January 23, 2020

Tugging at threads: A writing guide

Natalie Eastwood

  • Jean Guerrero, M.F.A. ’15

Writing a book in a month meant Jean Guerrero, M.F.A. ’15, produced 2,500 words every day (that’s four and a half pages single-spaced). Guerrero is the author of a memoir, a manuscript slated to be published in 2020, and several essays, one of which was included in the Best American Essays 2019 edition. Guerrero is also an investigative reporter for KPBS in San Diego and covers Latino immigrants and refugees, border separations, and relations between California and Mexico. Guerrero’s writing process varies slightly depending on the project, but she remains anchored to discovering the truth.

When HarperCollins Publishers contacted Guerrero to write a book on Stephen Miller, the senior advisor to President Donald Trump, she had six months until deadline. She knew having structure would be imperative—the first three months to interview sources, a month to write, and two months to edit. “I’ve never been so busy in my life,” Guerrero says.

However, with the Miller book, she skipped a step in the writing process. In most of her other projects, Guerrero has to work just to find the story. The secret, she says, is to stay in the area after you’ve finished the reporting because the best stories come from observing and talking with people.

“I’ve always been drawn to characters that perhaps other journalists would think are not worth focusing on, in part because of my father, who struggled with substance abuse and mental illness,” Guerrero says. “And so, people who are on the fringes—those are the people I’m always interested in listening to.”

After the story scrounging and reporting, it’s time to write, or “connect the dots” between the information she’s collected from sources, Guerrero says. The writing is her favorite part, she adds, but it can also be exhausting. That couldn’t have been truer while writing the book on Miller. But for every bad day of writing, there was a productive one that propelled her to the next day, she says.

In writing Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir, Guerrero wrote the first 100 pages—a torrent of childhood memories—in a week, words “pouring out magically,” she says. The rest of her memoir was a battleground. “The challenge with a personal project like that was getting to the bottom of how I felt about things, which was surprisingly difficult,” she says.

Her impulse was to write a neatly packaged story about her father, more sales pitch than memoir, she says. Suzannah Lessard, a lecturer in Goucher’s Master of Fine Arts Program, pressed Guerrero to push past her assumptions to find the “truest truth” about her father. “And what’s beautiful about memoir, which Suzannah helped me understand,” Guerrero says, “is that it allows you to dwell in the gray areas and the uncertainty that is real life.”

When Guerrero finishes an investigative piece, a book, or a memoir, “it does not always look good,” she says. She writes fast and sometimes needs to sketch out her thoughts on the page before it becomes coherent prose. “It’s during the editing that I shape it again and again and again,” Guerrero says, “and then eventually it turns into a subject that I really like.”

And even after it’s published, Guerrero is still editing, but instead of obsessing over changes that can’t be made, she approaches the same subject in a new way to write an entirely different piece. “Especially once you see that one idea has resonated,” she says, “you know you’re onto something, and you can keep pulling that thread.