Six weeks ago I came back to my old high school to talk to the students about writing. It felt like a surreal blast from the past as I walked through the front doors. Dread entered the pit of my stomach. In a feeling reminiscent of Peggy Sue Got Married, I feared bumping my head and waking up to a pop quiz in math. Yes, I was returning the conquering hero, having made a life in New York and having written I Came, I Saw, I Sang about my adventures as a singing telegram delivery girl. Shivers came up my spine as I saw my 17-year-old self in pitch black because I believed I was making a statement, meanwhile emoting and being annoying as all get go. Not to mention the noise I called music, complaint rock about the problems I believed I had before I had this thing called rent due the first of every month. Lest we not forget the evil makeup job, that desperately needed to be vanquished by the gay stylist friends I would later meet. What would the 17-year-old self think of me? Would she think I was some old self-aggrandizing windbag come to toot her own horn? Or maybe this guest speaker would get me out of that dreaded math pop quiz somehow... hmmm.
The reaction from the students was both refreshing and pleasantly surprising. They were quite attentive and had lots of questions about the writing and publishing process. Creative and passionate, they were stoked about sharing their voice and putting their thoughts on paper. Despite the claims of so called experts, this generation is not doomed. They said that about every generation, even mine. However, I found they were kinder than when I went to school. Also, these youngsters were vocal about their opposition to bullying for any reason. In my day you were just told that kids would be kids and to shake it off.
One of the questions really surprised me and made me think. Someone pointed out that the world doesn't always welcome creative people, and adults often discourage that path. What would I tell a young writer? That was a very good question. I had prepped for any other missiles I might get, but this was a good one. Frantically I searched my mind for inspiration. Finally, the universe sent me some words. I decided to relay it to my audience in a way that they would understand it.
I explained each generation needs storytellers. That there are young people who need to catalogue when their generation accomplishes something. These accomplishments can come in the form of inventions such as the telephone, lightbulb, radio, airplane, automobile, etc. Also, they can come in the form of science such as the polio vaccine, the root cause of lung cancer, or revolutionary treatments for HIV/AIDS. This is to let the world know that while each generation gets the cross of being doomed, it is also doing it's part to truly make the world better
However storytellers are also needed to be watchdogs, to let others know when others are being persecuted and to say something is wrong. Thomas Paine's Common Sense gave the American colonists a voice sparking the American Revolution. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin told of the horrors of slavery, putting oil in the wheels of the abolitionist movement. Susan B. Anthony and others wrote tirelessly on behalf of women. Upton Sinclair and other muckrackers spoke out against unjust working conditions for children and immigrants thus paving the way for laws to protect such workers. The Watchtower was one of the first publication to tell the truth about Adolf Hitler and his crimes against Jews and other "undesirables." Many white liberal journalists covered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s peaceful resistance, and got citizens of every color to see that separate but equal was not equal at all. Today many storytellers are speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ people so that they may without being persecuted, but also that we can all love who we please with equal protection under the law. Bottom line, if you choose to become a storyteller, you can stop bullying whenever and wherever it occurs in it's tracks.
I also encouraged these kids that each and every person has a story in them based on their experience whatever it may be. As a storyteller, I have shared shelf space with greats such as late night diva Chelsea Handler, McArthur Fellowship winner Junot Diaz, and 14-year-old Anne Frank, a diarist we all know. Some of our tales are funny, some poignant, others a warning of what happens when hate and propaganda go unchecked. Just like I Came, I Saw, I Sang, they too deserve to be heard. Anyone who deserves to be a storyteller deserves to be read. Storytellers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from all walks of life. We all have something to say.
I told these kids to beat themselves with a feather, and not a hammer of their creative journey, something I wish someone would have said to me. Actually, I found I went out of my way to tell these kids anything and everything I wish I heard at their age. However, no one told me to ditch the atrocious wardrobe and makeup. I also mentioned sometimes the purpose of a storyteller was to make sure history didn't repeat itself. This includes fashion statements that need to be buried in the nearest time capsule. I think my next book should be entitled Seventeen: A Cautionary Tale. Move over Holden Caulfield.