March 2018 . . . .

“Talking with Young Writers”

Never miss an opportunity. If your grandpa is going to fry chicken after church — don’t sleep in. Get out of bed and clip on that tie and go to service. Afterward, grab yourself a thigh and an ear of corn and some butter-beans and dig in.

No, it’s not new advice. We let things slip by us too often, I think. Imagine ourselves exhausted — just frazzled, worn down to the bone. I get it, I really do. You’re tired of the grind, and the rancor that surrounds the grind like a clinging miasma. You just want to do what you must, and when it’s done or over get back inside without getting too dirty, sit in your chair, watch your shows or flip through your postings and then sleep. Wake and do it all again. If opportunity knocks, maybe if you’re quiet, it won’t bother you. Some other time, perhaps. Not right now.

Opportunity isn’t a robo-caller that will keep annoyingly dialing until you answer. It passes like a comet; once in a while, or not at all. Never often enough for us to lose our curiosity in what caused the moment — all possibility and flash with a valuable prize at the core. But sometimes curiosity and laziness, like a sad cocktail bordering on despair, are a tough scale to tip.

And just in case you’re thinking that it’s easy for me to say this, because I’m ___________________ (fill in the blank with whatever hyperbole you use as a measure of success), well, I know of what I speak. I am a notorious non-attender. And not just of things most of us don’t like to do (like going to the DMV or the grocery store or to get a haircut, but good things, too!). What they now generally name social anxiety, I have in double-handfuls. Would I like to go to a birthday party? I would. How about an extra concert ticket — would I like it? You bet. Meet up for dinner? Indeed.

But as time marches on between the invite and the event my eagerness wanes, passing like a pop-up thunder-boomer with sound and foolery but not much in the way of useful rain or cooling temps, so that the idea of actually tripping the light semi-fantastic percolates in my sad little brain into pre-regret, and any actual enthusiasm withers like honeysuckle in a drought. In the end, only guilt or a not-so-gentle nudge gets me out the door.

I volunteer at my local elementary school, where I am a judge for their annual Young Authors program. The elevator-pitch on this is that every student is invited to write a book in any genre, including short story and poetry collections. They have the entire fall to do so, and the teachers assist with helping understand the difference between “realistic fiction” and non-fiction, and how to write a bio-sketch.

The program has been going on for over 25 years — I swear! — and shows no sign of age (and not just because new children arrive each to fill in the spaces left by everyone moving up one grade). It is a very cool thing how much support the school has for writing and how enthusiastic the kids are to put their creative minds to paper. By the way, The Blotter gives a small award to the Young Author in the fifth grade who we think did a terrific job on their book.

And in the end, after everything is written and illustrated and covered and bound (and judged), there is a Young Authors’ Tea. Everyone attends. Awards are distributed. And who’s hurt by a little Chex Mix, juice boxes, and applause? No one, say I. It is a good thing.

This year, near the end of the awards ceremony, the head of the program had each student who had written a book but hadn’t won an award stand up anyway to be recognized. More applause!

And then it was my turn to give the Blotter award. I took the mic and I spoke — social anxiety and all.

I told the kids, and the teachers and parents, that while it’s a fine thing to be recognized, what happened this fall — writing a book — wasn’t participating. That was the wrong word. What they did was “accomplish.” And that there is a big difference. They got something done. They wrote a book. And if they can write a book, well, they can write another book. Because writing is not about winning or losing — it’s all about telling a story — getting the tale out of your head and onto the page. Then I gave The Blotter award (a gift certificate to a local indy bookstore, of course) to a girl who’d written a perfectly original, surprising and fresh, fable.

On my way back to my seat, one of the teachers whispered “Bravo!” to me as I passed.

In the end, I like a good game of solitaire as much as the next person. I use the version that comes with the operating system on my computer when I’m sitting and thinking about what’s going to happen next in a story I’m writing. It’s perfectly fine white noise for the creative mind. But life is not solitaire. Not a productive life. Not a fine, fun life. You have to take your cards next door and see if your neighbor plays . . . I don’t know, cribbage.

And so I (purport to) go. I know, or at least I think I know, the difference between diffidence and unwillingness to take the bull by the horns. That’s way of the world.

In other words, no matter how grim and grimy life may seem from time to time, and in the gloomy months of a new year, it is its grimiest and grimmest, you need to get up and do what needs doing. Even if there is no fried chicken at the end. With butter-beans.