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…)