We’re No Longer Cuban

Post Date: March 16th, 2012

“The point of those stories isn’t that writers should always close themselves off to editorial suggestions, but you do need to know what your core values are as a writer, and commit yourself to expressing those values through your writing to the best of your ability at any given moment.”

— Ron Hogan

Image found here

While at the NCAGT conference in Winston-Salem, I went searching for a restaurant I’d enjoyed the year prior. I recalled an outdoor restaurant that offered the cool air and nice bustle of Fourth Street while enjoying savory Cuban food. I found the restaurant, but with an American bistro menu. There were a few items of perhaps Mexican or Latin-American fare but not what I remembered. I said to the owner, “Was this once a Cuban restaurant?”

“Yes,” he said, “but we found there really wasn’t a market for it. So we changed our menu.”

Not a market for Cuban food.

I ordered what turned out to be a fairly bland set of fish tacos with cheddar cheese–the shredded, cellulose kind–and unremarkable salsa. The fish tasted too fishy. 

But the appetizer–the fried artichokes with bok choy — now that was something to remember. Those got gobbled and made the meal. 

The host and owner was gracious. He worked as hard as his servers. He was fully committed to the enterprise. You could tell he valued every customer.

Even though I didn’t love those fish tacos–the ones I’ll call “dumbed down for the market”–I’m going back. The appetizer rocked, the ambiance was great, the staff was kind, and I was surrounded by happy customers who either knew the host or who were Winston-Salem arts students with eclectic tastes. Maybe there’s something else on the menu worth a try. I’m open.

If I sound like a prissy artist who’s about to segue into a diatribe against The Evil Market while elevating artistic integrity, you’re half-right. It’s ridiculous that the Cuban-specific menu is no more. Winston-Salem denizens and Winston-Salem tourists, shame on you! I said to myself while walking off my meal. Shame on you and your bland palates. I daresay if you ate a greater range of savory foods, you’d find both your lives and waistlines happier and healthier!

Or is it that Winston-Salem doesn’t draw enough diverse tourists to merit Cuban food? Is the restaurant located near too many other diverse ethnic choices or bland American crack fare (Doritos and gummy worms kind of satisfaction, the stuff-your-face kind of glee, that I’m certainly not immune to)? Publishers and agents are dealing with all these variables when they tell you, “I’m sorry, but your work you think is literary beauty, your baby that you think is the best thing ever, not enough people will buy it.”

I am not critiquing the restaurant’s choice. Note this restaurant is still alive, kicking and serving. As I rewrite my novel and think up a more market-worthy synopsis, one that average 16 year-old teen girls can hang with, I face the fact that what I had before while interesting, complex, and rich in characterization, it lacked enough to sustain the average reader’s interest for the long haul. This average reader is me, too–addled by TMI and overwhelmed with too many electronic places with unclosed loops of communication. We have tight schedules committed to productivity, and to be honest, reading doesn’t feel all that productive somedays. So when we sit down, that page better turn itself.

“Average” 16 year-old teen girls are kept dumbed down by our society: we prefer them highly distracted by boys and drama, hair and drama, make-up and drama, babies come too early with drama, and with grades and college as afterthoughts. These girls do have deep thoughts and read deep books on occasion, but only under duress. Their brains aren’t fully developed and societal pressures say, Look good first before you open your mouth. I remember the smartest ones in the classroom being girls who affected “dumb blonde” accents and slang instead of holding forth in intellectual ways. But, these “average” girls do buy books. And I know that despite the dumbing down features of our society that elevates the Kardashians, I know these girls are smarter than they appear, have the potential for deeper thoughts, and can soar to greater heights than they’re being challenged.

The trick is writing a book that hooks them, gets them thinking hard and fast about issues they care about…while sneaking in literary elements–flights of figurative language fancy, deep emotional digging, and unified plot, setting, and character with rich, specific elements. These girls can find their inner Cuban and like it. And let’s just say I picked up a current YA bestseller and it took me 15 pages to see that while the plot sings with promise, the people were as interchangeable as blank paper dolls, perhaps with red or black hair plopped on top. That will not be my book. Not at all. Wendy Redbird Dancing and her crew are for real–so I must make every action taken “for real” and irresistible.

And those, my friends, are my core values.

This week Hope Clark tweeted, “There’s nothing so captivating as smart simplicity–remember that in your writing.”

As I dig deep for my core, I’ll keep her wisdom in mind.

Oh, and by the way: the restaurant’s new name is Encore. 

Writing Prompts:

  •  When faced with the choice of encore or hiding, what have you done? Have you walked out on stage with a new costume, or did you hibernate for a while? Write about a time of standing in the spotlight with a new set of clothes, or, about a time when you went underground, and why.
  • What are your core values as a teacher? As a writer?
  • This week I spoke to teachers about digging deep to find the “Big Ideas” of a literary text, especially those old-school texts that students love to hate (Shakespeare, Twain, and Conrad). I spoke about how these texts aren’t dry and dusty but full of relevant, passionate feeling–feelings our kids can relate to. Love. Envy. Courage. Lust. Hate. Fear. Inspiration. Loyalty. Deceit. Can you find the Big Idea of your story? Of your life right now? Write about what you are trying to convey in your fiction or nonfiction, and then go back to your writing and see if the concept resonates through character, scene, detail, setting, and language.
  • Three-Minute Fiction has another contest. Enter it.

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