How does a writer like me re-energize and stay inspired to keep writing? The answer to that changes daily. But today my inspiration came from a whole room full of people, mostly educators dedicating time on a Saturday to help promote writing and reading among the youth in our community. It was a humbling, amazing experience. I haven’t tackled a personal, big writing project since my children’s book. I write every day and edit for my full-time paying job and I enjoy it immensely but sometimes I just want to write what I want to write and be among literary folks. Today I had that opportunity, and I was able to hang out with my dear, sweet editor and friend Linda too.
The University of West Florida College of Education and Professional Studies, the UWF National Writing Project and the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County held a literary symposium. It kicked off with a self-declared non-reader, bilingual and mixed race boy from a border town of Mexico and San Diego, who later went on to become a Newberry Medal winning author. Mr. Matt de la Peña, a best-selling author of six young adult novels and two illustrated children’s books, shared insights into his writing journey when he delivered the keynote speech at the event.
The symposium was entitled “See the Beauty in Books.” Teachers and writers in the community attended breakout sessions offered by educators involved in the National Writing Project (NWP).
NWP is a network providing resources and tools to help educators improve the teaching of writing and learning in schools and communities. UWF is one of only four Florida universities that are part of the NWP network. UWF’s NWP offers a three-week summer training program for Pensacola-area teachers designed to help them boost students’ writing skills.
De le Peña read his award-winning book, “Last Stop at Market Street.” He also recounted his family upbringing and personal struggles as a child. Educators told him he would have to repeat the second grade because of his poor reading skills. He began to dislike school and believe he was not capable of doing well. His biggest mistake was labeling himself as dumb and incapable. He shared a story of watching his uncle be handcuffed and taken away by police when he was thirteen years old revealing how those moments as an eighth grader became later central themes in his books. Subjects of embarrassment, shame and self criticism are key messages in his stories.
Later de le Peña fought against his own stereotype and worked harder to become a better reader. As a sophomore he began to write poems in the back of class. One teacher noticed and encouraged him to compose more. When de le Peña was accepted into college on a basketball scholarship, his father, who did not have a high school diploma at the time, told him, “We think you are a success,” and those words forever changed de le Peña. That uplifting statement freed him from the pressures of following in his working class parents’ footsteps. He would pursue whatever he wanted to study in school.
Still it was years later, in college, before de le Peña realized that he wanted to be a writer and tell stories from his past. Again it was another teacher who encouraged him to read a novel. The book, “The Color Purple,” changed de le Peña’s perspective on characters. He realized he could root and care for them, even people of different ages, races and cultures.
“Teachers, some of the moves you make and the words you say now to kids will not take effect until years later,” said de le Peña to the symposium crowd of educators and writers.
“But they do matter and can have a positive effect, just as they did for me,” he added.
De le Peña described books as filling an empty void inside him. Reading books helped him to become a better writer. He praised teachers in the room for attending the event to help young students also become better readers and writers.
Hearing his words took me back to the ten year old inside me. My upbringing was nothing like Mr. de le Pena’s. Mine was ordinary and normal and boring in some cases. I think that’s why I turned to books…to add more adventure in my life. I wrote poems about things I had never even experienced in fifth grade. Yet somehow I was compelled, drawn to writing them. Sometimes I still am, even at age 38.
In addition to the keynote presentation given by de la Peña, attendees selected two professional development sessions taught by NWP members. Teachers presented writing techniques for different school grades. Speakers shared experiences that sparked creativity in the classroom for writing and reading assignments. Instructors shared positive criticism techniques for students and example writing assignments. I was taking notes like crazy. I may not be a teacher but I’m a parent to two young girls and I was thinking…”I’m going to try this at home…” and “Hmm, maybe that writing prompt will help me in my work and my personal writing…”
It was helpful. I so enjoyed being around people who are passionate about reading and writing. I have had a few standout teachers in my educational experience but these women and men were really working hard to make a positive impact in my community’s schools and beyond.
I have reached out to extend my gratitude and offer to help with their endeavors. If I had more mentors and engagement as a kid, I may be on my tenth book instead of just my second one. So my goal is to encourage others to write, to read and to dream of possibilities…whatever they may be!
What knowledge can you share with those around you? How can your talents help others? Today’s event opened up my eyes, ears and ideas wider and for that and for the people who hosted it, I am thankful.