Author to preps: Write for yourself first

Elizabeth Acevedo talked to students about life as a writer and how her process allows for "delight in discovery."

Adam Loyd
March 11, 2021
Elizabeth Acevedo

“In writing, you arrive somewhere.”

In a lonesome year of physical distancing, limited gatherings and minimal travel, the words spoken by poet Elizabeth Acevedo sound more enticing than ever.

The acclaimed author spoke to the Exeter community across two virtual sessions on Tuesday where she talked about her writing process, life as a poet and author and how writing, especially in a time of isolation, can lead to personal discovery.

In an afternoon webinar, Acevedo spoke with ninth-grade students, who, along with incoming 10th graders, read her novel, The Poet X, ahead of the 2020-21 school year. Acevedo began her talk with the preps by reading an excerpt from the coming-of-age story about a girl in Harlem who uses her affinity for slam poetry as a way to process the world around her. Moderator Renee Bertrand ’21 asked Acevedo about developing the novel’s protagonist and how much of her own upbringing influences her characters’ journeys and motivations.

“Writing moves us to new ideas, so I don’t go in prescriptively,” she said. “I delight in discovery.”

A New York Times-bestseller, The Poet X, launched Acevedo’s career to new heights. Her 2019 novel With the Fire on High was named book of the year by the New York Public Library and NPR, among others. She is also a renowned slam poet and was part of the team that took home the 2014 National Poetry Slam championship.

In her morning assembly address, Acevedo and English Instructor Courtney Marshall discussed how Acevedo has navigated the “different kind of reality” of life during the pandemic.

“I think one of the things that makes my writing something people relate to is that I have no interest in artifice,” Acevedo said. “This year was really hard in a lot of ways.”

Life, pre-pandemic, Acevedo explained, came with its own challenges. For more than five years, her tour schedule found her on the road more often than home. She told the virtual audience about reconciling her dream job with the relentless obligations.

“It was the thing I thought I wanted, if I could figure out how to make money for being a poet? Y’all can’t stop me,” she said. “So, it was hard to go, ‘alright, that might have been the dream, but it’s not sustainable’ … I can’t go that length of time without being grounded and rooted at home.”

As a parting word of wisdom to aspiring writers among the class of 2024, Acevedo encouraged them to write for themselves first.

“Write because you love writing, not because you want to win awards. Write because there’s a thing you want to say that you think is important to say. If no one else reads it but you, and it’s meaningful to you, then that’s enough. We do a lot of stuff for outward approval and affirmation, but my best writing is the writing where I think ‘no one is ever going to read this.’”


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