Paying it Forward

I was thinking about Nancy Diekmann when I asked to see my young friend’s manuscript.

Mrs. Diekmann once prompted me – a shy and tortured fifteen year old – to write a short story for her sophomore English class.  I no longer remember the story, but I assure you it was nothing special.  The magic of the experience was Mrs. Diekmann convinced me otherwise.

Sometime later, she steered me toward a statewide essay contest.  My essay was more or less another short story.  I sent it off.  A few weeks later, I was stunned when the unimaginable happened:  My story won first place, and I received a shiny plaque to prove it.

The next year I produced a superior story for the same contest and entered yet again.  A few weeks later, Mrs. Diekmann approached me.  She wore a somber expression as she placed a new plaque on my desk and congratulated me for my second-place finish.  Then she walked away.  We never discussed it further, but one thing was clear:  She believed I was better than second place.

The crazy thing is because of her I did too.  I still have both of those plaques sitting at the bottom of a tub in our basement.  I pull them out on rare occasions, but what I value far more than the now-tarnished hardware is the incredible journey I’ve been on since.

Before I graduated from high school, I wrote a science fiction novel under Mrs. Diekmann’s tutelage.  Not only was that novel nothing special, I realize in hindsight it was downright awful.  I didn’t have the stamina then for a project of that magnitude.

I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in print journalism – an achievement that continues to enrich every aspect of my life.  I followed that up with law school.  As a young attorney, I used to close the door to my office every day at noon to write for an hour.  I wrote a novel about football.  Nobody wanted it, so I wrote another novel.  A science fiction story.  I consider it the book I didn’t have the stamina, skill, or maturity to write for Mrs. Diekmann all those years ago.  Thanks to her, I do now, and I haven’t stopped writing.

Back to my young friend.  He’s writing too.  Five chapters into his own novel.  I asked to see those chapters, and my friend courageously obliged.  In reading his words, I became acquainted with a writer whose natural ability far exceeds my own.  I told him as much.  His is a fledgling talent worth nurturing, and I find myself wanting to offer words of encouragement in order to fan that storytelling flame.

I’m now pushing 40.  I’ll never be the next J.K. Rowling, and I’ve made peace with that.  But surely someone will be.  My young friend perhaps?  Maybe.  Maybe not, but I have a feeling that’s the sort of question Nancy Diekmann asked herself every single day.

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