Friday, March 10, 2023

Speaking my Mind—Teenager Edition: Guest Post by Donna Huston Murray

Donna Huston Murray: Speaking my Mind

Last year I was tasked with addressing several hundred high school students, ostensibly about me. Previous speakers were a former graduate who invented a pediatric heart replacement, and a lawyer who represented the United States in front of the Supreme Court. I write mysteries. Keeping the kids’ interest for half an hour was going to be a stretch. I figured the only route was to talk about them—and me. How what I do as a fiction author might be of use to them personally. I would sound like a grandmother, but I’m afraid that shoe fits. 

My first recommendation was to choose an occupation that uses as many their talents as they can find. “You’ll be happier, and, most likely, more successful, too.” For the benefit of those few aspiring to go into the arts, I described—broadly—what that involves, trusting the others would catch on to how difficult it is and cut us creative types some slack. “Clap for the two musicians trying to entertain you during a noisy dinner.” “Write that ever-helpful review for the author you just read.” That sort of thing. My mother was a musician. Respect matters. Sometimes it’s all you’re gonna get.

How do you know what your talents are? “If it’s easy for you, that means you’re good at it.” Example? My tall, lanky son undervalued his skill as a cross-country runner. When he stopped taking his good luck for granted, it reversed his whole outlook on the sport.

When we meet someone, fiction authors always know what to ask. We also listen to the answer. It’s not just good manners, we’re hoarding material. I advised the kids to avoid the lame, “Where are you from? Where’d you go to school?” openings and inquire about their new acquaintance’s interests. It shortcuts to the person’s #1 passion, and makes conversation easier, and much more fun. 

I pointed out that reunions are part of being a graduate, and as the wife of a head-of-school, I’ve gone to many. I warned that the classmates are always ON, while their partners are usually miserable. When I broached my question to a gentleman in the latter category, he told me he packaged items for shipping for a Philadelphia department store. That gave me pause—until I imagined what he actually did. “Every day must be different for you,” I guessed. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it!” he replied with a gleam in his eyes, and off he went. At a college football recruiting breakfast, I approached a younger man who was also nodding off. He happened to love fencing, which he demonstrated by lunging across the room.

My favorite, and perhaps best, authorly advice was to “listen to your own thoughts,” something fiction writers do constantly, but ordinary people often neglect. Stopped for a traffic light, I noticed a man in army fatigues walking up from a train station. He had an interesting swagger, and I imagined him with a motorcycle, a sloppy apartment, and a girlfriend he was about to dump. Doesn’t matter if I was right. What matters is I paid attention to a fleeting impression, and I challenged the students to practice doing that, too. I assured them they didn’t have to confess their private thoughts to anyone else, but it was important to be completely honest with themselves. Suppose they were considering marriage and thought the person they had in mind would make a good husband or wife. What if, in their heads, the rest of the sentence was, “for somebody else,” but they weren’t in the habit of paying attention?

Since most people—teenagers especially—prefer to learn by making their own mistakes, I would be surprised if my remarks made much of an impression. Still, it was satisfying to share. It’s so seldom that anyone asks. 


In 2022, Donna Huston Murray was the 10th inductee into North Penn High School’s Lifetime Achievement Hall of Fame. Her 8th Ginger Barnes Cozy Mystery was a Finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards, and her first two Lauren Beck Crime Novels each received Hon. Mention in genre fiction from Writer’s Digest. The third in that series, STRANGER DANGER, is out in paperback: ebook on pre-order worldwide. [Pub date 4/18/23.]

1 comment:

Mary said...

Sounds like an interesting half hour! When I was in high school, having always been an inveterate reader, I think I would have looked forward most to the talk from the mystery writer.