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>)

The Proudest Day of My Life

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This past week, on the eve of Election Day, I learned without a doubt that nothing I accomplish in my life will ever be as satisfying or fill me with the same depth of joy and pride as when my children accomplish something special. There is no comparison.

Over the last few months our local Armenian community has been trying to get approval for a new church facility to better accommodate its needs after 35 years in a sweet but outdated and undersized facility. My family’s connection to the church is deep, complex and multifaceted. But suffice it to say that despite various community dramas over the years, it is where we grew up, where we are still involved and where our children participate, and we’d always like to see the church — its people and its place — progress spiritually and physically in the years to come.

A month or so ago, we decided to take our girls to our local planning board meeting to see local government in action. For four hours (yes, we brought the ipad), our nine-year old and five-year old daughters listened to this board debate our church project. The girls wanted to get up and speak but couldn’t. But when the vote finally came in favor 6-4, they were so proud and excited that they were there. I told them: “In years to come, when the church is built and you are walking on its blessed grounds, you’re going to remember that you were there the day our local community first approved it.” And they nodded vigorously before falling asleep on the car ride home.

Then, this past week, the project had to pass through another hurdle — the city planning commission, before going to the state coastal commission. Many in the community wrote letters, so we felt it important that our girls write letters too, to share their feelings about why we need a new church.

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They were very intent on doing a good job, and they did.

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At the commission meeting, I sat in the same chamber where I, as a junior high student years before, twice pleaded with our city council to save our school music education funding for orchestra and band. Those were experiences I never forgot, and I believe they fortified me early on to be more involved in my community and to speak up for what’s important to me.

And here we were in the same room, years later, hearing about another heart and soul issue — not the arts, but the faith community and its gathering place — now being debated before a new set of officials.

The architects, consultants, and some of us leaders in the community all spoke, gave it our best and did well.

But when the commissioners gave their various comments, concerns, and preferences, one commissioner said that he was very touched, and quite impacted, toward the yes vote, because of two letters that came in — from two young girls…

I looked at my husband.

“From…Mari…?” the commissioner said. “And her sister…Ani?…”

Our daughters. He was talking about them! There, in front of everyone. On local TV. And when he cutely mispronounced the latter’s name, our entire community entourage in the audience corrected him in unison. (“AH-nee, not Annie!”)

The commissioner went on to say how the letters were the most compelling thing he came across in more than two hours of discussion, and that our girls’ words were what convinced him to vote yes — reminding him what civic engagement is all about, what community is all about, what the life of a young person is all about, and….

And I don’t know what else — because I was crying. Crying that our girls had tangibly made a difference. Our little ones, who were probably running wild at school recess, had no idea their names were being spoken and placed in the city public record, having a forever impact on the vote, and thus on our community.

I became a bumbling mess. When the commissioner finished thanking the girls, he immediately made the motion to approve the project.

When the vote came out unanimous, I looked again at my husband, and all I could say was “Our girls, lovie. Our girls…!” He and I were both overcome.

I hope that on the crazy days when the girls try my patience, I’ll remember that on this day they filled me with more humbling pride and joy than I’ve ever experienced. No Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize, Drama Critics Circle award, or anything could even compare.

When we got home and told the girls, they were so excited that their letters made a difference. Our youngest asked, “Did you talk to Mr. Golba?” even remembering the name of the commission chairman she addressed her letter to. And I said that yes, I did speak with him (which was true, afterwards.) We told the girls the rest of the details and even showed them the webcast where the commissioner acknowledged them, and they simply beamed.

One day, our girls will be able to vote, like I hope we all will this week. One day, they will take leadership positions and impact their world. And one day, when they’re grown, I hope to show the girls their letters again, to remind them that at any time, at any age:

Yes, your voice matters.

Yes, you can make a difference.

And yes, your writing has power.

Always.

Onward! And don’t forget to vote!

Leading from the Heart

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I had the opportunity this past week to preside over the annual conference of a national women’s organization for which I currently serve as national chairman. It was a whirlwind of hard work, good dialogue, much celebration and very little sleep.

Although I had been to this conference and participated in committee and regional leadership positions before, it was quite different being the ‘buck stops here’ leader. I got quite a different perspective presiding over business sessions, rapping that gavel, calling for the vote, giving speeches, announcing new goals and listening to so many comments about what members want and need.

Here are some of the things I took away this week as a leader and as a writer/speaker:

People want their leaders to speak up.

Of course people want their ideas to be heard. But they also want their leader to be decisive and have their own ideas. More often than not, members of a group would rather respond to a specific leader directive (yay or nay) than be told by their leader: “Well, whatever you want to do…” Ideally, an organization can benefit from integrating the ideas of leadership and of members at large.

People want their leaders to listen.

Sometimes people just want to know that you understand them and will think about what they’re staying or suggesting. Even if you don’t agree or decide not to proceed with the idea, members feel respected when they feel heard.

Your main message or vision must be articulated well, if people are going to buy into it.

You could have the greatest idea in the world but if you or your representatives can’t convey that idea well, can’t share the message with conviction and power, no one is going to feel compelled to do anything about it. They’re not going to take ownership of it unless it connects with them inwardly in a significant way. So a leader must not only speak fairly well and be clear in presenting their idea, but they also have to show their own personal connection to the idea and why it matters to them. That will help others see how the idea or vision pertains to them as well.

If you’re not passionate about what you’re saying/doing, it shows.

One thing that I appreciate about the organization I lead is that it incorporates a lot of the different parts of who I am, and thus I feel strongly about the group and its role in our community. I am passionate about what it does and what it has the potential to do for women and families around the world. Fortunately, so my members tell me, that passion shows. They have often commented that my sincerity and conviction when speaking motivates them to do more in their local chapters and communities to achieve our collective goals. That is hugely satisfying for me. Whatever we feel or don’t feel, it will show.

You can’t please everybody.

Leaders are usually in office only a short amount of time. They have to prioritize because they can’t accomplish everything they set out to do, and they can’t respond to everyone’s requests. They have to be selective. And that’s all right — the finite nature of elected leadership positions forces us to think hard about what matters most and pursue it with urgency and heart.

Leaders, artists, writers — all of us are helped by the perennial questions we’ve all heard:

What would you do if you knew you had a month to live? If you knew this was the last novel/story/book/play you were going to write, what would you want it to say? What do you want your epitaph to say?

When we ask such questions, it helps us refine what matters most to us, what goals are most important to us, what overall purpose touches us most deeply, what ‘story’ we feel we MUST tell. Whether we are leading an organization, a family, a theater troupe, or any other group, we have to remember to act, speak and listen, with our whole mind and heart, to get our story across and to get others to come alongside on our journey.

Onward!

This blog post was originally published on July 7, 2014 but has certainly remained true in my recent work with the same organization, which is why I wanted to share it with those who may not have seen it before.

Mom’s Job

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My younger daughter’s pre-school teacher told me at one afternoon pickup, early in the school year, that she had asked my daughter if I worked. My then-four-year-old promptly had answered:

 

“Oh, no. My mom doesn’t work. She’s Mommy. She just writes plays.”

 

I laughed. I liked that my girl saw my being her mommy as my main ‘job’ — because it absolutely is, first and foremost. And I’m grateful to my husband that I don’t need to work for financial reasons.

 

But it was also interesting that my daughter didn’t see my creative writing or speaking work as work, like Daddy’s ‘work’. And while that bothered me at first, I eventually decided I liked her response.

 

Because my writing is not work, or a burden, or a requirement. It is a passion I am blessed to choose with joy.  And my girls need to see that such joy in their ‘work’ is possible.

 

Even when the writing/creative work doesn’t always bring joy, it is still my thing. And every woman needs to have something that is ‘her thing.’

 

My daughters have seen some of my plays (not the most ‘grown-up’ ones, they know to say), and they have even appeared in a couple of them. They’ve seen me speak about my work in public. They know all of it as being something I love to do and must do. But they now see that it takes time and effort, just like any other ‘work’ would.

 

Sometimes I tell them about my stories; sometimes I tell them that they’ll find out when they’re older.  Just like I ask them about what excites them, they do the same to me.

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When The World Listens

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak in New York City’s Times Square, during the 99th Armenian Genocide Commemoration, co-sponsored there every year by two Armenian fraternal, charitable organizations — The Knights of Vartan and the Daughters of Vartan, of which I am currently national chairman.

 

Although I’ve given talks to a variety of groups over the years, this was the first time I spoke in front of thousands, literally; with live radio and web broadcasts around the world; alongside senators, congress and city council members; in one of the most recognized public places in America; about one of the most intense issues of my lifetime: the Armenian Genocide — the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire to cleanse its nation of any non-Turkish influence, commemorated the week of April 24 every year.

 

Talk about the Armenian Genocide to any Armenian you meet, and you will learn that they lost a relative, or perhaps several, in the genocide. You’ll see their face and tone of voice change — you’ll see or even feel the sense of a wound being reopened or re-injured, yet to be healed.

 

Talk to a Turkish person, and likely they will either claim the Armenian Genocide never happened, or that it was a mere subset skirmish of World War One’s bigger battles. Only now, so many decades later, are some Turkish intellectuals acknowledging the truth — and sometimes getting jailed for it.

 

The truth is that the Armenian Genocide occurred. It was the first genocide of the 20th Century and the systematic campaign that Hitler cited and studied when preparing for the Jewish Holocaust (“Who, after all, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” he said to his advisors). And yet despite extensive genocide documentation from Turkish, German and US governments, missionaries, journalists and diplomats in the Ottoman Empire at the time, Turkey has yet to formally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide occurred, at their hand.

 

What is it like speaking on such a public stage, about something so difficult, that’s been part of your personal and community history for so long? How far do you go? How much do you balance the past-centered frustration and the need/desire to look forward with hope and redemption? How bold do you get, knowing that some crazy in the crowd could be lobbing a bomb at you at any time for what you believe?

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All these things raced through my mind as I stood there on the podium yesterday, in front of 2,000 people, in a closed off area between 43rd and 44th Street, near where the New Year’s Eve ball drops every December 31.

 

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