Letter to a Young Writer

Letter to a Young Writer
Dana, 12, selected for the UNCG Young Writers' Program

Yes, that’s me rockin’ my UNCG Young Writers’ Program t-shirt and troll necklace (pink hair visible), complete with perm and bangs. Oh, and in my vanity I insisted on removing my glasses, but I’m so nearsighted that I didn’t know where to look for the camera. Hence the sort of pitiful, nearly cross-eyed gaze. This is the precious, 12-year-old Dana from Reidsville, N.C.: middle school student, aspiring author.

This photo resurfaces during moves and spring cleanings. It usually disappears as quickly as it emerges, so this time I promised myself that I would do something with it. Now that I write for a living, it seems appropriate to update the aspiring writer in the photo and offer some wisdom. Here goes.

Dearest Dana:

You have real courage. Fresh from Mr. Tim Poe’s Glenwood Elementary School 5th grade class in Chapel Hill, you listened when he encouraged you to keep writing your short stories inspired by a sprinkling of RL Stine and a dash of Stephen King. You’ll end up leaving horror (and even fiction) behind, but it was your breakthrough. Thank God for the breakthrough.

Upon entering Reidsville Middle School, I’m delighted you informed your 6th grade teacher (Mrs. Sharpe) that would you be publishing a book by the 1992-93 academic year’s end. That is what dreams are made of–confidence–and ignoring the nays. Thanks to your grandiosity, she insisted on your participation in the UNCG Young Writers program. Bless her.

As you complete the 6th grade and progress in your writing journey, here are a few tips:

  • Listen to your English teachers. Mrs. Sharpe, Mrs. Apple, Mrs. McGough, Mrs. Kimmel, and—yes, that’s right, even Mrs. Guzy—have tremendous things to teach you. Despite their propensity for red pens, they are all brilliant women with a lot to share.
  • Please pay attention. That grammar lesson on active vs. passive voice? Wake up! The Elements of Style? It’s gospel. Shorter sentences. No unnecessary words. Stop repeating yourself.
  • The eloquence of The House of the Spirits, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights will haunt you. Literature will be your mainstay.
  • You will be boy crazy. Yes, the unrequited love and tears will be useful for pumping out gut-wrenching prose, but please, do a little less chasing and lot more writing. No worries, you’ll meet Fred when you are 27. Perfect timing.
  • You will send your first book proposal to Shree Bykofsky when you are 22. She’ll reject it–but you’ll get a nice note from her editorial assistant. Keep that note. It will take eight more years to muster the grit to submit another proposal.
  • Oh, and Maya Angelou will be teaching at the neighboring Wake Forest University while you are a student at Salem College. Courage, dear. Find your way to her class. Don’t take no for an answer. Let nothing intimidate you.
  • Know that you’ll never leave writing behind. The road is winding (you’ll major in French and History at Salem, and you’ll go to Duke for Divinity School), but God will help you find your way. Your  journey will include the incredible writers Penelope Niven, John Utz, Lauren Winner, and Enuma Okoro. They’ll teach you and inspire you.
  • You were born to write. Embrace it. Don’t fear that people will say you are nuts–they will. Just love yourself and practice, practice, practice. You’re on the right road, baby, this is who you are. Keep writing!

I’m so proud of you, 12-year-old Dana.

Enjoy the ride.


Your 29-year-old self

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