I am currently a sophomore in high school and hope to make it far in literary writing someday. My high-school grades don’t exactly display my talents very well, for reasons I will not bother to get into, and have not only been shattering to my self-esteem but have also made my hopes of attending a decent college and continuing to learn seem very out of reach. I was wondering what you may recommend to help get my life back on track and achieve my goals.
As a rule, I don’t want to work with an engineer who learned all he knows about girder strength in the school of life or a doctor who learned to perform biopsies while hitchhiking through Basque country. In some cases, a formal education is essential, a course of study that awards you a piece of paper attesting to your competence in a given field and to the student loans that will stalk you into the afterlife. Writing? Well, we can discuss that.
I feel like I should be a grownup for a second, though—sorry. You haven’t told me why your grades are poor, so I can’t offer you the targeted reckless advice I would otherwise. But some broad thoughts: As a sophomore, you probably still have time to bring your grades up. Have you considered getting help from, say—eek!—a counselor? Yes, yes, I know the stereotype: guidance counselors are nonentities who aren’t much good for anything besides tips on designing SAT flash cards. But a half-hour appointment just might be helpful. In addition, some people get an associate’s degree from a community college and then transfer to a quality four-year school. I used to work at a community college and I’ve seen it. I’m just suggesting that college may not be as out of reach as you think it is at this dispiriting moment. There may be paths you haven’t explored, and people who can point them out to you.
And as for literary writing, well, college isn’t intrinsically useful. It certainly can be. A broad and rigorous liberal-arts education can inform and strengthen your work, professors can be lifelong mentors, and your fellow students can be friends today and professional contacts tomorrow. (You may also get to punch someone flipping devil sticks.) All or some of this may occur—or you may graduate with little more than memories of long lines at the registrar’s office and your roommate’s sleep-purging. Nothing is certain.
But what you can do—now, tomorrow, and always—is write constantly and read greedily. You can visit your local public library and ask where they keep their literary journals. When they tell you all they have is VHS cassettes of Kindergarten Cop, visit your local college library. Explore online journals as well. (Opium comes to mind immediately, and there are many, many more.) If you read something you like, let the author know—they’re not as unreachable as you might think, and that’s a great way to connect with far-flung writers. Does your school have a literary magazine? If your school is like most, the budget for that has been reallocated toward urgently needed school-spirit murals. So start a magazine of your own, in print or online. And, while you’re starting things, visit Craigslist. That’s where I go to schedule mutually disappointing blind dates, but it’s not a bad place to assemble a writing group or sign up for a continuing-education workshop. Of course, there’s a formidable amount of trial and error involved, just like with writing itself.
Throw yourself into this. You don’t need a college’s say-so to write and to be great and successful. The only permission you need is your own. And, of course, mine. Well, I say you can, and now you’re halfway there.