Those Words

just-me-and-my-shadow“I can only tell you what my journey has been. Yours will be different,” my mentor friend, Brian, tells me as I grip my coffee cup across the table from him.

We’re meeting because I wanted advice. Wisdom. The next steps. I wanted to sit at the feet of a sage and become excited about the next climb ahead of me.

The reality? There’s a lot more to life that is more vague and undefined than we ever expect or, as I sometimes prefer to call it: frustrating, especially when we’re looking for clear-cut answers.

That afternoon, Brian shared with me some of his greatest achievements and deepest disappointments as a writer. He honored me with his open humility. I felt admiration for the heights of success and renown that he’d reached, even as he revealed his limitations.

Brian’s advice for me was to know my own risks—to only accept a new venture if I was prepared to deal with the worst possible outcome—even if that awful scenario seemed unlikely. The rest of my responsibility was hard work, diligence, and constant openness to learning, all of which he knew that I took very seriously.

Then, somewhere in the thick of our conversation on storytelling, comics, ideas, equality of opportunity, and the philosophy of writing, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m proud of you.”

I froze. These words trigger a particular response in me. They’re the words I wanted to hear from my dad, but didn’t hear enough. I can’t tell you how much I think my over-achieving academic record probably had something to do with trying to prove my intelligence and competence. Then again, I’ve also been aggressively competitive from a very young age (at age six, I refused to be pleased by a splendid production of The Nutcracker because I needed to have a dress that was at least as beautiful as the onstage dancers). I do not blame my dad for all of this. He and I have also made our peace since then, in case you’re interested.

But there I was, hearing someone saying those words. I’m proud of you. Had I really earned them? How could someone so accomplished and smart take pride in what I’ve done? I’m only a young writer, still floundering in so many senses of the word.

“Even if I had never met you,” Brian continued, “I would be proud to know people like you exist in the world.”

Tears edged the corner of my eyes. It’s not as though I start every morning in a state of neediness that aches for a man to speak these words to an inner part of my psyche. It’s that these words sing a special song to the heart of a young girl, and I still hear that song loudly as a full-grown woman.

I left my meeting with Brian and had a much shorter to-do list, a not-very-long-at-all checklist, and not nearly as many answers as I’d thought I’d have to my questions. And as I walked back to my car, I felt an assurance for myself, my worth, an approval for my goals and outlook. I felt the glow that someone I so highly respected had applauded the person I am and the writer I am becoming.

Instead of giving me a list of things to do, Brian looked at my mind, heart, and dreams and said they were good. When I think of it that way, it seems to me that shedding tears is a very natural response.

About Elise

Elise Stephens began her career in writing at age six, illustrating her own story books and concocting wild adventures. She earned her degree in Creative Writing at the University of Washington. Stephens counts authors Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Atwood among her literary mentors, and has studied under Orson Scott Card. She dreams often of finding new ways to weave timeless truths into her stories. She is a recipient of the Eugene Van Buren prize for fiction. Her novels include Moonlight and Oranges(2011), Forecast (2013), and Guardian of the Gold Breathers (2015). She lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter @elisestephens

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