This is a speech I gave to adults and children at the Waterford Winter Literacy Drive party on March 9, 2010. There was a lot of good eats and a lot of receptive people. Also: Gopher Broke played and they were awesome. They played my favorite: Big Rock Candy Mountain. The sun is shining and I'm full of hobo dreams again...
Hi, I’m Travis Barrett, a mild-mannered teacher and citizen of Waterford. But, that’s just my secret identity. At night, on the weekends, and especially in the summer I become, T.L. Barrett, writer and explorer of the stranger and bizarre. I’ve been asked to talk to you today about the subject of writing and maybe give you some clues as to what made me a writer. Was I made or was I born? That’s an age old question and I’ll try to get to that later, but for now, I want to let you all in on a little secret…
This secret is staring most people in the face on most days, but they don’t even see it.
Writing is magic. I’ll tell you how you can tell. In oppressive societies, what are the two things that everyone gets really excited about burning?
Witches and books.
But that’s not all the proof I have. Pick up a book, read the first few lines of a story…What is happening?
One: You are looking at little squiggly marks on a pressed bit of pulp wood, a whole bunch of squiggly marks. We get so used to doing them, we don’t realize they are symbols, symbols that unlock all kinds of meaning, images, and feelings.
Two: As you read you find yourself wondering what is going to happen next? You begin to anticipate results of things that never happened to people that never existed. You might even find yourself worrying over these imaginary people, feeling proud of their accomplishments. You become familiar with places that never existed, or have been dust for thousands of years, or are on some other planet five hundred years in the future. Later on thinking back on these places you might reminisce, even smell something that reminds you of a beach that you never visited. This can happen. It can happen to you. If you don’t believe me, read more books. You obviously haven’t read enough.
Three: You start to change. You think differently. Your idea of the world and the possibilities of what it means to be human expands. You develop empathy. You are far less apt to be cruel to your fellow man, because you have walked in their shoes, you have hid in an attic in Germany with your family just as you were becoming a woman. You were spit on as you made your way through life in the American South as an African American. You traveled with your family on an ancient rusting truck to California in hopes of a better life. You suddenly are more aware of the world and the precious quality of life. You are able to connect the things you hear to stories, events you have read about. The world stops being so confusing, but the sense of living in a giant wondrous mystery deepens. You have more to talk about with strangers, you make friends because you may have never met before but you share the same experience of standing united before Minas Tirith, or have taken your pig to the same county fair.
And maybe just maybe, you see how your story is woven in with all the others, that you are not just a fly trapped in the web of someone elses creation, but you are a spider yourself, and can weave stories, and those idle fantasies you had as a child, as they may have comforted and excited and given meaning to your life, may enrich the life of others. If you learn how to share them.
Stories are shared dreams, writing is their record and their medium. Through writing we share the dream, and we develop a shared meaning, a shared experience, a shared mythology. We all know what it means to be an Ebenezer scrooge. All those films we cry in front of and cheer and eat buckets of popcorn, where did they come from? A screenplay, from the mind of a writer.
But what of today? Will our children read? Will they decide to become writers? Even now, investigative reporting is dying because of economic situations. Will movies become all spectacle and flash, but will you leave the theater feeling no different, for the experience? Will all the children grow up to be Ebenezer scrooges without having learned what that is?
I hope not. I don’t know what the answer is. Video games are soothing to young people in an often demanding and scary world. Like mice in a maze they press the feeder bar and travel down the same electronic corridors, becoming more adept at pushing the feeder bar. But, if the child can learn that reading and writing allows you a much greater escape, a more sustaining and wonderful escape, then we have done good work, and the dreams will continue.
But, back to witches.
If writing is magic, then I am ipso facto, a magician. I am not the most powerful and wonderful magician, but I have become a better magician, because I have practiced. It helps most when I practice this wonderful magic, this writing everyday. It is an art. And the only tragedy is not doing it. Also, I know I am a magician because my new neighbor told me so. He informed me that my wife, children and I were just like the Weasleys. I think almost everyone here can understand how he sees us, what kind of people he thinks we are, because we have all read the books, or seen the films made from the books, and thus we have shared in the dreams of one lady from Scotland. It is a strange world, is it not?.
But was I born a magician or was I made? That is a good question. My parents are lovely people, but they are muggles. So perhaps I am more like Hermione Granger? Well… All that aside. I loved stories, and I wanted so desperately to read, so I could learn more stories. And maybe just maybe I could share some of my own.
I loved it when my mother would bring me to the library and would read to me. I loved it when my father would share his ancient Where the West Wind blows books. I loved when my teachers would take the time to read an entire novel to my class, and we would line up graciously to come in from recess if it meant we could find out what Omri was going to do to keep him magical cupboard and little friends a secret. This is what other people did for me.
And then, I relied on other people that I had never met, people that were even dead. I laughed out loud at Ramona Quimby’s antics and followed Andre Norton out into the cosmos. I started checking in every wardrobe to see if it would really take me to land beyond the lamppost.
My favorite assignments were having to write a story based on a picture by Chris van alls burg or to write whatever I wanted. Mrs. Payeur, my eighth grade teacher had us read all the time, things that most interested us. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and Robert Heinlen, and the Bagthorpe Chronicles by Helen Cresswell. She had us keep a journal and reflect on our reading. I remember after one entry she wrote a question in red pen: Do you think you are such a good writer, because you read so very much?
Yes, Mrs. Payeur, I do. Children are not too young to read, they just need to be pushed, to be shown the magic that lays in store for them. Then give them the opportunity to write. Mrs. Payeur gave us weekly writing assignments where I could write in any style I wanted. Soon I had other students giving me request. Give us a hunting story, Travis! They would demand. I did. Sure the hunter was soon being hunted by a viscious beast on another planet, but they were happy, and I was happy. There is no better thing than finding that one good thing you like to do and doing it.
Now, some warning. Things have not been always rosy for this magician. Magicians like me are by nature rather sensitive. It takes them a long time to develop the kind of tough hide they will need if they want to face the slush piles of magazine and book editors, to face constant rejection. If finding a date were as hard as getting published the world would soon be barren of human life all together. That’s why it is so vitally important to encourage children and cheer on their early efforts. For there are too many muggles, the worst kind of muggle, working with children. I can remember after I wrote a story about a father who loses a daughter and she becomes a doll, a precursor to the first story I would publish over twenty years later, I was filled with ecstasy. What fun it had been to write, and what fun it was to share this story with others. My teacher read it and said: This is pretty good. You are a good writer, but not professional material, you understand." Why did she say this to me? What good did it serve. I knew I was not professional yet, I was eleven years old. If a boy pitched an a no hitter in Little League, would you ever say to him, that was a pretty good game, but you are not pro - material?
Also, beware of the muggle guidance counselors. These are the people who think it is their duty to squash your dreams and take all the wind out of your sails. One of these muggles came to my class in eighth grade, asked us all what we wanted to do with our lives. When I said I wanted to be a writer, she told me that was a poor choice.
Who lets these people talk to children. There should be a law? Isn’t there a law? Anyway, one struggles everyday to keep positive whatever we do. I just wonder if there had been more people like my mom and like Mrs. Payeur and less people like those other muggles, If I wouldn’t have shared more of my stories at an earlier age. But, I’m sharing them now, just today I just got the news that my fourth short story will be published this summer. So far I have had two stories published in anthologies, one was selected to be in a best of anthology. The third story, that of a haunted carnival ride will be published in a magazine this spring. I have a few books written and about a thousand in my head, but right now I’m just trying to build up a resume and get an agent. It is weird. You need an agent to get published, but you need to get published in order to get an agent. You figure that one out.
But if I have any advice to those who want to write it would be this:
Read every day
Write every day
Always think: What if?
Keep a journal of all your crazy ideas and your dreams
Make faces at muggles and keep a supply of whoopy cushions handy, they need to get deflated know and then.
Write the kind of stories that you would love to read. Start out by writing stories about your favorite cartoon characters. Make a sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, what if Laura Ingalls Wilder had to face down a band of zombie Natives with her pa’s hunting rifle? That’s how the best stories came to be. Look at Watership down, it’s about rabbits for goodness sakes, but I love it, and countless others love it, too.
And if you can’t think of anything write about what you know. Change the names. It is a good way to get your friends to read it. It is also a good way for you to see how interesting your life really is.