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Q&A with Leah Velez

What makes Wordcrafters instructor (and Adult and Community Programs Lead) Leah Velez tick?

Where are they from, when (and what) did they start writing, and what are they working on now?

What do they like about teaching?

Find out the answers to these questions and more in this Q&A with Leah Velez. We sent them a variety of questions to choose from and these are they ones they answered.

Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

I was born and raised (up til age 25)  in the city of Chicago, and went to Chicago Public Schools.

What are some of your hobbies?

When I’m not writing, I’m dancing (mostly Salsa and Bachata these days), and when I’m not dancing, I’m probably watching films, playing DnD, or my cello, solving puzzles, or stuffing my face and belly full of foods. 

What are some other things you’re passionate about?

I am really passionate person, I am realizing. There isn’t a whole lot that I am not passionate about. 

But some of the things are, I’m passionate about questions. Asking good ones that I don’t know the answers to, and following them where they lead, no matter where that place is. 

I am really passionate about creating lasting systems and structures of support. 

I’m also passionate about international history and politics, and unpacking and examining power structures at work, and how to restructure them so that they serve people. 

I’m passionate about  justice, somatics, and somatic abolitionism. I think our bodies often know and can heal so much more than our brains, and I think being in touch with our nervous systems can help guide us through most of the issues we’re facing, if we could figure out how to build culture around that in the US (the way many other cultures have).  

What sparked you to become a writer? How did your literary journey begin?

I was pretty lonely a lot of the time, and books were definitely my friends. 

I think part of the writing began because early on my mom would read stories to me before bed that she hadn’t scanned ahead of time, and she’d realize half way through that they were pretty dark and gruesome…the original Cinderella where the step sisters chop off their own toes to be with the prince, for example… so she’d stop reading, which only made me finish them myself in my head. 

I watched a lot of opera on VHS as a kid, which also didn’t hurt my dramatic flair (or the difficulty connecting with other kids haha).

My godmother also had a bookcase in her office with glass doors that were full of her journals. I always pretended to jump into the shelves behind the doors to become one of the characters in the books, and hang out with her earlier selves.  

What’s the earliest thing you remember writing?

I was probably telling stories before this, but I think the earliest thing I can remember is when I was six years old. It was the mid/late nineties, I was sitting next to my godmother as she was working in the computer room at the office I spent my childhood in. She was typing up reports or something, and I would sit at an old ‘80s computer that barely worked anymore, with green type on the black background, and I pretended to type, while she wrote her reports. 

I must have been talking her ear off, because at one point, she stopped the work she was supposed to do and started typing up what I was saying. It ended up being a five-act play called the Escape. It was about a queen who had once been a decent person, but something happened to set her off (I think some kind of betrayal?), and she started just locking folks up in the dungeons beneath her castle. Her ladies in waiting go behind her back to get them out of jail, and she somehow sees the error in her ways in the end. 

What is your favorite kind of chocolate?

Dark, like my mind, and sense of humor 🙂 

How do you deal with writers’ block and/or the urge to do anything else but sit down and write?

If I’m avoiding writing, there’s usually a bigger reason that’s blocking me. I usually sit down and try to figure out what’s wrong. Maybe I’m not sure what I think yet. Maybe I’m scared of something. Maybe I’m not ready to or able to see something as clearly as I need to to be able to write about it yet. 

I used to really agonize and beat myself up about it, but that never really helps…A really wise friend of mine, David Bayles  told me about his outlook, which has helped me a great deal. There are productive parts of your artistic life, and other times when things are percolating. He called them red times and blue times. 

When I get down, I remind myself that I’m in the blue time, and that’s okay. To take a walk, or to research something related. I try to remind myself to trust the process, and myself. That the writing will come if I keep putting myself in the chair for whatever bit of time I’ve set aside for the day. 

And I give myself credit for everything I do that is the least bit writing related, which helps me keep my momentum. I mark down how much time I spend researching, thinking about writing, or writing, and whatever words I write for the day, which helps me, because I can look back and say, okay, I put in that seat time for the day, which gives me a sense of accomplishment, even if all the words I wrote were trash. 

And I try to write at least 5 minutes a day, five days a week.  If I can’t do anything on my projects, I try to at least journal.

What’s the biggest literary project you’ve ever taken on and what did you learn from it?

My biggest project before my current one was a linked short story collection called Monster Songs, but this memoir project I’m currently working on is the biggest monster yet. 

I’m learning so much as I try and untangle all of the threads of my early life, and tie them to different historical events. 

It’s helping me to figure out what I really think, what my values are, and it is giving me solid ground to stand on, even as the world as we know it currently, feels like it’s crumbling (for better or worse). 

I think it is going to have a lot of lessons in structure as well, since I will be weaving three different timelines together.

What are some books or authors that have significantly influenced your work?

From a content perspective, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X at the perfect time, when I was leaving a political organization around 14 or 15, and it really influenced me a great deal. I was so inspired by someone who could take a stand, and then come to realize the stand he took he no longer agreed with, and without shame, change his mind, and fight for something more in line with his values.

In terms of fiction, Chris Abani’s Song for Night was one of the first books I read where I was just floored by the structure, the story, the imagery, the depth of emotional connection… 

Everything Toni Morrison has written… The way she layers music, the depth of her characters, the dialogue, the way she hops from head to head, brings in ghosts and elements from other worlds, and the intense capacity for seeing a soul just floors me every time. 

Annie Dillard wrote this beautiful piece about a moth burning for hours in a flame that haunts me still.

I also really love Rivers Solomon. They have this amazing ability to weave history in with the fantastical into these incredibly deep, queer characters that are learning to cope with all that has come before so they can act in the now. 

Carmen Maria Machado is also amazing. I love the way she creates these tiny, quietly terrifying vignettes that play off of fairytales, but also keep a foot planted in the “real” world…In Her Body and Other Parties…and In the Dream House and …ooh and Andrés Barba, for the less quietly terrifying cruel children in Such Small Hands

And then there’s Tommy Orange, and Rebecca Roanhorse…and poets, so many poets too…and John Keene, Hanif Abdurraqib, ok I better stop… 😀

And I’m inspired by my friends who write, too. Getting to read early drafts of things and see how they end up published has been an amazing influence and gift. 

How do you keep yourself motivated and inspired as a literary professional?

I’m motivated by death, honestly. The time we have here is so short. I want to have something down that may help someone else by the time I go.

I’m also motivated by everything I don’t know, which is so so much. I am motivated to try and understand, or get closer to understanding behaviors and beliefs that seem inexplicable, evil, or absurd. And I’m inspired by tiny disgarded things, which I think can be the most beautiful things. 

The motivation is more of an itch. I can’t rest or feel good about myself unless I’ve gotten some of the junk out of my head and onto paper. Which is maybe not the healthiest thing, because my worthiness as a person shouldn’t be tied to what I do, but to simply being here…which I can apply to everyone else but struggle to apply to myself… But the writing keeps me going, and I can’t seem to stop the obsession.

Can you share an example of how your experience shapes the way you teach?

For a large part of my early life, ideas were valued over people, and I (and a bunch of other folks) ended up feeling disposable or unimportant. I never want anyone I come in contact with to feel that way after interacting with me.

I make an effort to get to know folks, to find out what lights them up, what they are interested in exploring, and I do my best to facilitate the depths they want to explore. Because there were always correct answers in my childhood, that I had to anticipate and guess correctly, that turned out to be wrong, or incredibly Euro-centric, I try to deliberately frame my classes around my student’s needs and interests, and not what I think they need. Rather than telling folks my answers (although that’s certainly part of the job some of the time), I hope to provide spaces where folks feel comfortable enough to seek answers to their own deepest questions, and I do my best to ask good follow up questions to the questions my students want to answer, and if I can, guide them towards folks who may be working in the traditions they wish to work in so they can figure out how to push the human conversation in new directions.

What is your philosophy towards teaching literature or writing?

Literature is one of the best teachers of possibilities, because it shows how other folks have answered their own questions in the past. Reading is like entering into this cosmic conversation with the dead and the never alive. I can geek out for hours with my students over a couple of lines as we figure out how another writer put their puzzle together to create a piece of art. 

The problem is that for too long, only certain styles have been considered literature, and this has held back the artform a great deal. I used to have my students do a ton of imitations… it’s how I learned how to write in a bunch of different styles and it was also the method I was taught in art, but I came to realize recently that this caused me to feel like all the voices I had were not really mine. And I think that’s a dangerous thing. And in the age of AI, that skill is not even particularly meaningful anymore. What I think is most needed right now are the stories that only we can tell.

While you can get published and write well by stealing other folks answers (or techniques) to their questions, to be able to find your own voice as a writer (which is my goal as a teacher…to help my students claim and strengthen their own voice that is only theirs), you have to form your own questions, and figure out how to answer them yourself. Of course you need to gather some guidance along the way, so you’re not repeating other folks mistakes too much, but each person has their own paths and messages based on their unique placement in the universe, and only through exploring that, can we approximate what it means to be alive here together at this point in time, which is the goal of literature, I think.

Finding your voice is a really hard thing to do. It’s something I’m still figuring out for myself.  It takes a lot of bravery, and it takes a lot of self compassion. 

I try to provide the environment where this kind of vulnerability, and seeking your own traditions, canons, and styles is encouraged and made fun. Because fun and play are vital.

How do you describe your teaching style?

I tend to be questions/discussion based, and student centered. I tend to gather questions that students have, and build from there. I tend to anchor our questions in specific texts so that everyone can participate, and know what we’re talking about. 

I don’t like abstraction when I teach, I like getting really specific and granular so that students can fully engage in the ideas, see them happening in a text or a film, or piece of artwork, and then put them into practice. Although I’m still practicing slowing down.

I like to model how I’m seeing a text, or what I’m noticing, so that students can peek inside my brain, and can start to pay attention to what they themselves notice, but I don’t lecture, and try not to talk more than five minutes straight, without giving my students time to digest the information, talk through it, ask questions, and try things out themselves.

What do you believe is the key to fostering a creative and inclusive classroom environment?

Creating a creative and inclusive environment often goes against everyone’s social programming here in the US, so it needs to be done deliberately, and there’s often some resistance. These are the things I’ve landed on so far in my teaching career:

Seeing each person in the room as a full and complete and absolutely vital human with a voice and perspective and wisdom and life experience that only they have. 

Speaking from a place of humbleness and humility, and acknowledgement that the answers each of us have are not the only answers, and are based in the experiences we have had, which are shaped in great part by social structures rooted in oppression and inequity. (Why teaching POV is so important!)

Including texts and traditions from as wide a range of styles and backgrounds and identities as possible. (which not only helps with representation, and empathy and all that good stuff, but also expands the realm of what folks see is possible)

Ensuring each person has equitable opportunity to participate in the way they feel most able to, by prefacing classes with an exercise in awareness for discussion processes…and being deliberate about reflecting on whose voices we are hearing and whose voices we are not hearing at the end of each class, so that we can work together to address any imbalances we’ve experienced.

Making sure to provide opportunities for participants to share their needs for accommodations privately so that any barriers to accessibility can be addressed structurally in the class.

Listening to understand, and not to respond.

Slowing down. Asking questions first, rather than reacting. (This is sometimes very hard, but I’m working on it.) 

Admitting when we don’t know the answers to things, and owning up to mistakes when we make them.  

Can you share an example of a teaching moment that was particularly rewarding for you?

There are so so many. I really love teaching. 

Some of my favorite moments have been when I teach worldbuilding classes, and everyone has bought into the wild premises the room has come up with, and intense brainstorming is happening, and the room is alive and a little bit chaotic as everyone is bouncing ideas off of each other, and plopping post its onto the board, and then someone else will go up, and rearrange it, and discussions break out to find plot holes…. 

More generally, whenever I hear students ask each other follow up questions that make each other think more deeply about something they hadn’t considered before, that is super rewarding. 

When students tell me they feel safe to explore or share things, or that they feel seen or heard in my classroom, that’s super rewarding as well. 

More with Leah Velez


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