Ryan is in a creative writing class at school, and throughout this year, I've watched him grow from his first uncertain steps to the confident and insightful writer he is today.
A few weeks ago, his teacher invited me to come to the class and speak about my experiences as a writer, self-publisher, and actor. I accepted instantly.
Yesterday was my day to speak, so I put together my outline in the morning, practiced speaking it aloud to my dogs (who are a very good audience) and felt totally prepared to share some insights in what I hoped would be 45 entertaining minutes.
My confidence evaporated and my stomach tied itself into a tiny knot of terror as soon as I set foot on the campus. No matter how successful I am, and no matter how old I am, when I go to a high school, the muscle and emotional memories of being a teenage geek overwhelm me, and I feel . . . well, like I did in high school.
"Please, no cool kids. Please, no cool kids. Please, no cool kids." I thought to myself as I walked to the office.
"You are a guest speaker today, right?" One of the school staff said to me, as I signed my name on the guest register.
"Yeah, I am," I said.
"Are you excited?"
"Uhm," I said, my voice catching in my throat, "I was a nerd in high school, so whenever I come onto a school campus, I feel really awkward and nervous."
"I think you'll do fine," she said with a gentle smile.
"I hope so," I said. "I guess it's kind of funny how I feel automatically intimidated by kids I'd tell to get off my lawn if I were at home."
She laughed, and handed me a pass with my name on it. "Here you go."
"I think you're supposed to call Ryan and --"
A hand clapped down on my shoulder and I jumped a little bit.
"He's already here," she said. "See? It's already going smoothly."
I turned and looked into Ryan's face.
"Ready?" He said.
We walked across the campus together. Ryan waved to a few of his friends, and I did my best not to embarrass him or myself.
I met his teacher outside the class.
"Thank you for coming," She said. "We're really excited to have you here."
"That's great," I said. "I hope I can connect to your students."
"I'm sure you will," she said. "I'll introduce you now."
She walked into the class and introduced me. I took a deep breath, and followed. The walk from the doorway to the podium in the front seemed to take forever, and I felt just like I did on my first day of real high school: out of place and awkward, certain that everyone was staring at me.
This time, everyone was staring at me . . . but I hadn't done anything stupid yet, so I felt a little better than I did twenty years ago.
I took my sunglasses off, and set them on the podium. While I reached into my pocket for my notes, they slid off and clattered on the floor.
I knelt down and picked them up, this time setting them on a chair next to me. I unfolded my notes and said, "So here's the thing: I was a nerd in high school, so whenever I get around high school students, I am reminded of how that felt . . . so I sort of feel that way right now. Bear with me a minute while I settle down, okay?"
A couple of kids smiled at me. Most of them just looked at me, unimpressed.
"When I was in school, we'd have people come in and talk about what was interesting to them, but they never left enough time for questions, so we could talk about what was interesting to us. So today, I hope to keep my talking at you brief, and leave enough time for talking with you."
I looked around the room. Nothing. Man, this is a tough crowd.
I took another deep breath. Okay, here we go.
I got into my talk, and I felt myself relax just a little bit. It was so important to me to make a connection to these kids, to give them something that was actually relevant to their lives. Even though I couldn't tell if I was doing it, by an objective standard, I didn't completely suck, so at the very least, I'd have one of those "moral victories" I keep reading about in the papers when people lose.
I talked about the similarities and differences between writing fiction and writing screenplays, what it's like as an actor to get an over or under-written script, and offered some examples from my experiences on both sides of the page. When I was just about finished, I gave them what I called my rules for good writing, which I'll share here, as well:
1. Don't be afraid to suck. It's easier to fix something that's broken than it is to create something from nothing.
2. Write your first draft "with the door closed."
3. Don't try to make everyone happy. If you try to make everyone happy, you end up with According To Jim. Write what you're passionate about, and write to entertain, amuse, and satisfy yourself. To borrow a phrase from Joel Hodgeson, the creator of MST3K: don't ask yourself, "Will anyone get this?" Instead, tell yourself, "The right people will get this."
4. If you're going to write, you have to read. If you're going to write screenplays, you have to read, and you have to watch lots and lots of movies, both for entertainment and for education.
"So, that's me talking at you, and now I'll spend the rest of our time together talking with you. Any questions?"
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. There were tons of questions, and all of them were incredibly insightful -- especially for teens. I only got to spend twenty minutes or so in the Q&A format with them, but it was really rewarding for me and seemed interesting and useful for them.
When my time was up, I thanked them for listening to me, and many of them thanked me on their way out of the class for my talk. Their teacher told me that she'd had a few other guest speakers this year, and the general consensus among the students she talked with was that I was the best of the lot. I took that to mean that I connected with them more than anyone else, which made me really happy, because that was my goal all along.
I had one last thing to tell them, which I didn't say. I intended it to be inspiring, but I just wasn't sure if it would come across that way, so I edited myself and left it out. I'll reprint it here, though, in case any of them stop by to read this:
This is entirely unrelated to writing, but it's something I wish someone had told me when I was your age: High school is a really important time in your life, and what you learn here and how you grow as a person will profoundly impact your adult years. But the social thing? It really doesn't matter, because after you graduate, you never have to see anyone from high school again, unless you really want to. A guy said to me yesterday, "If you win at high school, you lose at life," and that made a lot of sense to me. I'm sure you guys are a creative bunch of people, which means you have a certain degree of sensitivity, something that is usually the object of ridicule in school. Well, don't deny that because you're afraid of being unpopular. It's really not worth it. So stay focused, go to college, and thank me in your acknowledgments when your book is published. It's "Wil" with one "L."
On the way to the car, Ryan said that he liked my talk, and appreciated me coming in.
"You were really nervous when you started, huh?" He said.
"Yeah," I said. "I really was."
"You didn't need to be. You rocked."
I smiled. It was the only opinion that mattered.