tension in the story is relieved by pain and rage that explode in a violent scene. But just as I thought I’d reached the sad conclusion, I got to the last paragraph. In the very last line of the story, in a single sentence and a single breath, the narrator offers up an alternate viewpoint of the legend, releasing the whole family from the pain that’s imprisoned them. I gasped and nearly fell off the elliptical where I was reading. Before this, I didn’t know a writer could take you down a certain path, let you believe what you were seeing, and at the last moment lift you high enough above it to see a different truth.