(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)
Kwame Alexander, the Newbery-Award-winning author of The Crossover, was the first keynote speaker at the 2016 Writer’s Digest Conference, and he was a delight. I gave my students his book as one of their summer reading options, and many of them chose it because (being sixth grade boys) they thought it looked easy: it has short lines because it is written in the form of a long poem. Kids, as I keep telling people, are very practical, though it’s not the kind of experienced practicality adults practice. My students were generally surprised that it was also a very good book.
He was a lively, funny speaker who was both moving and funny. (Check out his Newbery speech for inspiration.) The title of his talk was “Saying Yes to the Writerly Life,” and used the theme of “Saying Yes” to hilarious effect. It was the well-known story of how a writer becomes an “overnight success” after eighteen years of effort, and he told the story of an endless series of opportunities to which he said “Yes” — and the endless ways in which things didn’t quite work out as he expected. He began with his experience in college at Virginia Tech, where Nikki Giovanni was one of his professors, and offering his services as a “local playwright” to put on his first play, then an “experienced playwright” after that. He wrote love poems and funny stories, publishing himself, starting a book festival, writing for the kids’ show Hip Hop Harry, publishing his children’s book Acoustic Rooster, and pursuing the dream of pitching a TV series. When I looked him up later, I found that he had a rather deeper resume than he implied at times, of course (and it took me a bit of ferreting to discover that, as I suspected, he was a high school English teacher at some point). *
The takeaway from the talk was that to be a writer, you have to be willing to take whatever opportunities come your way, even if they don’t work out the way you think they will. A simple enough message, but a good one.
*and he was very careful indeed to give his wife considerable credit for his success.