Hidden away on Congress Parkway, Cafecito is a slice of Havana in Chicago. I arrive just before the usual crowd swamps the place in favor of Cubanos, café con leche and rice and beans. It is a small café sandwiched between a hostel and a Dairy Queen and kiddy corner from the 33 building on Columbia College’s campus. As I take a sip from my cappuccino tasting of bitter and smoky espresso beans, I see Cyn Vargas walking down the parkway in a scarlet pea coat with ebony toggles and a contemplative expression on her face. She strides towards the door and after a slight climb up the indigo tile steps, she pushes on the door and enters.
“Hello!” She says grinning and revealing a row of perfect teeth between her full lips. She gives me a hug and sits down for a few moments before speaking again, “Do you mind if I go order a coffee?” She asks demurely. I nod, it is early and Chicago is half-asleep.
“Of course.” I say, and with quick light steps she is at the countertop. She returns in a moment with a large paper cup of coffee and, removing the lid, reveals a smooth layer of steamed milk. She is ready to reveal her secrets.
Cyn Vargas is an M.F.A. student at Columbia College Chicago where she is pursuing her thesis in Creative Writing. In November 2011 and February of this year, two of Vargas’ short stories were recognized by esteemed literary quarterly, Glimmer Train. Vargas is a force to be reckoned with in the Chicago literary community, but it wasn’t always that way.
“To give you a little bit of history,” She begins, “I did my B.A. in Fiction Writing here at Columbia and I graduated in ’01, and then I just stopped writing. I did write some depressing poetry and a scene every once in a while, but I didn’t really write for nine years. Life just took over, but I always dreamt of having a book, I just didn’t do anything about it.”
There was a paradigm shift in Vargas’ life when she gave birth to her now three-year-old daughter, Viviana, in 2009.
“When the doctor put her in my arms I looked at her and said to myself, I can’t tell her she can be whatever she wants when she grows up and then have her one day ask me what I wanted to be and I say a writer, but then not be one. So that’s when I decided I was going to commit to being a writer."
Vargas was a student-at-large for a year, working around the clock to create enough material for her graduate application. When she felt she had created enough unique and quality material, she sent in her application to Columbia College Chicago and was shortly thereafter accepted into the esteemed program. The M.F.A. program at Columbia College Chicago taught Vargas to enhance her writing abilities. The private liberal arts college specializes in a unique workshop method created by John Schultz that deals in sensory detail and urges authors to find a unique voice. Vargas did just that.
“I’m a very sensory driven writer. I want people to vividly see and feel everything the page is giving them. I use sensory verbs to create this.” Vargas is not one for happy endings, however and tends to go a more realistic route.
“I tend to write the opposite of what I convey on the outside. I’m a smartass kind of person, I’m always joking around, I laugh whether I’m happy or scared or sad even, but a lot of my writing is about conflict, and heartache. My characters usually want something they can’t have and the story is about how they deal with that. I don’t write happy stories, I don’t like happy endings. Although, I primarily write fiction, I grab a lot of raw emotions and experiences from my childhood which at times was pretty crazy. Also, my culture tends to play a part in my writing in some form or the other. Whether it comes from the stories the women in my family have told me or from my visits to El Salvador and Guatemala, or even just a few Spanish words sprinkled here or there.”
Vargas’ thesis advisor, Joe Meno, author of 2004’s “Chicago Tribune’s Book of the Year”, Hairstyles of the Damned and the 2012 novel, Office Girl, is one of Vargas’ mentors. Meno is famous for his outspoken opinion on the very real narrow-mindedness of the publishing world (namely magnate Judith Regan) and his commitment to releasing new books every year.
“Joe Meno gave me some of the best advice I ever heard. Finish. Finish a full draft then go back and revise. Someone asked him once why he was more successful than other writers. Was it because he thought he was better? He said something along the lines, that he didn’t think he was better. He just finished work. So I always keep that in mind. I used to not finish stories. It was more like, ‘oh here’s a scene here and a scene there’, but it’s like when you make a taco—you have to cook the meat before you can put it on a tortilla. You have to prepare things and put them all together before you can savor it. You can’t just eat raw ingredients.”
In 2011, Meno pushed Vargas to do her absolute best work and it was in his workshop class where Vargas would write the two short stories that Glimmer Train literary quarterly would recognize her for. When asked about her spot on the “Top 25” list for her story Stillness in the November 2011 issue of Glimmer Train’s, Short Story Award for New Writers (that’s the top 1-2% of all submissions in this case over a thousand stories), Vargas still blushes and gasps with excitement.
“That was huge for me. Joe Meno kicked my ass in his class which was exactly the reason why I wanted to take him. I submitted Stillness to Glimmer Train and figured the worst that could happen is that it would be rejected. A few months later I heard I made their top 25 and I was like ‘Wow! They liked my story!’ That validated me as a writer. That maybe I knew what I was doing.”
The excitement only grew for Vargas when in February of this year (2012) she submitted another short story, “On The Way”, to Glimmer Train and which received an Honorable Mention award (that’s the top 3-5% of all submissions in this case over a thousand stories.) Both stories are now part of her thesis which is a short story collection.
Vargas graduates from Columbia College in May of next year, but plans on shopping her short story anthology to publishers and agents. When asked if she thinks the short story form is making a comeback, Vargas exudes her passion.
“The short story is an art form They are really hard to write. Just because they’re short doesn’t mean they’re easier to write than novels. You have to say a lot in a less amount of time and I find that to be super exciting and challenging, and I enjoy it.”
She also notes that indie publishers such as “Elephant Rock Books”, “Curbside Splendor” and “Dzanc Books” are fighting the good fight to bring novice authors with unique short story anthologies (such as Eugene Cross, Patty McNair and Megan Stielstra and company) to the light. In an era when publishers like Judith Regan are just publishing sensationalist prose “written” (see ghostwritten) by celebrities like “Jersey Shore” celebrity, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and poorly written but fast-selling trilogies like Fifty Shades of Gray, indie publishers are going out on a limb and holding fast to the integrity of what prose should be, and in turn, gaining more followers.
“I think people are beginning to see that, ‘The Big Five’ are leaving out an important element of the short story. Instead of being like the indie publishers who do the short story anthology regardless, ‘The Big Five’ are more inclined to publish the novel because they believe it has more of an audience investment, and will make more money; they’re missing the point though: it shouldn’t matter how long a story is, so long as it’s good, and the indie publishers understand that.” So what is Vargas’ favorite short story?
“My all-time favorite short story is, ‘The Lady With The Little Dog’ by Chekhov. I love what he does on the page. He knows how to write about relationships. There’s so much change going on internally with his characters while nothing major is happening externally. I really empathize with his characters. He’s just amazing.” Vargas’ weakness is crime TV and house music.
“Music is like short stories. Songs are like short stories. You have this snippet to completely immerse the audience into what it is you want them to feel, and have it come full-circle. In music, they have roughly a few minutes to convey a story through beats, and lyrics and voice that inspires me a lot. The same goes with dancers, painters, poets. with any art form, really. Any good artist tells a story regardless of the medium.”
For more information on Cyn Vargas, visit www.cynvargas.com
Filed under: Uncategorized