Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover
Before Meg Medina won the Pura Belpré medal or became one of CNN’s 10 Visionary Women in America, she skirted around her dreams for years.

She wrote consistently, press releases and such, but not in the format or for the audience she preferred.  Caught in a cycle of “almost writing,” it was her reading life that nudged her to go pro with the kind of writing she loved.  Observing other authors telling Latino stories gave her inspiration and confidence to tell some of her own. Ten years later, she’s the award-winning author of four books for children and young adults, with a fifth on the way.

I spoke with Medina about writing and her journey to becoming an author. “You will spend hours and hours by yourself,” she mused. “Which is the irony, right? Hours by yourself in an effort to connect with others.” Read on for her thoughts on making the leap from reader to writer.

When did you know you were a writer, or when did you decide you were a writer?

I was always good at writing, so I always felt comfortable doing that, but it took me a long time to decide that was how I was going to make my living, that I was going to be courageous enough to do that full time. So I did a lot of jobs that were sort of almost writing.

I’d write press releases or I’d write marketing materials or I’d write small articles. I even wrote food reviews. I have no business writing food reviews. I have no advanced palate or anything like that, but it was for a parenting magazine and all I had to do was survive the dinner with two little kids and write about what happened. So I kept doing almost what I wanted to do, but never felt completely fulfilled.

I would say that I really started to turn seriously to writing in my mid-30s and certainly by the time I was 40 I decided, I have to do this, it’s now or never, but I just kept circling slowly in on it.

I kept doing more and more. When I started to teach writing to young people, particularly in Florida at the school of the arts, there were high school kids who were very talented in the area. There’s nothing better than teaching to really learn how to do something. So I was just immersed in different styles, different points of entry, just how to tackle this beast, and I couldn’t resist it. I kept falling more and more in love with the process of writing itself and the process of just naming human experience. So I would say by age 40 it was a done deal. There was no turning back.

I love the idea of building up courage through a lot of that slow circling, the almost writing. Was there any particular thing other than time and teaching that you could identify as a turning point?

Well, some of it had to do with reading life as well. Certainly I was starting to read more Latina fiction and reading culturally specific literature to me, and that was exciting just to see, just culturally, my family represented or everything represented on the page. That felt exciting to me and also liberating.

Like a lot of people, I grew up reading the classics, the books that we think of that every American kid reads: “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and Judy Blume. They’re all wonderful books, but there’s something very specific that happens when you see something that really represents your own experience very clearly on the page.

Once I started following the work of people who were sort of tackling how to get our lives down on paper, I really wanted to be part of that. So I think I lifted off on both sides, my reading changed and my writing changed.

But the courage piece, I think, can be really elusive and I think it’s what has to happen. For example, I was at an elementary school recently. It’s a Title One school and they have funds to bring authors in to encourage parent involvement. The parents come, they have pizza, an author comes and speaks about their books and so on. We get to the question and answer time, and it becomes apparent that a few of the parents in the room want to be writers.

One woman with two little girls said, “How long does it take you to write and how did you get the courage to write?” I said to her, “Sometimes in writing it feels like you’re walking on a tightrope between two skyscrapers, and you need the people around you who are going to keep you calm and say, ‘come across. You can do it. Don’t look down, just look at me. Just keep walking.’ You don’t need the people on the ground screaming, ‘you’re going to fall, oh my gosh. If you hit the ground you’re going to go splat.’ You can’t have that near you. You have to surround yourself with the people who believe that you can do it and who believe that you’re going to put the effort into doing it.”

And she started to cry. I was looking at her and it was obvious that she has a story to tell. She has something in her that wants to be seen on the page, and the missing piece is that, the courage and the support around her to make that happen. So that’s a wish I have for everybody: that we can figure out how to find the people who make us believe that we can do this magic thing, this really hard thing.

So I recommended all the things I always recommend for us locally [in Richmond], James River Writers and working on your craft. It’s a hard thing, because sometimes folks don’t have a lot of money to go to big conferences and join lots of organizations, which is one of the things I kind of like about JRW, that it’s relatively inexpensive and you can go to The Writing Show and just sort of work on your craft slowly.  People meet other people there without that fear like, “Oh my gosh, I’m not heavily published. I don’t belong here. Who am I?,” all that very counterproductive stuff.

Beyond James River Writers, how did you build your specific community of support for your particular kind of writing?

Well, with social media. That’s the first thing. There are all these different components, but really what you’re talking about here is just figuring out, what are the kinds of topics I’m interested in talking about and writing about? What are my passions? Who else is passionate about it? Twitter is beautiful in that way. There’s somebody passionate about everything. There’s a dark corner for everybody. So I certainly made relationships with Latino bloggers and Latino parent groups and Reforma, the librarian association that specifically deals with library services for Latino families.

Then larger than that, there’s the diversity community, people who are interested in having books that represent everybody in the classroom. Make relationships and go to the conferences where they’re speaking. Pick up their books. That’s the sort of legwork that I did.

What other advice would you give to writers who have a story to tell, who may not yet identify as writers?

This is exactly what I told [the woman at the school]. The first thing is, you are a writer, period. If you are putting a pencil to paper or your fingers to the keyboard and you are composing something that’s in your heart, something you’re thinking about in terms of memoir or journal entry or whatever — that act is you as a writer. It’s important not to confuse being published with being a writer, two different things.

I think if your goal is to be a published writer because you have that burning thing in you that you want to tell this story and you want to see it on a shelf and you want to share it with other people, in that case I think nothing substitutes craft, right? So you have to put the time in to becoming better and better at it, taking classes, signing up for courses, going to conferences, signing up for an MFA or for a degree program.

If you’re serious about it you have to put the time into being very professional about it. I meet a lot of people who’d like to write, but who don’t put the time in, right? They don’t sit in the chair for five hours or four hours or whatever, and compose. Or they have some skill and some promise, but they haven’t published it, they haven’t pushed themselves to really be great at it. I think that taking yourself seriously and developing your craft is the most important advice I could give anybody.

Just dare to try the things you most want to do. There’s just no replacement for that. We’re going around one time, that’s it. So the time is now if you want to try something. Dare to do it, just dare to try. What’s the worst that can happen? It doesn’t pan out quite the way you want it, but if you don’t try at all, you’re guaranteed that it won’t happen.

Question: Do you want to write? What’s held you back? Or, what’s pushed you ahead?