Lesson FROM Students

One of my favorite parts of this publishing process has been speaking at middle and high schools during my book tour. I adore seeing the kids’ eyes light up — the cliche is true; their eyes literally glisten with excitement — when talking about writing. It’s a fantastic feeling when they lean forward to hear about long-dead artists. I love when they ask about the hard parts of the creative process, too; it means they want to learn how to fight for their creativity, which is an important step — I believe — in doing it well.

I talked to eighty 6th graders at the project-based school of  Santa Clarity Valley International who were so full of questions that I never got to deliver my carefully prepared speech. Thank goodness because their torrent of curiosity had me talking about new and exciting things. At Lakeside High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the students asked about art history, publishing and Hollywood; I got to teach them about every aspect of my career, not just my obsession with Michelangelo and Leonardo. At High Tech Middle in Chula Vista, California (another fantastic project-based school) the kids asked some really tough questions: how do I handle writers’ block, how long did it take to research my novel, and why do I write in the first place. They got to the heart of the struggle of art and wanted help creating in spite of the difficulty.

These are just some of the students I’ve had the honor of addressing over the last few weeks; and I have many more schools on the docket. During these visits, I hope I’m teaching them something about art history, writing and the creative process… but I know they are teaching me things. And one specific lesson keeps popping up:

Forget everything except story.

None of those kids really care that I’m a “published author.” They don’t ask for a list of credentials. None insist on reading the reviews of my novel before listening to me.

In the classroom, the ONLY THING that has mattered so far is telling a good story. When I start my talks, they are dazed out; just another classroom lecture. But a few seconds in, I’m telling them a story about two rivals: one guy — Leonardo — is like the popular kid in school; the other — Michelangelo — is the loner, socially awkward. He’s sort of ugly… And those two guys hated each other. But for a few years, they both lived in the same town and pushed each other to greatness.

By then, those kids are leaning in, eyes wide, asking to hear more.

This shows me what I’ve known for a long time: a lecture about history never sticks as well in my brain as a STORY about history. But these kids — unable to yet mask their boredom or excitement behind polite adult smiles — show me the importance of story with every gasp, laugh, and groan.

Story is how we learn. Story is what that binds humans together. Story is power.

This whole process has reinforced why I chose to be a novelist, not an academic (Don’t get me wrong: we need academics. I love them; I use their research every day!)… But for ME it’s the hook of the story that’s important in passing our shared history down to a new generation. And it is important: how else can we create new and better things or become better artists, creators and thinkers  if we aren’t learning from the those who have come before? I want those kids to know all about Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo — two of the most unique minds in history — because imagine what a new generation of kids — with increased access to information and and the possibilities of technology — can do when building off their brilliance.

That’s what inspires me to tell stories — showing people, young and old, that creativity and genius are possible. It may be difficult; you may have to struggle; you may have to fight; you may have to go up against a fierce competitor… but you can  win by creating something brilliant of your own.

The teachers want me to teach the kids about art history and writing — and I do. Students leave with more understanding of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Renaissance art… but more importantly, I hope they are left with a STORY in their hearts that will lead them to their own passions. Because that’s what matters. Not that these kids all become art historians or writers, but that they find what DRIVES THEM — like carving marble drove Michelangelo, learning to fly drove Leonardo, and telling stories drives me,

That’s what I try to teach kids in the classroom — but that’s also what they teach me.

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