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A Speech to Inspire All Ages

by aec

The following speech was delivered by Sean Price at the AEC's Young Southern Student Writers award presentation ceremony at Memorial Auditorium on March 27th. Over 1,000 students, families and teachers were in attendance. Sean Price is a local freelance writer who specializes in work for children and young readers.


I want to thank the folks at the Arts & Education Council for asking me to speak tonight. I’ve been writing and editing for teenagers for about 15 years now, and I get a kick out of events like this. I promise to make my comments short because I know that you’re anxious to get your medals.

Because of the work I do, I’m often asked “Should I have heard of you?” The smart-aleck answer is that, “Yes, you should have heard of me.” In a just world, I should be as famous – and as rich – as J.K. Rowling. Alas, that is not the case.

So you probably haven’t heard my name. But you may have seen my work if you have read magazines like Junior Scholastic or Weekly Reader or National Geographic Kids. You might also have read my books if you’ve read anything on the Civil War or telescopes or the Harlem Renaissance or any number of other non-fiction topics.

I was asked to speak to you for a few minutes about “the importance of writing.” When I got this assignment, I naturally did what most people do today – I Googled the Internet to see what others had said on the subject.

I found a lot of stuff. But one thing struck me. It was a list of 15 tips put out by Marquette University entitled, “What Makes Writing So Important?” I’ll quickly run through just five of the better points.

1. Writing is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged.

2. Writing expresses who you are as a person.

3. Writing is portable and permanent. It makes your thinking visible.

4. Writing ideas down preserves them so that you can reflect upon them later.

5. Writing is an essential job skill.

All of those sound pretty good to me, and I’d say that Marquette pretty much covered all the practical, functional reasons for writing. And yet this list left me cold. And the reason had something to do with a passage I once read in a John Steinbeck novel called Sweet Thursday. This quote is not about writing directly – Steinbeck is more asking the question, “What am I worth?”

Steinbeck wrote: “Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments the debt only increases, and the quality of the gift is the measure of the man.”

In my opinion, part of this debt to others – and to ourselves – is the need to feed our creativity. Most people I know seem to be driven to create something. Some scratch this itch by making jewelry or sewing or singing or gardening. Some people act or paint or dance. If they ignore this need to create, it poisons them. And if they feed it, they find they are driven to do more and more.

For people like you and me who like writing, the question isn’t, “Why is writing important? The question is, “How do I make my writing important?” The best answer I found for that is practice. Practice every day, even if it’s just writing letters or E-mails or writing in a journal.

But also put yourself in positions where you have to write for others. One of the best ways for young people to do that is at student newspapers. That’s how I became a writer. In my junior year in high school I learned how to organize facts and to read things with a critical eye. And the joy of it was that I wasn’t just writing for a stodgy old teacher or my parents. I was writing for my friends on the paper and the whole student body. That gave me a huge incentive to write well.

Unfortunately, I found out while researching this speech that student newspapers are pretty thin on the ground here in Hamilton County. I don’t know what the situation is at private schools, but only a handful of public high schools have newspapers and only two of them offer journalism classes. That sad part of this is that student newspapers are not expensive or difficult to run. I’d like to challenge everyone here to look for ways boost the number of student newspapers here in Hamilton County. They really are the best possible laboratories for young writers.

It’s no secret that writing is hard work. The good news is that as you practice, it will get easier in some ways. For instance, structuring an article or a paper starts to become second nature. On the other hand, practice will show you that writing becomes harder in other ways. For instance, you’ll have to reach for new words and ideas to keep your writing from becoming stale.

A lot of writers get around this by cheating. Some of them plagiarize, which means they steal other people’s writing. Or, they simply make up quotes and facts to suit their needs. Please don’t think that only dumb people take these shortcuts. In my experience, the people who plagiarize and make up facts are usually very smart and talented. But they have become overwhelmed by their workload and look for an easy way out. If you’re going to write, develop high standards and stick to them.

My next and final piece of advice is going to sound like I’m completely contradicting what I just said about high standards. But I once heard a minister say something that struck me. He said, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” By this, he did not mean that you set out to do everything badly – just the opposite. The point is that even the best writers cannot be excellent every time out. I’ll say straight out that not everything I write is excellent. Some of it is not even good.

But here’s the key part: Each book or article I’ve written was as good as I could make it at the time. And that’s what you need to remember most. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – or even the mediocre. Don’t let your high standards get in the way of writing something. What’s better, to turn in a class paper and get a C or to not turn in a paper at all? At least with the C paper you can build on the experience and maybe make it an A paper next time.

Finally, I want to leave you with another goal to reach. It is a high honor to win a Young Southern Student Writers award, and you should be very proud. But there are many other national awards for young writers out there. One of the best writing contests is the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. I used to work for Scholastic in New York and I remember the first time I looked through the entries for this contest. I was really humbled because here were all these teenagers writing poems and short stories that were much better than anything I’d ever done.

Unfortunately, the deadline has already passed for this year. You can go to the Scholastic website or just search for “Scholastic Art & Writing Award” to find out more.

When I was your age, I didn’t plan to be a professional writer. I won’t bore you with the details of how it happened, but one thing led to another and I wound up working at a city newspaper. From there I progressed to Scholastic and writing for teens. For the last ten years, I’ve been writing books and magazine articles for dozens of different companies. It’s a great career, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But even if I couldn’t do it for some reason I know that I would still find a way to write. That’s because a long time ago I realized it’s just that important.

End

Student Outreach | By aec | 12:39 PM

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