May 24, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 1)

This past April, I was tremendously honored to deliver the keynote address at the Upstate Eight's 2017 Literary Festival in suburban Chicago, Illinois. I still have a ways to go on my journey as a writer, but what a privilege to share what I've learned so far with the next generation. I'm in awe of the creative students I met that day and can only hope that I encouraged their own journeys in some small way. 
I'd like to finally share this speech with you, too, dear readers. But since I yammered on for at least a half hour, I'll post in installments. Without further ado, here is Part the First...

Good morning, everyone! I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor it is for me to be here with you all today, in the presence of such talented writers, and in the school where I used to teach.
My career path has admittedly been a rather meandering one, but St. Charles North was one of its most important destinations. I owe so much to this place. And to the Upstate Eight overall, as I grew up in Bartlett (go, Hawks!), but since there wasn’t a Bartlett High School back in my day, I received my education at Elgin High School. (Any Maroons here? Go, EHS!). 
I’m an old-fart forty-year-old now, but believe me, I remember being your age…the fun and the uncertainty and the whole career path still ahead, not yet sure where it’ll begin. Maybe you do know what you want to do, or maybe you’re still figuring it out like most folks. Maybe you’ll seek publication one day or maybe writing will remain a happy hobby. 

These days, all of you write for class assignments, but, if you’re here today, you likely also write privately as a creative outlet. Maybe you submit work to your school’s literary magazine, or maybe you write flash fiction or fanfiction online. Or perhaps you just keep it all to yourself in a well-worn and trusted journal. We all write for our own purposes, but the main point is that we all write
When I think about my own writing life, I can’t help but look way back to grade school, to the Young Authors contest at Wayne Elementary. I don’t like to brag, but…I won that contest when I was in sixth grade. I’d written a gripping coming-of-age tale titled The Kid Next Door. I not only wrote the story, I illustrated it. Double threat. And after I won, I did a school-wide publicity tour, visiting different classrooms and reading excerpts. 

But never fear, it didn’t go straight to my head. I didn’t start out on top as an eleven-year-old. That wasn’t my first go at writing and setting myself up for acceptance or rejection. Oh, no. I had first entered that contest in second grade, when I submitted a short story called The Panda’s Lost Mother. It was a dramatic piece about a panda who gets lost in the forest. And I gave it this big twist at the end where the panda gets found. I know. I thought I really had something there.
Needless to say, the story didn’t win. Not even close to a runner-up. Because, big surprise, it was a really terrible story. The dialogue was stiff, it told more than it showed, the conflict was severely underdeveloped—and, quite simply, it didn’t deserve to win. I hadn’t given it much effort.
So, I tried again the next year with a story called The Lost Puppy

That story was about—wait for it—a puppy that gets lost in the forest. I know! This stuff writes itself! I drew pictures for that, too. And though this third-grade effort offered better description and a more heightened sense of tension, it didn’t win either.  
But I would not be deterred.
The next year, I challenged myself in a different genre altogether and decided to write poetry. And I illustrated that as well. Because, apparently that was my thing. And that year, I made it as a runner-up. 

So, my morale was back. Yet I sat out the contest in fifth grade—regrouped, I guess…waited for inspiration. I’m not sure. All I remember is that the following year I wrote The Kid Next Door and tasted greatness.
Okay, so, in retrospect, that story was pretty terrible, too. But that’s not the point. When I wrote The Panda’s Lost Mother, I was a seven-year-old hack. I didn’t want to write that story; I wanted to win the contest. It’s like when I tried out for badminton freshman year at Elgin because I wanted the satin team jacket. And I got rejected for that, too!
But by the time I wrote poetry in fourth grade, I wanted to. I found actual joy in it. And then I didn’t force myself to enter something the next year. I didn’t write another story until one came to me that I actually wanted to write. And I think that’s why, ultimately, the third and fourth times were the charm.
At the time, of course, I was just having fun. I wouldn’t know what an important lesson I had learned until twenty years later when I began writing in earnest. But looking back on it now, I appreciate how every time I wrote and submitted a story to that contest, I made progress. I also failed, but then I tried again and got better. 

I’m no stranger to rejection in my adult life either, but the more I’ve written and submitted my stories, the more rejections have turned into acceptances. It’s a bit of a numbers game, but also a matter of growing in the craft. The greatest acceptance we could ever experience, though, is our own acceptance of our work. We, first and foremost, need to love it and feel proud of it. And if others don’t love it, well then, we have to accept that, too.

I think it took me a while to learn that. As I outgrew my childhood moxy, I became more self-conscious as a writer. As of middle school and high school, I’d stopped entering writing contests, though I’m not sure if it was mostly lack of confidence or motivation. Probably a combination of both. I wasn’t proactive like all of you seated here, contributing your lovely literary work to this festival, which is so admirable. I’m so proud and inspired by what you’re accomplishing today.

What I can at least say for myself at your age is that, insecure as I was, I never stopped loving to write. I mean, yeah, I usually moaned over English assignments like everyone else, but whether it was a poem, short story, or essay, I truly did enjoy the challenge of crafting sentences in a way that would clearly and effectively communicate my message. I enjoyed figuring out what my message was in the first place. And I enjoyed playing with language, experimenting with turns of phrase. English is such a word-rich playground for that.

Which is why I loved, loved when my teachers would assign creative writing. My favorite task was when my sophomore English teacher gave us time in class to conduct freewritings. We had to keep a notebook solely for that, and she would give us something like five minutes to just write without stopping. Without caring about grammar or spelling or how weird our train of thought was getting. We just had to run with it, and it was the most liberating sensation, unlocking parts of my brain I didn’t realize I had.

Twenty-five years later, I still distinctly remember Mrs. Morrison commenting in my notebook, “You have a poet’s instinct for imagery.” That’s stuck with me. As does a professor’s comment on one of my graduate-school essays. He’d said my writing was good, but it could be great if I just relaxed it a little.
And it did need relaxing. I always tried too hard, speaking more from my head than my heart, trying to sound intellectual, and saying in two words what I could’ve said in one. I hope you take your teachers’ feedback to heart like I did, be it their compliments or criticism. Both are invaluable and neither should encourage you to either rest on your laurels or give up. Keep. Writing.   
To be continued in Part 2 of this keynote series...

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