Reality, we know, can be a tangled, chaotic mess.
Mary E. Pearson’s words carried out over the auditorium at Canyon Crest Academy on Saturday morning, March 11, an ingot of truth carefully molded for the 200 teenagers who hung on her every word.
The New York Times best-selling author — by way of Carlsbad — counseled and consoled the aspiring writers, commiserating with their fears, waxing poetic on the transformative power of storytelling — at one point “a unique kind of magic,” and later, “the only reason mankind has survived” — and exhorting them not to fall prey to regret for things not done and never tried. It was an ultimatum of sorts, a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of anyone as obsessed with story as she is.
“The truth is always there — simmering, whispering, a story that won’t go away,” she said. “It’s a recurring ache within us. Maya Angelou said there’s no agony like bearing an untold story within you. She understands that weight, and so do you. That’s why you’re here … You see images and you hear voices and you don’t need medication for it. A pen or a keyboard is your only cure. You have to answer the call.”
Pearson’s words opened CCA’s sixth iteration of its annual Writers’ Conference, an all-day confab of accomplished wordsmiths and 200 students who hope to take up their mantle. The two dozen authors on hand — from playwrights to journalists to graphic novelists — dispensed hard-earned wisdom to the eager horde of aspiring writers, insights into the creative process, fine-tuned techniques from their careers spent stringing one word after the next.
Started in 2012 by then-president of CCA’s creative writing group Devyn Krevat, the conference has grown stronger each year, maturing into a mutually beneficial day of mentorship. That success is due in large part to continued guidance from Devyn’s mother Kathy Krevat — herself an accomplished author — as the conference has grown in size (it includes students from a half dozen schools), sponsorship (organizers believe it to be the only free writing conference for high school students in the country), and prestige (this year’s speakers boasted an all-time high of New York Times best-sellers).
“It’s making a name for itself, it’s getting more recognition,” said CCA senior Julia Camilleri, taking a moment from tending to the logistics of her final conference. “We’re being sponsored by a publishing agency this year, which is really cool, and authors are starting to reach out to us ask to speak. It’s a really good experience for young authors and it’s a really inspiring experience. You go home and you are really motivated to start writing, even if you were not much of a writer before.”
Saturday’s workshops saw authors and students sharing insights and struggles alike. Graphic novelist Jim Pascoe invoked an anecdote from his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illuminate how one well-placed image can convey action that no amount of dialogue could. Matthew Wolf explained how seemingly trivial details were the key to conjuring a world as massive yet believable as the one he created in his Ronin Saga. Sylvia Mendoza helped her participants compose a would-be news article about the conference, tweaking variations in structure and tone to tailor the article for different kinds of audiences. James Matlack Raney teased apart the appeal of great — and not so great — action sequences from The Iliad to Sharknado.
“I had nothing like this,” Raney, author of the Jim Morgan Books, said after his session, the fifth year he’s presented at the conference. “I just kind of learned through hard knocks. I wrote things that were really bad and I just had to put them out there and people had to tell me they were bad. So to come to a place where I could have learned some techniques before trying would have been awesome. If you’re a kid and you’re interested in writing, this is the place for you.”
Whatever the genre, the authors hewed close to one abiding theme: writing is the only way to conquer its inevitable obstacles. Then keep writing. And then write some more after that — no matter the frustrations and doubts sure to arise.
“Oh let me count the ways that fear creeps into a writer’s soul,” Pearson mused in her keynote address. “The blank pages, the endless blank pages. They’re like something out of a Alfred Hitchcock film —square white birds pecking and pecking at you. And then there’s the clock: it’s not ticking, it’s screaming at you.”
Complicit with fear is failure, but she hammered home again and again that failure is indispensable to success, summoning adages from towering figures as diverse as Thomas Edison and Michael Jordan, as Lao Tzu and Jim Carrey. In each instance, she said, failure was more than merely unavoidable, it was utterly necessary.
For Pearson, fear had its root in her own chaotic childhood, both at home and in the world at large. She recalled the duck-and-cover air raid drills, desks shoved together as supposed shelter for the terrified children huddling beneath. She recalled standing for a moment of silence when news broke that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. She recalled the images in news magazines of people setting themselves on fire in a mysterious place called Vietnam. Family life brought her no respite. Hers was a childhood filled, she said, by relatives seemingly plucked from the Addams family (on her mother’s side) and the Beverly Hillbillies (on her father’s).
“We had all the dysfunctional, dark drama of reality TV on a regular basis, minus the big bucks,” she said. “The drama came complete with death, drugs, alcohol, murder, suicide, abuse and always, always the crisis de jour.”
It made her more introspective, more attuned to observation and detail, plunging her into ravenous and indiscriminate reading — magazines from Tigerbeat to National Geographic, encyclopedias, novels, romances, science fiction. She loved Pride and Prejudice and Fahrenheit 451, and, of course, helped herself to a healthy heaping of Hemingway. And then came the seminal moment she pulled The Outsiders off a shelf and finally found herself certain of the kind of writer she wanted to be.
“It wasn’t a classic, it had never been assigned in the classroom, it wasn’t even well-known. But it’s a book that changed my world profoundly,” she said. “It was a book that was populated by people I recognized — teenagers — and it didn’t shy away from the uglier and real side of life. … It sounded like my world, and it was a book written for me—not my parents, not my grandparents. I read it multiple times, and I cried every time I read it.”
As she headed off to college, she found herself swept up in the power of writing to reveal the truth. And yet, she couldn’t muster the courage to reveal her own personal truth. Her working-class parents —neither of whom graduated high school — would never understand their youngest child wanting to pursue something so impractical.
“I was afraid it would be like saying I wanted to be a ballerina astronaut,” she said. “It sounded so unrealistic. College was for jobs with pensions and benefits.”
The life that eventually took shape was one of a dream deferred: married at 18 to an accountant with no literary inclinations and having settled into a job teaching elementary school, her passion for writing smothered beneath a mass of denial and delay. One decade turned into the next, her fears always outweighing her yearning to write, until a relative’s offhand remark one day finally sent her desires into irresistible boil. Her excuses fell away when faced with the prospect of another 20 years of regret.
“Real writers write,” she said. “They don’t wait for all the planets to align just perfectly … They snatch the moments they can and they create others. They make it happen, and they don’t let fear hold them back. They don’t think about writing someday; they do it, now.”
She hunkered down for an entire year to compose her first manuscript, only her husband and children knowing what she had taken on. She kept her parents in the dark, still afraid of their reaction. Finally, ebulliently, she put that piece of herself out into the world.
“Well, the world didn’t love it,” she recalled. “I cried. I panicked. I was absolutely terrified. What had I done? But the one thing I didn’t do was give up, not this time.”
Undaunted, she learned to find the value of editors who had strewn notes of encouragement between the lines of their rejection letters. She set to work on the craft of writing, schooling herself on point of view, dialogue, subtext, conflict, foreshadowing. She revised her manuscript and submitted it again. When her book still didn’t sell, she embarked on another, honed through invaluable critiques at her very first writers’ conference. She listened, went home, revised—ad nauseam. Five months later, a publisher tendered her first offer.
“I remember being numb, hanging up the phone after the call, and then crying and screaming and dancing in circles in the kitchen with my daughters,” she said. “It was and it will always be one of my sweetest memories.”
Pearson went on to a heralded career as one of the nation’s preeminent youth authors, piling up awards and appearances on best-selling lists. Ten of her novels have now been published, in 20 different languages. The Remnant Chronicles is beloved. The Adoration of Jenna Fox has been optioned for a movie. She recently sold her next two novels on proposal.
”Oh, and my parents know I’m a writer now,” she quipped.
But no matter the successes, she said, failure has and will always loom near on the horizon, a specter under which all writers by necessity struggle.
“Each of you has your own journey. It won’t be like mine, or the person sitting next to you … You have stories to tell that no one else can — as long as you show up,” she said. “So now I challenge you: go forth, hone your craft, learn, grow, become a warrior of truth, learn to dig deep. Slay us with your honesty. Be wicked, be ruthless, cut to the core. Make your truths cold and hard and hot and sticky and loud, so they are impossible to ignore or deny, so they will make us breathless, make us weep, make us angry, make us fall onto our knees with gratitude that we are not alone. Whether you are writing a dark drama, a sweeping fantasy, a poem or a knee-slapping comedy, remind us with every word what it means to be human and what we share. The world needs your voice. Your stories matter. I was girl and had a calling. So do you. I’m waiting to hear your stories. Be fearless.”