I love social media because, at any given time, you can connect with someone who might inspire you in some way or even become a friend. Tanner Olsen, founder of Written to Speak, a spoken word and writing project that shares love and announces hope through spoken and written words, has become both an inspiration and friend for me.
I discovered Tanner after seeing he had followed Car Window Poetry on Twitter. I soon learned that he had randomly stumbled upon the project and loved the vision behind it. Tanner, a writer, speaker, and reader of poetry, stands in front of different universities, churches, and organizations and shares with them the hope and beauty we strive to cover our communities with through Car Window Poetry.
My conversation with Tanner deeply encouraged me, and I hope it does the same for you!
What is the story behind Written to Speak?
About three years ago, I graduated from college and was working a job and wasn't really happy with what I was doing. I had always wanted to write and I had always wanted to share things. I also wanted to be in a band, but I can't sing and I can't play music so being in a band was never going to happen. I started thinking, 'What can I do? What's something I can do to inspire people or be creative in one way or another?'
I came up with this idea for Written to Speak as a way to announce love and share hope through written and spoken word. The meaning behind the name Written to Speak comes from my experience reading through the Bible's New Testament and seeing that, when churches and groups of people received letters, these words were written to be shared; they were written to be spoken. What was being shared there was truth and it was hope and it was love, and that's what I want to do too. I want to share those things in new ways, in relevant ways, in ways that can help one person. I write it to speak it to share it.
How did you settle on spoken word as your platform of choice?
During my last year of college, I was taking a botany class. I was never really a good student. I had to get a science class out of the way to graduate from college, so I signed up for a botany class. My friend Paul and I sat across from each other. We hardly paid attention to the class; instead, we would write haikus back and forth to each other making jokes about the things we were trying to learn in the class. So we're writing these haikus and then one day Paul didn't show up, so I just said, 'I'm going to write a poem.' So I started writing a poem and I kept going and kept going. When I was done, I thought it was the worst thing ever. But I went to the bathroom and I began to read it out loud to myself and realized it was kind of cool.
I had been listening to some spoken word during that time from guys like Levi the Poet and thought, 'I could do this.' Then, we had a talent show at our college and I went and read the poem and people liked it. So I decided to keep writing. As I wrote more poems, I realized I liked writing in general. It wasn't just spoken word. I like to write, whether it's blog posts or right now I'm trying to put together a book, which is like climbing a mountain without legs.
I started with spoken word and I still like it. I'll still write spoken word poems from time to time, but really I just like the idea of writing and communicating something to connect with somebody else, so that they can nod and say, "Me too."
It's a constant battle, when I write or share something, that it's not about me, but that it's about somebody else. I pray that it wouldn't be about me, but that someone else would know that they're loved, that hope is a real thing, and that they're not going through any of this alone.
What power do you believe words hold?
I believe words can either build up or tear down. I think, when you speak something honest into the life of another, you're speaking life into them. Maybe it's a word of encouragement or you're sharing with them hard truth. But the way that you say your words and the way that you speak to people definitely can change lives.
I believe the words that we say now are going to ripple across generations. We see so many examples of something that's said to kids when they're young staying with them for a long time. If you say something that is honest or something that is spoken with love, then that can change the trajectory of that person's life, which is going to change the lives of those around that person.
Words matter, and they should be taken seriously and said with caution. They should be spoken with love.
What are some words that have significantly impacted you?
That's when Written to Speak started. I got fired from a job, and that really set the trajectory for my life. Then, the words that followed that came from a mentor/pastor of mine, and he said, "I'm here for you."
There was action behind those words. After saying, "I'm here for you," he then said, "Let's go get coffee." That might be one of the most powerful sentences – "Let's go get coffee" – because you don't know what's going to happen with that.
There are these small words spoken at the right time by the person who needs to say them that can make all the difference. That same guy one time told me just to go, and I went, and Written to Speak is what's become of it. He told me to go and I went and tried something new.
Even words from my parents, like "We got you" and "You're okay," have impacted me significantly. To know that someone cares that much that they'd be willing to say, "We got you," or "We're here for you," that's huge.
You travel to lots of different places for speaking engagements and get to meet lots of different people. Is there a moment from one of those engagements that really affirmed you in what you're doing?
I went to Missouri State to speak and then afterward I read some poetry for them. People are there, some are sitting on the floor in this college hangout center, some are standing up in the back, and I'm reading this poem and I look down and the person right in front of me is fast asleep. Like, he's hitting his REM cycle, fast asleep.
And I just started to laugh.
But all of the people around him are nodding and smiling and fully engaged, and I was so surprised by that. I walked away feeling like it went so great because, even though one person fell asleep, my words still connected with someone. People aren't always going to like what you do or stay awake for what you do, but there are certain people around who are impacted by you, who connect with what you're doing in some way.
I hate that I'm someone who has to be told, "Good job," but that's what keeps it going. If nobody told you the project you've started is good or worthwhile, you probably wouldn't continue with it.
What are you consuming right now that you love?
Right now, I'm watching the TV show LOST on Netflix. Yeah, the show from 2004.
I'll be honest – I was saving LOST for my retirement. When I was in middle school, I was like, 'I'll just watch it when I retire.' But I started watching the first two episodes one night and thought it was pretty cool. Then, I watched the third episode and I have been running through the series since. It is so consuming. In my daily prayers, I have prayed that they make it off the island.
Then, I'm also reading a couple books right now. One of them is Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, and it's good. She writes really well and is really honest about the things she struggles with and the things she's going through. As someone who writes and wants to be honest with the world, it's such a good read. If you haven't heard of it or picked it up yet, definitely check that one out.
The idea behind Car Window Poetry is to give words of encouragement to unsuspecting people. What words of encouragement would you like to give someone?
Oftentimes, I want to encourage people that it isn't Monday, but it's another day to be you, to be who you were created to be.
If I had to write something really simple to someone, it would probably just be a few bullet points, reminding them:
- You aren't alone.
- You are beautiful.
- You are wonderful.
- You are here for a reason.
I think those are a few things we can never grow tired of hearing. No one ever grows tired of hearing that they're beautiful. No one ever grows tired of hearing that they're wanted.
To say that to a stranger or even someone you know is life-giving. Who doesn't want to hear that?