Recently, I did a talk at a local public school for kids in grades 6, 7, and 8. It was about finding and sustaining your passion. I started with the sustaining part because I don’t feel that there’s a formula for finding one. Indeed, I just happened upon mine in an odd sort of mildly terrifying way.
Do you ever wonder how you get superpowers, and say to yourself, “Maybe if I just think about getting them I can get them,” as if you can will it into existence? Deep down, or likely not even that deep down, you know that just thinking it doesn’t actually work. Well, when I’m writing, it does work. If I can think it, dream it up, make it up, play make believe, I can make it real.
I asked the kids a question: Can anyone tell me the difference between a writer and a non-writer?
I spoke to two groups of two classes and in both talks one of the kids got the answer. Writers write. What I shared with them after that seemingly obvious nugget of information was what I felt was the best part. You don’t have to have dreamed about doing it since you were an infant in order to do it. It does not need to be woven into your DNA. It does not need to be your raison d’être. This applies to any endeavour, too.
With respect to writing, there’s an even better than best part. You don’t even need to be any good at it. I didn’t get my first “A” in English until the 12th grade – and that was an 11th grade class. True story. I still can’t tell you much about subordinate clauses, dangling participles, split infinitive, or gerunds. No word of a lie, I had to look that last one up.
What I tried to impart on these young, impressionable minds was that a lot of people don’t know where or when their passion developed because it’s always been there, but I argued that there are more people out there who discovered it quite deliberately, and probably even more still who can tell you the precise moment that sent them off in that direction.
Do you know the story of Andre De Grasse, the Canadian sprinter? He joined the track team on a bet and had to be convinced there would be girls at the meets (aside: I wonder how many people in history have found their passion because they were looking to score a little action?) He ran his first race in basketball shorts and shoes and didn’t use starting blocks. Ten years later he won the silver medal in the 200 m and bronze medals in the 100 m and 4×100 m relay at the Olympics. His best time in the 200 m is a Canadian national record. Had he not made that bet, it’s a good bet he wouldn’t have any of those accomplishements.
I had a similar moment that didn’t involve wagers or basketball shoes or girls but was nonetheless exciting and it was the moment that started this crazy journey I’ve been on ever since.
It started shortly after I lit myself on fire. NOT on purpose! No, no, no, that is a terrible idea. I know, because I happened to do it by accident and it sucked. It sucked on a galactic level. But it happened, and since I managed to get lucky I could laugh about it. So I did.
The next day all these people at work kept asking me what happened and I was tired of telling the story, so I wrote it out and sent a company wide email. Keep in mind this was back when email wasn’t what it was now. It was still relatively new and special. Anyway, this got me in trouble with the C.O.O. at the time for “misusing company resources”. One person who read the mail, though, said I should submit it to the Darwin Awards as a personal account. I did, and promptly forgot about it.
A full two years later i got an email from Darwin herself, Wendy Northcutt, saying that my story was in the top 20 ALL TIME for a personal account and did she have my permission to use it in her next book. I said yes.
When my signed copy came in the mail and I opened it up and saw my story in there it was the greatest feeling in the world. THAT was the moment, even though they spelled my name wrong (that error by the publisher stopped the press, also a true story, but they fixed it for the paperback edition).
Since then I’ve written so many things for so many reasons and no matter how long writer’s block or a drought lasts, I always end up scribbling something down or making a note in a pad that sits on my desk, because you never know, it might just spark another moment and bring me one stride closer to the literary equivalent of an Olympic medal.