What do you tell them?

by Alex

This has been a very busy and teaching week for me – first several workshops and panels at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego, which has been masterfully run by Michael Steven Gregory and Wes Albers for going on 22 years now, and then a library talk and signing and a high school appearance (a full-fledged assembly of 500+ students – yike!   I’ve never thought of myself as an assembly before…)

These events this week have been different than the convention panels and bookstore events I’ve grown used to.   It’s actually hugely different to talk to high school and college students – much more of a responsibility, somehow, because you just know that it can be one single sentence you say that sets a young writer off on this insane path that writing is.   Or – not.

And I find myself weirdly torn between saying that perfect inspiring sentence – and screaming “Don’t do it!!!” at the top of my lungs.  (Not that any real writer would ever listen to the “Don’t” part, I certainly didn’t – but still, I get up on stage and the impulse to tell them to save themselves now, before it’s too late… is very definitely  there.)

What’s overwhelming is looking out at these kids and thinking just how LONG I’ve been doing all this.   I started acting when I was – well, when you really think of when it STARTED – we were putting on plays in my parents’ garage when I was eight or nine, charging the neighbors a quarter admission.
Then years and years and years and YEARS of choir and dance and musicals and street theater and God only knows what all else… theater major at Berkeley, singing in a bar in Montana, video production in San Francisco, writing my very first professional treatment for Todd Rundgren (top THAT!)… dancing in campy burlesque film fests in LA, the whole screenwriting thing (most of which I’ve deliberately blanked out)… endless, endless, endless.
So how do you boil all that down into: “If you want to be a writer, this is what you do?”

But that’s what they’re waiting for you to say.

But the bottom line, I guess, is that writing is two things.    
First of all, writing is WRITING.   You have to write.   You have to sit down every day and write at least a page.   Or like Pari says, an inch.  Or write for an hour.   One or all of the above, but EVERY DAY.  If you start writing, and keep writing, and a writer is what you ARE, you will find the next step – book, class, mentor, theater program, film school, critique group, whatever – to make you a better writer.   And the next.   And the next.   And you will look up ten or twenty years later and you will be a writer and not really know how you got there, except that you wrote.   Every day.   And that’s what makes a writer.

And second, you have to LIVE.  Which is inevitable.   And good news for the people who have not been writing for the last twenty years but have hopes of starting now.    They may not have been writing for the last twenty years, but they have been living.    And if they can figure out how to put all that life into words, and write every day, they will be writers, too – no matter when they start.   Whatever your life is and has been, it’s infinitely worth writing about.   

I am finding myself looking for the most general and universal advice I can give.    We – writers – all know how hard this life is, and how few people end up doing it with any physical measure of success, but part of our job and responsibility is NOT to kill the dream.
And you know, it’s really exciting to have that one girl that you notice instantly in the crowd, waiting in line to talk to you afterward with that certain set to her chin and her pen out and poised over her notebook and so focused she’s practically vibrating as she says to you all in one sentence – “I’m writing stories like the ones you write and my mother thinks I’m weird and doesn’t understand so I can’t talk about it can you tell me what publishers I should be sending my work to?”   
And for a moment you’re breathless and speechless because you just KNOW.  That’s a writer, just as much as you ever were or will be, and nothing you can do could ever stop that inexorable and somewhat frightening force, but you have a chance to make it maybe a little easier…

Well…  THAT’S what this is all about.   

So, dears…. I’d really like to know.   What do YOU find yourselves saying, when you’re up there on stage with people’s dreams in your hands?

(For more on the Southern California Writers Conference…)

20 thoughts on “What do you tell them?

  1. Mike MacLean

    I’ve not been on a stage, but I spend a good deal of my day with high school kids. I hear their dreams of becoming a director, an actor, or a professional basketball player. Every time, that voice you talked about begins whispering in my ear. “Save them from the heartache. Tell them to give up.”

    But then I imagine one of those students receiving an Oscar and saying, “This is for all the teachers who said I couldn’t do it.”

    Who wants to be that guy?

  2. Alex Sokoloff

    Ah, see, you guys do know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. But Mike, you nailed it. You just can’t be that guy.

    And there’s always someone out there in that audience who CAN, and WILL. You have to do your best, for that one. And hope maybe the others get something out of it, too.

  3. billie

    I don’t say anything on a stage, but in my individual work with clients this kind of thing does come up, frequently.

    I’m an optimist to begin with, so it would never occur to me to discourage anyone from their dream b/c it might be difficult or even painful. But that gets to my core belief that we aren’t here to avoid pain or the hard stuff.

    BUT. My experience is skewed by the work I do. I dwell in the muck with folks on a regular basis.


  4. JT Ellison

    Alex, lovely. I imagine the vibrating girl will be going on to great things, and will credit you in the acknowledgements of her first novel as that writer who inspired her to keep trying. Honestly, if there’s a 100 of them, but only one succeeds, isn’t that worth it all?

  5. Naomi

    The L.A. kids I speak to are a pretty savvy bunch. Inevitably the question arises, “Are you able to make enough money to live on?” I tell them the truth, and the interrogator, a realist, nods his head, thinking, I thought so. But that doesn’t end the gleam in the eyes of others. What fools we all are!

  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I don’t discourage any of those bright-eyed, enthusiastic young people about writing.

    But, if someone asks, I do lay it on the line about the financial part. I use numbers and talk about royalties and earning back advances — and let them do their own math.

    It’s important to remember that writing and the writing business are linked, but not interdependent.

    IMHO, The urge to write, to commit words to paper or monitor, to tell stories, to have readers beyond your own circle of family and friends — these impulses need to be encouraged and nurtured.

    Anyone who is a born writer knows the world is a better place if she or he practices the craft (if we don’t, we become horrid to be around, unpleasant, frustrated and morose).

    The writing business is something else. I draw a big line between them and make sure to do so in my presentations.

    All of that said, I note my own reactions when I first learned the hard realities of the biz. My response was, “Well, that may be for * them *, but I’ll do better.”

    I suspect that cocky response is a lot more common among young people who have no reason to expect to be beaten down.

    My take? Good for them.

  7. Alex Sokoloff

    Billie, you’re in the perfect position to truly facilitate dreams, and I bet you’re brilliant at it. I envy you that.

    JT – the vibrating girl will be crediting more of us than just me. I’m going to be milking all of you for information for her. We’re in this one togather, babe! 😉

    Naomi, right – the dirty little secret of finances. But I think there is a perfect balance between film/TV and novels which will result in a perfectly fine living, and I’m out to find it.

    LA kids are in a better position than anyone to do that, as well.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I try to give them practical places to go on the internet to be able to get as much of a crash course / education as possible. For example, I send everyone to Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s site, Wordplay. (that’s http://www.wordplayer.com) and tell them that even though their site is about screenwriting (they’re the writers of Shrek, The Pirates of the Carribbean, etc., for those who aren’t familiar with their names), they have 45 columns on writing on their site that are like a master’s course. Really excellent advice and while some of it is screenplay specific, a lot of it is story-specific and would apply to novels. I give them links to great blogs like this one as well as magazines, like Writer’s Digest, to give them a starting point. Because the really difficult thing is that I have no way of knowing just where they are in their journey – beginniner or almost-ready-for-prime-time, but at least those sites will help them decide where they are and what they need to do next.

    But yes, you absolutely cannot kill the dream. The best trait we have as humans, and probably the most necessary for our survival is hope, and the second best is to be the ones who help it to grow into reality.

  9. billie

    Pollyanna here… 🙂

    I really do believe that we all have the power to make small but yet hugely important differences in the lives of people we meet – putting one more rung on the ladder – the one rung doesn’t bring anyone to the “top” – but it gets them that one step higher/closer/whatever.

    And further, I don’t think we have to give folks magic answers or anything beyond just responding to them genuinely, with thought and consideration. This doesn’t mean we’re always telling them what they want to hear, or being sweet when they’re being jerks (the man in the movie theatre with the baby comes to mind, and Mike’s response) Sometimes just listening or recognizing them, as you did the vibrating girl, is all it takes to fuel another step.

    I don’t really do anything brilliant in my work with people. I just have the fortitude to walk through their darkness with them and listen and respond honestly in the moment. If you as a writer have persisted and made it past the many obstacles to publication simply sit and really hear someone’s words while they’re standing there holding your book out to be signed you have done more than you know to validate them, their path, and possibility. It’s not telling them it will be easy or even that they can necessarily do it – it’s honoring their right to try.

    I think I need to go outside – I’m getting way too cerebral this morning!!

    But thanks for the thoughtful post and the fascinating questions, Alex.

    I’m eager to read all the comments that come in on this one.


  10. JT Ellison

    Alex, I can’t wait to hear more about her! It is interesting how you can just tell who has the right combination to make it and who is simply being an existential brat.

    Billie, you can be cerebral any time you want. Love your take on this life we lead.

  11. louiseure

    Alex, I love that image of “the vibrating girl.” It makes all the difference when you can see a light behind the eyes.

    My own, very general advice, is that the only way they can insure failure is never to try.

  12. Elaine Flinn

    I’m a firm believer in ‘paying it forward’ -(good for you, Alex & the young gal!) and each time I’ve been asked for advice – I tell the truth. If you’ve gotta write, then do it. But learn about the biz first – don’t be blinded by your dreams of hitting the NYT list right off the bat. Few make that leap – so if you can take the inevitible rejections and the critiques – go for it. There is nothing worse in life than to not follow your dream – and utter that famous Brando line – “I coulda been a contender…”

    Terrific post, Alex – as usual!

  13. Guyot

    Is it too early to award Blogger of the Year?

    X, your posts are simply put, enthralling. Regardless of your subject matter, your posts rock. Every time.

    I had goose bumps reading about the girl on line. Because, I think, I know exactly who you’re talking about, I’ve seen that same combination of determination and fear on the faces of youth.

    Or maybe it’s because I’m just a little girl.

    Either way, great post. Again. And to your question…

    I understand what Monty is saying, but I don’t think it’s a question of discouragement. For me, I want to inspire and make them believe they can do it, but I also want to show them the reality of it all.

    But I’m not talking about the reality of one-in-a-thousand will make a living at this, but rather the reality of what it takes. Yes, you can scribble down anything and go to iUniverse and get it published. You can have your name on Amazon.com. You can also scribble down anything you want, get some friends and a DV camera and have a movie with a real live screenplay credit on it.

    I want to make them understand the difference between saying you’re a screenwriter, or author (with a credit or book to prove it), and actually being one. And to achieve that, there is a lot of fucking work to do.

    The Horatio Alger video store clerk story is a lottery ticket. Not one in a million, but one in ten million. And any writer who banks on a Schwab’s drugstore type of road to success is a fool.

    And not a writer.

    I want them to be inspired and believe they can do it, as long as they put in the work.

    I so wish I’d been able to hear you talk when I was a high schooler. I wish I’d heard anyone tell me I can. My parents gave no support, my teachers didn’t, my professors were morons… actually, I have no idea how the hell I ended up doing this. I’m going to have to think about it.

    Jesus, X… thanks for the headache.

  14. Elaine Flinn

    I think Guyot’s comments are excellent – and I’d nominate him as well for ‘Blogger of the Year’. There are few people in this writing biz who have bent over backwards to offer advice – warnings – inspiration and caution – to so many wannabes, about-to-be’s, and published writers – than he. I know that first hand, and I’m grateful for all that he’s so freely given to me. Even though it is sometimes insipid (a private joke between Guyot and me – so don’t take that literatlly, okay?). 🙂

  15. David J. Montgomery

    I taught college for 5.5 years (history) and it was always such a joy to me to have a student who actually cared and was actually interested, especially when it came to writing. And I always encouraged those students as best I could. (One of them eventually went on to get a PhD in history, which was more than I ever did, so that blew me away.)

    But most of them were such a waste of a body temperature. (Granted, this was community college.) I couldn’t believe how bad they wrote. It was truly appalling. And I made them write constantly. (I’m surprised anyone took my class once word got around.)

    My hat is off to everyone who teaches. It can be such a heart-reading and frustrating avocation. (And it can also be exhilarating, but not as often, unfortunately.) Teaching is one of life’s truly noble professions.

  16. Fran

    I do write, and I love it.

    However I’ve got a long way to go to match the absolute thrill I got when…okay, short background first. I taught high school in a border school in New Mexico for ten years. I pushed my kids to write in lots of different ways, to explore what they might be able to achieve.

    I had students who reveled in it, who refused, who did just enough, and lots who fought me tooth and nail.

    So imagine the electric excitement of getting a letter from a student, one of the tooth-and-nail sorts, who thanked me for pushing her to write more, and who sent me clips of her journalistic work, published in a newspaper in Chicago.

    Yeah, I write constantly and compulsively, and of course I read much more than that, but there’s just something special about watching that vibrating girl succeed!

  17. Alex Sokoloff

    Sorry to have bailed on the discussion early – I was traveling all of yesterday (but bumped to first class, I’m not complaining!)

    Fran, that is too great about your student who’s a journalist, now. The joy is so overwhelming in moments like that it makes you realize that’s what we’re really on the planet for.

    I’m thrilled at everyone’s response to the vibrating girl (whose name is Sarah, btw) – especially because I’ve just made you all her village (as in “it takes a village”).

    G – I got to hear Barry Eisler speak for the first time last weekend and he kept referencing “his future self” talking to him and trying to push him toward writing. Maybe it was your future self talking to you, when others didn’t. But it’s an interesting exercise, to remember back and find the moments of encouragement. Sometimes it really would be just one sentence – the college prof who told me simply – “You’re a real writer, you know that, don’t you?” That’s all he said, but he meant it, and that one sentence had the import of prophecy. Start combing back through your past and you’ll find those moments – I was really startled at what came out of my mouth as the justification for my whole writing career when I spoke at the So Cal Writers Conference last week.

  18. Alex Sokoloff

    I missed this gem of Pari’s while cross-posting:

    ———————————All of that said, I note my own reactions when I first learned the hard realities of the biz. My response was, “Well, that may be for * them *, but I’ll do better.”

    I suspect that cocky response is a lot more common among young people who have no reason to expect to be beaten down.

    My take? Good for them.——————————-

    That’s EXACTLY the attitude a young writer has to have. I would sit in classrooms where the jaded older writer would look out at the crowd and say, “Maybe two of you will ever make any kind of living at this,” and I’d think – “Well, that would be me.”

    You have to cultivate a “Fuck you, just watch me” attitude to all of this, or you’re lost.


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