Today I spent some time at Johnson County Community College talking to ninth graders from the Olathe school district about being a writer.
One of the first kids who came up to me asked me if spelling was important. I considered it for a while, then said YES, BY GOD, IT IS. Then he asked if I write things out longhand, and I said, "No," then heard myself uttering, "Although I did when I was your age. We didn't really use computers then."
This kid looked at me as though I were fossilizing before his very eyes.
A series of flat-ironed blond girls streamed past. "What's the demand for your field?" one asked, popping her gum.
"Well," I said, "By the time you're out of college, I think we'll have that all figured out. Right now, it's pretty bad, actually." I paused. "But writing will never be outsourced to another country. Think about that. And corporations aren't really as evil as you'd think." Gah gah gah gah gah
At this point, I looked at the arborist sitting next to me with a giant chainsaw and asked for some of his Purell. All I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears.
DON'T TOUCH YOUR FACE. DON'T TOUCH YOUR FACE.
As I waited for more kids to approach, I heard one large boy ask the arborist, "Why would you need a chainsaw that big?"
An alert-looking girl ambled over. She skipped the questions on the preprepared form and went straight for the blogging. "How do you build your following?" she asked. "How long did it take to get one?"
I thought back to 2004, when I had a good day with 30 hits. "It took a long time," I said.
"I have a huge following on DNL," she said. I think that's what she said. I have no idea what DNL is. It must be something the kids are doing these days.
"I push a lot from Twitter," I replied. One of the other girls flipped her hair.
"I don't know how to make Twitter work," said the other girl.
You and most of America.
A teenaged boy came up. "I'm sorry," he said, before he'd said anything. Then he looked nervously at my sign, which said "writer."
"I like to write," he said, "but I don't think I'm very good at it."
"You know what? Nobody's very good at it in ninth grade. If you like it, you're probably better at it than you think. Keep going."
I got into a conversation about Ray Bradbury with an earnest-looking wanna-be reporter. Most of the kids looked through me at the window beyond.
The organizer kept getting on the loudspeaker.
THERE'S NO WAITING AT GARMIN!
The crowd began to rustle.
THERE'S NO WAITING AT THE EDUCATION BOOTH!
No shit. They're in ninth grade. Educators are still "other."
I sat back and listened to my thoughts:
I had those same elf boots when I was in ninth grade.
These girls are so lucky they won't regret their high school hair later in life, unlike us unlucky schmucks who came of age in the eighties.
DON'T TOUCH FACE! DON'T TOUCH FACE!
Why is your field not in demand? Why don't more people pay you to write?
Their feet look so BIG.
Why are these girls so good at liquid eyeliner? Could I learn?
Another girl approached my table. "So, um, how many things have you written?" she asked, looking bored. She scanned my portfolio, flipping the tear sheets and the Sleep Is for the Weak coverage.
My computer hard drive flashed before my eyes -- thousands of individual pieces. How many posts are in this blog? 1,296. I just checked.
How can I tell her the volume of words it takes to get better?
It's overwhelming how much work it takes to get good at something. What should I say?
So I said nothing. I smiled and signed her Career Fair form.
"Hey," I called as she walked away. "Go to school for what you want. There are a lot of great-paying jobs that'll kill your soul."
She smiled, flipped her hair. "Thanks," she said.
And then I flipped back through my portfolio, remembering every single piece.