Thursday, July 2, 2015

On young writers and early competition

Beth Kephart blogged about the pressure of young writers' competitions, referring in turn to an article in the Atlantic, "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions."

I read these with interest. One reason is that when I was a young writer myself, I earned a prize in the Scholastic Writing Awards, which are discussed in the Atlantic piece. But I had to laugh, reading these lines from the article: "Writers are invited to collect their awards at a special ceremony at Carnegie Hall in early June, and certain submissions, such as senior portfolios, can each win as much as $10,000 in scholarship cash. Either way, medals can translate into invitations to attend choice summer camps and colleges."

I did not go to Carnegie Hall, and I did not receive anywhere near $10K. I did not receive any invitations to summer camps and colleges, let alone "choice" ones. I received a sum of money in the low two figures.

Now, my prize was a fourth place, and this also happened way back in Olden Times. Back in the era that the Atlantic describes as, "Previously, just a select few, often identified by AP English teachers, would enter these competitions, as would a handful of secret bedroom scribblers." Obviously, the whole competition scene has mushroomed since then, just as the SATs and college admissions and everything else about being a teen that was high pressure before seems to have become Out-of-Control-Major-Deal-Pressure in the years since.

And so I know where Beth Kephart is coming from when she says, "Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning." I agree that there is a danger to people entering the arena of competition during the time when they need to be studying, practicing, and exploring their craft. There is a risk of stunting one's artistic growth, of chasing the ends at the expense of the means, of pushing work that is too raw into the public eye, of pushing one's self into the glare of public critique when one is still learning to trust the inner self over external judgments.

I feel the same way about publishing. It has become so easy--in the practical, technical sense, that is--to self-publish, that at many book festivals now I usually see a table or two with an author who is still a minor selling his or her own books. Whenever I see that, part of me cheers for the young writer, admires the guts it takes to finish and publish and promote a book. Part of me loves to see any person chase a dream at any age. But part of me wants to fold a protective cloak around the young author and say, "Maybe wait? Publishing can be so brutal, and writing takes such patience to master."

There's no single answer. The award I won while I was still in high school, the story that a magazine published when I was seventeen, gave me huge confidence boosts that I really needed. There was no internet then; I could not find other writers online. I could not find them anywhere. I knew nobody else who was serious about writing, knew nobody else who was published. My early successes gave me hope that my impossible dream of being an author was possible after all, just maybe.

But those early successes were rare glints in a dismal heap of rejection slips. And as good as I thought my work was then, most of it deserved to be rejected. I'm now glad that most of it was never published. I'm very glad I didn't publish a book at a time in my life when a negative review would have crushed me. (My early publications were short stories, which hardly ever get reviewed.) I'm especially glad that stories that now make me cringe didn't make it into the Library of Congress.

There are writers who can handle publication and the big-time spotlight at a young age. There are writers whose work is mature while they are still in their teens. I have met some of them. They are so much better-adjusted than I ever was. I can't say that teens shouldn't grab for that brass ring; it's really an individual decision. But it's just something to think about, something to consider: the chance at the brass ring comes with all sorts of costs, many of them not immediately apparent.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Opportunity for young writers

David Levithan and Billy Merrell are putting together an expanded edition of The Full Spectrum and are looking for essays about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning and other queer identities by writers under 21.  If you have a story you want to tell, go to for details on submitting.  Deadline is August 1st!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Step by step

I've had a certain chore on my long-term to-do list for quite a while. I've kept putting it off because it had no true deadline and because I didn't really want to do it. It was annoying, I didn't know quite how to do it, and I anticipated some technical difficulties. I was going to have to compose text, find and resize and insert images. It was one of those tasks that was theoretically simple, but in reality could be fraught with glitches.

Today I decided that since the whole task was so off-putting, I would break it down into chunks and just make myself do one chunk. I would compose the text, and not worry about formatting or anything else. As soon as I broke it down that way, I felt great relief. And once I had written the text, I decided to tackle the next step: find the images I needed, and insert them. That turned out to be a snap (I had unwittingly organized the images in what turned out to be a very convenient way--yay for Past Me, making it easy on Current Me!), so I tried resizing the images. The last time I had done this, I had great difficulty, but this time it worked easily.

I ended up finishing the whole task. But I never would have started if I hadn't broken it down into manageable steps. I have to do that a lot; in fact, it's the only way I manage to write a book. Writing a book is complicated and takes a long time. So I break it down into daily pieces, such as: Write a scene. Revise 10 pages. Insert chapter breaks. And so on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

At the center

There are many motives and reasons for writing. I've been trying to get at the core of mine. I think it may be this: I see certain things about the world, and I want to write them down in a way that will make other people recognize them--whether they say, "Yes, I've always noticed/thought that, but I believed I was the only one," or, "Yes, that's exactly the way it is, but I never realized it or saw it expressed that way before!"

Knowing what I'm trying to do can help bring me home when I get lost in the middle of a project, or between projects.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

How I spent my summer weekend

--spending quality time outdoors with my husband
--watching young hawks fledge
--pruning useless adverbs from a manuscript
--calling my dad
--reading on the porch
--weeding old papers
--taking in the news, searching for the gesture that can start change, seeking the light in the darkness

Friday, June 19, 2015

The ability to see the world as other than it is

"Over the years, I've also encouraged my students to learn how to dream beyond the world they lived in and imagine ways in which life can be made fuller and more compassionate. The ability to see the world as other than it is plays a major role in sustaining hope. It keeps part of one's mind free of the burden of everyday misery and can become a corner of sanity as one struggles to undo the horrors of an unkind and mad world."
--Herbert Kohl, "I Won't Learn from You," and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment