I recently had the immense pleasure to be the keynote speaker at a writing conference for middle and high school students, who were more serious about their work than many adults! Their questions were wonderful and numerous, and I left feeling so inspired. The following is an abridged version of the speech I gave.
It’s truly a thrill to be here with you all, in part because it’s always a treat to be with other writers. But there’s something especially great about being with young writers.
You read a lot these days about how technology and social media are giving everyone a 3.5-second attention span, killing our desire for stories and news that takes any longer to read than it takes to apply mascara or lace up a pair of high tops. Of course you read about this on social media, so it’s a little like the fox handing down decrees for the chicken coop. If you believe all this, the world, and all us chickens who live in it, are circling the evolutionary drain.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the world is not, in fact, going to hell in a smartphone. Writers are people who take the time to put words together in a way that captivates the human story-loving brain. You are sitting here today because you choose to spend a precious Saturday learning how to do this even better than you already do it. That takes time, it takes attention, and it takes passion. You have it, and God knows the world needs it, because the world has always needed it.
So, high school and middle school. A lot of drama, right? Here’s a little secret: the drama doesn’t really go away. Life is jam packed with it, no matter how old you are. For us writers, that has its upside, though, doesn’t it?
I would say that the single most reliable thing that got me through high school was writing. If nothing else—though it was much more—if nothing else, it was a really good coping strategy. Much better than a few others I had. Probably better than a few others you have, too.
For instance, if you’re coping with your life by spending every free moment playing candy crush, or bidding on undocumented sports memorabilia on eBay, or by hiding just one boot of your currently-least-favorite sibling’s most favorite pair … I can say with the authority of hindsight that writing is a better way to go. Except every once in a while, you have to play some candy crush, or make an unwise purchase, or hide a boot. I’m just saying don’t limit it to that.
When I was twelve I began scribbling in a journal, and that was the start of my career in fiction-writing. I soon learned that the best thing about telling the stories of your own life to yourself, and only to yourself, was that you could lie. I could take something that had happened and make it bigger, or funnier, or more heart-wrenching, or focus on this part but not that part. I could make myself the hero, and sometimes it was even fun to make myself the villain. There is so much power in that.
There is enormous power and benefit in writing only for yourself. Please remember this, if and when you ever try to get published. You are the first person you should please with your writing. If you want to get published, you certainly won’t be the only person you’ll need to please, but you should, in the quiet of your own writer-ness, always be the first.
Scribbling away in that little spiral bound notebook, I learned to hear the way I could talk about life that was authentic to me. In the writing world, we talk a lot about voice, and it’s important. But the most important voice you need to find is your own. It makes it so much easier to take on other voices too, if you know what your own voice sounds like first, without anyone else weighing in. Without any comments in the margins about how the setting is underdeveloped or the dialogue seems forced. Without any grades.
The other voices will come and the really authentic ones—the characters you create where readers say, I feel like I know her!—will come from one source: empathy.
People ask writers all the time: “How can you create a character that feels so real, but is so different from you?” It’s because we imagine what it’s like to be other people; we put ourselves in their shoes, or bear pelt boots, or little green two-toed feet. We try to feel what they feel, even if they’re evil, bloodthirsty, kitten-killing aliens. Because we need to know why they’re doing all that thirsting for blood—which, let’s face it, is not particularly tasty or hydrating—and killing of kittens. Are the kittens mutant droids with the power to turn the universe into a planetary junkyard? Or were these villains once attacked by a nunchuck-wielding kitten gang? Otherwise they’re just generic bad guys, and there are a million of those.
Not everyone gets the empathy lesson, unfortunately. Otherwise we’d have a lot less hair pulling and bomb detonating in this world. But you know who apparently has that empathy thing down better than a lot of people? Readers of fiction.
The following is from an article in the New York Times called Your Brain on Fiction:
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’ … in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
Brain science is beginning to show what we story-lovers have intuited all along. That reading makes us better people—more knowledgeable, more understanding—because it gives us invaluable practice for real life situations. Maybe actually writing those stories gives us even better practice than reading them. And then it naturally follows that this makes us even better people, right? So we can all feel good about that.
When we write, we talk about what it is to be a person. It may be a person in a tenement in London in 1910, or with a disability that no one understands, or in the form of a very hungry caterpillar. We talk about how being a person is to be different on the outside from what’s happening on the inside. Because we are all different on the outside from who we really are on the inside. Who understands that better than teenagers?
So we have empathy, and we’re fine tuning that empathic thinking with every new character we write. The next thing we need is a sense of anticipation. A description of personhood, while it may be fascinating, beautiful, grotesque, depressing or inspiring, is not a story. Anticipation of what will or will not happen to this person is what makes the story. What is the critical problem that needs to be solved? Will that hungry caterpillar ever get enough food? And what will happen if it doesn’t? And what surprising things might happen along the way?
Anticipation is the Gotta Know. When you gotta know what’s going to happen next to this authentic person, that’s the story. And if you don’t have a gotta know—or better yet, several—it doesn’t matter how fascinating and authentic your person is, because the reader will stop turning the pages and wander off to play candy crush, or bid on stuff he can’t afford on eBay, or hide a boot.
The last thing I want to mention is theme. Not because it’s last, sometimes it comes first, but it’s a little less tangible and obvious than having authentic persons or gotta-knows. Theme helps us think through bigger issues like: What the heck are we talking about here? What is the question this story is trying to answer? What do we want the reader to think about after the story is over?
In The Hunger Games, some themes might be “How far would you go to feed your family?” or “What is the responsibility of those who have resources or skills to share them with others who don’t?” In Romeo and Juliet, themes include “How much should family loyalty take precedence over individual desires?”
Weirdly enough, themes sometimes pop out while you’re in the middle of writing. You thought you were telling a story about a kid with Tourettes Syndrome in 1930, and you realize the overarching theme has something to do with forgiveness. It can be really helpful to try and nail down your theme in a sentence or two. Then it becomes a sort of compass. Am I still talking about “The power of forgiveness over ignorance,” or did I wander a little too far away? A good theme keeps you on track, and keeps the reader thinking about your story long after they’ve put down the pages or e-reader.
In conclusion, I just want to thank you. I thank you for being here in this room talking about words and stories, instead of any of the zillions of other things you could have chosen to do today. I thank you for being empathic, and for using writing to hone that empathy, a critical skill that the world always needs more of. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to be in the company of other serious writers, which is always fun, and further, it gives me something to impress my kids with instead of just embarrassing them (which is also fun, but not for them).
Keep writing. It’s good for all of us.