Friday, June 11, 2010

A Letter to My Young Friend Troy . . .


What would you tell a high school kid who wants to write?

Dear Troy--

I call you Troy cause I don't know your name. I know you only as one of the kids who frequent the breakfast place where I read the daily papers--"dead tree" editions, thank you--and fill the caffeine tank for the writing day ahead.

I know you're in high school cause you wear that two-tone jacket only high schools sell, and you come in with your friends. You have a lot of fun with them, talking and laughing and checking out the girls. I hear you talking about one named Mina, who you want to ask out but you're scared she'll say no. Mine was Laurie. I asked her out. She said yes. Give it a try with Mina, you won't regret it . . .

Anyway, sometimes you arrive before your friends. Take a table, sit by yourself. That's when I glimpse what might be the real you. Nose in a book. Taking notes on a pad, refreshingly dead-tree like my papers. Tilting your head in that dream-a-way angle that says you just read something that moves you.

I know, because I'm you.

Then, and now.

When I was in high school, I loved being with my friends. Camping. Hiking. Sports. Sitting in a diner drinking coffee we pretended we liked. But mostly I loved to read. From the time I could sound out words, practically, I read everything I could get my hands on, from cereal boxes to newspapers to books to Encyclopedia Brittanica to girlie magazines, the few times I ever found one in a roadside ditch. (And read only for the articles.) I disliked Literature cause it was boring. Everything else, though . . . man, I even read the tags on extension cords when there was nothing else. Even now I can recite that UL code from memory. Well, almost :-)

The first story I wrote was in third grade. It was in graphic form. I drew a cow and labeled the parts "milk machine" and "thinker" and "moo." Wrote a little story to go with the graphic and that was that. It was SO COOL creating that story, losing myself in what-ifs and maybes as I worked out how a cow's milk machine might operate. Did it have to be plugged in? Was it gassed up like the family Vista Cruiser? And . . . would my friends like to read this?

The answer was yes. And that's when I knew I'd be a writer.

If you're lucky, you'll have a dad who gets it. Mine did, though I didn't know it at the time: dads then were accomplished at hiding their authentic selves. As a kid, he was a reader with a sensitive soul. He liked art and pictures and he liked to paint. That was completely beaten out of him as he grew up, by the demands of '30s and '40s America: Be a man. Get a job. Keep your head down. Do your work. Don't be a sissy. Get a job. A real job . . .

Dad fought it best he could, even attended art school after high school. But he quit his sophomore year to Get a Job. First on a pipeline crew, then as a cop, so he could feed his new wife and family. Baby Shane ate a lot of food. Again, then as now . . .

In time I wasn't a child, and I put away childish things. Dad snuck the cow out of the trash. Year after year he kept it, tucked safely with his guns and bullets in the locked top drawer of his clothes dresser. He gave it to me when I published my first book.

Artists can't be killed, no matter how hard the world tries.

I see that in you, too, Troy, as you read your book and write your notes and gaze off at the ceiling, transfixed. When your friends tumble in and start their grab-assin', you shove that book in your backpack and join right in. But still, in your secret heart, you itch to get back to the reading and the writing and that dream-a-way feeling.

I hope you do.

If you want to be a writer, then do it. Please. The world will survive one less banker, lawyer and oil executive. It cannot have enough artists, for they give us our humanity, our sparkle, our wit. Yes, the world will make fun if you speak your dream out loud. That's what America does with its writers and painters and dancers and artists: Get a job. Support yourself. Quit dreaming. World's tough, you need to be tougher. Learn a trade. Get a degree. Get a master's. Don't suck the gummint teat. Get a job. Get a job. Get a job . . .

It funny how they never tell athletes that, right? No matter how miniscule the odds of making it to the pros, athletes are always encouraged to Go For It, No Matter What, You Only Have One Life to Live, So Go For the Gusto.

Well, you're an athlete, too. You bench-press words instead of iron. You need to Go For It too. Because there is only one life, and it's yours, not the world's, and you don't want to live your might-have-beens.

So pursue your dream of writing. No, you might not be able to make a living. Not at first, or maybe ever. Yes, you might have to work another job to put food on the table. Marry someone who shares your vision and will support your dream. Whatever. That's fine. You don't have to make tons of money--or any money--to be a successful writer. You just have to write. That's it, the entire secret to success: writers write. The rest is merely commentary.

You can write on the side while you're driving a squad car or fire engine or issuing bonds or selling homes or filling cavities. You can write at your own pace. When you want. About anything. Every day, or once a month. Till the need grows so urgent within that you know what you have to do:

Chuck what you're doing and fly full-time. Cause "doing" ain't living.

I envy you, Troy. Today, there are so many ways to share your work with others, and they're all at your digital fingertips. Ways to connect with other writer-dreamers, whether in the neighborhood or around the globe. You can communicate not just with words, but with graphics, photos, videos and music, and in forms yet to be invented. Forms you might invent. Take advantage. Sleep's overrated. That's why God made Folgers.

And don't let anyone tell you that writing is only for dreamers. It is, but not in the way they mean. Yes, you're a dreamer. But only dreamers change the world.

Write proudly.


Sincerely yours,

The Old Guy in the Booth in the Back,
Reading Dead Trees and Dreaming of the Sky


Visit national bestselling writer Shane Gericke at www.shanegericke.com.


16 comments:

Meredith Cole said...

Very cool post, Shane. I'm so glad you stuck with writing and beat the odds. It's too bad that kids aren't encouraged to dream big about art like they are about sports, but steered toward something more "practical" again and again. We need exciting new voices, and perhaps some of them are sitting in your coffee shop right now...

Shane Gericke said...

Thank you, Meredith. I've always thought it a shame that kids aren't encouraged to think of Creativity as a genuine career. We'd be much better off as a society if more people were less "practical" and more into Arts. Not to the point where there'd be no plumbers to fix my leaking pipe! But a more even balance would be nice.

Kids and parents are more open to that possibility today than they were in the '50s. Partly because society is more liberal than it was, and partly because so many "real" jobs have been sent overseas to be done by people getting $5 a day. Sad, that latter, but true.

I wish everybody could pursue their real dreams, whether as engineer, sailor, cop, writer or sculptor. But until society values jobs more equally--values as in "pays you a decent living"--it won't happen.

Shane Gericke said...

Oh, by the way, Troy and Mina just had sex. I saw them sneakin' off. Fine kids, those two :-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Your best post ever, Shane, I think. Maybe you should give copies to the high school...let them dole them out to the guys who need them.

Graham Brown said...

Great post Shane - first off I'm picturing baby Shane - with a little mustache and everything. Second, I love that your father protected your Cow Story - the things parents will do - even after all we put them through. I dedicated my first book to my parents for letting me try basically anything when we were growing up - even if it was dangerous or stupid. I guess they wanted me to find out for myself -figured it would have more impact that way - anyhow for the most part it made me believe in the slogan "No Limits" - anyone can do anything. Thanks for reminding us.

Sandy said...

I loved this post. It's a shame kids aren't encouraged to expand their limits.

I love to watch 'So You Think You Can Dance' for the very reason that these young kids are following their dreams. I think everyone should try for their dreams.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Another touching post. Loved the way your father saved your cow.

Agreed, the arts are not valued in the US. It's nice what you say about artists, too. I often think creativity is a curse, because of the money factor. I'll have to remember what you said.

I hope Troy goes ahead and writes. Glad he managed to have sex too. That's creative.

Shane Gericke said...

Thank you, Sophie. That means a lot coming from you. But the h.s. people here wouldn't be interested. Learned Educators, capital E, know far more than mere citizens, donchaknow!

Graham, mom reports I had no moustache upon birth, but I did have a full head of black hair. I'm sure that shrieking I heard when my 11 pounds emerged was mom, uh. laughing from being tickled by the hair. I'm sure of it.

My folks let me try all sorts of things, too--many of them dangerous as hell. They figured, what they didn't know was good for me.

And Sandy, thanks! So true, so sad. Kids today are so protected from the world, they miss out on a lot of great "hey, will this blow up if I ..." moments. A pity. You learn so much just foolin' around unscheduled and unsupervised.

Shane Gericke said...

My store-bought chemistry set with the little blue bottled marked "Potassium Cyanide" come to mind. Probably won't find that at the Wal-Mart these days :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Terry. Was I surprised when he gave me that cow! And very touched. Couldn't say that, though; men.

Of course, he ALSO saved the note that my so-called friends put up in the high school lunchroom my senior year saying, and I quote from memory, "Attention, girls! After six straight turndowns, Shane needs a date for prom. Bring a book cause it'll be boring."

Wish he'd skipped saving THAT one . . .

Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh no! So-called friends are the worst. That's why I don't even tell my real life friends I blog. I just know they'll show up and tell embarassing stories about me in the comments.

Men, yes, they have trouble saying things. They're more action oriented. I figure as long as they do all the right things, they don't have to say much.

I can't believe any girl ever turned you down.

Shane Gericke said...

Bless you, Terry :-) My high school sweetheart dumped me for Jesus--long story!--so I was dateless for prom. Being fearless, I asked seven girls ... all said no. No. 8 said yes, and we had a lovely time. Perseverance, then as now, is the key to success in life. That and tight jeans ...

Terry Stonecrop said...

I've heard of a lot of people being dumped for Jesus. Is he a stud or something. I should have paid more attention in catechism.

Seven? Those small town girls obviously have no taste. ;)Lucky number 8 knew what was what.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I'm so glad your father saved that cow story. And, being an artist, he knew the perfect time to give it back to you!

Chemistry sets now are BORING. My son saved his money for months to buy one when he was 5. I researched to get the one with the most cool stuff, brainstormed how to make the lanai fireproof and then the damn thing arrived. It was just little PAPER STRIPS of chemicals that you could soak in water to get miniscule amounts. Nothing to blow up. Nothing to do anything fun. And once my son learned he couldn't use it to create DNA to build mutants (something he neglected to mention), he stuck it on the top shelf unused. I was appalled that it was so boring. I read the boring instruction book twice to see if there was ONE interesting thing to be done with it, but there really wasn't. It is tough being a kid today. My brother and his friend set the house on fire with his, I think about six times before the fire department had to be called and then once after. Now, those were the days...

Mina is a sucker for writers. That Jonathan Harker has quite a way with words, even if he is easily seduced by she-vampires. I'm pulling for that whole Troy thing to work out.

Shane Gericke said...

Troy and Mina were destined to work out, Rebecca. They are both too cool to not. And, being high school kids, they like sex! Though sadly they don't get near enough time for grab-assin' cause they're studying for AP tests and performing Socially Useful Extracurriculars to Place Well for Harvard ...

Equally sadly is that the lawyers got involved with chemistry sets. I'm appalled they've gotten as meek as you describe. I made gunpowder with mine. (Charcoal+sulfur+saltpeter.) Stink bombs. Whatever one did with potassium cyanide; I forget; some sort of metal plating, I think. Dad and I built a solar-powered smelter from scrap plywood and a Fresnel lens (think: superduper magnifying glass) from the Edmund Scientific catalog. (Something else I read over and over, dreaming of the stars that I could see from the Big Optical Telescope Only $29.99!) We melted lead with only the aid of the bright sun. We poured that shimmering liquid into coffee cups, bottle tops, cookie cutters, all kinds of do-it-yourself molds. It was FUN. Dull chemicals that you rinse from paper strips??? Arrrrrghhhhh! How else are kids going to learn about the world if they can't explore it for real?

Gabi said...

Your dad sounds like a visionary with a day job. A guy who knew how to feed more than his kid's stomach. A special person who raised a special person.