“Look inside and be brave.”

So advises creative writing instructor María Amparo Escandón, who will be teaching Your Writer’s Voice: The Gift of Uniqueness this February 4-7 at the 2010 Writers Studio.

Maria knows a little something about being brave. The multi-talented Escandón is a best-selling bilingual novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and film producer. As if that isn’t enough, she also mentors young writers as part of PEN USA’s Emerging Voices Program.

In the Q & A below, we discuss María’s many accomplishments along with her development as a writer and her plans for her upcoming Writers Studio course.

Writers’ Program: What first drew you to writing? How did you get started as a writer?

Maria Amparo Escandon: I was expelled from school in second grade for not paying attention in class. I spent the days absorbed in my own writing and didn’t learn anything. So, if there is a culprit in my choice of career, I guess it would have to be my lack of interest in academic topics.

WP: You’ve written in both Spanish and English. In which language are you most comfortable writing and what are some of the issues that come up when you’re translating your own work?

MAE: I’m too comfortable writing in Spanish, so I avoid it. Writing in English is so difficult that I’m forced to make every word count. When I’m done with the piece, then I do my own translation into Spanish. And because character development, plot, narration and dialogue have been resolved, I don’t have to think much, just let myself go in my own language. Sometimes I get so immersed that I forget I’m translating and start to write things that are not in the English draft, so I have to be careful to match both versions.

WP: Similarly, how does it feel to adapt your own work into a screenplay? How did you feel seeing it adapted further into a feature film?

MAE: Once a novel is published, it’s dead. You can’t change anything, your characters stop evolving, the story is set, there are no more what ifs. Now the story belongs to the reader. With the script you get another chance at telling the story in a different way. And then you get another pass when the script goes into production. Suddenly you have 300 people interpreting your story and adding their two cents. This is where the process becomes a collective art. I find this one of the highest forms of human connection, sharing of ideas to create one single story.

WP: You’ve written a collection of short stories entitled CarCass based on photographs you took of wrecked cars on Baja roads. What role does photography play in your writing? What led you to take on this particular project?

MAE: I must have some undetected form of dyslexia that has shaped my brain to be intensely visual. Photography helps me tell snippets of life as I see it. These become little stories and finally evolve into complex storytelling, like novels. CarCass came to be while on a trip to Baja with my ex-husband to see the whales. We found hundreds of abandoned, wrecked, pillaged cars by the side of the road and wondered what must have been going on inside those cars at the time of the accident, who was driving, where were they going, your typical writer questions. The short stories and the photographs are the result of this little adventure.

WP: What are some of the novels, short stories, plays, etc that inspire and excite you?

MAE: I have an attraction to magic realism just because it is a genre that breaks the rules. Don’t get me wrong. I am a law-abiding citizen. I don’t go around running traffic lights, but when it comes to my writing, the only rule I respect is that I rule. Writing is my own little kingdom where no second grade teacher can tell me I can’t start a sentence with the word “and.” And I pass this insight along to all my students whenever I can. It is indeed a very freeing feeling.

WP: Your website (http://www.mariaescandon.com/) links to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube. What role do you think these new technologies should play in the literary world? How do you feel about using them yourself?

MAE: Shakespeare had it made in his day: no TV, no computers, no Internet, no video games, no movies… no competition! Readers today have so many more entertainment options that we as writers either make these media our allies or we’ll be lost in oblivion. I don’t suggest that you should blog all day, but being a “social writer” will definitely get your story out there; you’ll be able to share it with more readers and fans than if you just work in your little obscure corner and only talk to your editor.

WP: What do you do when you doubt yourself as a writer? How do you pull yourself together and keep going forward?

MAE: I do what I do all day, because I doubt myself all the time. This is a constant pattern: “Am I good enough? / C’mon, get over it and get to work.” I have to remind myself that I am my worst critic and bad critics shouldn’t be listened to. There will be good days and lousy days. It happens to everyone, no matter the profession, even doctors. The good news is that when I have a terrible day, no one dies. That really puts things in perspective.

WP: In your upcoming Writers Studio course Your Writer’s Voice: The Gift of Uniqueness writers learn how to let their own unique voices form out of personal experience and feeling. What is your advice for students looking to set themselves apart as writers?

MAE Look inside and be brave. You know it’s going to hurt when you bring out the memory of your cat being run over by a truck, but after you put it in writing, the healing begins. Your own life experience is a wealth of insights, hindsights, foresights (and oversights, too!) and when you apply this knowledge to your writing is when you create your most sincere and powerful work.

WP: What do you want students to come away with from your class?

MAE: I want my students to release their own, distinct voice and divest themselves from any other voices they’ve been trying on for size. I want them to learn how to tap into the wealth tucked in that deep place in their inner self where their best stories are created.

WP: Anything else you want to add?

MAE: Take my class. You won’t regret it. And if you do, you’ll have something to write about.

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Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing onsite and Screenwriting online. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WriterDaniel

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