A couple weeks ago, I had the unexpected opportunity to be in the presence of two of today’s most innovative writers: Khaled Hosseini and Dave Eggers.
Our setting was unassuming and certainly unexpected. No, I was not part of a 1,000 plus audience in a plush auditorium complete with velvet cushioned seats and a heavily-miked sound system. No, I did not pay $15+ to get into an author’s lecture series. Instead, I sat in a worn wooden chair in a heavily under-funded high school library- tables scratched with graffiti reminiscent of bored and distracted students, shelves at the front of the room empty except for one or two Penguin classic Mass Market paperbacks, cheesy colorful posters tacked to the walls, a typed and mounted school code of conduct. I was seated in between a brilliant middle-aged artist and a short, peppy middle-aged retired high school English teacher. Beside them, lined up in the back with me were a smattering of professional writers, artists, teachers and other professionals most with at least Bachelors degrees in English or Creative Writing, some even published authors. In front of us were three small rows of excited high school students, murmuring amongst themselves, settling into their chairs, and texting. At the front of the room, seated in two of the same worn wooden chairs, were Khaled and Dave, talking to each other with a worn and stained white board behind them.
Unexpected is right. Why, you may be wondering, was I in such close proximity to two of the most well-known writers today? Sitting in the back of a worn high school library, behind the main audience of about 50 high school students? I wondered that myself, even, as I surveyed the room and its assorted cast of characters.
In January, I exuberantly jumped into volunteering with the San Francisco-based nonprofit called “826 Valencia.” This nonprofit was founded by Dave Eggers in 2002 in order to provide programs as well as a space to get public school kids from San Francisco excited about writing. Ann and Steve had been telling me to connect with 826 since 2009 when I first lived here but I finally got my act together before Christmas to sign up. And I couldn’t be happier. One of my goals this year was to focus on my writing, both for myself and to create some more portfolio-worthy pieces. I have been keeping up this blog as much as possible and have been certainly writing quite a few cover letters, but these opportunities to work with kids on their writing and surrounding myself with professionals has helped me find the root of my passion for the art of writing. Yes, my love for writing will sometimes be for myself- to articulate and sort through my thoughts and to try and express the beauty of life in words. But the real beauty of having a talent or a passion is sharing it with others. To get others excited about a topic just by the simple act of sharing your excitement with them.
I have had the opportunity to work for six weeks primarily with one young woman at June Jordan High School for Equity as part of a 826 Project. Every year, 826 selects a high school to work with in their Young Author’s Book Project. They locate a motivated and inspiring teacher who has the charisma and dedication to work with 826 for a whole year. 826 selects a theme that they would like the students to explore and presents this theme to the teacher. The teacher then spends the whole first semester of the school year assigning reading and small writing assignments related to the theme. This year, the theme of the project is mythology: in all its forms. Stories, heroes, the role of mythology in culture, teaching future generations great lessons through the practice of passing down stories, etc. And in the second semester, the students spend almost two months crafting a personal essay on the topic. For some of these students, this is the longest piece of writing they will have ever created. For others, they will struggle to cut down their essays to a printable length. For some students, English is their second language. And for others, they can only write in colloquial slang. But each and every one of these students has an incredible story to share. And this is where we come in- to help pull these stories out of the students. To recognize and praise them as writers, to empower them through the use of their own words, to aid them with our own expertise and experiences writing, and to learn from their struggles that they may articulate. And by May, these essays will be congregated and published in an actual book- to be sold all over the country! These students, published authors before the age of 18!
And that is why we had all congregated in the library at June Jordan. The students, 826 staff who help coordinate the project, us tutors who sat in the back (many taking off work from their day jobs!), and the big guys up at the front (Dave and Khaled). We were congregating on this temperamentally rainy February afternoon to eat pizza and talk about storytelling together. Dave had connected with Khaled, a local author, has agreed to write the forward to this book about myth and storytelling and had the chance to talk with the young authors to exchange ideas about the topic and tell his own journey story as a writer.
We sat expectantly, riveted, for close to two hours as Khaled told us his incredible story of immigration, learning English, climbing the academic latter until he was a practicing doctor, writing The Kite Runner from 5:00 AM to 8:00 AM every morning for a year before he went to see patients, publishing his first novel, stepping down from his profession as a doctor to write his second novel, and now flying around the country speaking to people about writing. It was an incredible story to listen to. But what struck me most was his humanity. I devoured both of his novels a couple years ago, blown away by their heartfelt, heartbreaking stories. He has sold 17 million copies of The Kite Runner. But at the end of the day, he is a human. A man with a wife, kids, a house, and his own flaws that he can talk about honestly in front of 70+ people he doesn’t know.
We rarely get to meet the authors whose words we read and its very humbling to know that they are not larger-than-life, unapproachable characters. Yes, they have great wisdom to share with us about the writing process (for Khaled, his advice was to always write for yourself, as you will always be your most loyal reader), but at the end of the day, they are as talented as the rest of these professional writers I work with at 826. And great writers like Khaled, though they have been monetarily successful with their writing, are our colleagues in this world of great, wise, and talented writers. I was also struck by his honesty about success. Khaled practiced as a doctor for eight years, convinced that this was his career for life. He never expected to be a published writer. But he was always a writer, even when he made is living as a doctor. “Success is out of your hands,” he told us. Always write what you would want to read, be proud of your work, as you are your greatest audience. If you have something to say that compels you, then write about it. Others will want to read it, too.
I was very struck by this advice, and inspired. Though I live in my little corner of the world, typing away at my computer, seated at my card-table desk in a bay window on Sanchez St. in Noe Valley, San Francisco, California, someone may want to read my words. But at the end of the day, I write for myself. To sort out my own thoughts, to reflect on my experiences, to try to live more fully in this beautiful world. And at the end of the day, this is the value of having a passion: to come more alive by utilizing our individual talents, by finding what it is in this world that inspires us to do good. Though this thing, whatever it is, may not entirely put a roof over our heads, the key is to stick with it. Because if we are dedicated enough to something that inspires us and pursue this passion with fervor, then our reward will come. And rewards are not always monetary either. 🙂
To read more about Khaled Hosseini and his inspiring work, you can visit: