Last night, I did something that the people who actually know me would find hard to believe.
I spoke in front of a crowd. Of teenagers. About myself.
I was asked to speak as part of a group at the career night for Boys & Girls Haven. A writer, I was told, sounded like a cool thing to be, and the kids might want to hear about it. (I wound up sitting next to a stat-flight paramedic – now her job seemed cool. I just sit in my room and make stuff up.)
My initial reaction was to politely decline. After all, two fears rolled into one event seemed…challenging. But then, I asked myself if there was any reason other than “fear” to beg out of it. There was not, and “fear” is a crappy reason not to do something (unless it’s to go swimming with sharks in a rickety cage; fear is a wonderful reason not to go through with that). Also, it was for a good cause. The Boys & Girls Haven takes kids in the foster system and gives them stability, education and a chance to overcome some really profound obstacles life has thrown in their way.
When I looked at it that way, my fear seemed a silly and vain thing.
So, I showed up, with my wife by my side and her promise not to leave me alone. I fully expected that none of the kids would be that interested in something as vague as “writing.” So, I was taken aback when one young man at my table — I’d guess 14 or 15 years old — read my name tag, which read “David Falkirk Writer/Author,” and got excited.
“Are you an author for real?” he asked.
That struck me right at the heart of my imposter syndrome, but I was there to play the part. “Yeah,” I said. “I am.”
“I’m a writer. Not a real writer, but I’m writing a book! Can you help me get it published?”
Not the kind of thing I was ready for, I had to admit. Between the nervousness of having to speak to people at any moment and the almost-heartbreaking earnestness of this young man, my attention was scattered. After every speaker gave his or her pitch (the program called up the speakers in random order, throwing another log on my fire of nervousness), he’d repeat himself. “Can you help me get published?” and “How can I get published?” and “Can you help me?”
Over the course of the evening, he made me throw my preconceived notions out the window. I thought his “book” would be 10 or 15 pages at the outside, maybe something Old Man Falkirk could humor him with. He told me that he was still working on it, but it was at 220 pages. It was fiction, about people overcoming adversity. He had a USB thumb drive on a lanyard around his neck. That’s where he kept his book.
I thought back when I was his age. Did I have that kind of drive in my youth? That clarity of purpose? No way. There are times I like to think about the adversities of my own life (and I’m pretty sure everyone does that — has there ever been someone who said “Oh, yeah, I breezed through my childhood. Nothing but great memories and happy times”?). Seeing that kid, though, seeing the fire in his belly, really made me take stock. A line from a Jason Isbell song played through my mind and never seemed more true:
Still compared to those / A stone’s throw away from you / Our lives have both been relatively easy
My head was full when it was finally my turn to go up and speak. My fears still seemed silly, but they were still there. I got through it without embarrassing myself or others (my notes are below, if you’re interested), and I’m glad I chose the message I chose — that writing (or art, or music, or any other way you express yourself) might not be the career you ultimately choose, but it can be the thing that helps you grow as a person and helps you become the best version of yourself.
After it was over, and my blood pressure and adrenaline went down into something approaching normal levels, I went to the young man and asked him his name. He told me, softly, with his hand over his mouth. The initial excitement was over, it seemed, and me coming to him and talking directly to him seemed to make him pull into his shell, one that didn’t seem to exist a few minutes before. It made his earlier enthusiasm all the more remarkable.
I shook his hand, gave him my email address and told him to contact me when he had finished his book. I’m still not sure what I can do, but I found myself wanting to help him do something.
I also told him never to say he wasn’t a “real” writer. If he writes, he’s a writer. No one can take that away from him.
I wrote out my remarks because I know me. Give me a microphone and point me in front of a group of people without memory backup, and you’re going to get some stammers and a bucket of “uh.” I wound up going off script a little because I completely overwrote (I’m a writer. It’s what we do.), but this is what I came up with:
Name: Dave Falkirk (Yes, I wrote my name down. It was one less thing to worry about forgetting.)
Occupation: I’ve been a newspaper reporter, an ad copywriter, an editor, an author and a publisher, but the one thing that I’ve been through each and every job was being a writer
Schooling: I went to college to study journalism, but there were two classes in high school that I use more than anything else in my day to day work: ninth grade English (where we really worked on grammar and the rules of writing) and typing. No matter what I do during the day, it pretty much involves typing. That being said, learn as much as you can about everything you can. If you want to be a writer, it requires curiosity. You’ve got to ask “what if,” or “how does that work,” and then answer the question. The more you know, the more answers you’ll be able to come up with.
What do I like most about my job? There’s something magic, something powerful, about taking the ideas out of your head and putting them down on paper. They exist in the real world
With fiction, I love the act of pure creation. I love making something that didn’t exist before. I love getting lost in the story I’m telling, when I’m writing and lose track of time because I’m watching the story play out in my mind.
With non-fiction, I really enjoy learning about the topic I’m writing about, and then finding the words to share them with my readers. It’s not easy; it can be the most difficult thing I do, in fact, but when I get it right, there’s a huge feeling of accomplishment.
Advice to those wanting to write: I’m going to tell you what I wish someone would have told me at your age – you don’t need permission to do it. No one can give you permission to do it. You just have to do it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
I’ve been talking about writing, but everything I’ve said is the same for music, or art, or any way you want to express yourself. My brain is wired for writing stories and novels, and maybe yours is, too. Or maybe your brain is wired for music, or dancing, or photography, or painting, or engineering or football. Maybe it’s a combination. Lyrics, poetry and rap all come from the same impulse. Books, movies, television, video games and many other things all have writers. Find the thing that lets you express yourself in a way that feels right to you. Even if you don’t do it for a living, you can do it for your own well-being. It’s important to express yourself; it’s a way to become the best you you can be.
If you want to write, let your imagination go. You can edit, cut away, add things to the idea, but the idea needs to have the air to form and to grow. Get out of your own way when you’re first forming the idea. See where it takes you. You can always fix it later. You can’t “fix” a blank page.
Start a diary, or a journal, or a blog – it doesn’t have to be what happened during the day, although it can if you’d like it to be – it’s your thing. It could just be thoughts you have, something that you’d like to write about later. It’s easy to forget things, even if you think you’ll remember them. If you write it down, it’s yours forever.
Only you can tell your story – no one else can ever come close. And your story doesn’t have to be strictly about the events in your life. You’ve loved someone. You’ve been hurt. You’ve had friends. Those are your feelings, and your feelings are what you use to tell stories. Your feelings are what makes them real. When something good happens, use it! Write about it, or paint a picture about how you feel. When something bad happens, use it. Write about it. Paint a picture about how you feel.