Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Imagination, You're Not the Boss of Me: Advice to Teen Writers

I was asked to give a talk for the Burlington Public Library’s Take Flight and Write teen writing contest coffee house. I’ve been a judge of this context for several years. Next year, they’re going to include multi-media literary work which I’m very excited about. I’ve just returned from the evening. Very exciting to hear all the teens read their work – some goofy, many highly emotional, perceptive and certainly heartfelt, some remarkable accomplished and virtuoso. Here is my little speech:


I’m delighted to have been asked to speak at Take Flight and Write and offer some advice to the writers here tonight.

But first, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate myself. Really, I’d like to offer me the deepest congratulations. Congratulations, Gary. Well done. You’re awesome. Congratulations!

Why congratulate myself?

Because I’ve been a judge of this contest for the past several years and each year I’m excited and inspired by the work that I get to read. Each year there’s a range of energetic,
interesting, and passionate work from all of the writers. So I want to congratulate myself for getting to read it. I am awesome.

But of course, I want to congratulate all of you writers, too. All of you who participate in Take Flight and Write. Because—though maybe you’re not as good-looking or as well dressed as me, I mean, just look at this shirt, look at my hair—you have done something amazing. Think about all the great stories and poems that you’ve written.

And I want to congratulate you for your courage.

Because writing is a great act of courage. It is courageous to trust the imagination. To trust yourself. To have trust in reading and readers. In words. In our culture.

We’re surrounded by many things. Ecological disaster. War. Endless reruns of Friends. “How you doin’?” And language has never been so complicated and slippery. Just listen to politicians or the media.

But still, you are brave enough to write a poem or a story. To make magic happen between words. Between your brain and the page or screen. To make magic between reader and writer. It’s brave and exciting and fun to even try to make magic. Go on stage before an audience of 500 people. Stick your hand in a hat. Is there a rabbit in there? Will it chomp on your fingers? Will you pull out the rabbit out and make the audience go crazy? Will you pull out a unicorn wearing a jet pack? Who knows? It’s writing.

And who has more courage, the trapeze artist who has done their act a thousand times, or the one who is doing for the first time? As the old joke says, the first person to eat lobster was a very brave person. With writing, it’s always the first time. That’s another reason why I’m so inspired and impressed with all of you writers. It’s a brave, exciting, and dangerous thing that you’re doing.

I should also congratulate some other people: teachers, parents, friends, and the people who work in the library. With all the pressures in our world today – mortgages, jobs, endless Friends reruns, Justin Bieber, politics, you – parents, teachers, friends, librarians—support these young writers and their writing. You support them by being here. By reading their stories and poems. By believing in the power of words and the imagination.  By trusting them.

Nothing teaches us to value ourselves and others more than trusting in stories, memories, thoughts, and imagination.

Here’s a fantastic poem by David W. McFadden, a great writer from Hamilton.

At this moment in Viet Nam
as I write this the clear moon I imagine
shines down on one peaceful scene.
It’s night and the village sleeps.
Everything is quiet as the universe.
The moonlight lies everywhere
illuminating chance corners.

There was about to be an attack
but I’ve deflected it with this poem.

And now, some advice:

The crime writer Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip,” and Kurt Vonnegut said, “Start as close to the end as possible.” These are both good pieces of advice, but I’ve a few more to add.

In fact, I’ve writer’s dozen of pieces of advice to add. That’s eighteen pieces of advice. And like all good advice, it’s good to follow it. But it’s also good to ignore it, too, if you know why.

1. Never try to create a masterpiece. Just write something that you like.
You can’t make something a masterpiece – the goal is to write something interesting, ambitious, and exciting—to you. Something that is yours. Masterpieces are for old dead people and marketers.

2. Read every kind of writing.
There are so many kinds of writing out there it’ll blow your mind and the top off your eReader. The world of writing is so diverse, it’s hard to believe. It’s as diverse as nature: in writing there are also platypuses, echidnas, and unicorns with jetpacks. And through the library, bookstore, and internet, you can discover amazing and surprising things. And even lots of suprising and fantastic writing.

3. Try writing every kind of writing.
As my mother used to say, “Try it, you might like it.”
But each different kind of writing unlocks a different kind of door. You might not have been expecting what was behind that door, but it might be just the thing that you were looking for. Or the thing that was looking for you.

4. Don’t hang your hopes on inspiration, but rather on imagination, creative play, and developing skill. Of course, sometimes you’ll be inspired, but while you’re waiting for inspiration, play, explore, experiment. I think of this as saying, “Inspiration you’re not the boss of me.”

5. Publish and perform– make your own books, chapbooks, magazines, blogs, tumblrs, Facebook posts, texting your friends, and through open mics and readings. This is how to realize the next two pieces of advice:

6. Make or discover a community of other writers, and,

7. Make or discover an audience of readers & listeners.
It’s important to be surrounded by people who are interested in what you do and who are interested in what you are interested in.

8. Find a thoughtful, inspiring, non-patronizing mentor who’s not afraid to tell it like it is.
Maybe join a writers’ group or find a smart teacher or relative, who knows about writing. Though many people may know many things, they don’t all know about writing, though many think that they do.

And don’t be afraid to listen to the advice. But, don’t be afraid not to listen to them. Just be honest with yourself. Now that’s easy advice to follow.

9. Like most writers you may think that what you’ve written is lumpy misshapen crud, but look at it next week.

10. Like most writers, you may think that what you’ve written is better than Shakespeare, but look at it next week. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to put a piece of writing away for a little while and come back to it. Sometimes the best thing to do is to read it to someone right away.

11. Be willing to ay-dit, to ahhdit, oodit, to oditt…to edit. The difference between and good writer and a bad writer is that the good writer mines the masses of their bad writing for the few nuggets worth keeping, or finds a way to make the good bits noticeable. A bad writer just keeps it all and doesn’t change it.

12. When editing, try out other solutions. Don’t be afraid to totally change what you have written. You can’t break a piece of writing. It’s not like playing baseball with a glass unicorn. But if you do break it, you can always go back to an earlier draft.
13. Don’t hold on to your initial ideas, but be open to what you discover as you write – your writing process might know more about what’s going on than you do. You might sit down thinking that you’re going to write a poem about how much you love your dog, or a story about the hundred spiders that you found in your underwear last night, but then discover that you have something else to say. Or the words have something else to say. Go with that. Trust in the process.

14. Try to imitate other writers and don’t worry it if doesn’t end up sounding like them. Once you’ve started a bad imitation, you may find something interesting in what you’ve written. Keep going. See what happens.

15. I said this one already, but I’m going to say it again because I think it’s important: Read lots. Everywhere. In the library. Online. In bookstores. In school. On the bookshelf of your great aunt Fatima. On the bus. What do you like? What don’t you like? What writing techniques and ideas can you steal? What can you learn?

16. And buy all of my books. Give copies to your relatives. Give them two copies each. Three, even.

17. Keep writing. An Olympic runner runs and runs and runs. A writer keeps writing. It’s how you get better. It’s how you discover things. It’s how the ideas come to you. It how your imagination grows. It’s how the world gets bigger.

18. And finally, remember when you decided to build the world’s tallest Lego tower and you worked all afternoon without stopping. Write like that. Or, remember when you ate all of your Halloween candy in one night. Write like that. Or, remember when you were scared of the spiders in the basement, but you went there anyway? Write like that. Or remember when that kid said that nasty thing to you. Write like that. Or remember that thing you overheard that person say when you were downtown? Write like that. And, remember painting when you were a really little kid? You used your fingers, your nose, your little brother. You played. You experimented. You had fun. Write like that.

Congratulations to all of you and thanks for listening.

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