The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Falling in Love with Your Words February 1, 2018

Filed under: essays,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:33 pm
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This time the prompt was a series of quotes from college students about writing. A few of them are listed here:

I like to write as a hobby, but when it comes to writing for classes, I would rather stick needles in my eyes.                                        

Writing exists for its creator to bleed on the page.

When it comes to writing, I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it: it’s just something for me to do

Writing stresses me out.

I love this art that allows you to sit in silence and escape.

What I wrote in response is below.


You think I’d tire of it, pen on paper, fingers on keys. The stack of notebooks, the endless shopping for ink refills, pens, and paper. The repetition of words, phrases, images, the circling back to retell the story, moving in for a closer look. But I never tire of it. Never. It sustains me, actually.

I like stretching out extended metaphors, following allegories along winding paths toward clear horizons, similes as dependable as sunsets. I enjoy unusual, brazen adjectives, verbs ending in “-ing,” all those sturdy concrete nouns, the legs of tables planted squarely atop the oak floor of prepositions. I even like academic writing, the kind that allows narrative and pathos, that puts me in your shoes, or sweater, or handcuffs, that helps me smell the sour breath of the interrogating officer, feel the sweat dripping down from your scalp like fear.

Writing sustains me. It’s not an exaggeration to say it saved my life: all those terrible years of guilt and shame, the open grave of my mother’s long illness, and my own homo-self-hatred. The pile of dark earth waited patiently for our dead bodies, but she went, I stayed. I stayed because I took pen to paper, filled journals with adolescent longing and recorded loss after loss. Later, flowers bloomed into oohs and ahhs, beauty blossomed every spring, even when my heart cracked in half, or my best friend stopped walking. Even when I turned 40, then 50, even when the surgeon left titanium staples in my lung. I wrote my way through all of it and out the other side.

Are there days when I have my fill of it? When I can’t write another word, when I feel emptied out, depleted, stuck, when that block lands with a thud on my pen? Of course. That’s when I read, get lost in other people’s words, fill back up with sensory details and description in every hue of pink, or violet, deep royal purple. Then I come back to it again: trusted old friend, familiar face.

Even during those times when I read other people’s work—sometimes for days and days—and I feel far away from my own words, I never lose sight of what an honor it is to bear witness, to be an audience, to marvel as the sheer audacity of someone—anyone—attempting to put into words the growth of a tumor, a visitation in a dream, a field of plastic bottles, a shark without a dorsal fin who leaves behind the bloody red reminder of human cruelty. I am not jaded, no matter how crabby I may sound some days, and I am not envious either; no matter how many books you publish, stories and poems you write, paragraph transitions you make, fluent as tributaries, no matter how clear and sophisticated your thesis, I still feel at home in your words. I still find my way back on this beautiful trail of letters and symbols.


Nonna* January 29, 2016

The prompt this time was two lines from David Ray’s poem, “At Emily’s in Amherst“:Scan 26

Outside, standing between Cypresses

I imagine her 

What I wrote in response is below.


The angel, Gabriel, came to her in a dream, she said. He told her to get her affairs in order: she only had two weeks to live. So she gathered her grown children from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles, and brought them to their childhood home on Mt. Washington.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked my mother, who was only six weeks late.

“I think I am,” Mom said.

“Yes,” my grandmother said. “And it’s going to be a boy.”

She was right.

We never met. That kidney-shaped fetus was me, and she did, in fact, die two weeks after having that dream.

Here’s what I know: she was a healer. Women would bring their colicky babies to her and she would lick her thumb and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. “Don’t wash it off,” she’d say, and send them home to sleep.

She baked her own bread and grew her own tomatoes. Made lasagna from a simple recipe handed down to Mom, to Pop, and then to me. Everyone always asks for the recipe.

She never learned to speak English. When my father was a little boy, she used to make him translate for her at the open markets in Pittsburgh, haggling over prices in two languages.

She gave birth to eight children. The oldest, Nicholas, died of pneumonia after crossing the Atlantic with her alone in 1903. They were processed at Ellis Island. Her name is not on the wall there, but she exists in the ship’s manifest in curly script. Nucito was her maiden name.

When I visited her hometown in Basilicata—a hilltop town called Corleto Peticara—I stood in front of the altar in the exact spot where she married my grandfather in the tiny church built in the 15th century.

Life was hard for them. They picked olives and grapes, they tended sheep and cows. To her young, strong body and mind, America seemed like a magical place where life would be clean and new and modern.

Here’s what happened: they lived in poverty, in an Italian, Irish, Jewish ghetto. Her husband had an affair with the homely widow up the street who had a witch’s hook nose and always wore black. My grandmother grew older and had a stern, handsome face, but my sister said she was kind and quiet and always smelled good. She always wore an apron. My mother only spoke a little Italian, but they still managed to have long conversations, and they often held hands.

Sometimes, I still see her in the old country, her hair in a long, dark braid. I imagine her standing between two Cypress trees. I want to tell her not to marry him, to stay in Italy, but I know she won’t listen to me. She wants to come to America. She wants me to have a better life than she had.


*Italian for Grandmother




Mexican Inspiration July 3, 2015

Filed under: essays,Mexico,Recipes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 2:53 pm
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This piece eventually made it into my cookbook memoir manuscript, and I thought I’d share it with you here. Some prompts to go along with it are:

Ai! Papi!                                                            photo(27)

I never wanted to leave

Handsome men everywhere


Mexican Inspiration

I met Erick when I checked into Casa Cupula, a boutique hotel set on a hill overlooking the Bay of Banderas. The house I rent for the writing retreats in Puerto Vallarta is next door to the hotel, so I always spend a few days on my own there before the retreat begins. Erick was working at the hotel as a concierge.

There you are, Señor DeLorenzo,” he said teasingly the afternoon I arrived. “I’ve been waiting for you a very long time.”

“And I’ve been waiting for a man like you all my life,” I replied, not missing a chance to flirt.

“Aha!” he said, genuinely amused. “Very good.”

I had a crush on Erick about fifteen minutes after we met. He’s very handsome, but it was more than his good looks that caught my attention: it was his love of language and his use of idiomatic expressions in English. When he said, “That really doesn’t cut the mustard,” or “The sweet smell of success,” in his light Spanish accent, I found him absolutely charming.

My workshop participants arrived a few days later, and we began our week-long retreat, but I still made time to visit with Erick every day. Sometimes I meet someone I feel I have known before, and Erick was one of those people. Later, I also fell in love with his chocolate Chihuahua named Dario and his boyfriend at the time, Juan Carlos, but Erick came first. Talking to him is pleasurable in every way. He loves to read, and we spent time talking about some of our favorite books. But I think our relationship really deepened the night we spoke about food.

On that night, Erick had ordered food from the kitchen at the hotel at about ten o’clock, but they somehow overlooked his order; then the kitchen closed. Because he worked until midnight, this meant that he was going to have to work for several hours with a growling stomach, and like me, when he’s hungry, he gets a little grouchy. By the time I dropped by to see him that night at 10:30, he was beyond hungry, so I offered to bring him a plate of leftovers.

We have a cook at the retreat house named Ana, and her meals are really good. I brought Erick some of Ana’s chicken tinga enchiladas, mashed beans, and for dessert, a slice of coco pie: a coconut custard pie set in a buttery crust of Maria’s Gamesa, which are thin, Mexican butter cookies.

“Oh thank God!” Erick said, peeling the plastic wrap from the plate I had just warmed in the microwave. “You are an angel. Do you want to marry me?” I smirked at his Latin movie star face: heart-shaped, caramel brown, those long lashes and large chocolate-brown eyes.

“Don’t tease me,” I said, sitting down on the other side of the lobby desk. “I’m already choosing the colors for the bridesmaid dresses.”

“Mauve,” he joked. “I insist on mauve.” Then he discovered the pie. “What’s this?”

“Coco pie.”


“Sí, Señor.”

“Wow. You must really be in love.”

“I am, ” I said. “Eat.”

I had four days on my own in Puerto Vallarta after the retreat ended. It was a rare mini-vacation for me, and I had reserved a room at a less expensive hotel down the hill near the beach. Although I was saving about $75 a night, I realized that first afternoon I had made a mistake: I should have bookended my visit with another four nights at Casa Cupula. This larger hotel was filled with families, so taking a nap was impossible; children ran up and down the open hallways laughing and playing tag. The noise from the street was also difficult to block out, and the beds were hard as stone.

“You’re staying there?” Erick said, when I told him about my first restless night. “That place is awful.”

“It’s not that bad,” I lied, trying not to sound ungrateful.

“It’s bad, honey,” he said, seeing through my polite front. “There’s an extra room at the guest house Juan Carlos and I manage. Come stay with us. We have a huge kitchen. We can cook together.”

“Really?” I said. “You’re sure?”

“I insist,” he said.

At Casa Allegre, I had my own room—a big cushy bed with an embroidered bedspread—and my own bathroom with a huge shower. There was no one else staying there for a few days, so we had the pool to ourselves, as well as an open living room area, where we lounged around and got to know one another better.

The open kitchen had a large Viking stove against one wall, a double-sided stainless-steel sink on the other side; a long, rectangular prep counter sat squarely in the center. A large rustic hutch filled with hand-made Mexican earthenware stood at the edge of the kitchen, and beyond that was a courtyard. It was as close to a dream kitchen as I have ever gotten.

Erick and I spent a lot of time together in that kitchen. He’d cook one night and I’d cook another. That’s where he taught me how to make his red sauce, and later, his green sauce, which is actually Poblano Soup. Juan Carlos was quite a good cook too. It seemed for several days all we did was laugh, cook, and flirt.

The first afternoon we spent together, they took me to their favorite taco stand at the corner of Naranja and Carranza Streets, with Dario in tow. I felt lazy and loose in a way I never feel anywhere but Mexico. It may have been the company of these three sweet creatures, or the heat of the afternoon, but I couldn’t remember how to say “bacon” in Spanish (tocino), and asked Erick every time I took a bite of the shrimp and bacon tacos.

We were on our way to the mercado, the local market. It spanned just a few blocks, but consisted of several quiet squares framed by open-air produce markets. On one jagged, cobblestone, dead-end street, we visited the spice market, the cheese counter, and the tortilleria, where fresh tortillas traveled from a rickety conveyor belt to a great oven, then stacked in steaming piles. On another block, we passed through a wrought-iron gate and entered a courtyard with a fountain framed by butcher shops.

They took it for granted that I knew about the market already, but to this day I have never found it in any guide book or in any tourist publication. The produce was piled in loose pyramids, contained by wooden crates: mangos, many kinds of squash, and every kind of pepper you could imagine. Spices purchased by the kilo sat in big barrels. To some of you, this is perhaps a typical open market, but to me, a suburban kid used to large grocery stores, it was new and special. I fantasized what it would be like to live there, shopping at the market for dinner, holding Dario under my arm like Frida Kahlo.

Erick and Juan Carlos also took me to what has now become one of my favorite restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, El Arrayán. It was here that I became obsessed with their specialty cake called, Dionix, a cake made with carrots, nuts, and chocolate chips, topped with a Grand Marnier icing. They wouldn’t give me the secret family recipe, but I later found something similar, a Chilean specialty dessert called Que Que Zanahoria.

Erick, it turned out, was obsessed with carrot cake. I later shared a recipe for classic carrot cake I had found in a recent issue of Saveur. He insisted on a variation: his own nutmeg butter cream frosting. And since Ana had given me her coco pie recipe, I made them one, and left behind half a pie the day I left for home, teary and sentimental as ever.

My tenderness for Erick and Juan Carlos is just one of many possibilities that can arise between people from two different cultures who both love to eat. Our friendship began with a flirtation, the recognition of a similar sense of humor, and the love of little dogs and Latin-based languages, but like so many of my friendships, it blossomed at the kitchen counter, standing side by side, while we prepared a meal together. And I am so grateful for that.