One of our favorite Writespace instructors! Yes, all of them can be our favorites!
Icess Fernandez Rojas has been teaching at Writespace Houston since 2018. When she’s not teaching at Writespace, she’s teaching classes at a community college. She loves to teach fiction, especially noir fiction. Right now, she’s working on her memoir called Problematic about the life experiences that have shaped her and led her to become the fierce and strong woman she is today. Learn more about her here and here.
Trigger warning: This interview contains content about suicide.
You’re working on your memoir. Why are you writing it?
It started as a way of healing. The memoir, called Problematic, is about mental health illness specifically. It's about having suicidal thoughts and fighting back from that. It’s also about my experiences of growing up Black in America, being of a certain age and not being able to have children, and being in a lousy place career-wise. All of that leading up to this thing. It started as a healing exercise that kept growing into something.
When did you start writing it?
The memoir began as an essay called “Confession of a Surviving Liar” which was published on a website called Dear Hope in 2016. It was the most massive thing I had written thus far in creative nonfiction. I was still learning the genre, the different forms, and the different ways you can approach a story. It took eight months to write.
How far along are you on your book?
I’m really close to being done! I need two weeks of alone time in a cabin in the woods. I will emerge from that with a finished, mostly edited project. There’re only a couple of uncompleted pieces.
What challenges, if any, have you faced during the process?
It has been challenging to find time due to my workload as a professor at a community college and being my mother’s caretaker.
Have you had any surprising results while writing the memoir?
So many! One is that I realized that I can write creative nonfiction. For me, it has become a source of freedom. Fiction can be quite restraining because there’re so many rules, and nonfiction just has one rule: tell your own story, tell it straight, and to the best of your ability.
Another thing that I realized, and experienced first-hand through nonfiction workshops, is that the nonfiction community is very open to your experiences. The community is very willing to read your work, give feedback, and teach.
Do you have a writing ritual you follow?
I don’t have a ritual other than sitting and writing. I can tell you about my past writing rituals.
Before Hurricane Harvey, I worked at a community college and set aside an hour after my office hours to write, then go work out in the college’s gym next to my office, and go home.
Before and after grad school, I used to write after work. I would come home, have dinner, relax a little bit, and start my writing sessions around 9 pm. I would write with a baseball cap.
The baseball cap was my signal to start writing and put me in work mode!
How are you balancing writing your book with being a teacher?
I’m not! I wish I were better at it. Some days I tell myself to write for at least 30 minutes. On other days I can’t even find two minutes.
It’s important to have some grace for yourself and remember that you’re a writer and that little things make you a writer, not just sitting down and putting words on a page.
Why did you become an educator?
I was a newspaper reporter for 12 years. When I started, I thought I would retire as a newspaper reporter. I thought I would eventually go into the editorial department and either be an editor or a columnist and write books. Then I got laid off. It was probably the second-best thing in the world to happen to me. During this time, I was accepted into a writing program and did my residency.
When I graduated, I became an adjunct professor. My first class was a night class, and I finished it early even though I had prepared well. I thought I could do better. At that moment, I knew this was where I needed to be.
What got you interested in teaching at Writespace Houston?
I was a student at Writespace and took a memoir class with Joyce Boatright. It was a memorable class because she empowered me to get into memoir writing.
I talked to the Executive Director at the time, and she proposed teaching a class since I had an MFA.
I ended up teaching a class on blogging that didn’t turn out too bad.
I started thinking of teaching other things, and Jamie booked me for classes before I even told her!
What are you particularly geeked to teach about at the organization?
Noir. I’m enjoying doing the bigger thoughts about stories. Of the approach of the story, of the heart of the story, and what makes a story, whether fiction or not, beat. What makes it come off the page? What makes it a thing? I love those kinds of things!
Is there a topic you’re interested in teaching that you haven’t gotten the chance to teach?
I would like to teach a nonfiction or memoir class.
Readers might want to sign up for one of your classes. Please describe a typical lesson.
You’ll write. Don’t think you’re going to be scot-free.
You can expect that I will strip everything down. I’ll make everything bite-size, so we’re going to build things up.
You’ll write one thing, and then I’ll ask you to build on top of that, on top of that, and on top of that.
In the end, you’ll have something to work with, not the final version of something or a final draft, but something you can jump from.
How did you come up with your teaching philosophy, "A workshop is a safe space to explore and live the life you always wanted – the one of the writer. I always found that the best workshops allowed their participants to not only walk away with ideas but with a game plan”?
I thought about the workshops I hated that were not useful and what made them not useful. Then I thought about the workshops I loved that were useful and what made them useful.
What made the workshops useful was the safe space, the exploration, and walking away with an idea or game plan for the next project. The ones that were not useful made you angry about wasting your money and did not even help you come up with one idea.
I want all my students to walk away with an idea or a game plan of what to do next.
If they didn’t walk away with that, then I didn’t do my job.
What has been a memorable teaching experience for you?
The most recent one was about the conversations writers have in stories. Other than the fact that it’s the most recent one, it’s memorable because we were working on bigger ideas. We worked on “Little Things” by Raymond Carver and made it our own. We took what he had, which wasn’t a lot since it’s written in a minimalist form, and kept adding to it. By the end, we had many different versions, and they were all amazing. I hope the students keep working on them and publish them.
What has teaching taught you?
It has taught me how to be clearer. Sometimes I think I am, but I’m not. And to have empathy and that it’s ok if I don’t have all the answers because I’m not supposed to.
Being a teacher doesn’t mean having the answer to a question, it’s about being humble, acknowledging that you don’t have the answer, and working with others to find it or create it.
Teaching has taught me to be humble, gracious, and have empathy.
Has the pandemic changed how you approach your lessons? And if so, in what way?
I used to teach face-to-face for Writespace. Now, I just teach online through Zoom. I have to approach my lessons differently. I have to rely more on the written word than what I say. Even if I have a bad connection, the class needs to go on. And students could have Internet issues as well. I have to have something to hand to my students so they can continue with the class and catch up with us.
What advice do you have for a future student or anyone interested in taking a writing workshop?
Take the workshop, take it with an open heart. Don’t go with any expectations. Don’t go with the expectation that you’ll outline your entire book by the end of a three-hour class. It won’t happen.
Take it little by little.
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Betty Cruz, intern extraordinaire. Find out more about Betty and what she does here.