How do I get myself into these situations? Rhetorical question. I know EXACTLY how and WHY I get myself into these situations, but still, I have to ask myself the question. Repeatedly.
I know all too well exactly how I find myself sitting in a random vestibule in a high school fine arts center, surrounded by empty chairs that will soon be filled by hopeful, teenaged writers. I made a vow to myself, many years ago, to take more risks than I walk away from. The only real regrets I have are the risks that I've yearned to do, but have missed out on, simply because I hesitated a moment too long.
And so I sit here, in a random 3rd floor hallway, made out to be a "room" simply because it has a door on one end and an unoperational elevator on the other.
How many chairs are there? Quick math: 60. I think. Math, schmath, I need to practice this speech. This speech that I was editing until 11 pm last night because, upon a last minute-timed-read-through, I discovered I was nearly 12 minutes short of the 30 minutes allotted. 5 minutes could be filled with bullshit questions or random chit chat, but 12 minutes is a tragic mistake!
.... That went well. It really did. I feel totally confident that I can pull this off! Except now the first students are quietly walking in, sizing me up and down as I sit in the corner of the room, anxiously scribbling away on this scratch paper with my comforting gel pen. (What is it about gel pens that are so soothing to the soul? I seriously need to invest in no other writing utensils but these, in various colors, for the rest of my life...)
...AN ADULT. An adult has walked in and is sitting down and I am flustered because, HELLO? I thought there were only impressionable teenagers coming to this gig? Seeing someone who has glimpsed more of life than just a few years of trying to buck the shackles of parents and teachers has me feeling quite...flustered.
Tick Tock. No rest for the worried or wicked or mothers or speakers at literary festivals.
...Session one. Oy. That was painful. For everyone involved, I'm sure, but my "jokes" fell flat on silent faces and caused me to question my right to be here. Even though I know, I KNOW, I belong up here! The quiet first rounders have left and I am demurely sipping on my water bottle, thrilled to be halfway finished.
The thing is, I really DO want to reach these kids! I worked on this speech, knowing that I cannot make a difference in ALL of their lives, but hoping that I make a difference in at least a FEW of their lives! Even just ONE. If one kid leaves this festival feeling as though he or she IS a legitimate WRITER, regardless of whether or not an award has been bestowed upon them, because I have stated it out loud, in BOLD COLORS during my seminar? Then it's worth it. Sorting through all of the grammatical errors in the countless essays I had to read will have been worth the effort, if one teenager walks away feeling inspired.
I'm ready for the next batch. Bring it on.
...Session Two. It was packed! Standing room in the back and students who not only made eye contact with me but also laughed occasionally and ANSWERED my questions! I remembered that I have done far scarier things than stand up in front of a room of strangers and give my opinions about Life and Writing. And so I spoke. Sometimes too quickly and sometimes forgetting the wording, but I spoke and it was fine and some of those kids DID get the message. I'm sure of it.
The handful who stayed after I was done to ask questions and chat with me left me feeling thrilled; they have no idea how much validation those few kind words provided. I know that teenagers have difficulty seeing beyond a few light wrinkles and overly-dyed hair, but each adult understands that on the inside? We're ALL young at heart.
Some of my speech, if you are interested in what I felt would be inspiring and helpful for teenage writers....
I didn't go to college for English. Or Journalism. Or theater. Or even to study education, though all of those lines of degrees interested me. They just never had a strong enough call for me to commit my life to.
In fact, for me, college was only 2 years of unenthusiastic meanderings before LIFE took over. Instead of a "career," I took a really good "job," knowing full well that I wanted to someday be a stay at home mother.
I met and married my best friend and we were lucky that our hopes of having a family in our young adulthoods was possible. I eventually quit my "job" and became a full-time stay at home mother to our 3 children, born over 6 years.
We moved around a bit and finally settled into a house in Plainfield. We had the traditional woes and troubles in addition to the incredible highs and joys that raising a family brings. We eventually pulled our children from public school in 2010 when it became a better fit for our family to homeschool. Homeschooling 3 kids is essentially ONE of my full-time jobs.
I had a variety of small side jobs over the years, including a little daycare, some odd office work, and judging high school speech meets since 1996. I was keeping myself busy, but none of the work really inspired me. I definitely felt as though something was missing.
Again, how does this qualify me to speak on writing to a bunch of high school students?
Well, through all of those life changes, I wrote about it. All of it. I have a collection of journals to each of my children documenting the thoughts and feelings of their mother through their infancies and childhoods. I'm sure they're going to love me for it, right?
All of those journals were on PAPER, though. Seriously, this was before we had high speed internet. Writing "online" didn't even occur to me. With 3 small kids and DIAL - UP, there was no way I was going to write journals online.
When we finally leapt into high-speed internet connection, my world changed. I discovered... Mommy Blogs.
For the small percentage of you who do NOT know what a "mommy blog" is, I'll explain. A mommy blog is a place where mothers can brag about our children to our hearts' content or worry over potty training or mourn the loss of our youth. A mommy blog was a way to feel validation when every day is full of questionable decisions and less-than-thrilling monotony.
For me, a mommy blog was a place to meet friends and remember that I actually like to write... and I'm actually kind of decent at it. At times.
Surprisingly enough, my writing was good enough to draw a little bit of attention and I've had the privilege to write for community blogs and online magazines. I’ve blogged about products and activities that my family enjoys, and this has brought us several vacations, appliances and countless unique opportunities.
I've been interviewed on NBC, ABC and WGN multiple times. I've met and interviewed many celebrities and worked with multiple companies to spread awareness for causes that I hold extremely important.
Because of writing, in 2012 I was chosen to co-produce an on-stage show in Chicago called Listen To Your Mother, a national show that actually features local writers who speak on the topic of MOTHERHOOD. In fact, last year, NBC Nightly News came to the Chicago show and did a special report on the growing popularity of this yearly show. It was AWESOME.
We are currently 3 weeks away from the 2014 Listen To Your Mother Show. I am honored to say that we are showcasing stories that are powerful and unique; I mean, I actually get to showcase the stories of other writers, in a massive auditorium in Chicago, and make a difference in their lives and the lives of those in the audience… I get chills when I think about it.
Honestly, who would have ever thought that writing a little blog would be the starting point for this?
And THAT is my point in this little seminar-speech-thing. My point is that writing can take you ANYWHERE. Keep your mind open and don't be afraid to try something new.
Writing reviews and ads isn't anything I jump for joy over, but it pays bills and keeps me in the eyes of publishers and influential contacts. And truly, no one ever likes EVERY bit of their work. That's why it's called "work," right?
Before I get all inspirational, I have to touch upon something I noticed while reading through the essays for this year’s contest.
You are all at an age in your life where you have to make a crucial decision.
"Shall I choose to use proper grammar and English?"
I've seen the talent of story-telling that this group of teenagers has. I've read it and it is AMAZING. But it's not good enough if you cannot use proper grammar. Your story will never get past the intern to the editor if you constantly choose the improper form of "their, they're, or there.”
We all make mistakes, and rough drafts are perfectly fine being ROUGH. However, before submitting a piece of your writing for review for ANYTHING (college applications, publishers, literary contests) give your writing the chance it deserves and TAKE THE TIME to correct your grammar, spelling, and language flow.
Some people have natural grammar abilities. This is not for them. You perfect grammar people just chill for a minute. I won't be long.
For those of you who KNOW that you have English skills that need a little polishing, here is what you need to do:
1. Print out your work and read it out loud. Reading aloud forces you to really feel if the story has a good flow or if, perhaps, you used a few too many commas in a very long run-on sentence. Underline or highlight anything that might be a mistake, even if you're not sure if it is or not.
2. Look around you. See all of those people who ARE great at grammar and English? Become their friend and ask for help. SERIOUSLY. Correct your work to the best of your ability and then pull your parent or teacher or librarian or English A+ friend aside and say "can you proofread this for me?" Learning how to ask for help in areas that you may struggle is a skill. Please cultivate it!
3. At this point in your education, you should know the basics of grammar. That said, not everyone retains information at the same speed, so if you know that you are lacking in basic English rules, then it is up to YOU to make it a priority.
Do not count upon the school system to pick up the slack anymore. This is YOUR job. If you have never understood where and when an apostrophe should be used? Ask your librarian.
If you don't know the difference between "your and you're" ? Search the internet. Have you completely forgotten what a homophone is and why it might be important in your word choices? Make yourself flash cards or posters or a mini quiz; not because you are going to be tested for a grade in a class but because you want to be taken seriously by other adults.
If you want to be a writer in ANY capacity, you NEED TO GET SERIOUS about Grammar!
Another technical detail I’d like you consider cultivating is the idea of improving upon your public speaking abilities. This skill is crucial for every aspect of life! Whatever career you find yourself working within , once you’ve kicked down those proverbial doors, the ability to present yourself with confidence and eloquence is one that will convince those “door owners” as to WHY you belong there!
Might I make a slightly biased suggestion for those who are Juniors or younger? Consider joining your high school’s speech team, if you aren’t already a member. You ALL belong to schools that have good or even GREAT speech teams - Check them out! I promise you, your speaking abilities will flourish, your use of the English language will become more fluent - AND it looks great on college applications!
In writing and in Life in general, remember to Be Open. Be Adaptable. Accept that life will change and it will change OFTEN. In fact, "change" is the only thing in life that is truly constant.
I cannot guarantee that choosing a college major in English or journalism will be the decision that ensures you a profitable career in your writing field of choice. I will say that having an open mind about the possibilities for growth is the BEST trait that you can work on. After all, what journalist major from the 90’s would have ever foreseen the enormous shift in the world of technology, which practically destroyed their supposedly stable way of Life?
The only journalists that survived the invent of the internet and the dreaded “blog” are the ones who evolved with the shifting culture.
We live in a world that can completely re-invent itself based upon 1 new invention - stay on top of new outlets for your creativity and do not shun any job offer without considering the ramifications of cutting that thread of opportunity. A little grunt work certainly isn’t much fun, but it does present to a client that you are not “too good” for small steps in your career. Be open to thinking outside of the realm of what you perceive is your “niche” and you will make contacts can speak up for you when new opportunities arise!
Something to consider, in this world that is constantly moving beneath your feet: the internet is forever. And EVER. (unless there is an apocalyptic destruction of all technology during which the people who saved their ancient encyclopedias shall reign on high).
I mean, I’m sure it’s been drilled into your heads by every adult you’ve known since you made your very first cyber-steps. But let me repound it into your brains before you create your next tweet, status update, text, or instagram: Those adults know what they speak of!
Yes, there ARE evil and creepy stalker people who are looking for innocent victims on the internet, blah blah blah. They’re real and they’re dangerous: be careful. But as far as writing goes, an even greater threat is the loss of one’s integrity, especially as a writer!
Trust me, I have piles of literary garbage that I wish had never been released into the cyber world. But I own all of those mistakes, as a mature adult can do. No one can sort through the many layers of social awkwardness and development I surely would have put on full display had social media existed when I was a teenager!
Just… Be careful. If you wouldn’t say something to your grandmother’s face, then maybe it shouldn’t be recorded for all of your potential employers to read, right?
So. I want you to be careful about what you write online, but I want you to Keep Writing. Write often and everywhere. On notebooks and napkins. On your computer and other devices.
Write with your heart and write what you see and write what you hope. Write beautifully and poorly and in incomplete sentences. Write essays and poems and short stories. Write journals and letters and emails and texts and keep on writing.
All of this writing? This is your portfolio. Keep it. Keep it all. You don’t need to submit or share ANY of it, but if you truly want to be a writer, it’s important to have your writing history available. Learn from your mistakes and improve old ideas. This is what it means to “be a writer.”
You know, I think it is difficult for people who have chosen a career in an artistic field to embrace their titles. It took me a long time to feel remotely comfortable saying that “I am a writer,” even though I write nearly every day, people read what I’ve written, and I even get paid to do it. Still, without a published book, it felt false to claim that title. It still doesn’t sit easily on my lips when I'm asked my occupation.
Why is that? I mean, Is a painter only a painter once he has sold a painting? Wasn’t he already a painter, simply by act of, well, PAINTING? How does the sale of a piece of art suddenly qualify one for a title that was already apparent? Is the monetary validation of a stranger the only thing that qualifies you as an “artist?”
If you walk through your world and think of ways to translate what is happening around you into words on a page, Then you are a writer.
If you get paid in dollars or cents or in compliments then you are a writer.
If you wonder if anyone will ever read your words and yet you continue to record them, then you are a writer.
If you submit your personal essay to a literary contest and win critic's choice or honorary mention or don't even place at all, then YOU ARE A WRITER.
You do not need to receive a paycheck to know that writing is in your blood.
When someone learns that I blog for money, they often expect me to tell them how they can earn money by writing. “I like to write! That sounds fantastic! How do I get a blog, too?!?”
I have to pause before answering, lest I bite their heads off. They want a magic formula. They cannot imagine that writing for money would be difficult, or competitive. They think that because they adore writing as a hobby, and that because they have talent for it, that writing can somehow become this PERFECT career, full of fulfilling moments of brilliance and devoid of the struggles or tediousness that their own current job entails.
Everyone seems to forget a few of the most basic rules of LIFE.
First of all, Nothing worthwhile comes easily. At least, not for long. That world-renowned author you idolize and hope to someday mimic? She has writer’s block...OFTEN. There are days or even weeks where nothing of value is written by her. Piles and piles of gorgeous ideas may fall flat on her paper, despite their obvious merit and potential.
If you love to write and want to be a writer, the honest truth is there WILL BE frustration beyond anything you’ve experienced in any English class or for any voluntary writing you have attempted. Because the truth is, it is HARD to “do what you LOVE” especially when that love is an art form.
When art is what feeds your family or pays your rent, pressure to “create” will suddenly exist where it didn’t before. When what you LOVE becomes your JOB, well, it becomes “WORK.” Work is generally not something most of us jump out of bed rejoicing over. Details of the business may clog up the flow…
I don’t say this to discourage you, but to remind you that there is no such thing as a perfect career. All you have to do is read the celebrity magazines once or twice and see the devastating choices and trauma that the rich and famous still make, even after they’ve “made it,” to know that perfection is a myth that needs to be eradicated.
Second, there will always be someone who is “better” than you are. Or, at least, this is how it will feel. You ARE NOT the only person with a brilliant perspective on a current event or a clever idea for a character twist. Others will also have an intense desire and passion for their dream career - YOUR dream career - and some will have better contacts, experience, or luck. Doors may not always be held open for you.
That means that you need to be prepared to kick a few doors down. In fact, you may need to kick dozens of doors down before you are finally granted an interview that leads to….nowhere.
But remember this: No “dead end” is truly a dead end. It’s more of a...redirection. You WILL BE redirected in Life. OFTEN. Remember, Change is the only true constant! If you can embrace that reality, you will recover more quickly from the shocking turns of luck you will find yourself upon.
Notice I said, “recover from.” You cannot bypass pain. When hoped-for situations do not pan out, it HURTS. When you truly invest your heart into your writing, and it is rejected or chopped apart, IT WILL HURT.
When you take risks, the benefits may not always present themselves in the method you’d desired. Your manuscript may get rejected 34 times! But if the 35th submission is the time that it is accepted by a publishing company, then what were those rejections? Did they cause you to refine and delete? Did they actually make it possible for you to become a stronger writer?
Isn’t that what we all want? To become stronger?
Picture a body builder: How did he get muscles that are stacked so high? (Aside from jokes about steroids). The key is this: No muscle is ever built up without first tearing it apart. We grow from our mistakes and risks. We cannot succeed without first knowing the reality of failure.
Accept that you are a work in progress, as is every paragraph or line you will ever write.
Being a writer WILL bring you pain. Being a writer will also bring you intense joy.
Allow me to throw yet another metaphor at you. (I love metaphors. Be grateful that I haven’t utilized dozens more in this seminar).
What is the “best part” of a roller coaster?
Ok, if you don’t like roller coasters, you will probably say “THE END” but let’s pretend everyone here loves roller coasters. Again, what is usually considered the best part?
It’s the descent, right? The thrill of the adrenaline as you rush down a hill that would normally kill you, if not for the high-tech seat belts and computerized metal formations. THAT is what we coaster lovers LOVE. That is what we wait in line for hours to experience and mentally prepare ourselves for as we stand below the towering structure.
But just like Life, that thrilling rush of falling cannot be achieved without the long lines or tedious climb to the top. Understand that much of your life, regardless of your career choice or life-changing decisions, WILL BE spent waiting and climbing! If you can remember one idea from today remember this:
Learn to enjoy the wait. Learn to enjoy the climb.
Keeping your eyes on only the goal of the hilltop will cause you to miss the fantastic views, the peace of the climb, and the conversations to be had with your fellow coaster riders.
Before I let you go, I hope you also remember this:
Everything I’ve said about the competition and the hard work, the frustration and the rejection? All that I’ve said about enjoying the effort as much as the rewards? ALL of that:
Here’s the deal:
If this is your dream… if it is in your blood to write and be read… if you have more than just a “desire” to write but an actual “NEED” to write?
Then let nothing stand in your way. Listen to suggestions and accept that edits must happen, but stay true to the essence of your voice.
Stay honest about who you are and what you write. It is intensely competitive, but there is space for all of our voices in this world. Write your voice and send it out! I can’t wait to read it.