Writing the Way at 826LA: 826LA Students Get Advice From Author/Activist Ishmael Beah

826LA encourages students to discover their voices and confidence through writing every day. Sometimes we get a bit of outside help on the inspiration front from well known authors. On October 30, students in 826LA’s teen tutoring program in Mar Vista participated in a Q&A with Ishmael Beah, New York Times bestselling author of books like A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Radiance of Tomorrow.

Ishmael was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa. After losing his family to violence during a civil war in his country and being recruited to fight as a child soldier, Ishmael moved to New York City with the help of UNICEF. That is where he found his talent for writing.

After sharing his story, Ishmael spoke to students about writing, editing, character-building, and more. Read on for excerpts of the stories and wisdom Ishmael shared with students.

How Ishmael Got Involved With Writing

When I arrived in New York, my family tried to get me into school. Nobody would take me because I had no real way to prove that I existed, least to say I had been to school before. The question that was coming about was, how do we determine I had been in school before? I could not prove anything because I had no report card, I had no vaccine [card]. Nothing! So I decided to write an essay. And the essay was tied to why I didn’t have a report card. That essay gave me a scholarship for high school and university. So I guess it had to be somewhat good! 

It was that moment I began to understand words and writing had become a way to bring to life things that I could not provide physically. Words had become that important to me. That is how I could recreate where I had been for people, on paper, in writing essays, short stories, poetry. I remember when I was graduating high school everyone was asked to bring a baby picture for the year book. I couldn’t bring one, so I just decided to write a poem about how I imagined I looked like as a baby.

When I went to university, I went to study political science because I wanted to go to law school, but when I was in university I began to write about my experiences. I took some writing courses. I wasn’t too serious about it, but by the time I graduated I had a book. My professor pushed me to show it around, and publishers wanted it. I stopped my quest for law school and went on to publish my first book, A Long Way Gone, and it immediately became a New York Times bestseller.

If anyone would have told me from where I was coming from that I’d be this international writer, I would not believe them.

Writing Routine and Practice

I try to have a routine. It often doesn’t work! I try.

I am very disciplined, in which every morning I like to read something, whether it is something I have read before or something new. Then I try to think about what projects I have to do, and use a few hours to write. I am really able to write strongly at night about 2am until 6am. Then I edit during the day. First, I write with my heart, then I edit with my head. Which is the best part, but also the most taxing about it.

The Editing Process

Even if you’ve written however many books, you’ll always have to revise. That is just part of trying to get your thoughts across because whatever you want to say makes sense to you, but it doesn’t mean the person who is reading, who is hearing it, who is receiving will understand. Often not in the 1st draft. 

You have to be open to taking constructive criticism.

I challenge people who edit with me.

When you write something and give it to someone, you are put in a very vulnerable position you’ve worked on it, sometimes it can be an emotional piece. When somebody gives me a comment about editing I first read it, soak it in, then I will look at it again. I’ll try to have a discussion with my editors and ask why they made this comment. Have your own voice. You don’t want to just take everything an editor says. Structural comments, yes, but when it comes to what the story is really about you know what you want to say. A good editor helps you refine what you want to say well.

If an editor says “I don’t like this sentence,” I then ask, “Well, why don’t you like my sentence?” If I say, “Okay, I’ll change it,” there is no process. I am just giving them what they want. There’s a learning process from this. We go back and forth, and I see where they are coming from, and they see where I am coming from.

Autobiography vs. Fiction 

I think they are both creative pieces in a sense. One of the things I experienced is that when writing a memoir or autobiography everyone reacts like, “Woah, it’s a good book because it’s an autobiography.” That’s not necessarily true because most of people try to write autobiographies about the same material or other things that didn’t do so well or people didn’t like. Why is that? Because their craft wasn’t good. We can all run across Venice and write a story about it, but some people’s [stories] will be more appealing than others’ because they have a way of writing that gets to people. Their story gets to the emotional core.

When you write about yourself in a memoir, you are still using some of those fictional writing techniques to get people to feel, think, smell, hear, and be in the environment and not comfortable. Now the only limiting factor, at least what I have seen, is that that you’re writing about facts, things that actually happened. You can’t imagine anything. 

When I was writing fiction, I felt freer because I could imagine things. I can create characters. I can decide what happens to them. It is kind of beautiful, and I could play with language in a way I could not play with in a memoir. So for me those are the differences.

On Creating Characters

Every writer will tell you different things. Writers’ imaginations are based on what they experienced. I always think that I imagine things out of the blue, but it’s based on my environment and things I have observed.

When I create characters,  I like to observe people. When I think an idea for a novel, I spend more time thinking about the characters. Who they are, where they, what their mannerisms are like, and I make notes based on that.

How to Focus on the Good Things

We all go through things, things that are emotionally charged, but I think every human being has a natural resilience. A capacity for things like that. 

Do not be ashamed to ask for help. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It means that you’re learning to figure it out.

Ishmael is currently living in Southern California. Aside from being a UNICEF human rights activist, Beah founded the Ishmael Beah Foundation dedicated to helping children affected by war. He is co-founder of the Network of Young People Affected by War (NYPAW). Beah visited 826LA in effort to give back to the community that he lives in. He donated copies of his books to the 826LA Writing Lab for students to read.

We are grateful for his advice!

Learn more about volunteering your time at 826LA here.

Read more pieces from our Writing the Way at 826LA blog series here

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