I recently spent a Friday afternoon with a group of high school English students. They were stuck, their teacher said. Could you help? Since the teacher happened to be a longtime friend and I didn’t have much else to do, I said yes. Absolutely.
But it was more than simply helping out a friend and having something to do. Much more. The problem her students were having was the problem isn’t the sole property of the formative years. I didn’t have anyone around back then to tell me how to fix it. It isn’t often that life affords you the chance to right some cosmic wrong. When it does, you can’t pass it up.
Their problem was a basic one, simple yet foundational.
They had nothing to write about.
To a person, they were stereotypical teenagers. Clumsy and loud, with a strange combination of fear and arrogance. The one thing that set them apart from the rest was a common love of writing, whether it was expressed or not. But a love of writing isn’t enough. You have to do something with it. You have to have material. And they had none. Zero. Nada.
Or so they thought.
I can’t say that I managed to convince all of them otherwise in the three or so hours I was there. But I did some, I think. And I did a few most assuredly. Considering the fact that it’s darn near impossible to get a teenager to change his or her mind about anything, I’d call that a victory.
But then I started thinking about the fact that thinking there isn’t anything interesting about your life isn’t just for teenagers. Not just for writers, either. We all fool ourselves into thinking there isn’t anything that separates us from everyone else. So I thought I’d give the same little pep talk to you today that I gave them a couple weeks ago. Just in case.
It’s amazing how the rules of good writing are also the rules of good living. The two go hand in hand, I think. Good writing is cutting out all the excess, whittling down what you want to say until what you need to say is left. Same with living. Whittle it down. Find the basics. Keep it simple. Makes for not just a better story, but a better life, too.
I wasn’t visiting that class to talk about the basics of a good story, though. I was there to talk about the basics of getting ideas. Not surprisingly, that just so happened to be my own rule number one to good writing. And good living.
Rule Number One: You are extraordinary.
Don’t let anyone fool you with that. Some will try, of course. Some will try very hard. They’ll say you’re good or nice or very polite or even special, but not extraordinary. And maybe you’ll even tell yourself that. Don’t. That’s a lie, and maybe the biggest. Believe it, and nothing will really happen. Don’t believe it, and everything will.
It’s not just you that’s extraordinary, either. Your life is, too. What you’re feeling, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking. Your dreams and your fears, your hopes and worries. Extraordinary, and in a very special way. On the one hand, those things are unique to you. Your thoughts about them are your own, and how you approach each of them is determined by everything from your DNA to your experience and your beliefs.
But on the other hand, those dreams and fears and hopes and worries are for the most part shared by every other person who’s ever walked in this world. There is an invisible line that runs through the heart of every person, connecting you not only to your family and your friends, but to the stranger down the road. As different as we may appear to be on the outside, we’re all the same on the inside.
You are common, yes. But only in the way Da Vinci and Einstein and Twain were common. They were extraordinary in what they did with their commonness. You can be the same.
Think of this world as a house with many rooms. Some are big and wide and hold many people. Others are small and cramped and hold just a few. But all of those rooms are dark inside.
When you’re born, God gives you a light and places you in one of those rooms. It might be a big room with many people. Maybe it’s a smaller room with a few people.
It doesn’t matter what kind of room you’re in. Doesn’t matter who’s there and who isn’t.
All that matters is that you shine your light.