writers in the schools, and declaring yourself a writer

On Sunday, I had the gig I had been most anticipating all year long:  I was invited to do the keynote for Writers in the Schools Young Writers Reading seriesWriters in the Schools is a not-for-profit that matches professional writers and authors with students in the Houston area, to ignite within them a love of writing and storytelling.  Yesterday, the young winners of a juried competition were chosen to read their works at Discovery Green, and let me tell you, these kids, most of them elementary school age, were the authors of works that -- without exaggerating -- blew my socks off.


As I mentioned, I was honoured to be asked to give the keynote speech, and I spoke about what it takes to become a writer.  And upon reflection, since  I'm not sure I would've ever considered the words I said to these kids before I became a writer myself, I thought I'd share them here with you, in the off-chance that some of you dream of becoming writers yourselves, but are hesitating about beginning (or, equally importantly, are a blogger, but hesitate in calling yourself a "writer").

I hope they ring true for you.

* * * * * * *

Presented May 1st, 2011, to the young writers of Writers In the School, Discovery Green, Houston, Texas.


I am not a writer.

Or, at least, this is what I'd led myself to believe.

You see, I thought writers were people who spent many years studying the Masters -- Keats, Tennyson, Twain, Lee -- taking care to emulate their styles, attempting their turns of phrases, spending hours upon hours typing prose until their fingers bled and beads of sweat covered their brows.  They wore tiny glasses and tweed jackets with suede elbow patches.  They smoked pipes -- even the women.  They stroked their chins a lot.  Yes, writers were of a different breed.

I was, you see, a mathematics person, and in my mind, you couldn't be a math person and a writer.  I'm the daughter of a math person:  a PhD in engineering, and he, in turn, made sure I was a math person, drilling me in math equations and formulae until I got them right.  He pushed me in courses with complicated names like "calculus" and "statics and dynamics."  And to be honest, his plan worked:  I earned myself a scholarship to an engineering school, and eventually, I followed the logical path into a career in technology law.  And for many years after, despite the long contracts I would slave over to make sure that the language in their numerous pages was perfect, I still never thought of myself as a writer.  A business attorney, sure.  A dealmaker?  Absolutely.

But a writer?

My job as a lawyer took me around the world, to places like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela; and eventually, I moved to London.  Once I was settled, every two months or so, I would send emails back to friends and family in the United States, telling them about my adventures in far-flung places like Nigeria and Dubai -- usually funny anecdotes about my bumbling attempts to negotiate cultures different from mine, but also sometimes serious accounts, like what it was like to be in the Middle East on September 11, 2001.  I did this to keep in contact with everyone back home; but also, I wanted to make sure that I was recording all the different experiences I was having as an expat in a strange land, visiting strange new worlds.

While I wasn't particularly surprised when my friends kindly told me how much they enjoyed my stories, I was considerably shocked when friends of friends -- people I didn't even know -- began emailing me, telling me they'd been reasoning the notes I'd been sending to our mutual acquaintances, and asking that they be added to my mailing list.  "I really enjoy hearing about your life around the world," they said.  "I'd hate to miss out."

Huh, I remember thinking.  Maybe I could be a writer.

I didn't think much more of it at the time; I was so busy in my career, and decided that really, I was far more of an avid emailer than a writer.  Some time passed, and I was happy to meet a kind man named Marcus, who became a close friend.  Eventually, we went on our first date, and 18 days after that, he asked me to marry him.  I said yes (and incidentally, kids, while it worked beautifully for me, I don't necessarily recommend doing that).  We married six months after that, and a couple of years later, we decided to start a family.  Our families expressed some consternation over this -- not because they didn't feel we would be fit parents (at least, I don't think that's why), but because since Marcus' family was in England, and most of my family lived in my homeland of Trinidad, and they felt very disconnected from the experiences we were going through with the adoption of our daughter.

Then, one day, as I was searchign online for God-knows-what, I came upon a website like I'd never seen before.  It seemed to be in diary form, dated like a journal, and written by a young mother.  She called it a "blog."  As I read through her words, I realized that perhaps building a website like this might be the perfect way to keep our families connected with our daily lives here in Houston.  So I emailed the author of this blog, asking her how she created her site, and happily, she responded with advice.  Within days, I'd started my own blog -- named "Chookooloonks," a Trini word meaning "sweetheart" -- and began writing every day, a habit that continued long after our daughter, Alex, was finally born; a habit which I carry on to this day.  Over time, my blog evolved -- I began writing not just about my daughter, but our lives in Houston, our travels, memories of my childhood, and hopes for my future.  The site gained some popularity, and eventually, I stopped practicing law.  And then, almost before I knew it, I had a book deal.  So suddenly, it seemed, almost without warning, I had really, truly become a writer.

You see, I had discovered the most amazing truth:  all you have to do to be a writer is write.  Because we all have stories -- happy ones, funny ones, heartfelt ones.  We all have stories that can inform and inspire.  We have stories that can challenge old thoughts and create new ones.  When we commit these stories to the written form, we automatically, almost magically, become writers -- not pretend writers, or wannabe writers, but real, live, honest-to-goodness writers.

And so, to the young men and women who are sitting before us here today, who have worked so hard with WITS writers throughout the year to learn the pleasure and power of storytelling, and who are about to stand on this stage and share with us what I have no doubt are amazing works of art, I want you to repeat after me:

I am a writer.

And I want you to fully own this statement.  Because while you may have many more years of education ahead -- and education is important, because it is education that informs us and inspires us -- what earns you the right to sit at the table with all writers, even the famous ones, even the Masters, is the fact that  you have written.  You don't need a diploma or a certificate or to be published in a magazine or even land a book deal to be able to call yourself a writer.  You just need to write consistently and often, and write your passion.  If you do this, you don't have to say things like "one day, I will be a writer," or "I hope to be a writer when I grow up," or even "I dream of being known as a writer" -- you can claim it now.  I mean, here you are, about to stand up and share your stories and speak your truth.  This, my friends, automatically makes you a writer in ways most people who wish they were writers can only dream of.

So say it again with me:

I am a writer.

Heck yeah, you are.


With that, to the young writers of the WITS program, congratulations.  Your talent is stunning.

And to everyone else, have a wonderful week.

Images:  Photographed with my Nikon D300 and 50mm lens.  aperture: 1.4, shutter speed 1/3200, ISO 200.


SongPut your records on by Corinne Bailey Rae