Monday, September 29, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing? Part II

Once you have determined where you fit in the equation of writing (see previous post), then you are ready to investigate your selling point.  Whether you are the writer looking to get hired to tell someone’s story, the blind old man in the park looking to hire a writer, or the blind old man and the writer combined and looking for a publisher; the one thing you all need to do is sell yourself. The goal is to make a living putting words together, yes? So we have to be able to sell ourselves. To do so, we have to be able to articulate our theme. And I’m talking not about the theme of any given story. I’m referring to the theme of our lives. We each have a major theme that we wake up every day and play out—and if you can articulate that, you can sell what is uniquely you.

Consider one of my partners, Robert Renteria. Robert grew up in the barrio of east LA. He slept in a dresser drawer as a child in a one room bachelor apartment. When he was three, his father abandoned their family in search of heroin and alcohol. When Robert was six, his head was crushed by a carnival ride and as some of his family members were mentioning funeral arrangements, Robert made a miraculous recovery. In his teen years, Robert followed the path of too many Latinos and dropped out of school to help his family put food on the table.  During that time he also ran with gangs, did and dealt drugs, was shot at and stabbed and gave back his fair share. Robert was headed straight down the path to where his father would die when Robert was 17—on Skid Row.

But Robert’s Grandfather challenged him to get out of the barrio.  To make something of himself.  And when Robert was in his early 20s he took that challenge, went back and got his GED and entered the military. He served our country for over 7 years and when Robert returned to LA, his so-called friends had graduated to hard-core drugs. Some of them were in prison and some of them were dead. So Robert left again. He moved to Chicago with $200 in his pocket and he slept on a friend’s floor until eventually he got a job.  He worked every single day for years, not seeing his family, but dedicated to making something of his life. Five years later, Robert was the VP of a publicly traded company and he never finished high school.

But today Robert couldn’t do that.  Kids need to stay in school and get their education. Especially at-risk kids. They need that education to level the playing field. And so Robert wanted to tell his story in the hopes that he might inspire a few other people to make better choices in life as he had been lucky to do.

Today, From the Barrio to the Board Room is supported by Princeton University professors and ghetto and barrio middle school teachers alike. Congressman and Mayors have endorsed the book. Organizations and individuals are buying the books by the hundreds and the thousands and donating them to their community schools and churches. Most importantly, the kids are reading the book and talking about their own lives. To them, Robert is a symbol of hope.

Per my previous post, Robert is the old blind man, I am the writer, and these children around the world are the passersby in the park. We are all part of a new legacy. We are all part of Robert’s theme. That theme is Chasing the American Dream. Robert wakes up every single day and goes to work proving to himself that he has the right to that American Dream, and proving to everyone he meets that they have the right to it to. It’s part of his DNA.

What you need to determine if you’re going to have a successful writing career of your own, is ‘what is your own theme.’

I have worked with over 300 writers and every single one of them had a theme. Most could not articulate it until we started working together. Until we started being intentional about putting it into words. In the next post, we’ll discuss how you can look at your own life and start to put your theme into words.

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