Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lessons from Baby Writers

I want to ramble a little about inspiration and, perhaps, motivation in the context of something that might seem a little surprising. Earlier this month I had the privilege of sitting down with three young writers. My niece's fourteenth birthday party was upon me and two of her best friends had come to stay with her

"Aunt Michelle," my niece asked. "Would you mind if I walk my friends down to your house so they can meet you? They are writers and so are you... so *dot, dot dot*"

At first I was confused albeit flattered by the request. I'm nothing special -- what could I possibly have to say to a gaggle of aspiring teen writers? I'm not even the published pea. I have no secrets of the trade. Nor do I have a history of vetted publications to hold up as a guidepost that says, "this is how you become a successful writer." I realized that I suddenly felt under-qualified. But, of course, I obliged. I call myself a writer after all, and my niece is family. These are the things one does for loved ones. We endure a certain amount of embarrassment and pander to how we think those in our lives see us. In the end, what I'd envisioned as a potentially awkward experience -- where crickets chirped in the background and finally I was exposed for the fraud I knew I was -- well,  the experience ended up being one of the most rewarding of my young writing life.

I don't know if you've ever sat down to tea and cookies on a Saturday evening with three teenaged girls, but it's an experience no writer (or self-aware human, for that matter) should ever turn down. The incessant chattering, dramatic flourishes,  awkward mannerisms, statements of certainty based on limits that often make no sense...

In a word, it was awe-inspiring.

One can learn a lot if one just watches and really listens. Observational skills are the mark of a good writer, after all. What I found is emotion and internal dialogue ooze from a teen girl's pores, stinking up the room with raw unfiltered truths. It is a thing of true beauty.

You see... what I experienced with these three young ladies was a bit like staring into a mirror. A mirror that revealed the inner workings of my own mind. Young writers, all of us, wear our insecurities -- about ourselves and our writing ability -- on our sleeves. Some fake it -- and hide it -- better than others. But I've been to conferences where even the most incredible New York Times writers divulge that, yes, even they are still worried about failure, about readers not responding, about finishing the project. They worry about all the same things that new writers worry over, although in a slightly different context, because those are the worries of the writer.

What I saw during that precious moment with these three young ladies was a manifestation of what every writer feels. Insecurity, doubt, trepidation, and even the impulse to toss about a couple 'Hail Marys'! Curiously, each girl had a role in the conversation. On the surface, there was the supportive cynic, the overly-excited chatterer, and the nearly mute self-doubter. I recognized them all. Because we writers -- definitely this writer -- are all those things and many shades in between. A writer of any age can identify with the teen girl writer because we feel all those things too.

For four hours, I became immersed in their world. I got to see firsthand what it meant to them to be writers. I found it not so different from what is means to me. They worry about characters being genuine and believable. The exalt the books they love and criticize the books that they don't think work. They worry about not knowing what their story is about. They worry about grammar issues and spelling errors. They worry about the amount of work being done on a collaboration. They worry about, "are the funny parts really funny?" and "are the scary parts really scary?" They worry about finishing. Mostly, they worried about what readers think...

Girl 1: "Didn't you think it was great when my character did 'x'?"

Girl 2: "I love that part!"

Girl 3: *nods and smiles*

Girl 1: *beams* "That's my favorite part." (translation: I spent a lot of time on that bit.)

At the end of the day, we all want validation that our labor of love is worth it. We want readers that see what we see in the stories and characters that move us. We want to know that our creation is worth the time, the energy, and the blood, sweat and tears.

What do I think?

Of course it's worth it. Everything else aside, it's worth doing because we love it!  Because it's our passion. And because we can't envision ourselves ever giving it up.

This particular evening I got to talk to three passionate girls about the thing I love most. Crafting story. We shared insights about our projects. We asked each other questions. We laughed, joked, and snickered about the pitfalls of crafting a story.

At the end of the evening one of them said, "I got so much out of this. Thank you."

I replied, "I'm glad."

In retrospect, I should have said, "So did I. Thank you!" Because as writers, we are always learning. And it isn't necessarily from our mentors and idols that we learn the greatest lessons. These young ladies reopened my eyes to the love of writing and why I choose a writing life. They taught me about myself, about my writing, and about what it means to be a writer. The writing life should be about hope, creation, and the love and excitement of the craft. Success in terms of the end game (publication, sales, the coveted movie deal) should never be what it's about. It's arbitrary. But the passion and need to hone craft is not. It's passion and craft that attracts readers. So it's there that the real rewards lie.

If I could have a do over. A moment to tell those girls what I know now -- what I know because they retaught it to me -- I would say, "Keep writing. Trust your stories. Trust yourself. This is the writer's life. You're living it! So embrace it, grow, and have faith."

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