In seventh grade, my homeroom teacher asked us to select an artwork of our choosing and write an essay on it. I recall classmates groaning at the assignment, but I was delighted. Even now, I get a thrill out of the open-endedness of the prompt, a barely-mantled invitation to corral the ping-ponging thoughts of a twelve-year-old into something of shape. I selected an obscure wood carving by Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer titled “Melencolia.” My election is as close to a portal into the psyche of a 1997-era tween as you will find. The theme was slightly morbid in the way of the Ouija board and dark lipstick and subtle obsession with witchcraft then in vogue, and overtly self-indulgent in the way of a twelve-year-old. These were the years of tamagotchis, sleepovers, passed notes with “do you like Katie? check yes or no,” butterfly clips, lip smackers, spin-the-bottle, boys who wore flannel shirts unbuttoned over white tees, Alanis Morisette, chanting “Bloody Mary” into the mirror, “Teen Wolf,” the Goth trend, pamphlets labeled “Your Changing Body,” the book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, chokers, and those hideous black Steve Madden platforms with the stretchy band that conformed to the top of the foot, which my Dad aptly dubbed “clod-hoppers” which he in turn sometimes appended to just “clogs,” which then became a stand-in for any footwear he disliked for the rest of my life. (A strange kitten heel with a jarring buckle on the toe? “A clog,” to my Dad.) Of course, I was too much of a skittish rule-follower to ever actually chant “Bloody Mary” or play the Ouija board. I was convinced that if the devil didn’t get me, my mom would find me with my palms over the board or my hands in front of my face and my life as I knew it would be over. I knew this with confidence because she had once told me that her father (my Granddad, a pious man) was appalled by the cocktail of the same name — or, more accurately, the non-alcoholic variation, the Virgin Mary, and would refuse to order it on naming convention alone, and she delivered this information with such firmness and reverence that I still think about it to this day when I see it on a restaurant menu. Anyhow, I suppose that writing an essay about melancholy was as close to rebellious self-expression as I could get as that time. It is agony to be a tween! was the subtext. Durer gets it.
I think back now and imagine my teacher smirking as he skimmed my loose-leaf paper. Amidst a sea of reflections on “Starry, Starry Night” and Degas’ dancers, here was…Albrecht Durer? Is that even an artist? he might have asked, not having Wikipedia as an easy reference. These were the dial-up days — DOS prompts, computers that weighed a shipping ton, heavily-pixelated Michael Jordan v. Larry Bird, etc. How I even found Durer is a marvel to me, although I am fairly certain it was from a set of encyclopedias my father kept in the basement that we mainly used as “bricks” in fort building but found sporadically useful for oblique self-expression in open-ended essay prompts.
My teacher gave me an “A+,” on the assignment, which was not unusual for me, but added: “See me after class,” which was. My stomach dropped. The last thing I needed was my teacher to ask if I needed counseling, and I was aware enough that my topic might have earned me that conversation. How could I have been so bold?! I immediately started worrying about whether my parents would be called. Would Sister Joan, our principal, be involved in all of this? Ah, the spiraling of a 12 year old Catholic girl!
When I timidly approached my teacher’s desk at lunch, he grinned.
“Durer, huh?” he asked. I gulped, but found the smile disarming enough to begin to resume some posture of normalcy.
As it turns out, he simply wanted to praise me for my writing, and for the effort it must have taken to source the artwork I’d written about. He also looked me square in the eye and said: “Keep writing.”
The episode now reads like a parable to me. I took a risk at self-expression and it was fraught with peril and in the end it not only paid off but spurred me forward.
Two of my uncles used to say the same thing to me, often in long-form letters. “Still writing fiction?” my Uncle Jim would ask me when I was thirteen, fifteen, nineteen. He’d urge not to stop, once tucking a xeroxed copy of a favorite Salinger short story of his into the envelope, as though an ebenezer for future attempts at fiction.
My mother enrolled me in writing workshops, sat in audiences at poetry competitions where I would read my work in trembling sotte voce, kept a hand-written story of mine in her bedside table.
The other day, I sat down and wrote an email to three girlfriends of mine telling them that — without their even knowing it — they had shaped my life as a writer in a meaningful way. I had just moved to New York, just dissolved a business with my husband, just had a baby, and I felt adrift and throttled. All three of them were successful creatives in their own right, and I was entranced and encouraged by not only the quality of their art but their fearless entrepreneurship. They became models for my own confidence. But mainly, it was their earnest acceptance of what I was doing, the way they’d ask what I was working on or let me know when they particularly liked an essay, that motivated me.
Keep writing, in different words.
It is easy to be deterred by criticism, and more often than not, I am the loudest of the howling wolves nipping at my heels — that is, I am often the harshest critic of my own work. In past occasions where my writing has been poorly received, I have sometimes felt like saying, “Oh I know. Tell me about it. Horrible!!!”
And you know —
I think I have not thoroughly acknowledged the patronage that has brought me through. For most of my life, when generous people would say nice things about my writing, I would flush, change the topic, dissent. But obviously some of the encouragement seeped through, lodging itself in the tender spot beyond the armor, and I doubt very much I have gone even one day — even one single day! — of the last few decades of my life without writing, in no small part because of that furtherance. Sometimes, that writing has been in narrow, fractional modalities: fragments of essays jotted on a notepad, turns of phrases captured on my iPhone Notes app, even “oh! I love the way she put that!” awarenesses that later spring up, daisy-like, in my musings. And sometimes, it has been long, heart-wrenching essays that consume me for days and leave me as fossil. All of it — even when there is no pen on paper — is writing, though, which to me is process rather than product. Some of my best writing happens while on mile three of a run or laying awake in the middle of the night: it is the unfurling of words into empty space. And so writing has been a lifeblood. A through-line. The backbone of my professional career, a partial-casting of my identity. And it wouldn’t be that way without the teachers, family members, friends, readers (you!) who have unwritten my longtime experiment with language.
All to say: today I am taking a pause to give praise where it is due, to sit in gratitude with the memory of that teacher’s encouraging stare over my strange seventh-grade essay. And I want to pay it forward. So to anyone who needs to hear it today: keep going. Take the risk. Lean into the encouragement. Let this note today be your own ebenezer.
+Do you consider yourself creative? (The TL;DR: even if you don’t, you are.)
+More words of encouragement.
+Thanks to the reader who pointed out this adorable exaggerated-collar sweatshirt! SEA vibes but on a more manageable scale (and much more affordable).
+I will be doing an entire post on this promotion in a few hours, but Shopbop is running one of its buy-more-save-more events, and it includes this very popular blouse.
+This tunic sweatshirt looks like Saturday morning lounging perfection.
+This is to me the perfect sweater for throwing around shoulders during this transitional season. Great colors, not too bulky, super soft!
+These frames are so fun!
+Cute, affordable shacket in the blue plaid and camel colorways!
+ICYMI: H&M’s new arrivals are on fire.
+I don’t know how I missed it, but this piece from Target’s designer collab with Sandy Liang is amazing! I would probably pair it with polished navy slides or loafers and a headband.
+Speaking of fab shoes, these mules are perfect for the holiday party circuit.
+Corseted velvet dream.
+I know I’ve shared this before, but this sherpa funnel-neck is just so fun.
+As is this sherpa belt bag — currently 25% off!
+This patterned bulletin board is SO fun, and currently on sale! Kind of love this as a sneaky way to fill up part of an at-home office wall with color/design but save a little money (versus artwork).
+Such a classic dress, in a great moody blue.
+We are a ways out from Christmas, but these paper placemats in festive prints are so fab!
+This travel hanging bag looks impossibly well-designed.
+Into some of the fall prints at Chappy Wrap, like this herringbone.
+All my favorite fall finds, in one place.
+Fall athletic gear!