Two Fridays ago, I had the fun privilege of giving a talk on the creative process, storytelling, and my work in general at a 9th grade creative writing class taught by my good pal, Jeff.
Jeff teaches at St. Sebastian’s School—or Seb’s as the cool kids call it—an all-dudes Catholic school very similar to where I where I went: heavy on the sports, pranks, and future bankers; light on the arts, women, and calling classmates by their first names. It felt like a pseudo homecoming for me – you know, your classic hero’s journey: awkward, anxious 15-year-old dude finds a safe haven in creative writing; spends most of his ninth-grade free periods in his creative writing classroom, quickly finishing reading and writing assignments before moving on to writing satire about teachers and coming up with suggestive captions to National Geographic cave man pictures; awkward, anxious 15-year-old dude leaves the nest and returns, 11 years later, with stories of sirens and shenanigans—and a greater appreciation for creativity as a way to “loosen your inner editor,” as my good pal, Joyce says.
I knew the nature of the lion’s den I was climbing into, so I tried to break the ice right away (I’m using mixed metaphors here in the spirit of well-intentioned but confused 9th grade writing).
Assistant TO the regional manager hilariously and mysteriously became ass-istant TO the regional manager on the school’s computer. Ice broken.
I got into why I started writing and making videos back in the day (re: sports injuries; boredom; needing a playful counter to the monotony of school and work), why I still write and make videos (re: see above; curiosity), the weirdos who inspired me to create at 15, and the weirdos who inspire me at 26. (I told them, starting around their age, I began watching one episode of The Office every night when I got home from school to de-stress and have continued that essentially every night for 10 years now. Some homework ain’t assigned.)
It felt weird talking so much about the doing instead of doing the doing. So we ended with some doing.
One student wrote about his grandpa pestering him about not having a girlfriend. Another wrote about getting into trouble at the mall. A third wrote about realizing that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state.
All three seemed embarrassed at first. But you could visibly tell that, as they got going, they relaxed into the telling of the story and became less distracted by the story itself, less concerned with competing against one another, less intent on posturing, less eager to please, more sturdy. It reminded me of a recent Dave Chappelle line:
I don’t have this thing where I link my self-esteem to work anymore. When you’re young, you’re only as good as your last show and all that stuff. I don’t do that anymore. For me, the beauty is in the attempt.
* * *
Before class started that day, Jeff introduced me and buttered me up.
“…Will’s a really interesting guy, but he’s also really interested”—which was super flattering but really should have been directed towards Jeff. Jeff’s a fascinating dude. He’s wildly interesting and insatiably interested. He’s the rare former college football player whose walls hang Bob Dylan lyrics and pictures of whales. He owns a pet snake. His favorite thing on Netflix is The Little Prince. He’s a diehard Planet Earth fan. He’s favorite book is The Alchemist—and he recently bought a dozen copies just to have handy in case he meets someone (often complete strangers) who he thinks might enjoy the book and all its wisdom.
As part of their homework, Jeff had them pick their favorite Boston Being. I was ready for anything.
Jeff pulled up Boston Beings’ Instagram page. The first student talked about “that Pats fan who, um, has been a fan for a long time and was, like, real happy they won this year.” (Actual Boston Being)
The second student saw an older guy on the screen with a breathing tube. “Yeah, I liked that guy with the breathing thingy ‘cause, um, it reminded me of, um, my grandma and stuff. She’s got one of those. And I, uh, I thought that was interesting I guess.”
The third student cut right to the chase. “I liked that guy, Johnny Peacock. Johnny Peacock. He was definitely my favorite. Great guy.” (Not a real Boston Being)
He looked around the class from his peripherals to see how well his joke was playing (very well). Then he looked back down at his paper, pretending to pay attention.
It was so egregious that I couldn’t not be amused. The beauty is in the attempt.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.—Rumi