Thursday, April 21, 2011

Spinning Yarns of Gold

I often purchase short pieces from high school and college-aged kids for WritingKid newsletter, a biweekly publication that goes out to youth, teachers, parents and grandparents. It's only 2,500 members strong, but when you consider the kids who receive it via their teachers, it has a much bigger impact than its official membership indicates.

Occasionally I receive what I feel is a gold nugget that I feel is profound enough to educate the adult writers in my world as well. Anthony Otten is a junior in high school, with few years under his belt, but his writing clearly displays a maturity beyond his age. His message was so noble, I asked him to let me share it with you. In an environment where competition is fierce and rejection common, many writers throw up their hands and quit. Some limit themselves to easy markets. Anthony, however, gives you another option. Leave it to a teenager to tell us how we ought to deal with a challenge.

Spinning Yarns of Gold


Envy is a writer’s best friend. Indeed, it does for the aspiring scribbler what compasses do for hikers in the wilderness. In the moment that a writer, smoldering with jealousy, holds between his trembling fingers a page of someone else’s brilliance, he begins to discover himself as an artist. Without recognizing it, he has caught the scent-trail of his muse.

You know it the first time it happens. In the coziness of your reading nook, you’re sinking into a novel…and suddenly the writer fires off a metaphor that dazzles like a ruby, a snatch of dialogue that seems to echo in the hollow of your heart, a line of such bold understatement that its simplicity cuts into your soul. You rush onward, peeling through the pages as if skinning an onion, on one hand desperate to consume every remaining morsel of story, and on the other, desperate to not believe anyone could write something so achingly good.

You finish. You clap the pages shut and sigh. I’ll never write like this.

I know the temptation is overwhelming to admit you could never be among the hallowed legions of wordsmiths whose novels are the soft bricks in the bookstore aisle wall. But just as surely as a couple’s feelings now can affect the futures of unborn children, your confidence in your abilities to place gold on the page will determine what books will exist in the future…and which won’t. Just imagine what captivating stories would remain floating in the limbo between mind and page if you don’t pick up your pen and surrender to your dreams.

My first ordeal with this kind of envy was with the author Ian McEwan early in high school, when I read his WWII literary novel Atonement. The sublime descriptions still make my neck tingle—“the leonine yellow of high summer” coming into the greenery, the “chaotic swarm of impressions” that assault a young writer’s mind, the “caged panther” that is a torturous migraine headache. McEwan was a god behind the page, skating invisibly through characters’ thoughts and conjuring genius with a flick of his pen. This is the way he seemed to me, at least, and the intimidation I felt would’ve turned into despair if I hadn’t realized a simple truth: no one can hold a pen in the womb; every writer begins as a novice.

Since then, I have realized the work of great writers does not exist to dampen dreams, but to goad young writers into accepting the challenge of creating something even better. The key to overcoming this envy isn’t to imitate your favorites, but to let them guide you, admiring them as proof of what you can do if you stick proudly to your own vision. All else will follow, as long as every time you sit at your desk and lick your lips nervously at the thought of creation, you smile and remind yourself that you’re about to spin your own yarn of gold.

BIO: Anthony Otten’s fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Short Story America, Poetry Quarterly and The Houston Literary Review, among others. He will graduate from his junior year at Lloyd Memorial High School in the spring of 2011. He is at work on a literary novel set in the Appalachian coal country in 1933. He lives in Erlanger, Kentucky.

12 comments:

Sioux said...

Hope--I will keep my fingers crossed that when Anthony finishes his novel, and it gets published, that you will alert/remind us, so we can purchase a copy. What wonderful insight and talent at such a young age! Thanks for sharing...

Linda O'Connell said...

Kudos to Anthony who is wise beyond his years and extremely talented.

Susan Sundwall said...

Okay, I'm cozy in my nook, in my robe, reading this kids words and doing exactly what he states, "desperate not to believe. . ." a teenager (!) could write this well. Makes me sick - with envy - but also so very, very glad that someone so young has set himself on the road glimmering with writing gold. Go gettum, Anthony.

Nancy said...

Anthony, I'm awed by your many accomplishments at such a young age. I'm a writer who didn't start writing until I was well into middle-age. How I wish I'd fed my suppressed desire earlier, as you have done. I wish you many, many years of writing success.

www.writergrannysworld.blogspot.com

Mary Aalgaard said...

Profound and inspirational. I'm sharing this with other writers, especially younger ones.

Jessica McCann said...

Holy wow! What an inspirational essay and a brilliant lesson for every writer -- from age 5 to 95, from aspiring to published. I received similar words of advice from a fellow writer today. Just the kick in the pants I needed during a particularly tough writing week. Thanks, Hope, for sharing this with the "big kids" and thanks, Anthony, for teaching me a thing or two.

Jessica McCann
Author of the novel All Different Kinds of Free

Karen Lange said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing this, Hope.

BECKY said...

Very powerful. Thanks, Hope!

Sioux said...

Hope---Check out my April 21 post.I have an award for you...

Hope Clark said...

Link???

Mike said...

Amazing stuff from someone so young. I would say to him, a lot of distractions are coming your way in the next few years - never let go of that wonderful vision. And...thanks for the kick in the a** you gave me today!

- Mike @
http://radical-readings.blogspot.com

Vicki said...

I am stunned and humbled! What marvelous insight from someone that is still so young. I am sure that he has a great future in store for him in writing. He definitely made me envious and will have me striving to work harder for sure.