This past Monday morning, I talked to my son Max’s third grade class. It came after a weekend of binging on social media and reading article after article about the state of the world and the country.
I was not in the best place to talk about why I love being a writer. (Or a human being.)
I emailed a friend that morning and said, “Why am I a writer? No one is listening. No one cares. What is the point of my voice?”
But . . . nothing sets you straight like talking to third graders. They are old enough to spot fake behavior and young enough to not get bogged down in the things that adults tend to worry about.
In other words, they have no patience for pretending, and they also won’t enable you to stand on a soapbox and talk about everything horrible.
You have no choice with them but to simply be who you are, right this minute, without any agenda.
The truth is, for the past few weeks, I have been living in every other tense but the present, and nearly every word out of my mouth has been attached to an agenda. I’m carrying around a river of “what ifs” longer than the Nile. I am living well into the future—that is, when I am not moping around, mourning a past, with a hundred statements that all begin with “we were.” We were moving in a direction I liked, and what if the future isn’t what I thought it would be?
Being released for 30 minutes to simply be me, in the present tense, was an unexpected gift.
My topic for the class was, “What it’s like to be a writer.” The teacher welcomed me into the classroom, Max waved at me, and 20 boys and girls sat fresh-faced at their desks and looked up at me. I told them a little about my background and then covered the different kinds of writing I do. I showed them some clips from The New York Times and various magazines, as well as the two books I’ve written. Then, I went over the three questions I ask myself before I start any piece of writing: What is the purpose of this piece of writing? Who is the audience? And what kinds of words/tone are best to use? They had a picture on their classroom wall that showed the three purposes of writing (to entertain, to inform, to persuade), so they knew exactly what I was talking about. I loved that something so basic and true was still so basic and true.
With each minute I stood there talking with them, I felt more like me—the relentless optimist who lives in curiosity and does things on her own terms—and less like the girl who can’t stop looking at Facebook and talking doom-and-gloom.
One student raised her hand and asked: How do you become a writer?
This is one my favorite questions, and I get asked versions of it by kids, college students, and adults alike. I get emails asking this. I get pulled aside at gatherings and asked this.
I always have the same answer: “You just write, all the time.” I explained that I was around their age—about eight years old—when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I spread my magic markers and papers on the living room floor and wrote books. I wrote poems and stories. I even wrote a magazine about my street. I wrote about anything and everything. And I never stopped because I literally couldn’t.
What I wanted to say, but didn’t—because, remember, soapboxes don’t work in third grade classrooms—is why in the world would I stop now? Why would I pick this particular point in time to think my voice doesn’t matter? If ever there was a time to wonder if my voice mattered, it would have been when I was starting out as a professional writer 20 years ago, with no clue about what I was doing. But even then (especially then), I never doubted that my voice mattered. I never doubted I had things to say about humanity and connection.
Why would I go quiet now? Why would I let Silicon Valley algorithms determine anything about my life? And why, for one second, would I let the suddenly loud voices of hate and disconnection silence me?
Why would I choose now to stop being me?
There is a time to mend your heart, a time to be quiet and listen more than you talk, and a time to rethink.
There is also a time to absolutely not stop. This is that time.
Thank you, Mrs. Chancey’s third grade class, for bringing me back to myself.