Monday, July 1, 2013

We Can Be Heroes

I only started actively using Twitter a couple months ago... April 15th, to be exact. I had decided that morning to start Tweeting  links to the hastily-composed verse I was writing each day for NaPoWriMo – National Poetry Writing Month. Then that afternoon, the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I finally understood why everyone used Twitter to stay on top of breaking news.

Lots of heroes came out of that day. The people who were injured, the families who supported them, the first responders and medical professionals who put forth every effort to help them and all of the everyday people who stepped up any way they could.

As the weeks went on and that unreal week faded, I started using Twitter the way everyone else does: I sent out links to my blog. I was always pleasantly surprised when people I didn’t know followed me back. I couldn’t get over that complete strangers liked what I was putting out there. I went from thinking “Eh, maybe I’ll do this, but I don’t think anyone is going to really care about what I have to say” to “Yes! I can do this!”

And I followed people. I looked for people I admired – many my favorite writers: Judy Blume, Mike Birbiglia, Steve Martin, Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson and Armistead Maupin to name a few. For one reason or another, their work really stuck with me throughout my life. They’re just a few of the writers I always aspired to be. They made me say to myself, “I wish I could write like that.”

When you follow a famous person on Twitter, you don’t really expect them to follow back.

And then one did.

Weekend warriors & writers
The day before, I had arranged for my sons to meet an athlete named Chris Wilczewski. He is competing in “American Ninja Warrior,” which just started airing its new season on TV this week. My boys, ages 11 and 7, are ANW addicts and have been for the last three years. My older son is a walking “Sasukepedia” (the show originated in Japan as “Sasuke.”)My younger son keeps playing Parkour in the house... out of the house... on the house. I’m the “Mom Always Says DON’T PARKOUR IN THE HOUSE!” mom.

My younger son is literally climbing our walls

When I learned Chris -- who was a finalist in last year’s ANW competition -- also ran a parkour gym not far from our home, I made it my mission to find a way to afford summer camp there for both boys. This year, we managed it. And when we told them the big news –they would get to go to a Ninja Warrior summer camp for a whole week, and meet their “hero” Chris Wilczewski! -- it was like Christmas morning on their birthdays in DisneyWorld. Here’s a taste of how they reacted:

"Woof woof!"

Honestly, I thought they were being a little silly. My younger son is a natural athlete, so his enthusiasm makes something resembling sense. But my older son is on the autism spectrum and has a number of physical limitations that make athletics difficult. I couldn’t get why – of all the sports and TV shows in the world – this bizarrely difficult obstacle course full of hard-core athletes and free-running competitors  -- this had become his dream-come-true.

Then, the day after I took the boys to meet Chris and sign them up for camp, it was maybe a week after I had finished writing my last NaPoWriMo poem. I was doing my normal Sunday night writing assignments when a “bloop” noise blooped on my phone:

@ArmisteadMaupin is now following you on Twitter.

My brain exploded. Seriously? Really? Me? I had fallen in love with Maupin’s Tales of the City series so much that I went to San Francisco right after college hoping to land a job. I hoped to find the real-world locale for the fictitious Barbary Lane rooming house. I hoped my mood ring would turn blue, just like Mary Ann Singleton’s.

Even though I know better than to read too much into a simple Twitter follow, I couldn’t help but allow myself to consider the possibility that, for whatever reason, this writer I’ve admired my entire adult life decided in the second it takes to click “Follow” that he wouldn’t mind if my Tweets showed up on his newsfeed once in a while.

It was a small, silly thing. But I admit it. I went “Squee!” anyway. Or as my younger son put it, "Woof Woof!"

Find your own people
That same night, my older son, came up to me to say thank you – again. I finally asked him why it meant so much to him.

His words, word-for-word:  

“Because now I’ve been accepted as a Ninja Warrior and I know that I can overcome anything and realize my dreams.”

It was the “accepted” that got me. For the past three years, he had been the only person he knew (besides his younger brother) to love this weird “American Ninja Warrior” competition no one had ever heard of before. For his whole life, he had always been the quirky kid with a hard time controlling his behavior, who was slower than the other kids, not as strong as the other kids. But now, he’d met his hero. He’s met other people  who share his passion. He's seen first-hand how he can contribute. He knows he can design obstacle courses. He can provide intel to the athletes about courses and success rates on obstacles. He can coach and cheer on other competitors. He’s part of something now. He’d been accepted.
My older son giving Chris a bear hug
on the last day of his "Ninja" camp.

By hearing how my son finally felt “accepted,” I realized how surrounding yourself with the type of person – or writer -- you aspire to be can make all the difference. Your people – your role models, your heroes – are the people who encourage you when you lack confidence, who make you feel less alone when you’re struggling, who show you by the work that they produce how you can do it yourself.

I’ve had so many false starts writing my own stories over the years. Outright failures and frustrations. I'd worked as a writer all my life, but when it came to writing stories -- stories of the fictitious, fantastical kind -- I was lost. I had actually given up on the idea of ever writing fiction, even though that had been my dream since I was 8.

That was then. This is now.

The big difference between then and now is that I've sought out my own people– a community of writers. On Twitter, On Facebook. And my off-line, in-person friends. Without support from them, I never would have tried to write a poem a day for a month. I never would have felt brave enough to put my writing prompts out there to the world. And I might never have had that tiny interaction with one of my “heroes.” 

Because of all that, I've been thinking to myself that If I can write poems everyday for a month... if other people are enjoying what I write... and if Armistead freakin’ Maupin is going to follow me on Twitter, then maybe, I really can write my story. 

And so I am. For the last month now. I started my novel. And I know this time I will finish it.

Dramatic tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing always bring out the heroes. Usually, when we go through the sad routine of telling stories in the aftermath, we learn that the heroes were the people who were already role models.

The people who run into danger to apply a tourniquet to a bomb victim, or who donate blood to people they don’t know, who organize fundraisers just because they want to help -- these the same type of people who, on a typical day would give a non-athletic kid a chance to be part of a sport he loves; who encourage friends and strangers to write the story they always wanted to tell; or they might be “famous,” people who also take the time to acknowledge their fans in some small way. 

Writing work is mostly work done alone. But it doesn't have to be lonely. Find  your people. Keep them close. Help others when you can. Practice kindness. Offer encouragement and acceptance of others who want to be like you.

If we do that, we can all be heroes to someone. -- WNG

PS: Life is just better when David Bowie is on your soundtrack.

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