author – activist – faculty – mom
In honor of the Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam finals, I’m posting a spoken word piece I wrote nearly a decade ago called Teenage Warriors. I wrote it especially to be performed as an adult poet performing after the young people had read their work. I thought about what an adult audience is feeling in that moment, and was committed to honoring the young people’s words, but also to addressing the wellspring of emotion that comes up for adults watching young people be brave and creative in ways that we may have given up on.
Thanks to Ann Simonton for requesting it, and to Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene for sharing the idea of posting work from our archives. In future, I’ll be taking requests. I’ll let everyone know when I open the request line.
Here’s a photo taken at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from Brave New Voices 2005 in NYC when I was working for Youth Speaks. I have always found inspiration in working with young people, and now young adults, but this particular piece encourages older adults to keep pushing ourselves. When I looked up the piece, in an old chapbook, I saw that I had also written a companion “how to” essay around reclaiming creativity. I’m including that, too. Enjoy!
This is dedicated to everyone in the audience who, like me, is over thirty [I am now over 40!]. This has not been a show, this has been a ritual, and these young word warriors have conjured up a spirit of creativity, so if you feel moved, it is because you feel a stirring inside yourself of the teenage warrior you used to be.
You see, all teenagers are warriors, because wherever you grew up, whenever you grew up, growing up is a war. This country has no love for young people and other countries don’t have too much more. Whether you fought openly, resisted passively, gave in angrily, or gave up early, you were a warrior. And we arrive into adulthood as refugees from the front, battle scarred and weary, our few meager possessions on our back.
Sometimes we are so grateful to have survived growing up, that we gladly sacrifice that stormy, teenage warrior. Surrender her like a weapon, release him like a political prisoner. But the warrior is also the creative self and if I lose the teenage part of me, I also lose my creativity.
A man once said to me he didn’t have a creative bone in his body. He’s a poet now, but that’s beside the point. The point is that every bone in our body is creative. We are created, we are creations of the creator; creativity is our birthright.
There is a sheet of paper a pen a paintbrush a dance floor a camera a piano a lump of clay with your name on it.
Get ready to regress and remember how to express the raw emotion while your adult notions stay motionless. You can’t soar unless you leave the ground and as we get older we hate to sacrifice safety.
Calling all lost hopes
Calling all discarded aspirations
Yes, you had dreams once, you wanted to live a life that was vital alive creative, you were a teenage warrior of the first order; you thought, God, if I can just get out of high school out of college, get a car, get away from my parents, get out of this damn town, get my own place, get to New York, to California, finally I can be free. Finally I can live my life for me.
But where is that freedom we thought we saw lurking in the shadows just around the corner? If only we could get that new job, new car, new relationship, new house, new salary, new city, new start, turn over that new leaf, get the youngest in school, lose that weight, get that big break, get the business off the ground, get those nagging voices in our head to settle down. If only we could just get those last pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, certainly we would be free, wouldn’t we? And then we find ourselves at a youth speaks poetry slam and damn if we don’t see our young selves staring our grown selves in the face, and there is a fierce freedom in these teenage voices that we had forgotten we used to have.
Just look at these young people. They are so new so bright so shiny so vibrant; they have their whole lives ahead of them. You may want to delegate your creativity to their young, underpaid, brilliance. You may want to hang your hopes on their shoulders; I won’t let you. I won’t let you give up on yourself. I don’t care if you’re 30, 50, 70, 90, you have your whole life ahead of you. I don’t care who you’re shacked up with, who you married, who divorced you, how many kids you have, how broke you are, how much you hate your job, or how lonely you feel. This is still your life. You had dreams once and they were not dreams of numb security, of scraping survival, of glum resignation.
You are still just as shiny, just as vibrant–
Calling all lost hopes
Calling all discarded aspirations
What were your dreams, what is your destiny? What were you put on this earth to do? These young people can’t live your destiny for you.
Globalized corporate monopolies are trying to embezzle our lives right out from under us. We have lost and stolen dreams in this audience tonight. Before you leave this building, do a full body search on each and every one of yourselves for what you have forgotten. You wanted to write a novel, you wanted to dance with Ailey, you wanted to paint, you wanted to make music. It is not enough to watch other people be creative. Please don’t settle for being a spectator in your own dream. Sitting on the sidelines of your own vision, playing best supporting actor in the movie of your life.
The statute of limitations never runs out on your destiny.
Fortunately for you, this is the bay area. There is a find your passion support group every day of the week. There is a therapist, a personal coach, a minister, a rabbi, and imam, an iya locha, a shaman, a babalawo, a mentor, a psychic, a medium, a curandera to realign you with your destiny. This is a necessity.
You say you don’t have time, but you had time to come here tnight. And I know you planned ahead because the tickets have been sold out for ages.
If you have time to come to a poetry slam, you have time to write a poem. If you have time to watch movies, you have time to write a screenplay. If you have time to get a pedicure, you have time to take those feet to a dance class. You say you can’t afford it, but I’m not telling you to get a degree, I’m telling you to get down with your creativity.
Teenage warriors never die, they just hole up in their bedroom with the music on blast, and rock out; go get her, go tell him you still need him. What’s wrong with this country is that we have lost the teenage warrior spirit. That vibrant sense of love and justice and outrage that could never invade Iraq.
These young people weren’t up here to entertain you, they stood up to challenge you: this is what free expression looks like, use it before we lose it.
This is what truth telling tastes like, take the time to find the truth in you. It is not creativity but boldness and conviction that we adults lack. The next generation can speak for itself; it’s time for the previous generations to holla back.
Reclaiming our right to creativity in our lives
Many of us have settled. We have settled for being spectators in the creative realm. The time has come to reclaim ourselves as creative visionaries, sharing our truths and creative gifts with the world.
I see four major stumbling blocks for folks in moving forward with our creativity.
Not feeling entitled to be creative
The core of our right to be creative is about being listened to and nurtured when we were young. Did adults and other young people around us listen to us and think what we had to say was important? Were our creative efforts praised or criticized?
Many of us have critical voices in our heads that pick away at any of our efforts. These are a core saboteur of any creative effort we even consider. Two ways strategies for handling the saboteur are as follows:
Isolation/lack of a creative community
For those of us who live in urban areas, particularly in the Bay Area, there are a million resources. I will list several at the end of this book, including books and websites for those of us who live in more isolated places.
Take a class. Go to an open mic. Join a writer’s group. Read a book on unblocking. Find a creativity support group. Find a writing buddy. Go to an inspiring talk or lecture on creativity. If we are surrounded day-to-day with people who think artists are only people on TV, our creative dreams may seem silly or out of reach. When we develop community with other people who are engaged in their creativity, we feel a sense of connection and possibility.
A way out of no way: making time to write
When it comes to writing, many of us say we don’t have time, but time is the one resource where everyone has an equal share. However, we all have different levels of responsibility and support in our lives. Making a living, taking care of a household, a family, volunteer or activist work, emotional and spiritual work, and self-care obligations may fill up a lot of our time. If this is the case, many of us long to play and relax during the precious shreds of free time we do have.
Often we don’t even play and relax well, we are so wound up from all that we do, and we waste our free time on things that aren’t really our priorities.
The following are some common things that drain our time:
Here are suggestions to fight back against these time stealers:
Taking care of other people
Say no more often. Many of us feel guilty or selfish when we say no to people in order to take time for ourselves. Perhaps we grew up in families where our needs were not always taken into consideration. Whether this was due to a lack of family resources, due to the fact that “doing without” was seen as a virtue, or due to out and out neglect, we may have been left with the feeling that taking time for ourselves is unacceptably selfish. We often understand our place in the world to be as the caretakers, or the ones who hold everything together.
It may be that when we choose to make and take time for ourselves we feel guilty. According to Charlotte Kasl, who writes about women and codependency (compulsive caretaking patterns), guilt is a withdrawal symptom from our pattern of taking care of others. I’m not encouraging you to neglect your kids or jeopardize your job. I’m encouraging you to consciously prioritize your time. For most of us, if we look closely at our lives, we can find 20-60 minutes a day we are spending on something that is not the best use of our time.
I turn on my computer to write and find myself on email for 45 minutes. There goes my writing time. My solution is to commit to write first.
When we watch TV, we become passive consumers of stories and media, instead of creating it. Also, we are rooted to one place, watching, and unable to do anything else productive. If we want some of the entertainment benefits of TV, without all the side effects, consider the following substitutions. Renting a movie can provide entertainment, and two hours later, it’s over, whereas TV can go on and on. Similarly, books on tape can provide entertainment, but also leave our bodies free to do housework, to stretch or exercise, or to be lulled to sleep.
I often spend time fielding other people’s problems or just chatting when I’m not getting that much out of the experience. This is one way I mindlessly squander my writing time.
Putting writing first
The best solution I’ve found to making time for writing is the following: write first thing when I wake up. Many of us come home so tired that we can’t muster up the energy to write. Fair enough. A powerful commitment is to get up before the day begins and give your writing your freshest energy. Let the job and the household chores get second best. Even getting up 30-45 minutes early can make a big difference. For those of us who are not morning people, carving out some time at night when you can write can be very gratifying. If you take a nap after work, you may be able to bring that fresh energy to your work, as well.
Time is the one resource that is not renewable. Those of us who are busy and overscheduled may have a hard time prioritizing our writing. However, if we push ourselves to make conscious choices, we may find that we do have time to write.
Feeling blocked from writing when we do finally sit down
The source of writing blocks is generally emotional, not an inability to write, but an inability to accept what we are able to write at any given time. Only through unconditional acceptance of where we are in the present can we move forward.
The way we get better at writing is by writing. Obsession doesn’t help; neither does worry. We can’t sit back and think about writing and expect to improve at our craft. If what we are writing now is awkward, incoherent, or trite, it is only by getting it out that we can develop some raw material to shape into the artistic vision we have in our heads.
Often we are blocked because it is difficult to accept that we are a beginner. We have a glorious vision in our heads of what we want to write and what we put on the paper does not resemble it in any way. In that moment, it is our disappointment and hopelessness, not our lack of skill that stops us.
Some writers do report that their initial drafts do flow naturally and effortlessly, and need little editing. For the rest of us, however, especially beginning writers, we need to accept that writing well is hard work.
We confuse talent with skill. Talent is a natural ability. Skill is learned and can be developed through practice, repetition, and work over time. The myth about artists and writers is that one must have the natural ability to be a great writer from the start. We hoped we were one of the lucky ones. When we find we are not, we get discouraged. But if only we can stop judging ourselves, we can be pleased with our progress at every step of the way
I find it helpful to break down the creative project into three stages of development. Each stage requires different skills and has different goals. Blocks often take place when we are in one stage, but attempting to use the skills or expecting the outcome of another stage.
Stage One: Generating Material
Focus on Quantity
Goal: unconditional acceptance of what we write.
We can be pleased with ourselves for generating raw material, no matter how raw. If we do not generate anything, there is nothing to shape into a finished product. Do not edit in this phase, just stay in motion. If you can’t think of the right word, just put “word choice?” in brackets. If you don’t know how to begin a scene, a paragraph, or a chapter, just begin with whatever idea is in your head, and go from there. It’s okay if it’s choppy or cliché.
Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird talks about the artist’s entitlement to a shitty first draft; the value of just getting the idea out onto the page.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests “Morning Pages,” a daily exercise of three longhand pages of stream of consciousness writing. I have seen writers adapt this to generating 2-3 typed or handwritten pages of draft material for a project. I use this in my own writing, and it works. Remember, two pages a day is a book a year.
Stage Two: Refining Material
Focus on Improvement
This is where we can begin to identify weaknesses and challenges in our material. Now it’s time to turn the editor back on, and we can use our analytical skills to problem solve. We don’t need to solve all problems perfectly, just to move forward. Sometimes we may need to send material through this stage several times. This is especially true in long projects, and for first time authors. We are learning how to write a novel, a memoir, an autobiography, a book, or a collection. There is much skill development that takes place in this stage.
I am of the mind that it is better to write through a full draft several times than to get bogged down in revising a first chapter over and over.
We can bring fresh energy to a scene or a chapter if we have been working on other parts of the book in the meantime. Also, how can we know exactly how the first chapter needs to be, if we don’t know the particulars of the rest of the story yet?
If revision seems overwhelming, it can be useful in this stage to focus on one thing at a time when revising. Voice, consistency of plot, language, character development, staging, description, and other craft issues are all possible areas of focus for a single round in the revision process.
Stage Three: Polishing
Focus on Satisfaction
According to a quote in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, “A book is never finished. But at a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing.” You will notice, there is no stage that focuses on perfection. A piece isn’t finished because it’s perfect, it is finished because we’ve solved enough of the problems that it has a strong connection to the original vision we had in our heads. Perhaps it has become a living thing of its own, not quite like our original vision, but better, more real. Either way, we find ourselves ready to move on to other things. It is important to remember that no single project makes or breaks us as a writer. If we keep at it, we will have many artistic visions, and many opportunities to bring them into reality.
These stages can help us overcome blocks at any point in a creative project. The key is identifying the stage your project is in, and using the corresponding skills and focus. Don’t edit while generating. Don’t imagine your stage two draft being ripped apart by a critic. Let go of the need to perfect every single detail in stage three. Forward movement is always the key. And have faith; as long as things are in motion, you will reach your goals.
Remembering you have a body while you write
Why on earth would we be enthused about writing if we know that it means we will force ourselves to sit hunched over for four hours with wrist strain or writer’s cramp, a stiff back and neck, nothing to eat, and a full bladder?
Perhaps this is an exaggeration of how you work. Perhaps not. We need to make writing pleasurable or at least minimize the pain and strain on our bodies. The following are tips to ease the process: