Author’s note: A few months ago, I received an email from a woman in Nebraska, asking me if I’d send her a few books of my writing for her daughter’s birthday. Aidan was about to turn sixteen and wanted to become a writer, and mom thought that maybe I had work beyond the chapbooks her daughter carried around. I responded, telling her that I would come up with something. Within a few weeks, I began writing the following letter to Aidan (and for all of the young writers I meet). I included it along with 80 pages of poetry and prose in a bound book for her birthday.
When I was your age, my favorite car was the Porsche 911. I remember sitting in the backseat while dad drove us some place or another and looking out the window at all of the cars that were not Porsche 911s. I remember thinking it would be really nice to see one. Maybe the driver of this exquisite piece of machinery would pass us on the left. Maybe he’d just nod at me as he went by as if to say, Hey, you wanna borrow my car for a minute? It’s cool with me.
On my 16th birthday, my parents bought me a Porsche 911. Of course, my Porsche 911 was two inches long, had plastic wheels, no engine to speak of, and was in no way the sort of Porsche 911 I was looking for. My parents were so happy with the joke. I remember them laughing about it for weeks. We bought our son a Porsche for his birthday. It was a cruel joke, one entirely at my expense. There’s a picture in a family album somewhere. I am forcing a smile, holding out a flat palm with a tiny red car, and my mom, next to me, is smiling so big you can see the silver fillings in her molars. What I mean to say is this: I hope no one buys you a toy car for your birthday.
Dreams and aspirations are such a small and fragile thing that sometimes even saying them out loud will crush them. I wanted to play volleyball when I was a kid. When I was a boy. I lived for the two weeks out of the year when our PE class did the volleyball unit. I knew the bump and the set and was almost-but-not-quite-tall-enough for the spike. My serves never bounced into the net. I never told anyone that I wanted to play volleyball. Even then, I knew it was a girl’s sport (imagine my dismay when, much later in life, I discovered men playing volleyball in the Olympics). I knew I wasn’t supposed to want that and so I kept quiet about it and tried hard to daydream about it less and less and less.
Porsches and Volleyball. All of this is going somewhere, I promise, but let me acknowledge something that must seem very obvious to you. We have never met. The grand total of my knowledge about you is that you are turning 16 soon, and that you want to be a writer. I don’t know your feelings on cars or sports. Just writing. But like I said, all of this is going somewhere.
You are not the first or the only young writer I know of. I teach a college class called Introduction to Creative Writing at the University of California – Davis, and so my life is filled with writers who want to be good but who aren’t, or who are good and don’t know it. There are also students there who don’t care about writing, aren’t good at it, and don’t want to be good at it. But even they want something better. Even they daydream about having a better life, whether that’s some collection of bigger and better things, or fame and prosperity in the field they pursue, or cars, or being tall enough to spike over the net, or just love, love, love. It’s part of the human condition. Wanting. We’re all programmed to do it. It just so happens that some of us (you and I specifically) happen to want this thing called being a writer, which is one of the toughest things to want.
I wish all we really wanted was a Porsche. Have you heard about this guy, Steve Ortiz, who used Craigslist to trade a cell phone into a 2000 Porsche Boxster S (often called “the Poor Man’s 911” by the way)? He traded the phone for an iPod Touch for a dirt bike and so on until he got the Porsche. My point is that the 911, the full-sized version, is a totally attainable thing, and once you have it you can drive it 200 miles per hour to the job where you’ve been working like a dog for all these years in order to afford your Porsche.
And should you want to play volleyball and you happen to be a boy, there are loads of places where boys can play volleyball, including South Africa, where I once played in a pick-up game against a bunch of guys who were so good I wanted to cry. I remember one guy jumped so high he could see over the net to pick out where he wanted to spike the ball. I apologized to my team maybe fifty times during that game, but my point is that if you’re a guy and you want to play volleyball without being called a sissy, there’s a way. Just move to South Africa. If you want to play volleyball, all you need is the ability to look at a world that says no, and to say yes right back.
But we want to be writers. Good ones. We want to use something puny and strange like words to do mighty and incredible things. What on earth is wrong with us? I had originally intended for this letter to be a bunch of advice. I was going to say things like, “The best thing a writer can do is read,” and “Tell the truth and don’t ever budge,” and “Just get it down. Don’t talk about writing. Just write.” For what it’s worth, I think all of this is good advice. There are books on writing, one of the best is Stephen King’s On Writing, but I’d skip past the memoir stuff if I were you. There are other books too, good ones. I read Margaret Atwood’s and Annie Lamott’s and Lynn Freed’s and whatever else is around and then I go back and read Margaret Atwood’s again. It’s strange – all of these authors trying to map out the way to get there – trying to make writing into a thing we can accomplish.
And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a ton about writing. But I do know that it is a process. There are no shortcuts. You have to sit down and do the work. And most of the time it’s not fun (or at least I don’t do a lot of giggling and so on while I’m working). But you get something from writing I think that you won’t necessarily get anywhere else. At least not in the same way. Writers get hope.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about a weak sort of hope, like hoping the weekend will come soon, or hoping the Oakland A’s will win the World Series, or even hoping someone will fall in love with you the way you’ve already fallen in love with him or her. The sort of hope that writers have is borderline crazy. Take this novel that I’m working on: The first draft took me two years, and I got 85 rejection letters. Then, after 85 people told me I wasn’t good enough, I wrote another draft, which took another two years. Then I decided that wasn’t good enough, either. I wasted an entire year trying to make the novel about something completely different, and then I threw the whole thing out and started over again. That was last August. Now, this weekend, I’ll be taking on the daunting task of completely reorganizing and rearranging the entire book, of which I’ve rewritten every single word. I’m up at 5AM every morning to do work on the novel. You have to have so much hope to do that, especially when you hate mornings as much as I do. And you get that sort of hope not through success or achievement, but by surviving each day at the keyboard and having the guts to come back just one more time.
And OK. I’ve been published a few times. I have poetry and prose and essays published in 20 magazines. I’ve won a few awards. But that’s not what keeps me going. You can’t, as the writer Zadie Smith once said, confuse honours with achievements. And yes, that’s how she spelled honors. She’s British, and they’re allowed to spell things wrong. She’s also very resilient and full of hope. Her last novel took 7 years to write. At least. And it was really good.
I couldn’t do better than wish the same for you. Not the 85 rejection letters, obviously. But the ability to bounce back – call it hope or resiliency or determination or even stubbornness. In a world where men and women have increasingly fewer opportunities to test themselves and to see what they are made of, I wake up every morning and give myself the chance to rise to the occasion. That’s what it’s about. The ability to stand tall, and to know who you are. Even if the novel is never picked up, hope is too important to me now. I wouldn’t trade it for a Porsche 911, but that sense of hope could, if I still wanted a Porsche, give me the ability to work the long hours and save enough to afford one. And if I had that sort of self-possession when I was younger, I would be writing to you now as a professional volleyball player. I am 5’11” now! Definitely tall enough to spike over the net. I would have liked that.
Happy Birthday, Aidan. May the words that come out of your head be the right words as often as possible. May you read fantastic novels and poems and stories and only want to become better. May you complete a manuscript and do a victory dance over it before anyone else has a chance to tell you whether what you’ve written is golden or not. May your rejection letters be kind. May you sell a bazillion books and make enough money to buy an oak desk as big as a pool table. But mostly, may you the things you want the most push you to become a resilient woman full of hope. Let me know when your first manuscript is ready – I’d very much like to read it.