The act of writing is what writes a book, what discovers a book.

Derek Palacio

Sugarcane (The Kenyon Review, 2012), a story that explores the world of the Cuban sugar plantation, emerged out of Professor Derek Palacio's interest in the Cuban experience. His father was born in Cuba, but left when he was five years old. Palacio's research digs into all of the various ways one can define what it means to be Cuban.

The creative writing professor began to write stories on the topic, and his research led him to explore how important sugarcane became to the Cuban economy in the 1970s. He found that it was such a lucrative export the military would set up blockades on the road so that no one would steal it during transport. "This was mind blowing to me," he says. "I get up every morning and take a cup of sugar out of my cupboard and don't think anything about it." His work was chosen for inclusion in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, (Anchor, 2013) out of thousands published in literary magazines as one of the 20 best of the year.

For years Palacio has written short fiction, but he is now completing a novel. He considers his writing to have served as a form of discovery over the years. "I think I've gotten much more comfortable with the idea that you're writing down the draft and digging out all the layers and it gets deeper and hopefully thicker and a little bit fuller each time," he says. "Before, I think I was more of a chiseler. I really wanted the language to be perfect at the get-go. For me that's not helpful – it's too restrictive. I need all my drafting to be exploratory up until the last one."

This is one of the ideas about writing that he hopes to impart to his students. He says, "The act of writing is what writes a book, what discovers a book." He wants students to break free of the notion that when you sit down to write, the story is already set in your head. Students should try to understand what the life of a writer is like, the habits writers adopt, and how to cultivate patience and a long-term outlook.

"There's something about working on writing," he says. "Students are working at an abstract level all the time. Words have meaning, but they're not things, they're not places, they're not actual people, so I think what I love about it is seeing the development over a semester. At the end, students exist in that abstract plane much more comfortably. They become more willing to take intellectual risks because they are more comfortable playing around with these bigger ideas." 

Posted October 10, 2013


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