Ideas into action: Advice on getting started from Youth Poet Laureate Amanda C. Gorman

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On November 17, 2018 students from all over the world are convening at TED Headquarters for the annual TED-Ed Weekend event.

This year the event celebrates students who “show up and speak up” and acts as a reminder that every student has an idea worth spreading and has the power to effect change. Even though it can sometimes feel like the gap between inspiration and action is wide, this year’s guest speakers remind us that all it takes to get started is a first step.

But let’s get specific! In anticipation of the event, we interviewed some of our speakers to ask them about those first steps, and exactly how they went from having an idea to fulfilling their dreams. Meet Amanda C. Gorman, the first ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America. You might have caught her performance of “An American Lyric” at the Library of Congress last year. Before you catch her speaking at TED-Ed Weekend (live on youtube.com/tededstudenttalks), check out this Q&A. Hi Amanda! How do you decide what you’re going to write about? Where do you turn to for inspiration? I’m not sure if I decide what I’m going to write; it’s kind of like the subject chooses me. Not to sound too Olivanderian, but just as the wand chooses the wizard, I think sometimes the poem chooses the poet. It’s so difficult, not to mention not healthy nor ideal, to force poetry. My working life sways between periods where I have a lot of ideas, and not a lot of time; or, conversely, sometimes it feels like I finally have time in a hectic life but am running dry on ideas.

“But what tends to inspire me most consistently is the work of other poets.”

I love reading through anthologies (one of my favorites is Angles of Ascent), and trying to understand what I like about a poem, and how I can improve upon it. Usually flipping through anthologies and other collections (for example, I love Sonia Sanchez’s Shake Loose My Skin) starts an explosion of questions inside me, and that’s the beginning of a poem. How much of your work is based on inspiration versus motivation versus discipline? Haha! I think poetry is a trichotomy of all of those! It takes incredible discipline to sit down and hone the poetic craft, something that doesn’t always get recognition, financial pay off, or social support. So that discipline and follow through necessitates motivation.

 

“I’d say for me, poetry isn’t a destination but a pursuit, a journey to write more often, to write better, and to write for something that matters.”

What steps do you take once you’re ready put pen to paper? Do you have any rituals, any specific place you like to write or tools you use for writing? If so, how did you come up with these rituals and systems? The most consistent ritual I’d say I have is music. If I’m ready to write, and I can make it work, I love playing some Hans Zimmer, Rachel Portman, and/or Michael Giacchino. Particularly I look for music that speaks to the emotions I’m trying to convey. I write with any pen I have available; I just prefer pen because it’s a bit more longer lasting than pencil. From a young age I was always so anguished when I opened my journals to see that all the pencil marks had smudged and disappeared over time! I love writing by the Charles River, but it is definitely too cold for my Southern California fingers to handle it in the winter, so my desk in my dorm has to do.

“I didn’t formulate these rituals ahead of time. I think a lot of finding the right system that works for you comes from experimenting.”

 

You have to go to different workshops and try out the strategies there, read about other writers’ processes and try them out, as well as improvise with your own and see what feels right. When you discover the one that fits you, you’ll know.

Do you ever feel stuck? What do you think that’s about? Are there any specific steps you take to help yourself feel unstuck? I’m always furious when I hear a writer, when asked for advice on being stuck, say: “I don’t get writer’s block”. This fury is partly out of jealousy, because writer’s block is very real in my life, but it’s also because simply saying writer’s block doesn’t exist for you doesn’t help other writers who do face it, and who may be pushing through trauma or the belief that their voice isn’t worth being listened to. I think for me, and many people in general, writer’s block often comes from a place of insecurity. It’s a worry that our words don’t matter, that everything has been said before, that we don’t have anything to add.

“I have to remind myself to trust in my craft, that many things have been said before, but they haven’t been said by me in the way I’d say them, that no matter what, speaking up, and also listening, through words will always matter.”

How did you learn to share your work? I think writers groups, especially ones focused on carving a space for underrepresented identities, have been incredibly helpful in my development. In high school I was part of WriteGirl, which hosts creative writing workshops and a mentorship program for girls. I also attended some weekend poetry workshops for youth at Beyond Baroque and workshops held by YoungArts. Those were spaces in which I could share my work and get constructive feedback, which is always a little scary at first, but like anything, it takes practice. Do you have any advice for young would-be artists?

Keep writing. Keep going. It sounds cliche and obvious, but I think there are so many forces out there that attempt to delegitimize young artists and their voices. Over and over again you’ll be told you won’t make money, you won’t make a difference. But being committed to your craft, as well as yourself, is a reward in and of itself. By keeping at your art, you’ll be able to do what very few can, which is to use creativity to produce something bigger than yourself.

 

“Wherever you are, be hungry to find the library, the coffee shop, the after school program, the students meeting in the community center, the places that create space for writers.”

 

More about Amanda: At 20-years-old, L.A. native Amanda Gorman is called “the next great figure of poetry in the U.S.” In 2017 she made history by becoming the first ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America. In this  role she has spoken at the Library of Congress, the United Nations x Mashable Social Good Summit, WE Day, and venues across the country. Prior to her national position she served as the inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of L.A. and later the West. In these capacities she met Michelle Obama at the White House, conducted a library tour, and published The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough. She is Founder and Executive Director of One Pen One Page, which promotes literacy among youth through free creative writing programming for underserved youth. She has been a HERlead Fellow in Washington, D.C, and London, and a UN Youth Delegate in NYC. She’s performed alongside Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda to advocate for youth leadership and arts education, and spoken alongside Al Gore and Secretary Hillary Clinton for environmentalism and women’s rights. Featured in The New York Times, The Today Show, MTV, Teen Vogue, Seventeen Magazine, TIDAL, Essence’s Woke 100 list, Time for Kids, Yahoo Style, the Google Assistant, and more, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Glamour Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, and Elle UK. A model on the side, she’s been a face in two national campaigns for Eileen Fisher and Helmut Lang. She is a recipient of the Making a Difference Award from Black Girls Rock and BET,  recognition from the Scholastic Inc. and YoungArts, a Genius Grant from OZY Media, and a College Women of the Year Award from Glamour Magazine. This fall she was selected from a competitive 20,000+ applicant pool to be one of the newest contributors to the New York Times newsletter The Edit, tailored to college students and recent graduates. Currently a Harvard junior in the top of her class, she studies Sociology and Spanish.

(Photo by Anna Zhang)