Early Writing Memories: The Rock That Would Not Be a Plant

In third grade we had writing journals. Each day Mrs. Coley would announce a topic and ask the class to write about it in our journals for fifteen minutes. At the end of the fifteen minutes, she would collect the journals for review and we’d get them back the next day with a check, a check plus or a check minus. Then she would ask a few of the check-plus recipients to read their entry aloud for the class. I pretty much always got check-plusses, and it was a point of pride for me. Even in third grade I loved to write, and to please people with my writing.

One day the topic was “If I lived in the ground, I would be a…”

I really liked this topic. I got right to work. I decided I’d like to be a rock. But not just any rock. A beautiful rose quartz with a name and dreams and aspirations and magical powers. I wrote furiously and filled up a page and a half in the allotted fifteen minutes.

The next day when Mrs. Coley handed the journals back, I opened mine to see the dreaded check-minus! I almost started crying right then and there. I put my head down on the desk and pretended to be very, very tired so no one would see my red face.

Mrs. Coley asked three of my classmates to read their entries. I listened closely, hoping for some indication of where I’d gone wrong. Turns out, all of the check-plus entries did have one thing in common: they were all about being PLANTS. Daffodils, rose bushes, oak trees and the like. Of course! The topic was “If I lived in the ground,” not “If I were an inanimate object in the ground”. Plus, we’d been studying the life cycles of plants that week, so it would only make sense for the journal topic to be a non-specific curricular comprehension trap. Geez. I felt like such a dunce.

But now that I’ve had twenty-eight years to think about it, I’m inclined to conclude that my journal entry was actually the brilliant one, and that those other kids were just stifling their creative impulses, doing their part to uphold the elementary school status quo. Because I mean, plants don’t live IN the ground. Not entirely. And sentient rocks with magic powers are totally awesome. So take that, Mrs. Coley!

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I’m Going to ODYSSEY!!!!

Through Space!!!

Through Space!!!

A few days ago I got an email that is probably the most wonderful and exciting piece of communication I’ve received since the midwife told me I was pregnant with my now nine-year-old daughter.

It started like this: “Dear Leslie, Congratulations!  You have been accepted for early admission into Odyssey.” And I almost dropped my tea mug on the tile floor.

For those who don’t know, Odyssey Writing Workshop is an annual, six week, intensive, residential writing program for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. One of the most highly regarded workshops in the world for writers of fantastical fiction, it is a BIG deal. To me, certainly. But also to the speculative fiction community as a whole. The workshop is facilitated by Jeanne Cavelos, a veteran editor with decades of experience in helping people to grow and improve as writers. All of the alumni accounts I’ve read are pretty much unanimous: Odyssey will be the most powerful experience of your writing career. It will kick your ass, melt you down and reshape you. Your assumptions will be challenged, your writing skill will be taken up about ten notches and you will emerge from the six weeks dazed and exhausted, but with half a lifetime of writing craft knowledge under your belt and some awesome new friends as well.

I still can’t believe I was actually accepted. It’s like I’ve been whisked away to some alternate dimension. The Dimension Where Starr Gets To Go To Odyssey.

When I applied, I treated it as an exercise in trudging along despite disappointment. I was sure it would be just another rejection letter to add to the pile I’ve received from numerous submissions to science fiction magazines. I don’t know how many people apply to Odyssey, but I do know that it’s one of only three workshops of its kind in the US and the only one taught by an editor, that it only accepts 16 students each year, and that a lot of really talented writers apply. I am incredibly honored and humbled to be included in that group.

So this puts me in the position of fundraising. Attendance will cost me around $4000, not including any missed income while I’m away, or the summer programs I will have to enroll my daughter in so that my husband will still be able to work while I’m gone. Luckily, there is this awesome thing called Crowdfunding! I’ve started an IndieGoGo campaign to help raise part of the money I’ll need for tuition, lodging and travel to and from the workshop.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what kinds of perks to offer, and I think I’ve come up with a few really sweet ones. Like audiobook narration services, “Totally Fabricated Bios”, and some of my vintage science fiction posters, for instance. And lots more. Check out the campaign, and even if you can’t or don’t want to contribute right now, please consider sharing it on your social media platform of choice. Or if you’re a blogger or podcaster, think about doing before and after Odyssey interviews with me. I really appreciate everyone’s help!!

The Schmeducation of Leslie Starr O’Hara

That's not a graduation gift from Dad. That's how much your monthly payment's going to be on those student loans.

That’s not a graduation gift from Dad. That’s how much your monthly payment’s going to be on those student loans.

Lately, I’ve been witness to quite a bit of smack-talking about people who do not have college educations. And this kind of judgment-passing really gets under my skin. A small sampling of the kinds of statements I’ve been hearing:

“She’s not qualified to have an opinion. She didn’t even finish her freshman year of college.”

“You should have to have at least a bachelor’s degree in order to vote.”

“College graduates are, I think, so much more likely to raise smart, capable children than parents who never attended college.”

(Paraphrasing) “I find your opinions on politics to be wrong and stupid. It is no wonder you think this way. What more can be expected of a high school dropout?”

“Come back and tell me what you think after you get a college degree.”

Where do you find these intolerant, self-satisfied a-holes? You might be wondering.

Facebook, okay? I mostly find them on Facebook. I probably shouldn’t hold the people on Facebook to a very high standard. I’m sure they’re nicer and more tolerant and level-headed in person. After all, for many people, social media seems to be the place where they can vent their frustrations and say what’s really on their minds.

But it’s not only Facebook. It’s in the news. It’s on the floor of Congress. It’s in the hopes and sometimes the expectations that parents hold for their children. It’s coming out of politicians’ mouths when they imply that the American Dream necessitates a college degree.

Well, it didn’t when my grandparents were growing up. My grandad had a fifth grade education. He was also fully literate, an excellent carpenter, a successful family man, a musician, possessor of a very green thumb, and an inventor of many ingenious devices. He and my grandma worked hard, raised their six kids, and eventually retired happily in a house that my grandad built on the shore of a lake. American dream achieved! No expensive piece of paper required!

Dropping out clearly results in subpar intelligence and miserable failure in life. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey

Dropping out clearly results in subpar intelligence and miserable failure in life. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey

Ok, I have a confession to make. I am a high school dropout. Gasp! It’s true. I did obtain my GED two years after withdrawing from school, but I never pursued a college education. (Well, there was that one semester I pulled at the community college, but that was just to meet the requirements of this awesome summer program on economics that I really wanted to attend, but you had to be a full-time student to go. I went.)

I knew exactly what I wanted. I could not stand school. It was alright up until about ninth grade. But then this strange thing started to occur. I started developing serious interests of my own. And I wanted the time and resources to pursue them, on my own. I wanted to immerse myself in these subjects without having a figure of authority standing over me or assigning me work to check and see if I comprehended what I was learning. School became colossally boring and unfulfilling. I did not want to read those books. I had no interest in learning that subject. I was into history and poetry and fiction writing, but both my English and History teachers that year were those drone-voiced teachers who only wear mulch-brown and never laugh. Ugh. I had to get out. So, to the disappointment of my parents and probably to the slight relief of the school’s administrators (Boredness is directly correlated to troublemaking), I did.

Looking back at my decision to leave high school before graduating, I still think it was the right choice for me. It’s been almost fifteen years, and while I am definitely not serving on the board of a multi-billion dollar corporation or seeing patients in a busy medical practice or teaching in a schoolroom (I would NEVER! That’s how much I dislike school), I am also not paying $300 per month for my piece of paper that won’t get me a job in the field of my choice. When you look at it that way, who’s smarter? The non-college graduate or the debt-laden liberal arts degree holder?

I have, however, done a lot of traveling and a lot of writing. I’ve worked in a lot of different jobs and learned a few skills that may or may not come in handy during the zombie apocalypse. I’ve started a family. I’ve homeschooled my daughter (another big no-no among the intolerant crowd. A high school dropout teaching her own child how to read and add and subtract?! Inconceivable!) and I’ve had my own talk show. I’ve started a business and thus far kept it running, and I know how to find the area of a triangle and how to use a semicolon.

Frederick Douglass was denied any kind of formal education whatsoever. But he didn't let that stop him from educating himself.

Frederick Douglass was denied any kind of formal education whatsoever. But he didn’t let that stop him from educating himself.

None of this is to say that there is no value in a college education. Certainly there are professions that require that kind of preparation. And if you have a college degree or are working toward one, I applaud you and hope that it is benefiting you greatly.

But there are other ways to get an education. There’s travel, working at a job, trade school, apprenticeships, hobbies that become passions that become careers. You can conduct your own science experiments, create your own art, and start your own business. There is Google, Ted Talks and io9.com (my FAVORITE!) There are books! Glorious, fascinating, precious books that you can read in both analog and digital formats!

I just think that college is over-hyped. I would like to see more people like myself in the world: smart, curious autodidacts who are passionate and motivated enough to take charge of their own learning. Actually, there are quite a few of us, but our culture fails to take note.

William Shakespeare. Hans Christian Anderson. George Washington. Abe Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. Thomas Edison. Wilbur Wright. Mark Twain. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Walt Disney. Henry Ford. Coco Chanel. Ray Bradbury. George Orwell. Dave Thomas. Will Smith. Rachel Ray. Richard Branson. Bill Gates. Sean Connery. Ellen Degenerous. Mark Zuckerburg. Steve Jobs. Oprah Winfrey. Jim Carrey. Al Pacino. Steve Jobs. Wolfgang Puck. Tom Hanks.

Don't drop out of college, or you might end up like this bum!

Don’t drop out of college, or you might end up like this bum!

What do all of these people have in common? They either did not attend college, or dropped out before graduating. They are pioneers and iconoclasts who contribute(d) massively, or even revolutionize(d) philosophy, literature, science, technology and the arts. They are, above all, NOT STUPID.

We know not to judge a book by its cover. We know not to judge a person’s character by the color of his skin. Can we please stop judging people’s intelligence by the level of formal education they’ve received? And stop insisting that every high school student needs to go on to college in order to “make it in the world”?

What do you think? Does college make you smarter? Do we need more college graduates, or less? Is higher education over-hyped? Have you ever met a guy with two doctorates who nonetheless could not string together two coherent sentences, even in a non-academic setting? (I have.) Let me know in the comments!