Inspiration comes from many places, and recently my muses were a bright group of middle and high school students at the Richstone Family Center in Hawthorne, California.

“What does it take to be a good writer?” Diane asked.
“How many years does it take to go to law school?” Mike inquired.

The dozen students were part of the Peer Leadership Group from Richstone, a non-profit social services agency dedicated to preventing and treating child abuse, strengthening families and preventing violence.  When my friend asked me to speak there about being a writer, I was excited about sharing my story with young people. I went there hoping to teach them about my journey of becoming a writer. But when I finished, I think I was the one who learned the most of all.

“To be a good writer,” I said, “you have to be curious. You have to imagine yourself walking in the shoes of someone else, and feel what that feels like. You have to wonder about a different place you’ve never been to before, and teach yourself something about it.  If an idea strikes you, you have to pursue it and write about what you learn. You have to be curious.”

I’m not sure that answered Diane’s question, but I didn’t want to prescribe a certain method of writing, especially to a young writer. We are all naturally inquisitive, and I believe we can all write. In fact, the underlying desire to tell a story is much more important than the writing itself. I love stories and telling them through the written word. Encouraging others to write gives me great joy. Through this process, I hope to relate with my readers, young and old.

In order to connect with this diverse young audience, I told them my family story of coming to America when I was seven. I described how I used to read at the public library while my parents worked. I explained that reading gave me a love of learning, and how I went to college and then to law school. Although I stayed at home to raise my two children, I decided to pursue writing. I talked about writing my family memoir, trying to get published, and building an audience through my blog and social media. Mostly, I emphasized how our journeys are full of twists and turns, and how normal that is.

As I talked, the students were giggly and squirmy, as tweens and teenagers are. Some were silent so I wasn’t sure what they were thinking. But they all looked at me intently, perhaps wanting me to surprise or enlighten them with something new.

The Writing Exercise

I decided to try a writing exercise to draw them out more. I pulled out some journals that I had been collecting, and had them each choose one. Then I introduced a writing prompt from one of my writing classes:  What’s in a name? Do they like their first name or last name? Where did their name come from?  How did they name their pet? Have they ever been called names?

It was a hit! After a few minutes of writing, I asked them to raise their hands if they wanted to share their work. Arms shot up in the air. One girl said passionately “I don’t like my name! I wish I was named something else!” A boy exclaimed “My name is Mike. It’s not short for anything, it’s just Mike.” The students laughed and began to loosen up. I couldn’t be happier that they were expressing their voice.

After my speech, a young girl with glasses and a warm smile came up to thank me. She introduced herself as Katherine from El Salvador, and said she too came over to America when she was seven. She was in 10th grade and wanted to go to college.  She said she could relate to my story and was interested in law school. She identified with me, and maybe saw that she, too, could go to law school some day.

As Katherine gave me a tour of Richstone and talked about her family, I learned something too. I saw myself in her and realized we had so much in common. We laughed when we discovered that we had both watched TV to learn English. We read books at the library to learn about American culture. I saw myself as an immigrant girl again, full of hope and possibility. Katherine and the other students at Richstone gave me something of my childhood back that day and I was grateful. I am indebted to each of them for bringing my work richness and meaning. I am inspired to continue to write and engage with young people in the future as a result of my visit.