—This is an adaptation of a speech given at Florida Gulf Coast University, at the behest of their Creative Writing Club and Sigma Tau Delta society.
I feel at home in places of learning. I can feel the energy of so many minds at work, figuring things out, piecing together information, engaging with complexity, and creating art. It’s electric in that old sense, by which I mean it’s magic, really. Because in these places, what we do is valued: we are writers, we are critics, we wrestle with words and nuance, and that matters.
To know that what we do matters is to know that we matter.
Unfortunately, outside of these places, it is easy to forget that we matter, that writing matters. We know this already: family and friends who ask, “What are you going to do with an English major?” “How much does a teacher make?” and “Why read the book when there’s a movie of it?” Articles that list the highest-paid or most easily-secured jobs and they’re all medical or math. Politicians who want to cut funding for the humanities, claiming that what the world really needs is more scientists and data analysts.
We have all been faced with these reactions from the world outside, reactions ranging from indifference to willful misunderstanding to outright hostility. Is it any wonder that certain quotes make the rounds on social media again and again, every few months, and that we cling to them like rafts in a stormy ocean? One of my favorites is by Kurt Vonnegut: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
And how many of our hearts were captured when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—an actual politician!—said “we need poetry to change the world”?
We know—everyone reading this knows—that writing and reading is important. We know it is part of us, that we are people who understand the world through words. But still, we may sometimes need others to remind us that it’s not only ok, it’s important that we spend our time writing and reading. It’s important on the level of the self—as Anne Lamott says, “Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?” And it’s important on the level of the world, because we are changing other people with our words. We change their minds, we change their understanding. That’s what change is: ideas, transmitted in ways that influence people.
So yeah, I’m here to add one more voice to the often too-small chorus cheering all of us on. But I have some practical suggestions, too. Some ways I’ve tried–or seen other people try–to keep going.
- Band together. Find other writers and artists who inspire, impress, and support you, and connect with them. Read each other’s work and provide helpful feedback. Encourage each other to submit work to magazines, to apply for graduate school or fellowships or jobs. Meet regularly, either in person or virtually. Engage in collaborative projects. One of the most fulfilling and sustaining projects I’ve been part of is The Gloria Sirens, because we do these things for each other.
- Don’t be afraid/too shy/too proud to ask. Ask your teachers for feedback and advice. Ask editors to consider your work. Put yourself out there—send out work, try for that award, and keep trying—because the successful writers are the ones who keep trying. A great deal of success in any field is luck, and that goes triple for the arts. But you can’t get lucky if you don’t keep trying, keep writing, keep putting yourself out there. Take the risk. Rejection sucks, so much I could write hundreds of words on that issue (and have). But keep trying anyway. At the very least, keep writing, so when you’re strong enough to put your vulnerable self out there in the world again, you have something to present.
- Recognize that the systems you are facing may very well be unfair. They may be broken. Our society is in a time of crisis—as the current political situation shows—and that crisis is reflected in publishing and higher education as well. Don’t accept that the problem is with you. When you see unfairness, don’t give up: work towards change. Speak up about the need for change. Remain hopeful that you can effect change. Your intelligence and your talent do mean something.
- Know your strengths. If you’re a young person, you are smart in ways people like me barely understand. You’re masters of social media, of the internet, of methods of communication that simply didn’t exist when I was your age. You have access to computer programs that combine image and sound and words easily. You see and experience the world differently from us old people. You’ve already come up with your own ways to combat the increasingly virtual life—including coming back to vinyl records, which are a slowed-down approach to music. I, for one, am excited about what you are going to do, how you are going to redefine culture. I don’t know that I’ll always understand it, but I’m looking forward to seeing what you do.
- Whatever your age, remember that you are part of the revolution. Your words will change the world. And I want to know how, so please tell me in the comments below: how do you intend to change the world?