CSSSA at CalArts

Last Friday, I stepped back onto the CalArts campus for the first time in 20 years. I went to the California State Summer School for the Arts there (CSSSA, which people call “SEE-SAH”), during the last possible chance I had to go, after I was done with high school. I studied creative writing there– it’s a month long program and you get 3 units of college credit at the end.

It was the first time I felt like a real writer. Why? I suppose because I had to compete to get in; and after you got in you got invited to luncheons where they gave you medals and certificates of commendations from everyone from the mayor to the governor. It was a Big Deal to get in, and they gave me a full scholarship so I could attend. And once I was there, I got to hang out with other people who wrote, and I had to try to hold my own and not get too intimidated and learn how to support people; and everyone else there seemed immensely talented and made me want to work harder.

During the session we had guest speakers and I kept thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll get to come back and be a guest speaker,” and I did.

I brought Eldest along, because she is into the arts and I’m hoping one summer she will go.

Anyway, I was their first creative writing speaker for the session, and as the students gathered (70 in the program) I reflected on what I wanted to say. I thought I’d tell them, “Do not be afraid to be a writer.” And I was thinking about why it sort of took me so long to get to the point where I really really got serious about writing (because I needed to live some life first) and wondering if I should tell them all my secrets about publishing (yeah, not really any true secrets. If there are, nobody told me).

Then I realized what I wanted to say, and indeed said, “I want you all to be afraid.”

Why did I tell a bunch of kids to be afraid?

Because if you’re not afraid of what you’re doing, it’s not really worth doing. You should approach your work with a real ohshitcanIdothismaybenot kind of attitude. Throw yourself in, see if you drown.

Each piece of writing that they attempt should scare them. They should not be sure anyone will like it when they get up and read. And then they have to have a thick skin when it doesn’t work and be humble enough to listen and improve.

My first instinct, if I am being honest, is to go for the safe. But somebody is always pushing me– me, that voice in my head pushing me toward the ambitious idea– and my agent. I am never sure of what I am doing. I am always positive it’s going to flop. Sometimes it does and it feels absolutely horrible. But it’s not the end, and once you experience that kind of failure and you get up and write something that succeeds, then you know you can do it again.

I was as honest as I could be and the whole time I was looking at them and the kid yawning in the front (yeah, I saw you) and wondering if they were listening, if they cared, if they were processing. Really, no different than talking to my own kids. I answered questions, read from the books, and I wished I could be there longer.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “CSSSA at CalArts

  1. My daughter was just accepted and her belief in herself skyrocketed. Thanks for your insight and thoughtful remembrance of your time there.

    One typo I think. You wrote:

    Because if you’re afraid of what you’re doing, it’s not really worth doing.

    When I think you meant

    Because if you’re NOT afraid of what you’re doing, it’s not really worth doing.

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