"Storytelling is Powerful for its Ability to Show Multiple Perspectives": A Conversation with Jennifer De Leon

After the success of our first free multi-week creative writing classes earlier this year, we’re thrilled to announce that we've added more FREE multi week classes! Our Write Down the Street/Autores de la Vuelta program brings free creative writing sessions to branches of the Boston Public Library in Dorchester and Roxbury. The Stories of Your Life with Grub Instructor and Neighborhood Program Fellow Jennifer de Leon starts next Wednesday April 5th at the Grove Hall BPL branch, so make sure you sign up soon! With the beginning of the class approaching, we sat down with Jenn to chat about her experience so far and find out her best writing advice.


Last year, you led the first of Grub's free sessions in the Dorchester and Roxbury BPL branches. What's been your experience leading the program so far? What was your high point?

JDL: One student said that she is part Native American and that she doesn't usually see work by Native authors in classes. One guy was from Paris and he was in Boston for work just for the week. Pretty amazing that he found Grub online and took a taxi to this free class! He said he would check out the online classes too. It was a real diverse class in terms of gender, race, age, and experience with writing.

I “recruited” a teenage boy from another part of the library. His name is Kishan. He is an 8th grader from the O’Bryant High School. He said he was doing homework but I saw he was just watching YouTube videos. So I invited him to the class and told him he could leave after 10 minutes if he wanted to and that I wouldn’t be offended. He agreed. He ended up staying the whole class and he wrote the most amazing poem about how he hates how well meaning adults ask him if he plays football or if he likes sports or if he’s going out for the team, when really he’s too busy because he plays the clarinet. It was a really special moment when he read his poem and everyone clapped. I told him to send me the poem by e-mail but he said he wanted to revise it first. I took a picture anyway, because you never know!


What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with the program?

JDL: I think that being able to differentiate instruction is a must/required skill for Write Down the Street instructors, more so than regular Grub classes. In a given class, I have had a published author sit next to someone taking her first creative writing class sitting next to an MFA graduate sitting next to a Spanish-only speaker who has written poetry in Colombia sitting next to an 8th grader sitting next to a man from Paris in town for work. Needless to say, the discussions end up being rich and varied. In the end it is a plus for everyone.


What advice would you give to someone looking to get into creative writing?

JDL: Maybe it sounds cliché, but keep writing. Fill notebooks. Read a ton. Don’t watch so much TV. And take classes at GrubStreet!


What’s your favorite writing prompt?

JDL: I really like to teach a poem called, "Sure, You Can Ask Me a Personal Question," by Diane Burns. We read the poem, briefly discuss its social and historical context, and write our own poems where we borrow that title. I’ve seen fascinating poems come from this prompt. One that stands out: Kishan's. He wrote about the tension between people—strangers on the street—often thinking he is “just another boy wearing a hood,” but they don’t know that he plays the clarinet, that he loves classical music, and video games, and yes, basketball. That he hates football. That he wrote a poem on a Saturday in November.


What writing advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self?

JDL: Don’t focus on publication as much as revision. 


How do you stay inspired?

JDL: When people ask me why reading literature (and often stories about the immigrant experience) is important especially now, I have explained that literature has a huge role to play in our understanding of someone else’s point of view. With the topic of immigration, if all we see in the media are images of ten-year-old boys trying to cross the fence to get through the border, and we only have that point of view, it leaves very little room for positive imagery. Storytelling is powerful for so many reasons, but especially for its ability to show multiple, often conflicting perspectives. 


Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Brevity, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Blue Mountain Center, and the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers’ Workshop. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education, she is also working on a memoir and a novel.

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About the Author

Marcella is Brazilian, born in the warmth of Rio de Janeiro, who is slowly turning into a popsicle thanks to Boston weather. Although English is not her first language, her love for literature has translated into each language she learned as she travelled the world. So far she has lived in six different countries, explored over another twenty, and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. She is currently a student at Northeastern University, and spends her time with finance and international affairs textbooks, free alternative versions to Photoshop, and her ukulele (although there have been complaints about that last one).

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