About once a year i get asked to speak to college kids and it’s terribly flattering but am i really the best person for them to listen to?
If I was someone in his right mind I’d say, be as Robinson Crusoe’s dad told him to be and be as mediocre as fuck.
“[The] middle station has the fewest disasters and is not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind,” the senior Crusoe said.
Vicissitudes of course being “a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.”
I will be speaking to upper division storytellers and journalists, so i will remind them what i was taught at their age in the College of Creative Studies about what makes a good story:
introduce likable characters that the reader cannot help but fall in love with and then fuck them over royally and watch them overcome the disaster(s).
Therefore in good storytelling there is nothing more central than a big fat vicissitude
so how on Earth do you think you can write from experience about tragedy, misfortune, and struggle, unless you have found yourself head first into some shitty shit yourselves?
Which is why I advise all of you to ignore Mr. Crusoe’s well-intentioned instruction (if you truly want to be writers), and avoid the middle path entirely as that is where there is little reward. And if you have noticed not one person ever wrote the story about the Senior Crusoe, the first novel ever was written about his wild son and the crazy shit he experienced when he ran away from his family who wanted him to be a dumb lawyer.
Which brings us to you, I will say.
You are young, the world is out to get you. There’s global warming that half the politicians won’t even talk about. Homelessness, especially here in Southern California is crazy. Gas is over $4 a gallon. We won’t even talk about how many banks you gotta rob to buy a house here.
And the debt that you are racking up every minute, hour, and day in this college is more crippling than you know. How do I know this? Because if you really let it sink in, none of you would be smiling. You’d be angry. You’d be nervous. And for damn sure you wouldn’t be studying to be journalists — you’d be in Pre-Med or Pre-Law or Pre-420.
But you’re here, I will continue. Which means that like me, you are idealists, which means your life is forever fucked. Because you think you are the exception. You think you can change the world. You think that Robert Frost was right when he chose the road untaken.
So continue to take it.
Take it and write about every step. And if you aren’t writing every day now, start.
Let me tell you the good news and bad news about writing and creativity and aging: Right now. RIGHT NOW you are a fountain of ideas and a wellspring of good shit. The problem is very little of it fits into what adults have considered “correct” in school. And so every time you write something super interesting in class that breaks the mold or colors outside the lines, you will not get an A and anything less than an A is a ding to our egos and subconsciously tells us that we have failed somehow. Of course you didn’t write that sentence perfectly. Of course you’re rough around the edges. Most of you were born post 9/11. WTF! You’re babies.
You think it sucks when you don’t get as many likes on your Instagram as you expected? Your whole life teachers have been teaching you how to get likes and since you’ve made it into this fine institution you have figured out how to get enough of them in class, but let’s be real few of us are straight A students and to that I say Good.
We all know the key to being really successful at school: it is to give the teacher in front of you precisely what he or she wants. That, by the way, is the polar opposite of what it means to be creative, interesting, or Robinson Crusoe. Name me one book about a kid who did exactly what his teacher wanted. Now show me one person who wants to read that? Not even my fucking Siri obeys my every wish and you know what, good for her.
For about 10 years you will be filled with all the energy and weird ideas in that beautifully developing mind that you have now and if you do not write it down, especially now that I have warned you, you are dumb. And I know you aren’t dumb because I have been in this class before and this is not the room for the dummies.
“Oh, but you say, you’re in your 50s and you seem incredible.” True! But the only reason I’m as fucking rad as I am today is because i have been writing down my insane shit forever. That’s the only way to keep that oil well working through your 40s. And trust me, it will be in your 40s that you will need it the most because if you think shit’s bad now, just wait until all the peers that you hate start making their way into Congress.
But back to youth. Think about all the great rock stars. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, even the rap stars like Kanye and Eminem and current stars like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish: all their great stuff was when they were young.
I dare you to tell me that “Reputation” was better than “Fearless”. Or that “Yeezus” was better than “College Dropout.”
Prince wrote (and performed) Purple Rain when he was 25 years old. Sure he wrote some good stuff when he was 45, but it sure wasn’t Purple Rain. AND THAT’S PRINCE!
Which is weird because wouldn’t it make more sense that once you have truly mastered your instrument you would be better and better? Shouldn’t Eddie Van Halen at 64 be a better guitar player than he was in his 20s? Yes. But he’s not. Neither are the guys in Led Zeppelin. Neither is Ice Cube or Jay Z or this one that one. And these are people who practiced getting their flow out!
Age grabs you when you aren’t looking and throws you on the rocks like Robinson’s many shipwrecks and leaves you on an island of hungry hungry cannibals.
So please do not sleep through your youth, writers. This is your time. There is something about having your first kiss in your first apartment with the prettiest girl you ever saw — especially if you are also a girl. Youth is the gasoline for the bonfire of creativity and even though I am the exception to that rule too, I am telling you from my heart, it doesn’t last forever. It’s noon and I already wanna take a nap.
So promise me this. Promise me that tonight when you get home. Before you get too tired. And preferably before the sun goes down: start a blog on blogger.com. Do not tell anybody about it, make it private, and write the scariest story you have to tell.
Scary not Friday the 13th, but scary like you have not told anyone this story except maybe maybe maybe your best friend in life. Embarrassing. Or Thrilling. Or something that you might consider bragging. And then tomorrow write the second scariest story, and every day keep pushing your comfort zone. Keep digging deeper. Change your style slightly every day and write from different perspectives. Make the shit rhyme. Fill it up with ridiculous lies and unexpected details. Like Tolstoy, get into the minds of the characters and tell us what they’re thinking. And if you’re super cool, don’t tell, show.
And continue to experiment all the damn time.
You are not being graded on this. No one is reading this. But if you keep it up and at the end of this year you have 100 little stories and you’re 20 or 21 years old, I promise you that when you are 40 you will love the fact that you got these out of your head and into that private little crazy blog. These will be priceless to you. And then do it again every year of your life.
There will only be one thing stopping you. The devil is real and he lives in your head. Rent free! He tells you that you can’t write and that this story is stupid and it’s boring and you’re gonna get in trouble and blah blah blah. Put on an anti-devil hat. I am wearing mine. It’s a Cubs hat. When I put it on and I hear the devil I say, shhhh, the hat is on. STFU. You can talk when it’s off.
And then write. Even if you, too, are the exception to the rule, and even if you do this for 50 years, I bet you that the stories that you write from age 20 to 30 will be your best ones. I know this because – and there are exceptions – but that’s what history has shown us. In our youth we kick ass. Ironically it is also in our youth that teachers are paid to put a grade on our art and try to shame us and force us into the middle path of bullshit and soullessness, which is insane and criminal, but it is what it is.
My generation legalized weed, maybe yours can outlaw grades.
I have one more bit of advice on how to write when you are young: do it during the daytime. The younger you are and the further away you live from your parents’ rules, the more you should be doing anything else except homework at dark. For in the dark, when you are young, is where your stories will most likely come from. And aint nobody wanna read a novel about someone cramming for fucking finals — at a State School.
If it’s light out: study. If it’s dark out: party. Say no to drugs, don’t drink and drive. And stop listening to terrible fucking music.
I will now entertain questions.