Writing the immersive, haunting, and raw with Pushcart Prize nominee Bryana Lorenzo

Pushcart Prize nominee Bryana Lorenzo is a Junior at Boone High School in Orlando, Florida, a Junior Editor at Polyphony Lit, and a storyteller at An Insipid Board of Ideas—a storytelling blog and nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of social issues through short stories. Her fiction has been featured in Outlander Zine, The Graveyard Zine, Rhodora Magazine, Le Château Magazine, The Literary Canteen, Pile Press, and Block Party Magazine, and is forthcoming in Agapanthus Collective, Novus Literary Arts Journal and io Lit. She has critical essays published with Youth Be Heard, Cordelia Magazine, and Blue Blood International, as well as a creative nonfiction piece published in Ninetenths Quarterly.


O: When did you begin writing? 

Bryana Lorenzo: I began writing when I was about ten years old (though technically I had attempted to write a few “books” before that). My parents had informed that all the little daydreams I had swirling around could be written down and turned into real stories. So one night I literally started writing one of the daydreams I used to get to sleep! Most of my work in those earlier years was mostly just derivatives of my favorite books, movies, and TV shows at the time (while still being different enough to not be considered fan fiction, which I’m actually surprised I never got into despite reading frequently). 

Even as a kid, I tried my hardest to write “seriously” out of a normal kid desire to get my work published so I could share it with other people. Still, it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I really found “success” with my work since that was when I first started writing short fiction seriously, and it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I got a short story published. 

However, to give any tween writers out there some hope about their own work, I just want to say that the first piece I got published (by the lovely Outlander Magazine no less) was actually a story I’d technically written a few years earlier when I was twelve. It was completely rewritten and edited to Hades and back, of course, but I still managed to get that gawky, quirky little idea of mine to bloom into a sweetly melancholic little piece that eventually found a home. Moral of the story: don’t ever think that your stories or ideas are too immature to ever be published or even just be good just because you came up with or wrote the idea at a young age. Any story can be good—even great—with a little TLC.

O: Is there a writer that you look up to, whether it be someone who motivated you to begin writing or someone whose work inspires you today? 

B: Shaelin Bishop—from their writing tips to their short stories to their entire writing ethos in general—is really the main reason why my work is what it is today. I wouldn’t be writing with the style I am right now without their videos on specificity and concrete detail and I wouldn’t even be publishing short fiction without their video on the literary magazine submission process. It’s to the point where I’m sure a critical analysis of my work could easily boil my writing style down to “Shaelinwrites fangirl energy.” 

O: If you had to describe your work in three words, what would they be and why? 

B: Pretty and sad. My prose is lyrical and I don’t think I’ve yet published a work with a happy ending (or even written a work with a happy ending). It sounds really simple, but it’s actually led my writing to be really fluid, with a wide range of themes, imagery, and ideas. Very few of my stories are like any other story I’ve ever published. If it’s kinda pretty and if it’s kinda sad, I’m very likely to write it, thus the three-word phrase “pretty and sad” is the most perfect encapsulation of my work that I can think of off the top of my head. 

O: What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

B: Getting the initial inspiration and writing down the first draft like lightning in my notes app. I’m a really inspiration-driven writer, mostly because I’m so busy as a person that I don’t actually have time to seriously sit down and really get into the flow of the writing, thus everything I write has to be seriously in the moment (probably the reason why I write and publish so much flash fiction now that I think about it). Thus, getting that spark and suddenly having a brand-spanking-new piece to edit and submit to magazines is always the funnest part, since it always feels like I’m being possessed by the story itself and its language since every piece is so different and no formula can be replicated twice. 

O: How has the pandemic changed your workflow? 

B: The pandemic has essentially given me more time to write and read until the sun explodes. Since the pandemic started, I’ve indulged myself more and more in my book buying addiction, reading pretty, precious prose to fuel my own writing. I’ve also just plainly had more time to write to entertain myself, especially being stuck at home for so long. A lot of these positive effects are thanks to my own privilege coming from an upper-middle-class household able to ride through the worst of the pandemic, so I sincerely doubt my experience is universal. Knowing that the pandemic has negatively impacted the creative work of others due to complications pertaining to the pandemic has made me put a bit more internal pressure on myself to be more productive since I feel like I should use my time wisely to create as much as possible and be appreciative of the fact that I can create as much as humanly possible. The insanity of Junior year has sort of lessened that feeling, but I still get it every now and again. 

O: Your work is immersive, haunting, and raw. Where does your inspiration come from? 

B:  A lot of my inspiration comes from pure, unadulterated spite. “Longing Primavera,” for instance, came from when I read the Phoebus and Daphne story for the first time in my sophomore year and thought it was so unfair that Daphne essentially got stuck as the pretty plaything of Apollo (called Phoebus in this tale) all for Apollo’s slight against Eros. “Sunset Flower” emerged from anger at violent love interests in stories treated as romantic instead of as abusive. “Life after Death” was inspired by our tendency in both true crime and fiction to forget about the victim in stories about grizzly murders and instead focus on the murderer himself. Even a piece as simple and silly as “A Bar for Old Ghosts, Among Others,” was born from an indignant empathy for seemingly unimportant side characters in fiction who probably have interesting lives but are instead relegated as emotional support to the main characters. 

Essentially, I’m inspired by the unheard, by those with a story to tell but who are often ignored or forgotten or even villainized for doing nothing but existing. I love ghosts who just want to be remembered by the people they care about and teen girls who are has-been precocious Pollyanna-esque child protagonists. I adore awkward Cuban grandmas who just want success in their new country and girls whose home life is so terrible that they hallucinate the imaginary friends they drew into their family photos as real. Rage against justice not done and rage against the burying of stories untold is the true lifeblood of my work. 

O: What is your favorite piece of work so far and why is it your favorite? (Please include a link if you have one, we’d love to include it on the website!) 

B: I basically have two favorite different pieces of work and that is mostly because of my objective versus subjective assessment of their literary merits as stories. My favorite work in terms of which piece I believe is the best short story I’ve ever written (thus far) has to be “Chipped Blue Paint” which is forthcoming (or even already published, depending on when this interview is published) in Novus Literary Arts Journal. That piece was inspired by a conversation I had with my dad about Cuba in which he introduced me to the song “Qué Será” by Jose Feliciano. We talked about missing family, about missing a place you were at once so desperate to leave and yet so desperate to stay. It was a frankly honest and illuminating conversation about the motherland I never knew, the motherland he left at six yet still remembered if only faintly so. That, combined with watching Encanto a few months back, really inspired the emotions behind the piece.

Compared to a lot of my other work, “Chipped Blue Paint” is pretty grounded and pared back. It still has a lot of my hallmark humor and pretty language, of course, but it’s also more of a quiet portrait of a character, namely the narrator’s grandmother, who fled from poverty and tyranny in Cuba to seek success in America matter what the cost. Unlike some of my other pieces, there isn’t really a clear villain. There isn’t a lot of vitriol either, or really any other strong emotion. It’s just a tale about a bunch of deeply imperfect people living deeply imperfect lives, a few moments of which are collected and strung together for this piece. It’s a gentle exploration of immigrant angst, a topic I rarely actually explore in my own work despite being the daughter of immigrants, and it’s just generally one of my most polished and well-structured pieces of short fiction. 

My other favorite piece of writing is beloved by me on basically a purely subjective level. It’s still solid, don’t get me wrong. However, much of my love for it comes from it being a piece basically tailor-made for very specific writing interests. The story, “Life after Death” published by Le Château Magazine, is about an older sister who gets murdered unceremoniously and, as a spirit, reflects on her life and her relationship to her younger sister, while also pondering how her sister may remember her. This piece is among the few that still makes me feel emotions when I reread it, and it’s one whose subject matter still passionately inflames me (despite the story being all made up). Even though the language and structure of this piece is rougher than “Chipped Blue Paint,” I still really love its raw quality, and I also in general love stories that unpack a lot of our society’s unhealthy habits in regards to violent crime and how we treat the victims involved. It would be the kind of story I would be likely to read for pleasure as a reader (and even as a writer) thus making it my other favorite.

O: We of course wanted to say congratulations on the Pushcart Prize nomination! For any readers who don’t know what the PP is, could you talk a bit about what it is? We’re also super curious to know how you’re feeling about having been nominated—what does it mean to you? 

B: The Pushcart Prize is a yearly anthology prize run by Pushcart Press, and it’s meant to publish the very best poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction published by small presses each year. Even getting nominated for the prize is a huge honor because it means that the magazine that published you considers your work amongst the best that they’ve published that year. 

As for my personal feelings on the matter, getting nominated at all was a huge shock. The magazine that nominated me was the third literary magazine I ever submitted to and got published in. If my life were a novel, I would have probably seen the nomination coming, since it was pretty handily foreshadowed by the fact that this magazine’s acceptance was—and still is—the nicest literary magazine acceptance email I’ve ever received. Still, at that point, I’d only published three short stories in literary magazines with one forthcoming in April of the following year, and I was also still trying to find my writing voice. I had never felt so much overwhelming euphoria than in the days following that nomination. I’d secretly always hoped that my writing would get nominated for some sort of prize, but I never thought it would actually happen. I’m still honestly in disbelief that I got nominated and it’s been a good five months! 

O: You describe An Insipid Board of Ideas as a “storytelling blog and nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of social issues through short stories.” Tell us about your work as a storyteller there! 

B: As a storyteller, I’m tasked with writing engaging short fiction meant to spread social issue awareness to fellow youngsters (and non-youngsters if they happen to like my work). The issues I write about there are more varied since I’m actively writing about different pressing topics and current events. My pieces have ranged from human trafficking to gun violence to homelessness to even the recent book bannings across the US. One great thing about working with Insipid Board is that they really let you write about practically anything so long as it’s based on some sort of social issue. 

O: You’re a Junior Editor at Polyphony Lit, which is a pretty big-name publication in the literary sphere! Could you talk about what you do for them and what your favorite part of working there is?

B: I’ve been on break from Polyphony Lit for a while due to the stress of Junior year (though I do plan on getting back in the nitty-gritty this summer) but I basically just read my assigned submission and provide both general and line-specific commentary to the author, then when I’m finished I make a recommendation on whether or not to ultimately accept or reject the piece. One of my crowning moments as a Junior Editor was when some of my feedback was chosen as an example of excellent critique to train future Junior Editors. 

I’d say I’m a pretty nice reader since I recommended acceptance for a good chunk of what I review, but that could also be due to us just receiving so much good work in general. Seriously, when editors say that they had more good work than they had room to publish, believe them. When I was super active on the job, I was swamped in submissions most weeks and most of the pieces were pretty great most of the time so I sent them up for a recommendation. Very few, if any, of those exceptional pieces were published. 

As for my favorite part of working there, I love reading the poetry we’re sent. I swear, Polyphony Lit is sent poetry of such great quality, I’d assume it was written by Richard Siken or Ocean Vuong if I didn’t know the author. I wouldn’t consider myself a big poetry reader and when I first started the job I was a bit dumbfounded as to how I’d even handle critiquing poetry, but it’s genuinely now one of my favorite things to read and review. 

O: You sound like a super busy bee! Between writing, school, and your work with literary organizations, you’re also dual-enrolled in community college creative writing courses. What have you learned from juggling so many things at once and what has the experience of being dual-enrolled been like for you? 

B: Take the classes and extracurriculars that you’re passionate about and cut the ones you aren’t as passionate about (or even just take a break from them for the time being). For example, I’ve had to basically take a break from Polyphony Lit all of Junior year due to the workload from all my classes (though I plan on getting back to business in summer because I miss editing and I’m getting so rusty). I love writing and I love the humanities social sciences, so all my classes are basically writing-intensive humanities and social science classes. 

It also helps when a lot of my writing passion projects overlapped with my school writing assignments. For example, two out of three of the critical essays I’ve published were originally written for my two writing-intensive AP classes (Lang and Seminar) and the only one that isn’t was still inspired by what I was researching in class at the time. The pieces I write for my creative writing classes at my local community college are, similarly, pieces that I’m seriously passionate about. For example, for my second-semester fiction class, I essentially fully wrote out the first chapter and a half of a novel that I’m currently working on, which has not only allowed me to make some serious headway into the project but has also allowed me to get some critical feedback on my writing skills from fellow peers.

All in all, it can be hard to juggle personal projects with academic work, but if you can make them overlap, then they become far easier to balance. I love every piece I write for Insipid Board. I love every essay I write for English. I love the novel I was writing for fiction. Essentially, if you love what you’re learning to the point that you’d actively pursue it outside of a classroom setting, school work, extracurriculars, and personal projects become a lot easier to balance.

O: If you could give new writers some advice from what you’ve learned, what would it be?

B: Novels are not the only way to learn how to write well and they aren’t the only path to publication. Writing short stories is a great way to improve your craft fast and to get a few publications under your belt before you embark on a big project like a novel or a short story collection. It’s probably not advice that needs to be given for the young writer demographic of Outlander Magazine, but I still do genuinely wish short fiction was emphasized more as an art form. If it wasn’t for short stories, my writing would be nowhere near as strong as it is now.

O: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should look out for? 

B: 

Besides the short fiction, I’ve already said is forthcoming, I’m also in talks with a magazine about editing and publishing an opinion piece I actually wrote last year. I’ve also been invited by Ninetenths Quarterly, a new creative nonfiction literary magazine that recently published my first nonfiction piece, to become a guest editor for a teen-focused issue in the summer. 

I’m also still writing a novel (but I doubt I’ll finish and edit—or even just finish—it this year). I’m also currently drafting a novella, which I really don’t know when it will be done since I basically just started. And finally, I’m also actively editing and seeking publication for a flash fiction chapbook (four out of the eight stories contained within are already published, and I’m really happy with the way the collection is turning out as a whole, but it’s really hard to find presses that accept manuscripts so short that aren’t poetry). As a writer who primarily writes either flash or pieces of about 2000 words at the absolute maximum, it’s always been hard to fully flesh out a full-size collection since, for me, that would require, like, fifty or more individual pieces just to hit the word count. Needless to say, it’s been pretty hard to find the right publisher for my project for this reason, but if I do manage to find a small press for which my manuscript is a perfect fit, that will definitely be a project to watch out for (and one that I am personally extremely excited to share). Also, if anyone has any submission recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them. 

I’d also like to announce that I’ve also been accepted to the Iowa Young Writers Studio summer session and have been accepted to the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program for fiction! I don’t know if that really counts as a project, but I do know that it is a cool honor that I’ll be definitely adding to my bio as soon as I can be bothered to change it.
Essentially, I both have a lot of projects to look out for, and not a lot of projects all at the same time. A lot of this stuff depends on my ability to stop procrastinating and either edit and/or submit my work. I, of course, am trying as hard as possible for the sake of my fans (do I have any fans? Maybe family) but I’m still just a young writer trying her best in the big wide literary world. A wee little guppy in the Pacific Ocean. What I do manage to make happen I’ll make sure everybody knows about.


Thank you to Bryana for sitting down to chat with us about everything from writing to learning to life! Find out more about Bryana and her amazing work by checking out her website and Instagram.