So, I was dwelling the other day on an event that I happened to be fortunate enough to witness. As I continued thinking about it, I realized that so much of the day-to-day experiences we have can actually inform the way that we approach our writing.
That’s why I’ve decided to start a new series of posts inspired by my life and how it informs the way that I learn more about writing and about people in general. I hope you guys like them!
As some of you may know, I’m a high school English teacher. If you know any teachers, or remember your own high school experience, I’m sure you know that teachers have supervision duties throughout the year. A few weeks ago, I had to help supervise an assembly that we call Mosaic as it is a chance for the various groups and clubs on our campus to showcase their cultural dances, costumes, various talents, and more.
Well, as a writer, and specifically a YA writer, I love watching the way that my students respond to things. I definitely don’t agree with some of them, but it is interesting to see them react, and analyze the logic and reasoning that they have in their teenage minds versus how I see it as an adult.
We watched the choir, hip hop groups, and Folklorico presentations among other things. Through it all, the students in the stands around me watched with a vaguely interested, somewhat detached attitude. They were mostly respectful, clapping when the performers finished.
The final presentation was a young man in our special education program. He got up, alone, decked out in a glittery jacket, black hat, and sparkling gloves. And then Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” came on. The moment he stepped out in front of everyone, the crowd began to cheer, to clap. And as we all watched him dance and spin, a huge smile on his face, I looked around. Everyone was riveted. Most had a smile on their own faces that they probably didn’t even realize was there. I know I did. And when the final notes hit and he struck his final pose, the crowd went crazy and these thousands of teens gave him a roaring standing ovation. It was great.
But……..it had me thinking: why is it that they only gave him such a great reception? What was it that made his performance stand apart from the others? What does this say about the way that my students saw the previous performers versus how they saw him?
I’ve decided on three takeaways from this:
1. We love to see the passion of others
My immediate thoughts on this young man’s reception from the students was that he represents a mirror of themselves. He represents the way that we sometimes feel it is socially unacceptable to show our passions. We like to see others showcasing their passions, but, especially when we are teens, it is hard to see someone doing something they love and not feel like we have to tear it down, criticize it, compare ourselves to it, and make it seem less amazing that it really is.
And to some degree, the nerves of the other performers, despite their best intentions and smiles, were obvious. This young man showed unaffected joy and excitement for what he is doing. There is a certain amount of reassurance in saying “Yes, I’m doing this, but it’s not cool or fun or ____.” If we talk it down to ourselves, there’s less of a chance that anyone can knock us any lower than we already have.
This type of doubt, self-sabotage, and social awareness are things that our characters can feel as well. Similarly, I know that I’ve done this type of talking down to myself about my own writing. But we can’t do that. If we never have the courage to get out there and do what we know we can, enjoy it, celebrate it, and flaunt its amazing-ness, how will anyone else?
2. The safety in celebrating that which is not “you”
I came to the realization that because he was not a student that typically made his way around the various cliques and groups, the audience realized that it was okay to support him because it would not go against their own groups or associations. On the contrary, it was probably liberating for them to be able to look at someone who they see as different on a certain level and feel no pressure to judge him. They felt like it was socially safe for them to celebrate him because they wouldn’t be penalized by their peers for it, leaving them open to actually enjoy something from someone else.
The age old writing adage of “write what you know” has been debunked, at least in part, many, many times. It comes with the caveat that although you may write the other, you still have to respect it. Some people aren’t willing to make the effort and some are scared to try it for fear of doing it wrong or getting called out on it (which has happened). However, by writing, researching, and getting feedback on what we don’t “know,” we become better writers and better people. When we do it respectfully, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities and connections with those that we may have never reached otherwise.
3. Understanding how similar “other” really is
Because he was different, he was safe. When we think of something “other,” we separate it from who we see ourselves as. That way, we can’t see the way that there are areas of overlap between something we don’t understand and ourselves. This experience showed me that on some level, we realize, search for, and celebrate that which we might initially see as separate simply because we subconsciously know that it isn’t.
When thinking of how this relates to the craft of writing, I thought about character motivation but also about world building. When we create a race or a new country or even a new clique for our characters to come across, we like to juxtapose them against the (typically) good main character/cast. We spend so much time thinking about how we can make them different from our main characters in some way that we fail to write in the things that we all find in others, the things that make “other” more familiar. By adding these things in, we not only create an opposite/other but we make the universal connection that even though we have differences, we have a lot in common as well. Even if one group has six eyeballs and speaks only using telepathy, there are areas that we can and should identify with. There is something to be said about acknowledging the sameness in others.