Becoming a “Real” Writer: A Guest Post by Monica Zepeda

In this guest post, author Monica Zepeda talks about her winding journey to becoming what she always was all along: a “real” writer. Monica is the 2019 winner of the New Visions Award for her debut young adult novel, Boys of the Beast, which will be published April 12 and is available for preorder.

My name was not on the list.

During my junior year at UCLA,  I submitted a short story to get into a creative writing class. I needed the instructor’s approval before I could register. The day before the class started, a list of those who had been approved was posted in the English Department. With the last name of Zepeda, I’d gone straight to the end of the list, but maybe it wasn’t alphabetical. I carefully read each name in order. My name was not on the list.

I was devasted. I had been writing since I was eight years old. Poems, short stories, a screenplay that was highly derivative of Star Wars. By my early twenties, I thought I was finally good enough to get into this class. Submitting my short story was my first step toward becoming a real writer and making a living with my words. But my name was not on the list.

I didn’t want to go back to my apartment because my roommate knew how desperately I wanted to get in and I couldn’t bear to tell her that I hadn’t. So I went to the library instead. Libraries have always been a safe space for me. Growing up, I lived in a rural area and the bookmobile brought the world to me. In high school, the school library was where I’d hang out during lunch. And after this crushing disappointment, the library felt like the only place I could find respite.

Powell Library at UCLA is a beautiful place to take a moment and regroup. But as I sat in the Main Reading Room, I was too upset to appreciate the grand arches and domed roof. Not getting into the class was a sign that I wasn’t good enough. A sign that I should give up writing. Who cared about what I had to say? I was a Mexican American from a small desert town. I was the youngest of six children, the daughter of a roofer who dropped out of high school and a homemaker. I was smart, which got me into UCLA, but apparently not smart enough.

Monica in kindergarten

I picked up random books and magazines and read a few pages before I picked up something else. Finally, hours later, it dawned on me. If all these people could be writers, so could I. Maybe what I wrote didn’t speak to that instructor, but he wasn’t the only one. This was one class, one opinion. I’d try again next quarter when it was taught by someone else.

I went back to my apartment, ready to tell my roommate that I didn’t get in, but I was not giving up. No one could stop me from writing except me. When I got home, another roommate told me I missed a phone call. The instructor for the creative writing class had left a message that he made a mistake. I could register for the class, if I wanted. My name was supposed to be on the list.

Of course I took the class. I went on to take many more writing classes, eventually getting a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting at Arizona State University. I was a Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellow and a finalist at Austin Film Festival. I worked in the entertainment industry and wrote for reality television and video games.  I was a writer, but I was getting paid to write what other people told me to write. The plays and screenplays and novels that were truly my voice stayed on my hard drive.

I wrapped up my identity so much into being a real writer that I couldn’t image being anything else.  But in truth, I was miserable. When my husband suggested I find another line of work, my first reaction was anger. I’d worked so hard to get where I was, I wasn’t going to quit now! But where I was … wasn’t where I wanted to be. So my next reaction was depression. What was I, if I weren’t a writer?

Monica as a a teenager living in Joshua Tree

It finally dawned on me that I could be more than one thing. I will always be a writer, but professionally, I could be something else. But again, what? I spent a long time looking into different careers and none of them inspired me. Then one day, it popped into my head, I’d make a good librarian.

I’d never thought about becoming a librarian before, even though it’d be so perfect for me. I’m a creative problem solver and book lover. The thought of getting another Masters degree was a bit daunting, but I felt as though I was finally on the right path. So I got my Master of Information Science from San Jose State and now I’m a Teen Services Librarian.

Being a Teen Services Librarian lets me be the one to bring the world to teens who seek a bigger world, to give them a safe space to hang out, to let them have a moment of respite when they need it. I advocate for their wellbeing and growth. I encourage their creativity. I buy diverse YA books for the collection. And I am so much happier as a librarian than I was when I worked in the entertainment industry.

I still write, but now I’m writing from the heart and not for a paycheck. A “real” writer isn’t someone who gets paid for their writing. A real writer is someone who is willing to make themselves vulnerable by telling the truth of their characters. Thank you, Lee and Low, for giving me a chance to be a real writer.


About Boys of the Beast:

Three cousins. Four days. One car. This smart and fearless road-trip novel is perfect for fans of Benjamin Alire Sáenz or Meg Medina.

THE ROUTE. Seventeen hundred miles from Portland, Oregon, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

THE BEAST. Grandma Lupe’s 1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe.

THE BOYS. Three strangers who also happen to be cousins:

Matt. Evangelical Christian. Earnest. Film nerd. Carrying a dream to make movies–despite the future his father has planned for him.

Ethan. Jewish. Gay. Sci-fi nerd. Carrying a phone that contains his entire relationship with Levi–unless they finally get to meet IRL on this trip.

Oscar. Stoner. Smartass. Too cool to be a nerd. Carrying a letter that haunts him–no matter how hard he tries to escape it.

THE END …just might be a new beginning.

Order your copy of Boys of the Beast:

Lee & Low Books
Indie Bound
Bookshop
Amazon
or wherever you order your favorite books!

Monica Zepeda is a Southern California native who spent her teen years in the desert wilds of Joshua Tree. She moved to Los Angeles, London, and Arizona before settling down permanently in L.A.Along the way, she’s worked as a bookseller, produced reality television shows, and written plays, feature films, and video games. Monica now serves as a teen librarian and lives near the beach with her husband and their unbelievably cute cats. You can find her on the web at monicazepeda.com, on Twitter at @MZWrites, and on Instagram at @MZWrites2.

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