“The [people whose] lives you touch may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ David B. Haight
I’ve had to take some time off from my blog because I’ve had to follow up on the last two conferences I attended. Both ended with positive results. I left Indianapolis with an invitation to send my manuscript to a well-respected agent, and I left Nashville with a nod for my YA contest entry.
But why do I feel so unsure right now?
I am two cover letters away from having both manuscripts in the mail. But the words aren’t there—not at this moment. Is it fear of failure?
I don’t think so.
I think it’s because I’m not sure I can find the right words to say. They’re there. Somewhere. I just can’t find them.
My words have to be PERFECT. I’m not perfect.
I’ve learned a lot on this road to publication, and it’s not all encouraging. Most writers write perhaps five or more manuscripts before they’re published. The wisest of the wise in the business say the first manuscript is a gift to oneself. The second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) manuscript is more likely to find its way to an editor and eventually to the bookstore.
My first manuscript is a compilation of 25 years of going to school each day and stepping into the lives of young human beings who are in the midst of a struggle to survive. I can’t neatly package 25 years of guiding teens through adolescence into one book, so I’ve had to choose the most meaningful moments to serve as my inspiration.
Trust me. Working with young people can be very messy. If you care, you get close. When you get close, the sludge of reality splashes onto your life. And it stays there like a stain. Forever—or until it makes its way into a book.
Let me give you an example of stains on my heart.
Most vividly, I recall comforting the student who stood outside my classroom, screaming and trembling in fear after having received a death threat in a folded note, the kind of note kids pass in class every day. I saw it. I held it in my hand. It was real. I also recall my lone visit to her gravesite after she was murdered, not long after she had received the letter.
I remember the countless times I welcomed Will to our church youth group. I smiled when he turned in scribbled crosses on his homework and wrote the name JESUS on his tests, and I sat with him and counseled him between classes when he told me how his heart ached for the girl who didn’t feel the same way about him. Then I cried when I heard the news he had committed suicide in his car on the side of the interstate one morning.
Then there was the ultra cool and confident Darren, who never managed to get his homework in on time. He was a hit with the girls. He wore the right clothes all the time—American Eagle, if I recall. He was the class clown, and he built a shrine to himself on the wall of my classroom. Every day he took a picture of him and plastered it there for everyone to see. He was the king of the slackers and prided himself on his ability to charm all his teachers, me included. I remember meeting his dad at parent-teacher conference and telling him not to worry about Darren because someday he might fool us all. The next time I saw his father was at Darren’s funeral. The only thing worse than the funeral was the moment I heard how he died—the result of a fiery car crash as he rushed back to his house to beat his curfew.
But I can’t write about the sludge. I don’t want to write about the sludge.
I have to write about the wonderful, kooky, utterly ridiculous ups and downs my teens go through every day. There is something about these moments that ignites a spark in the heart, creates a hope that even in this totally unpredictable world that something wonderful can happen.
You see, when I think about all these goofy, messy moments, my heart overflows with the joy that these young people have brought me.
I think about one mischievous sixth period class that repeatedly tried to talk me into skipping school with them so that they could take me fishing. One day I walked into my room, only to find it empty with a note on my desk that said “Gone fishing.” (Those crazy kids had sneaked out of the room to hide behind the lockers so they could see my reaction.)
I remember my “Couch Crew,” the group of kids who always had a problem. I told them that all we needed was a couch so that they could take turns lying on it as I analyzed their woes. Wouldn’t you know it? This group had the principal to sneak me out of the classroom so that they could deliver a REAL couch. To my room. Without me even knowing it. The look of accomplishment on their faces brought me more joy than one could ever imagine.
I’ve had the joy and pain of working with every type of teen possible, kids who have grown up to star in movies, to die as heroes for their country, to suffer physical and sexual abuse, to volunteer countless hours at homeless shelters, to murder, to be murdered, to play music on stages all around the world, to become moms and dads, and to teach.
But it’s their utterly ridiculous, goofy moments that have touched my heart the most. My heart’s desire is to touch their hearts through laughter. I want to make them smile. If they can smile, even for a moment, perhaps they can believe that hope really exists.
But how does one convey this information to a professional?
Hmmm. How can I translate sheer absurdity into poignant message? Drama seems to sell so much more easily that silliness. But it’s the silliness that put the story in my heart. The message is there, just a few layers below.
I love my kids. I love their stories. I love their lives. And I love mine.
If only I could just find the right words to say….