Homebound Letter 11 – April 17, 2020
Dear Stuck-at-Home Students:
When I was young, I used to think I lived the most ordinary life in the history of ordinary lives. Whenever I encountered an interesting character in a book or movie I’d feel so dull. I’d think, Man, nobody would EVER make a movie about me or MY family. We’re just regular people living regular lives. We’re boring.
Fast forward a few decades, and now I’m a writer. And almost all my stories are about . . . me and my family. Whenever I sit down to write, I’m basically stealing from myself. And my two sisters. My mom and dad and the two very different neighborhoods I lived in as a kid. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m making up stories or just plagiarizing the world.
I mention this because later today I’m going to read the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written on my Instagram Live (@mattdelapena). It’s called “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium,” which is part of a short story collection put out by We Need Diverse Books called FLYING LESSONS.
But even if you’re not able to hear me read the story, it doesn’t matter. I’m writing you this letter today because I want to issue you a challenge. And my challenge centers around the way you view your own life right now.
A quick intro for anyone new to these letters. My name is Matt de la Peña, and I write books. Usually I’m out on the road, visiting schools. Or I’m working on a new book. But right now I’m staying at home with my family. You probably are, too. Since we’re all in the same boat, I’ve been writing a series of letters to young people like you. They’re about things I’ve been thinking about. And trying to write about. I’d love it if you’d write me back. I’ve been getting a lot of letters, so I may not be able to respond personally, but I promise to read every single one of them. And I’ll try and share some of your responses in future letters (so be sure to include your name, age, and what city you’re living in).
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
(If you’ve missed any of my previous letters, I’ve collected them all on my website, mattdelapena.com.)
Whenever I present at schools, I tell students about how I grew up and where I lived and what I was like as a kid. I tell them how I was an average student who loved basketball. And because I was pretty good, I got to go to college for free. And that’s where I discovered my love of books and began to dream of one day writing stories of my own. When I finish talking, I take questions from the crowd. And usually somebody will ask where I get my stories from. And I always say the same thing. Real life. I tell them there are some amazing writers out there who can create these fantastical worlds, who can tell incredibly believable stories about vampires or ghosts or witches or wizards. I’m not one of them.
I’m better when I stick to what I see. Or what I’ve experienced. Or sometimes what a friend or family member has experienced. And then I turn it on all the students in the auditorium. I tell them, “Every single one of you sitting in here right now – including your teachers – has an amazing story to tell. It’s only a matter of being able to honor and value your own experience.”
One day one of you may write a novel of your own. Or a picture book. Two or three of you even. One day I may be competing with you on the open market. But for right now I want you to focus on this time of coronavirus. What is your life like? What is “school” like? Who do you talk to? What do you think about? What makes you feel anxious or excited? What do you look forward to doing when this is finally over? Who do you miss seeing? Where do you go when you’re sad or overwhelmed?
You might think your life right now is boring. Or ordinary. Or not worth talking about. But I disagree. We are all experiencing this time differently. And one of the reasons we read is to get a sneak peek into someone else’s reality. Another reason we read is to feel less alone. To feel like someone else is feeling the same feeling. So that is my challenge. Tell me about your life right now. (Bonus points for anyone who is willing to try and write this in second person, the way I did in the story I’m going to read today.)