More than 200 high school students from around the county headed to this year’s Canyon Crest Academy Writers’ Conference on campus Saturday, Feb. 23. This is the only free writing conference for high school students in the U.S. The all-day conference included several accomplished writers who spoke during workshops throughout the day, as well as keynote speaker, J.C. Cervantes.
Cervantes is the author of The New York Times bestseller “Storm Runner.” She was born and raised in Chula Vista and now resides in New Mexico. She said it was great to be back in her hometown, but that wasn’t the only reason she returned here for the conference.
“As a writer,” Cervantes said, “I think it’s important to lift others up along the way because it can be such a competitive, challenging world. Anything I can do to help young people and inspire them to continue writing the stories of their heart, I want to do that as much as possible.”
Cervantes’ books have appeared on national lists including Barnes & Noble’s Best Middle-Grade Fantasy and Best Young Readers, as well as the New Voice Pick by the American Booksellers Association. Her newest book, Fire Keeper, was just released last fall.
Cervantes was candid about her own high school experience. “I spent more time at the beach than I did at school. I was that kid who did as little as I could to get by and then go play. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I was a voracious reader as a kid. I always loved falling into story and staying in story and really analyzing story, but it wasn’t until later that I realized I wanted to put pen to paper and write.”
She wrote her first book entirely in longhand before she transcribed it to her computer. But before she took the plunge toward her quest to become a published author, Cervantes taught courses in children’s literature and English at New Mexico State University. “I always say that writing found me. And when it did, I actually thought it had happened to the wrong person. But I said yes to the muse and began the journey inch by inch.”
Cervantes started her keynote speech with a story about how her father helped her train for the President’s Physical Fitness Awards in fourth grade, where students in every school across the country could win as the top male or female athlete at their school based on a series of physical fitness tests. Her father insisted she wear weights during all her training. She took the weights off for the actual competition and felt like she was floating, or doing sit-ups like a speedy rubber band. She won. “That was a defining moment for me,” she said emphatically. “I started to discover who I was and what I was made of. I learned how to dig really deep, and understand that life is inches, and that I won by taking one inch at a time.”
But it didn’t last. In middle school, she discovered boys and makeup. She barely squeaked by in high school, but she did manage to graduate.
“It wouldn’t be for another five years,” she shared, “at a time in my life where I came to a crossroads, where I knew I needed to reach back to find that girl who could dig deep, that girl that understood grit and resolve and stood on that stage and thought that I could do anything if I worked really, really hard for it.”
She wrote her first book, Tortilla Sun, got an agent, and thought she was done. But the rejections poured in. After more than a year of them, that first book finally sold. But it was seven more years until her second book sold.
“I didn’t realize I was going to need more tenacity, more grit, more strength than I had ever needed in my life,” she admitted.
She learned how to outline her stories from her first book editor (which she hadn’t done previously), and that proved to be an invaluable skill that got her a deal with Disney for a trilogy.
Cervantes imparted four valuable tips for the young writers in attendance:
Know your enemy. It’s the little monster who sits on your shoulder and keeps you from moving forward.
Know who you are. Discover what drives you internally and gives you joy regardless of the outcome.
Let go of perfection. It will take you down a path that is dark and dangerous. Remember failure is not permanent.
Understand the terms of the life you’ve chosen and put in the work. Writing is tough and rigorous and has more to do with grit than you might believe.
Cervantes also offered this nugget of wisdom. “You have to know when to let it go. There comes a time when the story no longer belongs to you. Once you release that story, however people react to it is valid and fair.”
If you’d like to sponsor the conference for next year, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to ccawritersconference2019.weebly.com to learn more.