Why is writing so important for young people?
Writing helps us make sense of our world. Whatever you’re struggling with, writing it out - as a poem, a story, a play or even a song - can help you understand it in a new way. When I was ten, I started keeping a diary. I had just read The Diary of Anne Frank (kept by 13-year-old Jewish girl whose family goes into hiding during the Holocaust), and was totally inspired by the way she continued to find the beauty in everyday things, and to maintain a sense of optimism in spite of the harrowing events of her life. My own diary, at first, was just a place to record events, but after a while it became my confidant, my best friend. I realized that it was incredibly helpful to have a place to record my thoughts and to express things that I couldn’t share with anyone else. It also helped me see my life as something bigger - kind of an enormous work of art, or an epic novel. I decided that if I was going through a particularly painful time, perhaps it was only because something really dramatic needed to happen with the storyline, and that within a couple of chapters I would understand why it was important to the plot.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were a tween or teen?
That it’s okay to a be a so-called “dork,” a “nerd,” a “geek.” It’s our eccentricity that makes us beautiful and interesting, and, once you start to value this quality in yourself, other people will begin to value it too, and even see it as “cool.” I was called “weird” a lot as a kid. I remember the exact moment (9th grade, standing in line at the cafeteria behind two of the “popular girls” who were brushing their identically cut, perfectly highlighted hair out their eyes and complaining about how bored they were with everything), that I realized that “weird” was just another word for “unique and creative… interesting.” I realized that I didn’t want to be like everybody else. I started valuing my “weirdness” and soon found that the people around me began to value it too.
How has the ability to express yourself helped you in life?
I think it’s allowed me to connect with, and hopefully inspire, other people. It’s also allowed me to explore things outside of the realm of my experience.
I wrote a short story recently from the perspective of a 37-year-old first generation Russian-American man and it helped me get inside what that experience might be like. How is it different to go through the world as a man? What would it be like to grow up with parents whose first language was not English? There’s also something really powerful about having your words heard and acknowledged by other people. Whether it’s a poem in your student literary magazine, reading a story aloud in class, or writing a blog, it’s an amazing experience to share your words (and your world) with other people. Again, I think back to Anne Frank’s life: even though it ends tragically, her life is not a tragedy. Her words continue to educate and inspire the generations that came after her and will continue for generations to come.