Updated: Jan 31, 2021
Petrichor, backyard barbeques, and car exhaust; the humid blanket of 80 degree weather; the busy highways overlooking a sunset-lit downtown and long, flat, and fat roads…welcome back to Houston, Texas. Home.
For only one day. I spent it with young artists and writers; my freshman year English teacher; my best friend; my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle; nostalgia; and myself.
What a beautiful day.
On March 25, 2017, Scholastic Art & Writing Awards gave me the opportunity to come back home to speak at the regional awards ceremony for 9th-12th grade artists and writers. Held in the Alley Theatre, one of the oldest resident theatres in the country, in an auditorium where I sat and listened to some of my favorite writers, the ceremony celebrated the next generation of artists armed with—in the words of poet and keynote speaker Long Chu: “the greatest superpower of all: empathy.”
As someone who was inspired by empathetic friends, family, and teachers and empowered by Scholastic to find, feel, nurture, encompass, and share that empathy through my own work, I knew I wanted to go back as an alum to reflect on my experience.
An incomplete transcript of my speech:
I wanted to start with a quote from William Zinsser, a writing guru whose works really inspired my own work, and that is: “Writers are the custodians of memory.”
Now, I think “writers” is simply a more narrow way of saying “artists,” so I’m going to go ahead and expand that quote to say, “Artists are the custodians of memory.”
What does that quote mean to you?
To me, it means that we, as artists, capture what we either perceive or believe to perceive as reality and preserve it for others to see as well. We are offering our personal interpretations on life, death, heaven, and hell, and everything before, behind, beyond, and between it as well—in an attempt to make sense of the world for ourselves and our audience.
But what makes being a young artist so powerful is that we aren’t just custodians of memory. We’re creators of it. We all have many years ahead of us, so there are many memories we have yet to make and record. You—and all the people around you—are the next creative troublemakers, disruptive thinkers, unpredictable entrepreneurs, mad scientists, and talented dreamers who are going to create change in some meaningful way, and that’s amazing. But as creators of memory, we must always remind ourselves that, first and foremost, we are its students.
Think of all the teachers, family members, and friends who have helped you get to where you are today, and think of all the hard work you had to put in to get this Scholastic key. That hard work is something you’ll have to continue to put in if you want to even come close to perfecting your craft, whatever that means. And, if you’re like me and still have no idea what that means, then you should keep learning and keep creating. Because you all know, better than anyone else, that the process of making your art holds the strongest memories of all. Create those memories, guard them, become their custodians—and once you feel comfortable sharing them, create new ones.
I concluded with a short excerpt from my critical essay “Hoping for Disaster,” a piece published in The Best Teen Writing of 2016 analyzing postmodern disaster culture in America. I sat back down in the audience hoping that whatever I just said on stage was not a postmodern disaster.
Some more words from Long Chu that I found particularly resonating:
“Art teaches us empathy. It allows us to look beyond our differences even as we explore ourselves.”
“You have the beautiful power to understand the differences in others because you understand yourself.”
“You are starting a conversation when you create.”
“I am a refugee. That is a statement of fact, not a statement of politics. Arts provided me with a refuge to express myself.”
“Simply put, the arts changed my life.”
They changed mine, too.
That’s why I’m writing this now. That’s why I’ll be writing, always.