Back in the ’80s, when Teen Me told adults I wanted to be a writer, their automatic response was, “So you want to move to New York City?” And I supposed that I did. I’d move to a giant Manhattan apartment with high ceilings and plentiful natural light and draft whole novels on a typewriter, blowing my nose on typing paper when my own words moved me to tears, à la Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. Or else I’d live in a high-rent hovel and skip meals until low blood sugar induced the bouts of fanciful prose that would undoubtedly make me rich. I’d attend open-mic nights at dim bars full of young men and women in trendy glasses. Maybe try opium, if that’s what it took.
Much later, as a moderately successful author and magazine essayist, I can tell Houston’s aspiring authors, from experience, that you can be a starving writer right here in Houston. The Internet enables you to hand any piece of writing to any editor from the comfort of your favorite coffee shop, within seconds. But our fair metropolis offers much more than that. With its wide array of venues for performing, polishing, publishing and promoting your work, Houston is like a writer’s Choose Your Own Adventure story waiting to unfold. By the same token, it’s a great place for bookworms (some of whom are in larval stage on the path to eventual author metamorphosis).
I first braved the open mic in the year 1998, at the Nuestra Palabra reading series. That led to readings at Voices Breaking Boundaries, Spacetaker (now Fresh Arts), Inprint’s First Friday poetry series, Poison Pen and the Houston Public Library. I’ve done hundreds of readings in Houston by now, for a myriad of organizations. Yet I still feel like I’ve barely made a dent in the options that abound for poets and prose writers alike.
My first writing group—started by a woman who posted a notice in the break room of her downtown office—consisted of three friends and me; we all braved the toxic mold at my Heights apartment twice a month to share our work. These days, I eschew writing groups and simply read my work aloud to my pets. But writers who crave peer review have options other than coworkers, MFA fellows or people who stopped to read a flier on a telephone pole. In addition to virtual bulletin boards and online writing groups, Houston boasts organizations that facilitate meet-ups and even provide toxin-free meeting space.
By the year 2000, my workshopping and unpaid readings had led to a first book. Then, countless query letters, rejection letters, and pennies thrown into that fountain at the Galleria resulted in my book being published by Arte Público Press. APP, as it’s affectionately known, is housed at the University of Houston and known for launching the writing careers of Sandra Cisneros, Victor Villaseñor and many other authors way more popular than I am. APP was my stepping-stone to the big publishers in New York City and became my publisher of choice three novels later, when my New York house and I jointly realized I was not, after all, the long-lost Latina daughter of David Sedaris and Stephenie Meyer.
Despite this disturbing intrusion of truth, I kept hustling. Then, in 2013, I was honored and humbled to be named Houston’s first poet laureate. One of the many, many benefits of that two-year term was the opportunity to work with local writing organizations and institutions I’d hitherto only known from afar: Meta-Four, Bayou City Poetry Slam, Public Poetry, LitFuse and countless others.
Looking back, I see how options for young writers have increased exponentially over the past few decades. For instance, I think of the writing courses I took at UT and wish someone had informed me, via time machine, that UH’s creative writing program would soon become the jewel in its crown and worth staying home for. Before college, I spent a semester at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, when their creative writing program was only a rumored gleam in the principal’s eye. Now, that fledgling program does indeed exist, and it has just produced the first Houston Youth Poet Laureate, Andrew White.
Back before I even imagined being a writer, I attended schools in Northside and the Heights, writing occasional haikus and book reports on Duran Duran biographies, like any normal student of that era. Today, Houstonians can start literary careers as early as kindergarten, with Writers in the Schools offering professional training in elementary classrooms throughout the city.
What more could you ask from a city not named New York, in a state not named Iowa? Want to submit to a local journal? Houston hosts publication options for poets, short story writers, essayists and flash fiction fiends. Want to get your local journal to the local masses? Set up a booth at the annual Indie Book Fest. Want to hear your words on stage? Get into the local theater scene. Need financial backing for your work? Apply for a Houston Arts Alliance grant.
Need a day job? Almost every oil and gas company here needs a tech writer or two. Want to read someone else’s work or meet authors? Take in a reading at one of our many bookstores or reading series. Need a place to write that offers caffeine or liquor (or both), with an atmosphere that’s artsy or seedy, bustling or churchlike, indoors or out? Get yourself to the Montrose—it’s lousy with whatever kind of spots you need. You have no more excuses, fledgling writers! Nor do you, procrastinating veterans of the local writing scene!
Need more resources than those briefly mentioned here? Read on, dear reader-slash-writer. Read on.
Gwendolyn Zepeda is a novelist, children’s book author, former Houston poet laureate, corporate tech writer, and general Jill-of-all-writing-trades.