Words to Young Writers

This week, I have the chance to talk to the students in Word Lab, an activity put on by the Young Writers Program in Santa Cruz County. In this nine-week adventure, students write a story that is then reviewed, edited, and published in an anthology that they will receive this summer. Here's what I have to say:

Thank you for this opportunity today. It's always such a great honor to be at Word Lab. I volunteered at Word Lab for three different sessions—Spring 2017, Fall 2017, and Winter 2018. I had planned to volunteer again for Spring 2018, for this session, and then Life stepped in, and we have to move. My family and I will be leaving Santa Cruz in three weeks and moving up to the Gold Country. I'm very sad that I couldn't work with you. I really wanted to.

Today I thought I would say a few words about things I wish I had known when I was a young writer. I wanted to be a writer ever since I knew how to read. I didn't know it at the time, but reading is the first great tool that you have in learning how to be the best writer you can be. Reading can inspire you. You can learn great things from reading. When I was young, my two favorite books were Harriet the Spy and A Little Princess. I loved Harriet the Spy because it was a story about a young girl who felt so passionately about writing that, if she couldn't write, it was as if she had been deprived of oxygen. She knew that about herself, and so she always had a notebook on hand to jot down her thoughts. After I read Harriet the Spy, I always had a notebook, too. In A Little Princess, Sarah Crewe's world is turned upside down when her father dies. In order to get through her grief and her change in circumstances, she turns to her imagination. She makes up stories. She learns to find joy and beauty in situations that most people would find hard to bear. When I read this book, I began to understand how telling stories can change your life. So it's something to think about. What are your favorite books? What do you like the most about them? Do they teach you a lesson that it feels important to remember? Is there a type of story that you like best? Maybe you like coming-of-age stories or romances or mysteries or war stories or fantasies or horror stories or thrillers. Whatever you most like to read, you will probably like to write in that genre.

And then there's what exactly to write about. Sometimes that can feel overwhelming, figuring out exactly what you want to write. Again, I would say, think about what you love. For me, although I love to write, there are always moments when it's difficult, and it just makes it easier if you're writing about something that really interests you or something you know a lot about or something you feel strongly about. When you choose something like that, you'll have specific things to say or describe. It's a great way to make your words come alive to your readers.

Over the years, as a writer, I've learned that I really need to give myself time to write. You have this built into your time at Word Lab, but it's something to think about for your life as a writer when you're not here, in the years ahead. I have discovered that if I can even take fifteen minutes a day that I can get a lot done. And on the days when that doesn't seem possible, if I can jot down an idea or a couple of sentences that have popped in my head, then it feels like I'm strengthening my writing muscles, and in the long run, I develop more confidence and trust in myself as a writer. It doesn't mean that there aren't still times when I feel stumped or that every sentence seems to come out as mush, but if I keep writing, I begin to remember that this discomfort has happened before and that I will eventually write my way out of it, and I will be happy with my words again, that that moment is actually around the next corner, if I just have faith in what I'm doing.

At Word Lab, there comes a time when it's important to share your work with others. Now writers are often sensitive souls. I certainly am. This part of the process can be hard for me. And this is what I would say to you about it: It's important. It's necessary. Listen. Appreciate the fact that you can get help. If you're not the foremost authority on spelling or where commas should go, you have volunteers at your table who will happy to tell you all about that. I know that for me, sometimes after I've worked very hard on something, it's hard for me to see it any more. Another person can find something that needs to be fixed, and I may feel silly that I missed it, but I'm really grateful that they pointed it out to me. Sometimes I know my story so well that I may be telling it in code. My listener may say to me, “I don't quite understand this or that” and it's only then that I realize that something quite clear in my head may need to be spelled out more so that other people can see it, too. And there are sometimes when I get feedback that doesn't seem right. Then here's what I do. I listen. I make a note to myself. I may get a second opinion. Sometimes I'll think on it myself. There are times when after I think on it, I realize that person was absolutely right. Sometimes I decide that wasn't the change that I wanted to make, but it really should be changed in another way. Sometimes I leave it the way it was.

And in the end, there will be a book, and you will feel the power and the glory of holding that book in your hands, opening it up, reading your friends' work, and turning to the page with your name on it, and seeing your story there. It's a great feeling, and you all deserve it. I wish you the absolute best, and I hope that you will always keep on writing and telling your stories.