Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Preaching to the Choir

Long Island is beautiful.  You can smell the ocean in the air as soon as you get off the LIRR.  I had a speech to give at W.C. Mepham high school and was nervous as hell. I got there early, met some great teachers and students.  I signed their library copy of my book.  There was singing, piano playing, hand shaking.  I got up there, did my thing- got all choked up toward the middle and end.  Applauded and got right back on the train and back to Manhattan to pick up the kids (my own!) from school.

Wellington C. Mepham

Yesterday was an unusual day, a day when I was feeling rather low about writing and not just like Writing but my writing.  Like, what's it all for?  And I love YA that's the kicker.  I believe it is a fertile genre, an important genre,  a place where my work as a writer can grow and reach readers.  I believe that Young Adult readers deserve good books, thoughtful well-written and entertaining books that illuminate the state of being alive.  There's a lot of junky YA books out there.  Oh, they are fun.  They are option-able.  They sometimes get big advances and a lot of buzz and cause a stir.  But there are a lot of them that are basically the opposite if what I'm into.  These are not the kind of books I'm interested in writing. 

So. Amid all these FEELINGS I had to go off the the Island of Long to talk with students who are into English.  And Reading.  And Writing.  I got a little emotional and lot inspired and I hope the kids were listening and I didn't freak them out.  Here is my keynote address- my first!

When I was asked to come speak with you for the National English Honor Society induction ceremony today, I almost had a heart attack.  I actually saw my life folding in on itself like weird origami.  For I was once, long ago, in the National Honor Society.  Don’t ask me how because we didn’t have a National ENGLISH honor society then and I was horrible at math.  Like, couldn’t tell time till 6th grade kind of bad.  I somehow made it to college, majored in English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, went on to Columbia University to get a ridiculously expensive MFA in Creative Writing- wrote a book about a 15 year old obsessed with Sylvia Plath and the power of great literature to transform a life…and here I am.  Preaching to the choir.  YOU W.C. Mepham High School National English Honor Society Inductees ARE MY PEOPLE.
I might be going out on a limb here but I assume you love to read?  Usually have a book in your bag or pocket or purse?  Have one or two going at once?   Do you loathe the font Comic Sans as much or MORE THAN Papyrus? Are you, like me- ENRAGED that there was no Pulitzer awarded for fiction this year?
I remember when I was where you are today, a hair’s breath away from the thing I loved most: reading.  When I was a high school student I inhabited fiction.  I read anything everything.  And then wrote papers on it.  I journaled, I wrote letters.  Letters! (It was a pre-internet world).   And my English teachers actually cared about what I wrote, what I was reading, what I was thinking  and how I was going to use my talents in the world outside of high school.  It was a magical age and a special time.  

When I started writing AND THEN THINGS FALL APART, I wanted to celebrate the intense love affair with litereature that sophisticated young people have.  I never set out to write a “Young Adult” novel but my high school experience with reading and writing was so important and fundemental and emotionally compelling that before I knew it, Keek was reading the Bell Jar and making cannibal cups with her Grandma, and talking saying things like- “This is the thing about great literature. It reads like truth and sticks to you forever and lets you know that you are not alone.”
What I’m trying to say is, please, do not be intimidated by your passion for literature.  It is a gift. It’s probably the thing that is going to make your life bearable one day.  Things could be worse.  You could be like my dad.
My Dad doesn’t know how to read.
Oh-he reads. Tons.  Of history books.  He’s been obsessed with WWII and the civil war my whole life.  I don’t really think of him as a reader even though 200 books with FDR and Lincoln on the dust jackets line the walls of his so –called library.  But what good is a library with no Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, John Grisham for God’s sake?  I don't think he has even read my book. His only daughter’s only book!  “I don’t read fiction” is the only reason he gives.  “Real life is difficult enough.”

FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.”  But I guess my dad never got the memo. 
Real life is a big glob of mess.  Fiction is the best thing we humans have to reveal life’s facets, to examine each sparkling angle, to give us one intense and idiosyncratic example of a life experience so that when we finish a book we are wiser and more complex people than we were when we began.
My dad is a loving good and decent person, he just doesn’t know how to read the way you do.  Without fear of feelings.  Without looking away from the sticky and beautiful fictional worlds of great writers.  I feel bad for him, that no one was able to reach through his tough exoskeleton and make his heart explode with the power of words.
One day you might be 37 years old, sitting in a Laundromat and remember a scene from a book, a stanza from a poem, a line from a play that will grab you by the throat, whisper in your ear, massage your shoulders and it will make you feel more alive than you have ever felt- connected and strong and devastated and engaged with everything in a way that takes your breath away-  at the exact same moment everyone else at the Laundromat is watching their towels spin in the dryer.  Or checking their Twitter accounts.
You of all people understand that you read great literature, not because it’s going to be on the test, or that your intimate knowledge of A Tale of Two Cities is going to get you into a great college.  You understand that your intimacy with and the comfort and excitement you take in great literature is going to be on the invisible test you take when you fall in love, choose a job, have a child, take risks, fail, succeed: live.
Lovers of language are great communicators, love a great joke, appreciate nuance and subtley as well as broad strokes.  We are more fun at parties.  We are good at arguing,  making our point, thinking, and organizing our thoughts. We can write 5 page essays in our sleep.  We are never truly alone because we always have a book or the memory of a book to keep us warm, illuminating our own lives with its fire.
The world needs readers. Yes, selfishly- I want you all to rush out and buy a copy of AND THEN THINGS FALL APART (9.99 at fine independent bookstores everywhere.)  But the publishing industry always needs readers. I’m talking about the world here.  The very fabric of human society needs people who are not afraid to walk in someone else’s shoes for 400 pages, who know that words have power. That WHAT you say and HOW you say it has a genuine deep impact on how we all experience our world.
My five year old son has a friend in his kindergarten class who says “Li-berry” instead of, you know, the correct way.  My son thinks this is hilarious.  Like rolling on the floor clutching his stomach guffawing funny.  And I am horrified.  Not only at my snobby elitist son whose mother is a writer and was whispering “Li-BRAir-y Li-BRAir-y” into his ear the minute he was born- but I am also horrified that there is a lot of room out there for people who do not know that pronouncing Library correctly is important, let alone that going to one, checking out a book, and reading it is an empowering, beautiful, and NECCESSARY thing to do.
You, you beautiful and handsome and intelligent and gifted students sitting before me: Get it.
I don’t know what is next for any of you but I am thinking that it involves interesting endeavors, lots of great books, maybe writing, but above all, a life full of examining, thinking, feeling, using words to the best of your ability.  You only need to revel in your love of language, appreciate it, treasure it, share it and use it to enhance your life beyond your wildest dreams… Make no mistake, You have everything right now at this moment that you will ever need for a successful life.
Congratulations on the great honor of being inducted into the National English Honor Society of Wellington C. Mepham High School.  The world needs more of you.

So there you have it.  Thanks Wellington C Mepham High School for the great opportunity!



Yvonne Osborne said...

I wish I had heard this when I was in high school. Maybe I wouldn't have wasted so much time.

Nancy Wait said...

Very inspiring article / speech! Love the Kafka quote. And yes, "Fiction is the best thing we humans have to reveal life’s facets," - but memoir, in the right hands, can be as well. I had to write memoir instead of fiction for many reasons, and I think for the very reason you state: that life is a "big glob of mess." Writing it all out in a coherent and orderly way, and sometimes finding the 'art' in the writing, was a tremendous gift I gave myself.

Thank you for your wisdom! I'm checking out your book!

Arlaina Tibensky said...

Memoirs totally count! The Liars Club changed my life. Thanks for checking out my book! xoxo