Tips for Teenage Writers

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A few months ago I had the privilege of speaking at a theater event sponsored by Playwrights Project, a fantastic organization which uses drama-based activities to teach literacy and communication skills to youth and seniors. They also sponsor the California Young Playwrights Contest, professionally producing winning plays by writers under age 19.  They produced my first play as a teenager and were instrumental in my becoming a writer.

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On this special night I got to speak to the teen finalists and winners of this year’s Contest, being produced this month of January and premiering this coming week (http://www.playwrightsproject.org/PBYW.htm).

I hope these words are an encouragement to writers of all ages.

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Great to be with you tonight and congratulations to all the finalists and winners!

To me you’re all winners, because I wrote three plays over three years, before being a winner of the California Young Playwrights Contest, and each year I took the page of written comments they sent me, you know what I’m talking about — I took those comments to heart and tried to do better the next time. And the next time, and the next time. For that habit of seeking improvement, for those practical examples of how to work past mistakes and weaknesses toward success, I’m forever grateful to Playwrights Project, because those lessons have served me well in writing and life ever since.

That winning play production in 1989, 25 years ago amazingly, and during my freshman year at Stanford, was my very first. I thought: maybe I had a voice, something worthwhile to say, and maybe I was saying it in a way that made people listen, think, or be inspired to live or act differently. Or maybe, just maybe, I was writing so that I would live or act or think differently. Your playwriting, your art, will change you as much or more than it changes anyone else.

Whatever you do in your life, with your life, and whomever you do it with, here are three things to remember, whether you go on to be a playwright, an accountant, a lab scientist, or anything else:

  1. Notice the Unnoticeable. Don’t stop looking around you, noticing others who are rarely seen or think they’re not being seen. Listen carefully to what they say, speaking honestly about what you see and hear.
  2. Ask the Unaskable. Don’t stop asking tough questions. Don’t be afraid to suggest tough solutions — or to not suggest a solution at all.
  3. Feel the Unfeelable. Don’t say, “I can’t put that much anger out there.” Put it out there. Or don’t say, “I can’t put that much joy out there.” Put it out there, and everything in between. The scariest place in the world might be on the empty page. But it’s also the safest and freest place in the world, to be yourself.

Just think. Your winning play, the one you’re being honored for, today, the one being lauded above hundreds of others across the state, the one that’s going to be produced in a few months and bring you so much encouragement and confidence and joy? Imagine: This play of yours will one day be your worst play.

But that’s okay. Because it means you’ll only be getting better and better. Every play you write builds upon the last one, just as every year of your life ahead will build on the year you live before. Nothing is wasted in the life of a writer, an artist, nothing is ever wasted in the life of one who chooses to see with both eyes, nothing is wasted in the life of one who chooses to live with their whole heart, chooses to be grateful for the life they have, no matter what, and who want to share about it with everyone, warts and all.

Nothing you experience, or hear, or suffer, or succeed in, or learn in life, will ever be wasted. My first playwriting teacher, Janet Tiger, said that if you decide to be a writer, you’ll never be bored again. She was right. From then on, after that playwriting residency at Patrick Henry High School, even if I was dragged to the mall by my mom, or sitting in a doctor’s office with gross beige walls, I was never bored. I was always checking things out. Checking people out.

You should always be watching people, listening to people, to what they say and what goes unsaid, what they do and leave undone. Because as a writer what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in. What you leave to our imagination in the audience, is just as powerful as what you explicitly tell or show us on stage.

I can’t wait to hear all you have to say, to show, to share. Just never, ever stop. Congratulations.

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Onward!

(This blog originally posted on Jan. 19, 2015. em>)

Go There.

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If there’s a place that has inspired you in the past — to write a specific story, or to revel in a great life experience, a place where you somehow feel free and most yourself, a place that you always come away from refreshed, better than you were before, then guess what?

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