Dear Teen Me

When asked to write a letter as an author to my “teen” self, here’s what I had to say. (Warning: some scary photos here.)


Mary at 17

Mary at 17

At seventeen, you’re probably bracing for a finger-wagging letter from your adult self. But relax. You are right on track for a pretty amazing life.

First, you’ve known since you were quite small that life goes by in the blink of an eye. Even now, you’re expecting that 70 is just around the corner. And that’s good, because it’s absolutely true. And it’s a gift to possess a sense of how fleeting time is, because you’ll take your own dreams more seriously. And you are.

You’ve recently stumbled upon your greatest passion: writing.

Still, you have plenty of loves.

Mary's 8th grade portrait

Mary’s 8th grade portrait

You love your appaloosa, Keema, and riding for miles on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. But you already see how quickly the world around you changes. The vast fields you rode in just a few years ago are posted for commercial development. The city is expanding. And just like your fleeting teen years, the landscape of your life will change dramatically over the decades ahead.Another love of yours is playing the piano. Not for performance, but for pure pleasure. You love when a melody strikes an unexpected chord, and you play music that touches you emotionally. You compose some of your own music, but mostly play music of others, from Broadway musical “Camelot” to contemporary folk songs from Judy Collins and John Denver.

Mary at 14 with her big family

Mary at 14 with her big family

Oh, I’m so glad you can lose yourself in playing the piano! It helps ground you in the swirling world of your big family of ten kids. With two older sisters, an older brother, and six younger brothers, it’s amazing you can listen to your inner voice at all. Keep playing, keep listening, and when you play that song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” with lyrics that continue, “don’t know when I’ll be back again . . . “ you’ll feel like crying. Because it’s true.

Mary at 17 playing piano

Mary at 17 playing piano

You’ll be following another love soon. Traveling. First you’ll figure out how to graduate in January from high school!  A loophole–brilliant you–that gives a few extra credits for those part-time jobs you’ve been doing at Rosedale Shopping Center. You’ll convince a few girlfriends to do the same, pack your bikes and board a Greyhound bus for a month long trip to Florida where you’ll stay in an unfurnished condo on the beach.       You’re learning to pay attention to what gives you energy–what makes you hum inside with joy. And that’s great, because as a future author, you’ll be drawing on that same sensibility when you choose projects, when you listen to which way a story needs to go.

But before you get there, you’ll be a ski bum in Aspen for a year. (You’ll work as a maid so you can downhill ski at every chance! And you’ll keep journalling.)

16-year-old Mary camping

16-year-old Mary camping

You’ll hitch-hike up and down the California coast with a friend. (Now that, honestly, isn’t really a very smart thing to do–but you’re optimistic–and thank God you’ll survive it without scars. You really must have a host of angels looking out for you!)

But then you’ll turn toward college. And you want to write. It’s still in you, still the dream that almost not dare speak about. But you’ve discovered how powerful words are, how you can get what’s in your head down on paper and whether it’s an essay or a journal entry, express yourself. Indeed, you are finding you discover what you think by writing. But you have no idea what kind of writer you’ll be. You just know that you love the craft, the sheer putting words to what’s churning inside and getting it down as clearly as possible on paper.

Mary's 9th grade portrait

Mary’s 9th grade portrait

You’ll follow your gut through college, taking courses in European History and art and of course, writing. You’ll meet the love of your life while in school, get married, and work hard as married students to complete your degrees. And when you do, you’ll walk hand in hand to accept your diplomas, now that you both share the same last name, you’re sitting by each other anyway.

You’ll follow another love, to live away from a city, to live on the edge of wilderness. Winter or summer, you’ve always loved going north to your family’s cabin in northern Minnesota. You’ve soaked in the pine-scented crisp air, the mournful cries of the loon, a quieter way of living. You and your husband–I’ll leave that to you to discover–share this dream. Right after college, together you head north to the edge of the US and Canada.

You want to write, but you truly have no idea what kind of genre you’re even interested in. But you’ll keep at it, even when children come along. You’ll write short stories and articles and you’ll start sending things off to get published. Brace yourself, because an avalanche of rejection letters are coming your way. It won’t be easy.

But you’re strong. And you have your dream. And you’ve learned to listen to that still small voice that is your truest self. It’s always been there, guiding you. And even now, as a teenager, you know to listen to it.

You’re going to do just fine.

Grown-up Mary!

Grown-up Mary!

Someday, at a writer’s conference in upstate New York, you’ll be in a visualization seminar. You’ll be asked to picture yourself walking in a beautiful place. You’ll picture a sandy coast, with ocean waves rolling in against the shore. The workshop leader says, “Now picture ahead of you, your book. What does it look like? Do you see the cover?”

You want to laugh out loud–what a ridiculous exercise this must be, you think–because you see a stack of books that reaches your knees!

But I can tell you, it’s true. It is a glimpse of your future as a writer. But that’s not what will help you now.

What you need now is this:

You are exactly where you need to be right now.

Keep listening for your truest voice.

 Article was original published in Dear Teen Me.