Betting On Your Authentic Self: A Conversation with Cleyvis Natera
Cleyvis Natera, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Neruda on the Park, studied literature and creative writing at Skidmore College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from New York University. Her fiction, essays and criticisms have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, URSA Story, TIME, Alien Nation: 36 True Tales of Immigration, Gagosian Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Memorious, The Kenyon Review, Aster(ix), and Kweli Journal, among other publications.
In early September, Cleyvis and I met on Zoom to discuss some unique challenges immigrants face when pursuing a creative field, overcoming the fear of failure, and the path to discovering the elusive plot.
Paula Williamson: Can you tell me how your experience as an immigrant affected your writing?
Cleyvis Natera: What I hoped to do with Neruda on the Park was to think about displacement, not just through gentrification, but also– through the lens of womanhood, right? To think about how we as women are sometimes displaced from ourselves. My family and I immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City when I was ten. We were separated from my father, and my mother worked 24 hours a day. So even though this loving family surrounded us, my three siblings and I found ourselves unmoored.
Much of what we experienced over the next ten to twenty years had me questioning what is home and where I fit in. What makes New York City beautiful is that it’s ever-changing and ever-transforming. But it can be a cold place that pushes people out, especially as you consider this drive for gentrification in all our neighborhoods. I grew up in Washington Heights and Harlem, I worked on Wall Street most of my adult life. Those experiences showed me both the ways I fit in and how I didn’t.
PW: I find it fascinating that you had a successful career as an executive before transitioning to full-time writing. So many MFA students are already on their second or third career. Immigrants and people of color often face challenges balancing their creative aspirations with the need to make money. Can you share how you finally fulfilled your dream of being a professional artist?
CN: Thank you for that question because it’s so true, especially being an immigrant because of our parents’ sacrifices to leave a place that was home for them. My mother’s body broke under the weight of being a home attendant. She’s disabled now because of the work she had to do, literally backbreaking, you know? I always felt this obligation toward her, and my broader community. That pressure to pay back, to have their sacrifice be worth something, stunted my potential as a writer when I was a younger person. Part of why it took me so long to get to where I am today is because it was difficult to even imagine a life where I could earn a living as a writer. I know many artists with full-time work, and they work so they don’t have to worry about earning a living wage from their writing. But those people understand that the full-job is a means to an end – the priority is the art. For me, that wasn’t my philosophy. I gave everything I had to my full-time job.
But I knew first hand, from my own corporate experience, that there’s something seductive about capitalism and the pursuit of upward mobility, especially for Black and Brown people, that I think is corrosive to who we are as human beings.
The ambition to become a writer was with me from a very young. When I graduated from college, I remember having that realization that there was no net underneath me. There was no one to catch me if I failed, or support me for as long as it might take to “make it.” I’ve often been the one who is a financial support system for my family. So anytime I heard people speak to this idea of fearlessly pursuing your dream, I was like, what the hell are people talking about? Because that never felt like an option for me
In my full-time job, I was around very supportive people who saw my creativity as an asset. I quickly ascended from individual contributor to supervisor, manager, director, and then ultimately to assistant vice president. I succeeded in my daytime job because I was committed to the pursuit of upward mobility. That’s why I wanted Luz, one of the main characters in my book, to struggle with this idea. In the book, I exaggerated the workplace because I didn’t work in the kind of toxic environment Luz inhabits. But I knew first hand, from my own corporate experience, that there’s something seductive about capitalism and the pursuit of upward mobility, especially for Black and Brown people, that I think is corrosive to who we are as human beings.
August 15th was my third anniversary. I called it a “quit anniversary”. I celebrate it every year because I was so scared. No one in my family made the kind of money I was making when I quit my job. I remember being terrified because I had children. I thought, what am I doing to my children’s legacy? What if I can’t be the net they will need one day? Three years later, I see it as the best decision of my life.
When I decided I would leap and take a chance on my writing, I made a five-year plan: I was going to quit my job, whether I had published my book or not, give it my best shot, and I saved toward that. The pandemic happened in year three of my five-year plan. I had gotten a good agent, and I knew the book was close to being ready to be sold. But because my children were home, and the level of care they needed compounded by the demands of my career, I felt that dream slipping away from me. For the first time in my life, I knew if I didn’t take a leap, it wasn’t going to happen. I quit, and three months later, I sold Neruda on the Park. Spiritual people will say God will make way for you once you take that risk on yourself. I’m not super religious, but I bet on myself, and it paid off. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. There are still learning pains, but making the transition is accessible to all of us. We must craft a sound plan and ensure our house is in order. I’m still astonished that I did it! I would remind anyone out there who is thinking of pursuing a creative field as a full-time job that it is possible. But you’ve got to have courage in yourself and your ability.
PW: Thank you. It is tough to bet on yourself because if it falls apart, it is all on you. Do you think that at twenty five, you could have produced the work that you have created now?
CN: Absolutely not. I think about twenty five year old Cleyvis with such tenderness. I was very earnest and hard-working. In some ways, I’m grateful publication happened as an older person because I think I would have compromised a lot had it happened when I was younger. These days, I’m just me. I take my work seriously, of course, but when I decided to come back into writing, I remember being like, I’m bringing all of me into it this time; I’m going to bring corporate Cleyvis, joker Cleyvis, Dominican Cleyvis. My corporate job really strengthened my confidence. I could navigate a space dominated by men, and even though it was a great environment for me, it was still corporate America, so it had the same kind of challenges that all big corporations have. And I was able to be excellent while being myself (at least most of the time). The only way that I want to pursue being an artist, and the way that I want my students to pursue being artists, is to be true to our authentic selves. And whatever success I have will hinge on that authenticity.
The only way that I want to pursue being an artist, and the way that I want my students to pursue being artists, is to be true to our authentic selves. And whatever success I have will hinge on that authenticity.
Listen, if I knew what I know now when I was twenty five, that would have been great, but all things being equal, I’m just glad I’ve had experiences that I can now bring into my writing. Who I am as a teacher, writer and public speaker reflects my values and what I want to see in the world. I can stand behind my values with strength. I am not sure I could have done that when I was younger
PW: How did the Breadloaf and other writing residencies impact your career and experience?
CN: As writers, we sometimes think of our work as a calling and don’t want to be too caught up in the business side of things. That was my feeling when I was getting my M.F.A. at New York University. I was brought up under this philosophy that it’s beneath writers to be bothered with the business side of it. There was also this inherent assumption that once the book was ready, the world would open its doors and roll out a red carpet, and thereby, the business would sort itself out. As an immigrant and woman of color who grew up with very little money, those things weren’t true for me. It may be true for some people who got an M.F.A. when I did, but it certainly wasn’t true for me.
Today, I tell my students and anyone who cares to listen that it is invaluable to pursue fellowships and writing residencies. There is nothing like thinking of yourself as part of a community of writers and building networks of support. Placing yourself in spaces where people take your writing as seriously as you do. Our job is to ensure that the community we become a part of is as wide-ranging, diverse, and generous as possible.
When I applied for the PEN America Writing for Justice fellowship the first time, I didn’t even make it to semifinalist. I was just outright denied. But I decided to persist. This industry is strange because, in a way, the more different you are, and the more innovative your work is, the more difficult it is to break open the doors to make it through. But once you make it through, there are rewards for the fresh and the different. All to say that the second year I applied for that fellowship, I got it, and it turned out to be a life-changing experience.
I’ve been working on a memoir for a long time, and I applied to that fellowship with that memoir, which I’m still working on. But it was fascinating because that was the first fellowship where I had an organization behind me. It wasn’t just financial support. It was becoming part of a cohort so that we could create a community. They provided skills, mentors, and tools and enabled us to learn how to create a thriving artistic life and think of our work as artists as tools for social transformation. There are other organizations that will support their fellows and graduates in significant ways once those placements are completed. That is invaluable for those of us who didn’t have artistic people in our lives, who don’t have wealth or influence to ease the way. I tell my students that it is their jobs to understand what are the pathways to ease the critical reception of their work. For literary writers, learn about fellowships and programs like Center for Fiction, PEN America, Stegner, Princeton, or some other programs because entry into these programs means you’re part of an elite institution that will be invested in your success. Now, I’m not saying that all those opportunities are available to all of us, or are even relevant to those of us working in different genres, but the most critical aspect of pursuing an artistic life is understanding how you can support your work when the commercial path of publication may not be immediately available – and that is relevant both at the beginning but also throughout your career as a writer. I didn’t immediately understand that these organizations grant writers a different mindset about the worth of their work outside of a capitalistic structure. While they also support you and help you become a more commercially successful person because they have platforms to showcase your work and a community that is often at the same stage where you are. Writing residencies work similarly – the most prestigious ones signal to the world at large that competitive gatekeepers have chosen you, and your work is of value. Consequently, you are marked as someone worthy of further investment. It is invaluable for all of us to improve at all these opportunities – grants, fellowships, residencies, all of it. Surround yourself with others who have that hunger and work ethic because it’s hard to be rejected. And take it from me, at every stage of your career, the one guarantee is rejection. Success will not be just handed out. Build your community to keep you strong and focused while you’re working on your M.F.A. here at Antioch, while you’re creating community in a writing group, and remember to be a decent literary citizen. Give as much as you take because you’re only going to get as much as you put in.
PW: Do you think of yourself as a multi-genre writer?
Build your community to keep you strong and focused while you’re working on your M.F.A. here at Antioch, while you’re creating community in a writing group, and remember to be a decent literary citizen.
CN: When I came back to writing, I felt this creative abundance. I wanted to do everything. What’s so crazy is that even though I was formally trained with a top M.F.A. program in fiction, my first publications were all creative nonfiction: essays, blog posts, and feature pieces. A lot of times, once you publish a novel, everybody’s like, well, of course she’s a novelist. But I consider myself a multi-genre writer. I love writing essays and book reviews. I like to do hybrid work – autofiction and lyrical essays. I even harbor a hope of publishing a collection of poems one day. I don’t know if it will ever happen for me, but I love poetry so much. It feels like a haunting and beautiful way of finding your way and seeing the world. It’s important that we don’t constrain ourselves because the market tends to do it for us. I love how Antioch has created avenues for students to take workshops with teachers outside of their genre. That wasn’t available to me when I was coming up.
PW: How do you balance the plot with character development? Did you come up with characters first and then put them in a plot?
CN: I always start with characters first. I like to teach my students that the best plots are the plots that arise out of the character’s obsessions, flaws, and contradictions. For example, my protagonist Luz is close to her parents, but there is a sense of hostility from her own community. When I started thinking about the neighborhood changing around her, Luz didn’t see it as bad. She thought gentrification was an inevitability. But for her mother, Eusebia, who has suffered so much loss in her life, that same situation proves to be her breaking point. Losing her home is something Eusebia will not stand for. That was the dynamic between the two women from the beginning, and plotting an escalating book from it was the biggest challenge. I mean, it’s probably why this book took so long because I didn’t fully understand what plot meant. It took a lot of studying for me to learn how to plot this book. The plot is hard. I’m telling you, I remember when I came back into writing in a serious way, and I decided to go back to school. I was like, I know I have an M.F.A., and I’m supposed to have this all figured out. But there were some things that I didn’t know how to execute. I remember going to Breadloaf, the Juniper Institute, Disquiet, Kweli, and other writing programs to surround myself with writers I admired. I decided I was going to figure how to plot my book out. The complexity, of course, is that I knew from being a reader for more than half my life that a character can carry a book in a way that just having a compelling plot cannot. You can have the best plot in the world, but nobody cares if you have flat or boring characters. But you also can’t just write beautiful sentences about someone’s thoughts and fears, not if you care to be published in this market. I want my students to focus on fully understanding their characters: what are their likes and dislikes, what are their idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies, and flaws? My mantra, as I work on my second book, is to complicate the characters, not the plot. Sometimes, it’s just like putting scenes next to each other to figure out what they want. And what gets in their way? When you start blocking things that way, the plot will emerge.
PW: What does your writing process look like right now, and how does being a mother impact that? How do you balance it?
CN: Being a parent changed everything for me. Something strange happens when you have kids and want them to be proud of you. You want to be an example for them. I wanted to show my children that they could have a different kind of life that wasn’t rooted in this relentless pursuit of capitalistic material success. So many of us are brought up to believe that happiness is to have all the material things, and often, you get into a deeper hole of having to make more money to afford all the pretty and shiny things, you know? That’s why we’re burnt out and overworked. I wanted my children to know there are different ways to have a meaningful life.
Balance is a hard question. I don’t have the answers because I don’t think my life is balanced. I think of my work as project-oriented, which comes from my project management background. Much of the work I did in my corporate job had to do with efficiency and process improvement. I bring that part of myself into my writing process. I don’t put much pressure on myself to write daily. But because I love to read, I read every day and try to keep myself in a mindset that is language-centered, present-focused. So it’s like, how are other people doing it? What questions are other works asking? What do I see and smell and hear? What language would I use to describe an odd expression in a stranger’s face? Those things really inspire and feed my work.
I am relentless when I’m working on projects. So, because I have young children, I have been known to get up at four and five in the morning to finish the work before they’re up.
I don’t put much pressure on myself to write daily. But because I love to read, I read every day and try to keep myself in a mindset that is language-centered, present-focused.
I’m not as good a writer around my kids. When I’m creating at home, there’s a constant, endless list of things to do. The process is a lot slower. I think that has to do with the pressures of being a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, basically a person who gives a shit. So, I believe in getting the hell out of Dodge. I have friends, and we do self-made residencies, so we’ll take a week and go somewhere and write, and it’s very strict. We’ll write all day, and then we’ll meet for dinner. I’m lucky to be able to afford that. When I go on traditional writing residencies, I usually go for one to two weeks. I write fast if I go to a creative place where I don’t have to worry about picking my children up from school. I don’t have to worry about meals, laundry, or grocery shopping. I have written 150 pages in a week because I have been writing it in my brain for months and have just been unable to sit down and do it. I know this is my privilege speaking but if you can afford it and can spare the time, find a way to get away from your life. Part of the reason why I can be highly productive is because I have such a great partner. My husband understands that I have to go, so he holds it down. This idea of balance is challenging. I haven’t figured it out, but I feel happy trying to.
PW: My last question is, who are some of your favorite writers right now?
CN: I love reading. I agreed to be a judge for two different prizes, and I’m really inspired by some new discoveries. There’s a woman named Carol Mitchell. Her book What Starts Bad a Mornin‘ is a beautiful book about a Caribbean woman who comes to the US and what happens when her past comes hurling into her present life. Then there’s Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias. It’s about three generations of Afro-Latinx women in Costa Rica. It is stunning. Finally, while abroad, I read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, a tiny, beautiful novel about a lesbian couple. One wife is a scientist who studies the ocean. She goes on this expedition and ends up lost at sea. It is strange, devastating, and heartbreaking.
Paula Williamson is a Black Queer writer and mom of three in the Bay Area. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Playwriting at Antioch University and the CNF Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Parenthesis Journal, The Chestnut Review, Manastash Literary Journal, and Pulse Magazine.