I was seventeen years old the day I wrote the poem.
I remember that day well. It was one of those impressionable days, the kind that engrave themselves kindly inside of you. It was quiet — his class was always quiet — but that day was especially reverent. I went there daily, the obvious reason being because I was taking his course, the other because it had become my sanctuary. In those days I needed a safe place. I still do.
It was November, I think, and a snowfall had just begun outside. My seat was beside the window so I could see the flakes floating down and I was tired, yet wide awake. There weren’t very many serious writers in the class. Most of the kids were taking it because they thought it would be easy. I was taking it because I thought I might be found.
That’s usually why I write.
He started off the class in his habitual way, encouraging the use of the dash and the word ought. And then he said, just like he’d said all the days before, “And remember, when you write: write from what you know.”
It’s the best writing advice I’ve been given, unbeknownst to me at the time. Because I didn’t know a lot then, not really. I hadn’t experienced pain or trauma or heartbreak. I didn’t know how I could write from what I knew, when all I seemed to know felt so terribly uninspiring.
I did know words held power. I knew this because of how their power had affected me. There are words I’ve read in books that I could quote to you, words that have impressed themselves deep into the folds of who I am. They didn’t make me feel happy or sad, which is exactly why they stayed with me. They made me feeling something I’d never felt before.
Those are the kind of words I want to write.
I thought about what I knew, pondered what seemingly unimportant thing I could offer to this great world. I wanted my words to be grand and bold and impossibly profound. I wanted them to be remembered. I thought maybe those were the only words that mattered.
A week earlier I had written an essay. That day my teacher returned them to us. When he came to me, he smiled, sliding the essay closer. I leaned in to read the comment that was written near the top.
Aliza, it said, you have the heart of a lion.
I sat there for a long moment, staring at the red cursive that inked the papers. The words blurred in front of me. I didn’t feel lionhearted when I wrote. I felt shy and insignificant.
Those red scrawled words my teacher had written are now permanently embedded inside of me. When he wrote me that, the words I had written — the ones I felt lacked knowledge and poise and depth — suddenly mattered. I’ll never forget that. His words made such an impact in my life that I went home and wrote a poem about them. I think about his words often, even still.
He assured my worth that day, assured the bravery I didn’t imagine I had, assured the belief I think I knew all along: words matter.
I hope you trust me when I say this — there’s someone out there who will never forget the words you’ve given them.
Your words matter.
And so do you.
“Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing
in Your eyes, O Lord, my Rock and the One Who saves me.”
– Psalm 19:14
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