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Stories Are Magic

I gave the following keynote speech at the 2023 Fiction Fantastic youth writing contest award ceremony. You can read the text below or watch the video here.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a storyteller. I used to make up stories about everything. Some people might call that being a compulsive liar. I call it being creatively charged. Everything can be a story if you try hard enough, and boy did I try. Pictures of fairies became long epics about magic and fairy politics. Trips to the airport with my parents turned into tales about orphans restarting their lives somewhere new. And bed time stories told by my mother became my own. She just never told them right, but luckily I was there to help out.

Stories are magic. They are the impossible, the improbable. They are joy. It’s why I’m still a storyteller today. I hope it’s part of why you are, too.

I wrote my first story in fifth grade. It was about two girls who discovered their teacher was a witch. She was an English teacher and her name was Miss Spell. My proclivity for puns started at a young age, as you can see. The villain was a thinly veiled copy of my own fifth grade teacher who I didn’t like very much, though I had the audacity to share the chapters with him anyway.

It's about this time when telling someone about that book where I’d usually say that it wasn’t very good. If I was feeling particularly nervous, I might say it more than once. “It was terrible, so so bad, just a heaping pile of garbage.” But the truth is, I don’t really think that. I just feel like I’m supposed to say it because I was young when I wrote it and I’ve learned so much since then.

Sure, my writing has improved. For example, I know how to use a semi-colon now. I’ve also put in a lot of work to learn about story structure, broaden my vocabulary, and refine my wordsmithing skills. But I’m not sure that first story wasn’t in some ways the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why? Because I was having fun.

At some point between being a writer for pleasure and being a writer for work, I decided I could only do one of those two things. For some reason I thought I couldn’t create something good if I was enjoying it. This is untrue. One of the many lies I tell for a living.

I was forced to confront that lie a few months ago when I was delivered a document with stories written by all of you, in fact. I don’t get to read for fun very much anymore. Most of what I read is for work—so were your stories, actually. But from the moment I read the first line of the first story to the last line of the last story, I found myself smiling from ear to ear.

It’s been a long time since something energized me the way your stories did. I couldn’t stop grinning. I thought about the characters for days after I finished reading, telling everyone in my life about the brilliant minds of the next generation. There was a creative freedom in what you wrote that made me feel so happy. It was as if I could feel the enjoyment you all felt while writing these stories as I read them. You harnessed the thing I’ve been searching for since I wrote my first story. Joy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about joy since then, about finding it again and allowing it to shape my writing. When I sit down to write, I think about how I felt reading your work. That’s the feeling I want my readers to have. So, I may stand here on this stage today, but know that I look up to each and every one of you.

It is a strange thing to judge creative work, as is my purpose here in this contest. Writing is not like a race where one person is inarguably faster than another or a game of soccer where one team scores more than the other. Stories are not skyscrapers, competing to be the tallest. They are more like stars, how bright they shine different depending on where in the galaxy you are. Stories are subjective. Every single one has merit. You all have different strengths as writers, and that doesn’t mean you are better or worse than one another. It just means you are different, and that is what storytelling is all about.

There is, in our culture here in the United States, a tendency to assign value based on skill rather than on growth. I think often about the idea that we must be good at something in order for it to be worthwhile, about how we must be an expert in order to enjoy it. But I have had the most fun in my life while being bad at things. I love to learn, and there is no better place to grow from than the beginning.

You are all at a beginning now. I challenge you to keep writing and to keep learning. But most of all, keep enjoying what you do. It is more of a reward than you know.

So, today I will call some of your names and give you the awards you have rightfully earned with your skill, your dedication, your humor, your creativity, and your joy.

Remember, stories are magic. But so are you.

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