Dream on

Advice to aspiring poets and prosemakers: Get experience first

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

I spent most of an hour last week purposely demolishing the dreams of a somewhat select group of teenagers. Because they took it so well, I thought maybe I should share the same thoughts here with you.

The 26 young people were guinea pigs-the first to enroll in our inaugural high-school version of the World Journalism Institute. They came from all over the country for an intensive all-day session designed for aspiring young writers and journalists. The Saturday classes were staffed by Bob Jones, David Freeland, and others whose names you see regularly on the WORLD masthead.

Bright and responsive, these young men and women engaged quickly in some of the tough issues of journalism we like to discuss in World Journalism Institute settings-issues like objectivity, fairness, and truth-telling. Even so, I felt compelled to ask them up front the question that always nags me about younger people: What do they really want to write?

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For I have learned through the years that the real goal of most aspiring writers is not to do reporting for a periodical like WORLD. Most people who go to writers' workshops have a secret desire sometime, somewhere, to write the great American novel. Still others (usually young women) would love see their poetry in print. The group last week, I discovered, was typical in that regard. And it was on that front that I felt obliged to shatter their dreams.

I confessed to the students that my negativism could conceivably be born out of my own inadequacy in those two categories. I have never even wanted to write a novel. And for 35 years, I haven't been able to set aside the embarrassment I felt after trying once to get into print with something I thought might be called poetry. It was truly awful.

My real reason, however, for discouraging my young listeners from trying to dive headlong into careers as novelists and poets was not nearly so personal. My real reason is this: Even most adults-I'd say even most elderly people-aren't old enough yet to write compelling novels and insightful poetry. They simply haven't yet had enough experience. So if that's true of seniors, isn't it that much more true of juniors?

Good novels and poetry are created out of rich experience, sensitively observed. Convincing characters, apt descriptions, real-to-life situations-all those prompt the reader to lean back and sigh, "This is authentic. This has roots in reality. This is believable."

Yet experience is neither quickly nor cheaply acquired. That's why Shakespeare called it a jewel. Henry James wrote in The Art of Fiction that "The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it-this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience."

But if all that is the stuff of which experience is born, what hope is there for a youngster? It is precisely there that I want to be the enthusiastic encourager of every young man or woman with an interest in using words. The good news is that almost anyone can go out and get experience. And I know of no better setting to develop such experience than in the practice of journalism.

Journalism is the day-by-day practice of watching carefully the lives of men and women and boys and girls, and recording in detail what makes those people alike and what makes them different. It is noting with insight how those people live and operate as individuals, and how they live and operate within larger structures. It is observing their efforts to cooperate and the tendency to engage in conflict. It is recording the expected and the mundane, but being ready for the unexpected and the exciting. It is ultimately discerning what God Himself is doing within the landscape of His vast creation, and reporting the details of what is happening within the context of God's value system.

That, I told the young men and women last week, is an opportunity open to every one of them. Don't give up your long-range goals, I said. But don't pretend either that you're ready to do what is likely to come only after you've spent years honing your skills.

From my point of view, Samuel Clemens (profane and rebellious as he was about the God of the Bible) remains the greatest of American writers. He knew people, he knew human nature, he knew geography, he knew weather, he knew river navigation, he knew the great art of description, and he knew much, much more. He got his start as a newspaperman and journalist; as such, he got experience.

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