Cynthia Pittmann, PhD is a writer based in Puerto Rico who motivates people to write and live a creative connected life through sharing her own stories, poems, and photography.
"The meaning of life is not to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away." ~Pablo Picasso
Hunter S. Thompson wrote the novel The Rum Diary during his time in Puerto Rico. He befriended journalists employed at The San Juan Star (The Star) which provides inspiration for this novel. In Thompson's story, the protagonist Paul Kemp works at The San Juan DailyNews (The News). Written in first-person, the novel was completed when he was 22 years old. Still, it wasn't published until he revised it 40 years later.
A modern take from a tourist who is looking for Hunter Thompson's experience' in Puerto Rico can be found here (article). It's worth reading to question how contemporary audiences make connections to Puerto Rico.
The novel romanticizes the difficulties of the past, celebrates drinking and the freedom to express violence toward misunderstood others. No doubt the unfavorable portrayals of locals and tourists alike are riveting.
The film captures what it can of the novel but they are different experiences. Johnny Depp's personality, mixed with Paul Kemp's persona, creates someone quite different from the protagonist in the novel. Depp's updated take seems to have more sensitivity to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans; whereas, the young Thompson portrays middle-aged women or rebellious coworkers at The News, with cruelly sharp and revolting images.
“Happy," I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far to relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
Interview by Humans of La iUPI - Gabriel Ramos and Nahmyr Mayas - who can be found on Facebook at Humans of la IUPI
Interview of Prof. Pittmann
APRIL 24, 2016
A segment of this interview was published on the Facebook Page Humans of La IUPI on April 24, 2016. The interviewers and administrators of the FB page are university students Gabriel Ramos and Nahmyr Mayas. They interview people associated with the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras in order to bring a common understanding between people, and their FB page is associated with Humans of New York.
HOLI: How has your day
been so far?
Pittmann: Today has
been an interesting day because there was a spur of the moment change that
often happens here in Puerto Rico. I had extra time so I met up with a student for
coffee and talked with her about her autobiographical story. After our meeting, I
went to the planned assembly (and the reason classes were canceled) and it was so
packed with people! Students, professors,
and support staff were sitting in all of the chairs, on the floor and standing
up in the back. Since there was no room, I
left. I had a free period so I came here [to the APPU patio] a little bit
early and had lunch.
HOLI: When you were
young, did you think you were going to be a professor?
Pittmann: When I was
young –for a quick minute—I wanted to become a hip go-go girl. I had a lot of
funny dreams like that. I think most young kids do. My strongest desire though,
was to go to college. Since neither of my parents had finished high school when
I was growing up, they didn’t really know how you go about planning for
college. They always said: “Yeah, go to college.” And later on, when my mother
completed high school and started community college, I thought that I really didn’t
want to do it that way. By the time I was 16, I decided to join the Navy to
take advantage of the GI Bill and its educational benefits. It did work out
because the military paid for my college education for almost 5 years. I got my
BA and through my MA degree. It was only about $400 a month, but it was still
really helpful. I had to have a part time job while attending school so I could
manage. By then, I really wanted to be a writer but was not ready to admit it.
That career was just so unheard of! In my background no one had any experience
with writing as a career. If you told anyone that you wanted to write, they
thought it was unrealistic and that you could never make any money to support yourself.
HOLI: That same
thinking still goes on today. What was behind that? Did you write all
Pittmann: I started
writing in junior high school; I started writing in a journal. I had a teacher
who told us to just write to a friend or to no one. We could write to
ourselves. Whatever we wanted to do, wewere required to write. So I started writing a letter to a friend and
then I just kept it up. I liked it. I called my “reader” a friend forever. I
still have that journal. I just remembered thinking: “You know, it would be
great if you could just write and express yourself all the time.”
HOLI: When you showed
the class your blog, one of the things that interests us the most was the
writing about your mother. We read a little and it says that she was killed by
her neighbor because of her sexual orientation. Can you talk to us more about
your mother and your relationship with her?
Pittmann: My mother
was born on October 31st, which was the Witches Day or Halloween,
and she thought it was funny because people are so superstitious. She just took
the meaning of her birthday as a playful sign of personal empowerment. I liked
the way she could reverse the meaning of symbols and my blog is dedicated to
her. I can’t say that we didn’t have a complicated relationship when I was
growing up. She used to call herself fertile Myrtle because she started having
kids when she was 19 and every year after that she had five. She decided after
we were all raised to go back to college. I was in the Navy and everyone else
had moved along. I think it was when she was studying social work and gender
that all of the questions about her gender orientation started coming up. At
that time, a Wayne State professor had the students do a project – a
self-ethnographic study. After she was murdered, I found the journal-like study
and read through it. I found out she had gone through a lot of tough times when
she was growing up and that society wasn’t helpful or forgiving. Her parents
had problems and the world was a violent place in this young girl’s eyes. I
still think the world is still a violent place for a lot of people. In her case,
she never seemed to question her sexuality. For her, she thought of herself as
just a tomboy. After going to school and talking to a lot of people, I think
she started to realize and acknowledge that she was attracted to women. One
time she called me on the phone when I was living in California and she
wondered aloud, “Why is everybody was always asking me if I’m lesbian? This conversation
was a several years before she died. I told her: “Well, are you?” And then she
didn’t say anything. I think she started to acknowledge that she liked women.
Her call was a sort of testing the water, to see how her family would react to
the news. Because I was okay with it, and my older sister was too. My brother has
a little trouble accepting Mom’s same-sex gender preference, he doesn’t think
it’s right. That resistance to unconditional acceptance is why I have so much
of my mom in my blog. I take her life as an inspiration. She and her partner Christine
Puckett startedAffirmations in
Michigan, and the group is for LGBTQ rights as well as a social organization,
which is nationwide now. It offers a lot of support. I’m proud of her for doing
HOLI: Where were you
on the day that she was killed? How did you find out?
Pittmann: I was working
at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Miramar, California. It was Communications
Counselor/Life Skills teacher for confined people who had problems with
violence, with themselves, or just problems in general. They talked to me about
their personal problems. When I was at work, my sister called me and she said
that Mom’s been murdered. I said that it wasn’t true and asked her how she
knew. She said our cousin called and I still said, “How do you really know?” I
didn’t want to believe it unless I really new for sure. I said to her, “Call me
back when you really know.” She kept trying to convince me, but I wouldn’t believe
her. I think it was a self-defense mechanism. I refused to believe her. Work
was a strange dynamic after that because some of the inmates were confined for
gay bashing, or some were sexually active while knowing that they were HIV
positive and not informing their partners. It was a new kind of crime that was just classified as
assault. I was in that kind of situation where assault related to gender prejudice
was visible and relevant. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was
thinking about the trial we had to go through, and writing letters to the
judge, and most of all trying to find out why it happened. When that kind of
thing happens (a murder), you have so much curiosity. I think that’s also a way
of being protected from feeling. You think that if you know how it happened,
you can change the past but you cannot. That thinking process is good for you
because it helps you to open up to the reality of the murder slowly. And then dealing
with the real truth, which is that your neighbor has killed your mother and her
partner. So, it was tough for everybody in my family.
HOLI: What is the
current position of the person who committed the murder?
Brooks? He was convicted of double homicide, and since he was an older man, he
stayed in jail until he died. We didn’t ask for a capital punishment because
most of my family members didn’t believe in it. The majority of us don’t but
the lawyers thought that double homicide was the way to go and so that’s the
way we went. It’s surprising because I knew him so well. When Christine, Mom’s
partner was out in the yard stabilizing some fence posts, he was in the kitchen
with a bunch of guns. He just picked one up and shot her from the kitchen door
and then he got another gun and walked over to her. My mom went out when she saw
Christine on the ground, and while my mom was talking to him, he just lifted
the other gun he had in his hand and shot her right in the center. And then, he
went back and shot Christine in the back just to make sure that she was gone.
He had a strong feeling that it had to be done because they were violating a
natural law or something. He felt that he was doing a necessary service – like
when you shoot a horse with a broken leg. His idea was that it had to be done, it’s
a part of society to be eradicated.
HOLI: How did you look
for closure or do you embrace the situation?
Pittmann: Early on I
learned in that there wasn’t going to be a complete closure from this
experience. The only way you could deal with something like this is if you look
for meaning and some kind of way to help— to memorialize your loved ones or
help prevent that from happening to other people. That way you develop
compassion rather than bitterness. One of the inmates at the brig talked to me
about his reason for confinement. He told me that he had friends in Texas, and
sometimes they went to a bar and when they saw a gay person leaving the bar
they would follow him and used a bat to beat him. He was ashamed because he
never connected a person to the violence until he found out about my mother. He
needed to confess and asked me for forgiveness.
HOLI: In some way,
you’ve seen bad or evil in people. What’s keeping you so sane, or at peace with
yourself? What’s giving your life meaning?
Pittmann: I do a lot
of thinking about how people are in life and in general. I’ve realized that through
connection with others and developing compassion for others you can have a
meaningful life. It gives your life meaning. I’m not excusing Brooks for his
violence but I believe everybody has that possibility of violence within
themselves. We need to develop compassion and to realize that we’re all
connected. We need to realize that it’s not always just one person who is responsible
for a violent crime. Sure one person goes to jail but in this case, I feel that
it was a bigger problem. Society was involved. There were people who shared his
beliefs and made him feel that he was doing the right thing. We need to learn
to love one another, and I know that sounds cheesy, but to connect with each
other no matter our differing backgrounds. Make the world better for ourselves.
I think I had that belief before my mom was killed, but this experience has put
it to the test. We have to be tolerant with one another. We’re disconnected
from our inner world and we’re products of our immediate environment. We are
not aware of what our hearts feel and as a result, we forget that human beings
matter. Maybe Brooks got too isolated? And maybe he felt confused. My mom
didn’t think he was going to do it. Maybe he felt angry, and probably felt he
was doing something out of loyalty to my father who had died years before.
HOLI: It’s really
shocking. You said society is disconnected in some way and I share your opinion
on that because we see in the news that there was an earthquake and a lot of
people died, a catastrophe, and we don’t feel it. We talk about it but we don’t
know what they are going through. I think it’s because we are sitting behind a
cellphone or a computer, and we just can’t relate.
Pittmann: Yes. I had a
disconnect when I found out my mom was killed, and that kept happening over and
over. I would forget and then painfully remember. My mind pushed away the pain.
We have these pain barriers that sometimes keep us from the opportunity to feel
empathy. Our mind is engage, but our hearts are not. We have to be all together
in this world.
whether I am afraid. ~ Audre Lorde When I ask my students to write a poem, a hushed and anxious silence comes over the room. I feel their soft tissue contract and hard shells close down. It's all over now. Gone is their creative inspiration. No pearls of poetic wisdom will be given here. I understand that writing (and sharing) a poem is akin to revealing your most embarrassing moment so I usually try to find a sideways strategy to coax open those locked shells.
Step 1: Acknowledge Our Common Humanity It helps to know that everyone can be vunerable. To that end, I might tell them about my most embarrassing moment to give them the courage to open up again: I was a drum major leading the Huron High School marching band during halftime at the homecoming game. For those of you who don't know, this American football game is part of a tradition that welcomes back alumni. In consequence, the stands were packed full of current students, friends, teachers, administrators, as well as former graduates. There was a light rain that evening when we marched briskly across the field. Challenged by my co-leader Mark Gardner, I learned to kick high while twirling the baton. When I finished my high kicking and baton stunt, Mark would throw his high up in the air, spin around, catch it and march along again. He loved to do daring performance throws. Most often, he would catch the baton, but sometimes he would miss. It didn't stop him, and he constantly pushed me to do more. Our performance was going fine that night, but I was a little worried about my kick. I would make it high this time. I'd show Mark that I could lead as well as anyone.
HALFTIME The game was so close! Everyone sat in anticipation. When we finished our musical numbers, it would start again. All eyes were on the field as we turned the corner. I'm the first to face the tightly packed and excited crowd. Throwing my baton and kicking high, I felt the rhythm. I knew I could do more, kick higher, and really show my enthusiasm. Inspired by the driving beat of the drums, I pranced proudly and kicked higher still. So high, in fact, that I landed in great surprise on my backside! The crowd was suddenly hushed while a slow building roar of uncontrolled mirth rolled over the bleachers and arrived to my burning ears. They're laughing! They're laughing at me! Up, I jumped. I looked back and here comes my ever teasing competitor. When he's within earshot I whisper, "Stop Laughing! How could you!?" My eyes screamed at him but meanwhile, I must gather my injured pride and continue as everyone knows that the show must go on or to borrow another useful cliché, I thought:
You have to get back on the horse when you fall. I marched up to the front, turned and waited for the band. It's time to conduct the ever popular Washington Post March. I lift my arms, blow the whistle in two-step time and begin. I dare a look over at Mark, and yes, he's still laughing. Now, I laugh, too, but it took a while to find any humor in that public humiliation.
Oh vanity. You are a tough adversary!
I thank Mark to this day for helping me realize that I needed to be more playful and take risks and their potential failure lightly. Later, I became more able to gracefully accept my flaws and find the freedom in laughing at (and with!) myself. As a writer, it's important to be emotionally honest. As a writer, the biggest failure is if you are not authentic because readers will let you know - even if it's just by ignoring you. Be brave. Make mistakes. Besides, you can always edit later. Go ahead. Put yourself out there! You have so much to gain by focusing on your vision instead of worrying about your vulnerability.
Washington Post March
After reading that story of my own humiliation, I encourage you to remember and let go of any idea that you have to protect your image. Offering an undefended humanity to others as you write is the most generous and appreciated gift. Next up, I ask the question: What are the most important aspects of compelling writing? SIDE NOTE:
John Philip Sousa wrote the Washington Post March in 1889 for a literary contest. In the inaugural Amateur Authors Association essay contestsponsored by the Washington Post, which was held on the Smithsonian grounds on June 15, 1889, a crowd of 25,000 people gathered to listen to the march and watch as 11 students (8 girls and 3 boys) received their gold metals.
Identify what you want and learn how to ask for it.
So I was just wondering if there was one general thing that you've found
over the years to be generally true in a general way that would help
anyone in any situation? Psychiatrist:
That's a great question, yes, I would say figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it. Lisa:
OK. Those are both really hard.
--How Do You Know (film)
The above quotations are from the movie "How Do you Know." I appreciate this movie psychiatrist's advice as it relates to writing as well. Many writers are intimidated to ask for what they need related to feedback. In fact, it is difficult to know what types of feedback will have a favorable influence on your work. Most of us have experienced that situation where a reader's feedback was tough and caused us to stop writing for a while. The best kind of feedback helps writers to move forward in a writing project. The following suggestions are given to my students so that they can benefit from and give helpful feedback on their class blog projects. They are adapted from Peter Elbow and Pat Belanof's book, Sharing and Responding. New York: Random House, 1989.
TYPES OF FEEDBACK for Blog comments:
I. No Responding: Sharing
1. Just read the blog out loud; see what the words sound like. What is your reaction? (Write this)
II. Descriptive Responding:
Write back in your own words some aspect of the post. But say it more as a question--Are you saying...?
Write the words or phrases that stick in your mind. Which passages/features did you like best? Don't explain why.
What is the main point? Subordinate ones?
5. What's Almost Said or Implied
Explain what is almost said, implied, or hovering around the edges. What would you like to hear more about?"
6. Center of Gravity
What is the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center for this piece
Comment on the Voice, Point of View, Attitude toward Reader, Level of Abstraction/Concreteness; Language, Diction, Syntax
8. Metaphorical Descriptions
Describe the blog in terms of weathers, clothing, colors, animals.
9. Believing and Doubting
or pretend to believe everything that was written. Offer ideas and
perceptions to help the case. Then doubt everything that was written.
Say arguments that can be made against what was written.
10. Movies of the Mind
Tell the writer what happens inside your head as you read the words in the blog.
These tips are a way to improve both the reader and writer's experience. Let me know how they work for you.
What do writers need in order to be successful in their creative work?
Location 1. Finding your place to write is of utmost importance. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf stresses this requirement when she writes: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Of course, not all writers have the luxury of having money provided so that they can develop as writers. Many have to spend some of their time in gainful employment. She stresses that women must make a special effort to write because during her time (1882-1941), it was more common for men to develop into great writers. She successfully broke out from her historical confines and became known as one of the first modernist writers. During her lifetime it was the "man of the house" to have a private study. Her life struggle to become a writer of merit led her to understand that having a place to write means that you are giving priority to your work. Nevertheless, the logistics of being in one location and/or finding a room in a busy house can be frustrating. The author of Writing as a Way of Healing,Louise
Desalvo, explains that you can be more flexible and place a desk in a hall or in any room to
provide yourself with a place that is your own. A writing location allows you to form a
routine. It is the writing habit that provides you with the platform to
grow. For many writers, it may be a local coffee house that creates a sense of place. Students often write at desks in their bedroom or on cushioned boards (or laptops) while still in bed. Some writers such as Jamaica Kincaid, author of the short story "Girl," the novel Annie John, and the essays, A Small Place (among others), continues with this technique. She has comments on staying in bed and in her pajamas all day so that she can write - a routine that allows her to concentrate. Maya
Angelou discovered her time management strategy through necessity since she had to travel so much to speaking engagements. She decided to make her hotel room her writing room. Her solution worked so well that she continued renting a hotel room for this very purpose. She said in an interview, "I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the
month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a
table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the
Bible."(Link to the full interview, The Daily Beast, "How I Write," Maya Angelou) In this same interview, she explains that the room must have completely bare walls so as not to cause her any distraction, which demonstrates a significant degree of self knowledge. My writing room goes by the name of "the writing closet" because I store my clothes and write my secrets there. I visit the "closet" every morning.
2. Self knowledge
A writer should have some understanding of her personalized and unique path to writing or finding the muse. The discovery of your insight can be obtained by self-observation as you write. Through noticing your own process, when and in what circumstances trigger writing, allows you to develop as a writer.
3. Inspiration and Creativity
Naranjito, Puerto Rico
Another strategy is to seek
out writers you admire and read their works. Even though these writers may be personally inaccessible, it helps to have an image of a writer for inspiration. Through an internet search, looking for comments, blogs and writing workshops, a connection could be made with this author or other writers interested in moving forward with their own projects. Be ready to write. I am not alone in recommending that you keep
a notebook handy (journal). Recently, in the two day "Student Research and Writing Conference" at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, keynote speaker and author Luis Negrón (Mundo Cruel) emphasized that carrying a notebook to jot down writing ideas is important, "Relying on memory is a mistake because you think you will remember but you will forget!"
One of the most difficult aspects of writing is locating a
trusted reader and receiving feedback. Often, we block feedback from others
because we feel our creativity is at stake -not an unreasonable fear. In fact, the wrong kind of criticism can shut
down inspiration. The trick is to find someone you can trust and ask for the
kind of feedback that might be useful. Reactions about specific writing areas
are helpful. Readers questions and asking for clarity on certain meanings might
be useful. Seek out readers who understand that you are developing a work,
i.e., your writing is evolving. If your reader senses resistance and/or
hostility, she may not be willing to read anymore of your work. That fact
established, you do not have to make changes or do anything about the comments
offered by readers. I rely on my own (flawed at times) judgment when it comes
to sensitive revision and editing, but would love to find a reader (who also
writes) to share in my process. Author Zadie Smith (White Teeth) recommends
that you ".... try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or
even better, as an enemy would." Brave indeed!
Writers who consider writing a priority in their lives make time for it by establishing a routine. But that routine is highly specific to your kind of writer. Virginia Woolf scheduled a three hour morning routine while Maya Angelou stretched herself across the bed and maintained all day writing sessions. Louise Desalvo warns that you may not be able to find blocks of time in which to write. She suggests grabbing snippets of time (equaling three hours) throughout the day in her article, "Why Having Kids is No Excuse."
What matters to a writer is that you write. You continue to write throughout your days, perhaps feeling dissatisfied with your work but you continue. As Virginia Woolf said,
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters;
and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But
to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour,
in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some
professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject
treachery...” Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One's Own
Give your writing a place in your life. If necessary follow Desalvo's advice, "Call it work, not writing. No one I knows cares if
you’re writing. That’s why you have to call it work. Because that’s
what it is. Your work. Your life’s work."