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