Congrats on your nonfiction piece “When We Were Boys,” which is featured in The Best American Essays 2023! We were excited to debut it in Water~Stone, and we are thrilled it is getting the recognition it deserves. Can you talk about where this piece started when you began writing it and how it took shape?
Thank you so much for being this piece’s first home! I feel so incredibly honored all around.
This piece began as a pandemic essay. I wrote this while living alone in Minneapolis, not knowing a single person in the city, after moving here for my MFA program. I had a workshop piece due but I was feeling scared to confront the page. So, I knew I needed to write about a past that felt tender to return to, that felt oriented towards survival.
To overcome my page-avoidance, I spent an entire day sitting at a park bench oscillating between Justin Torres’ We the Animals and the longhand page. Quickly, I became hooked by his short story “Us Proper” and the sharpness of its narrative heart. Once I read that piece, I knew I wanted to write about these boys from my childhood. The beginning came to me quickly—this memory of us walking down the Taco Bueno street. It was so crystalized, I knew I had to begin there.
That said, the first version of this piece was mostly images stacked atop one another. The timeline stretched to the present day, but I couldn’t find a resolution that felt honest to me there. Everyone’s lives had become so big I didn’t know how to distill them onto the page. I benefited so much from workshopping this piece, as the takeaway was that I was resisting landing somewhere and that was causing a lot of my structural hangups. I needed to settle into a nook of time in order to see my characters more closely. This is where the fishing scene comes from—I took a tiny detail and stretched its narrative until an aboutness emerged. Writing that solved every problem for me; plot began to shape itself, time could be cut and pulled more easily, and I could finally see what each of these characters needed from the story.
The anecdote of the fishing trip and the wrecked toenail seem to be some of the physical representations of growing pains seen throughout this piece. In its crafting, were there other stories you had to leave behind that you would have liked to include?
Of course there were so many stories that could’ve been conjured. My priority with writing this piece was to show the softness that exists in boyhood and the sacredness of being let into that experience. But I was overwhelmed with the idea of choosing just one story to share, which is probably why the first draft came out the way that it did. All of these tiny childhood moments woven into the piece are their own worthy stories, absolutely.
The problem was that I didn’t actually remember any of them clearly enough to sustain a scene. Without that bigger scene to grasp into, the piece was like water running between the readers’ fingers. It was so frustrating at first, that my own memory was preventing me from slowing down into the piece. I feared this story might just fail because of it. But sometimes memory can help guide us in revisions as memoirists, actually.
When trying to find anything I could use for a scene, I circled back to a tiny brief fish detail I had written down. That’s when this particular day came back towards me. We didn’t always go to Ransom Canyon, but I knew the landscape of this place well. The feeling of that day had been burned into me. I began to build from what I remembered—climbing the canyons, the horticulture (of which I Googled around for names)—and what I knew even still—Grandma’s sunglasses, the rip-pain feeling of hitting a toe.
From there, the symbols revealed themselves in really generous ways. The locker room scene emerged because I wanted to show the other side of puberty’s gateway, and I couldn’t get those quivering hair tie bracelets out of my head. The bull came to me when I was trying to think of a way to juxtapose a pack of wolves. I decided I liked the mystery of that symbol because bulls are inelegant and monstrous and lonely. That was the most fun part—connecting these symbols that had emerged to see what they were asking of me.
I’m always curious about the morphing of taking a real person and putting them on the page. Can you describe your process?
This is a skill that I constantly feel like I’m learning! Character work is so specific already, but in nonfiction the process of turning a person into a version of themselves on the page feels different every time. Relationships and daily closeness leak into the practice, the needs of the piece comes into play. There’s so much to balance—honesty and love and intentionality and space for craft!
A really useful exercise I’ve been given by my mentor Kao Kalia Yang is to spend a full page or two focusing on describing one person. It doesn’t all have to fit into the piece, but making space to just sit with your people and the page always turns out surprises. This has always been one of the hardest prompts for me because I can be impatient and capricious with the page. But slowing down in that way can really reveal new noticings about those you’ve become used to witnessing, or even people you haven’t seen in years. It’s a real invitation for emotional openings—places where relationships are still alive and prickly and unfolding.
There have been countless times where I’ve looked to see how writers in other genres handle character work, too. I love the absurdity that can arise in fiction and the holiness that can light a poem, or vice versa. I always stop to dog-ear a character description that I’m struck by just in case I need a zing of energy to get me going later. I think of Matthew Salesses’s definition of characterization: “what makes one character different from everyone else.” But I also consider what makes us the same. Those are places where characters reveal themselves and a semblance of community can begin to have stakes in the piece.
It’s such a sacred responsibility: to look at real people with such specific sharp attention, and aim to do it softly.
You’re also an educator. What classes do you teach? What do you think is essential for writers finding their voice to learn or know?
Right now I’m teaching a class called Writing Body & Community in Memoir at The Loft Literary Center. These were two craft elements that took me a good while to learn how to write because I was so afraid of them. I don’t like being perceived and I’m nervous to self-declare my belonging to a group for fear of being rejected. As a halfie, this fear is deeply embedded. I always felt a lack of seeing my communities on the page—Chicana, mixed-raced, West Texans—so I felt languageless for a long time when trying to write them.
The conversations we’ve had in that class have burst open my understanding of body and community on the page in so many ways. We’ve thought about land and prison and the metaphorical writing desk and what it means to be in touch with our subconscious when writing.
I’ve also taught Intro to Creative Writing and various nonfiction classes at the University of Minnesota. I’m endlessly in awe of the students in the world right now, creating brilliantly and fearlessly against all possible odds. I’m so lucky to have had the dreamiest of mentors and now the dreamiest of students, too.
As for advice: find what you’re obsessed with and follow it forever! It doesn’t matter what it is—the things you love are your compasses. Treat stories like friends when you feel stuck; they’re your most ready teachers and companions. Trust your weird way of doing things. Challenge any voice that tells you a particular story doesn’t matter. And always, always chase the next sparkle, the next ember.
What writers or their works inspire you?
Speaking of finding what you’re obsessed with: I have to begin with Taylor Swift every time I consider this question. As someone who didn’t grow up in a house of readers, she is who I credit for showing me what it is to love words. She’s a genius at self-mythologizing in really intensive, narrative-driven ways. Witnessing her writing evolve over the years has been an incredible gift and I would just die for her booklist!
I have and will always rave about T Kira Māhealani Madden and everything she touches. I am so inspired by her grasp on heart-work and biting detail precision on the page. CJ Hauser and Kao Kalia Yang are my major inspirations for what it means to be a writer who leads with an open courageous heart. I would not be the writer I am without any of them.
For specific works, I credit Rita Indiana’s Papi for unlocking a specific girlhood urgency within my writer voice. Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo introduced me to themes that will forever haunt me in the best of ways. Another great secret gem is Emma Reyes’ posthumous memoir The Book of Emma Reyes. I get so excited every time I remember it exists. This year, I was completely blown away by Chloe Cooper Jones’ Easy Beauty and Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ The Man Who Could Move Clouds. I hope to have even an ounce of their narrative magic!
Ah, yes! Thank you for this question. I’m currently working on a memoir about girlhood, monsterhood, and magic—clearly, all themes that live in this essay. I’m a few drafts in but am lucky enough to have essays keep arriving to me. I’m learning constantly about the work of crafting a big narrative arc across a project. There is so much stamina required to keep going but I have a pocketful of encouraging nuggets to hold onto. I’m hoping the smaller pieces help light the way, too. Soon, I’ll have a flash piece out in Passages North whose prompt came from a spam text message from my old car salesman. It’s a piece I love a lot and am so excited it came from such a weird place.
I’ve also been ruminating on a novel idea that feels farther away but like it’s been forming inside me for quite some time. I’m fascinated by Don Juan narratives and how they might show up in a gentrified Chicanx family like my own. In that realm, I’ve been studying a lot of Mike Flanagan’s work. I’ve become very close with ghosts in my fiction writing—they just keep appearing—so I’m becoming better acquainted with them while my heart is still intertwined with memoir. I come from a lineage of curanderos so keeping ghosts alive in all the ways feels par for the course.
Ciara Alfaro is a writer, romantic, and descendant of magicians from Texas. Her work has appeared in Cutthroat’s Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century anthology, Barely South Review, Sad Girls Club, and more. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota and lives in St. Paul with the women who visit her in her dreams.