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In Praise of Encouragement

I recently read a great little piece by Dave Eggers , author of What is the What and other novels, where he reflected on the recent passing of a beloved high school teacher.  Eggers recalled the time when the teacher remarked on a paper he’d written, “Sure hope you become a writer.”

That was it,” Eggers wrote, “ Just those six words, written in his signature handwriting — a bit shaky, but with a very steady baseline. It was the first time he or anyone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so writing for a living didn’t seem something available to me. But then, just like that, it was as if he’d ripped off the ceiling and shown me the sky.

His words brought the memory of a very similar experience flooding back to me.  When I was 11 or 12, I submitted a simple little poem with the utterly forgettable title of “The Desk” to my middle school literary magazine.  I know I still have it somewhere and although I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment, I clearly remember the simple line drawing a smiling desk that I made to accompany the piece.  Just four or five short stanzas in very simple rhyme, it told the story of the sights and sounds a school desk might experience in the course of a day.

It was, and is, by all accounts a pretty mundane little ode, even by 5th grade standards. There were certainly other much better pieces in the little booklet. But at some point, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Ashbaugh, commented on the piece and said those magic words I still remember to this day:“You should be a writer.”

Bells pealed. Angels sang. Light beamed from the heavens.

I should be a writer!

Now it’s entirely possible, and quite likely, that Mrs. Ashbaugh said nothing of the sort.  I’m sure she kindly praised my work, and perhaps said something akin to , “You could be a writer, “ or perhaps, “Maybe one day you’ll be a writer.” But I heard, “You should be a writer” and I took her at her word.

Armed with this stunning and singular piece of advice, I proceeded straight to the school library to ask the goddess who presided over all knowledge there what she could recommend for an aspiring writer. I don’t remember much beyond that, but somehow or other, some kind soul at the school bestowed upon me my very own personal copy of a wonderful little book called “Someday You’ll Write,” by Elizabeth Yates.

Best known for her 1951 Newberry Award Winning book, Amos Fortune, Free Man, Yates , who passed away in 2001, was also well known for her commitment to helping others become writers, as well.  Somewhere I still have her slim little volume of encouraging words for would-be writers that included, among other things, this pithy guidance:

The written word should be
Clean as a bone,
Clear as light,
Hard as stone.
Two words are not so good
As one.”

I cherished the book, carried it with me through high school, college and into the shared bookshelves of a newly married couple, and then shared it with my children 20 years later. The book was my guide, but it was those pivotal words from Mrs. Ashbaugh as I heard them: You should be a writer, that powered the engine of my dreams, and on which I hung the promise of a lifetime of hope and happiness.

For the next dozen years or so, I wrote with all the verbose fervor of a young, sincere and angst ridden writer. I fancied myself the next great novelist. I wrote well, although not unusually so, but sufficiently to be successful on high school and college newspapers, and later community newspapers.

The next dozen years were a little more sobering.  Being a great novelist, I was learning, was as much a matter of luck as of skill. Ask J.K. Rowling.

But being a writer of any level of success is immensely freeing and satisfying. Mastering words, articulating experiences, feelings, opinions and ideas is powerful, and empowering. Hundreds of articles and two books later, the fact is – I really am a writer.

I may not be a writer as I originally imagined when Mrs. Ashbaugh set me toddling forth on my literary journey.  But my life as a writer has been, and continues to be, deeply enriching and personally satisfying. Mrs. Ashbaugh’s kind words not only urged me onward in career choice, but gave me focus and intentionality in my life, and tools for living it well.   Just a few words of encouragement made all the difference in the world for me, a child with not much else going for me at the time, with a fractured home life full of unreliable adults and an uncertain future.

More than anything else, I’ve kept front and center the value of encouragement and have tried to pay it forward to the youth in my life ever since, to my own children and to those I’ve worked with in a variety of programs and experiences.

You can do this.

You’re good at this.

You’re talented.

I don’t praise wantonly, though. Empty praise is just that and of no real value. The practice of constantly stroking children’s egos to give them “healthy self-esteem” by praising everyday achievements wears thin over time. That’s why we never gave our kids allowances. They carried their weight like the rest of us, for which they earned our respect and developed enduring skills which then developed into practices and habits of thought we later came to encourage.

If a child falls in the ordinary course of learning to walk or ride a bicycle, or on the playground, she benefits far more from our encouragement when she gets up and dusts herself off, than our immediate ministrations over a scraped knee.  I didn’t hear much praise or encouragement when I was young, but when I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried something new, and earned Mrs. Ashbaugh’s encouragement, it was truly inspiring.

Life is complicated and full of setbacks. It’s also disarmingly simple and full of opportunities to be happy, if not always fully successful, or successful in ways we might hope.  Measured encouragement sets the stage for both success and perspective in the face of far more common failure.

When an asthma attack, a painful shoulder and bad weather forced 61-year-old long distance swimmer Diana Nyad , last week, to abandon her bid to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, she shrugged off questions of failure.

“I was the best person I could be … that’s the message. I dug down, I dug deep … Whatever you’re doing, do your job well,” Nyad told CNN.

She probably wouldn’t try again, she told media.  She is, after all, 61.

“I think I’m going to live a life when I did not swim from Cuba to Florida,” she said. “I think I can live with that.”

That’s a person with confidence in herself, whose past successes – and there have been many for Nyad – have made it possible for her to live with an unsuccessful, but eminently instructive, experience.

Simple encouragement, at the right point in someone’s life, can make all the difference in the world, whether one swims across an ocean or writes a great novel, or not.

Thanks, Mrs. Ashbaugh!


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