As I approach a couple of milestones (defending my thesis in November, graduating in December, third story story publication coming up soon, etc.) I’ve been lucky enough to be able to chance my pace a bit and play hooky in the name of speaking to local high school classes about short story writing. A couple of 10th grade English classes at Pomona High School in Arvada, Colorado, read my first published short story, Wanakufa, and then had be come in during their class so they could ask me questions before I led them in a creative writing exercise for their own short story writing unit in class.
These kids were asking me some questions I had prepared for, and some I hadn’t even really thought about. These surprise questions ranged from ‘what’s the tone of this story, do you think’? to ‘why would you risk your life in a foreign country’ and ‘were you scared to die?’. Some of those I really had thought myself prepared to answer (I mean the whole story is about being afraid to die, for pete’s sake). I’ve learned in this past week, however, that it’s one thing to answer these kinds of questions in your head or to your mirror- and an entirely different thing to answer these questions to a room full of teenagers, a third-of whom are staring at you with relentless interest, another third who are beginning to fall asleep, and a mixture of both in the rest. Part of me wanted them to love everything I said. Another part of me wanted to sneak out the window somehow and forget the whole presentation. But I soldiered through, and I really think that I’m better for it.
Guest speaking on your own writing is a whole different experience. For one, it really made me examine (in a short, pressured amount of time) my own motivations for writing. Again, its one thing to have ‘motivations’ in your own head. It’s another thing to have to articulate that to a group of people who have not yet learned how to be pretentious about writing and are notorious for questioning and challenging authority. I found that I wasn’t just justifying my writing career to them, but to myself- and I couldn’t just cop out halfway through and give up. I was forced to justify my own choices in authorship in a way that was entirely convincing- which, far from being depressing or overly difficult, towards the end, was extremely uplifting and personally affirming.
Which with this group, I think, had the added difficulty of speaking to an age group that I did not go into this specifically writing for. My writing, both my novels and my short stories, were all written with more of a young adult (twenties and up) to adult audience. I didn’t realize how much I had taken that for granted until I heard some of the questions that these kids were asking me about Wanakufa. Which is not to say that I was sudden inspired to write new Teen and YA genre stories. I still believe that, at least for now, I’m sticking with my chosen audience. It just made me more aware of the real differences between those audiences- as much as I would like to think that there are none. And again, the differences are not huge and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think people can age-level jump like crazy between them. But that difference has to be addressed, at least by me as an author. Which is, again, fun to have to think about as a twenty-one year old speaking to fifteen year olds. Only six years difference, and look where we are! I wouldn’t have believed it myself only two years ago, to be honest.
The writing workshop was super fun. I really enjoyed hearing some of the things that the kids were saying that they wanted to write about- ranging from the deaths of siblings to twisted ankles and family trips to Vegas that they were turning into comedy, horror and romance short stories. I was really impressed by the range of creativity in these classes, which gave me, in turn, a couple of ideas for my own short-story planning coming up.
Suffice to say, I was very thankful for this experience. At the end of it, I was solicited by another teacher at that school to come back and speak to his classes in a couple of weeks as well. This time, I will be much better prepared, but no less excited. I really do appreciate all of these opportunities to give back to my local community in little ways- and to become a better writer in the process!