I just got back from an amazing week in Utah where my co-author, Chuck Sale, and I were hosted by several schools in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs. Through a series of four presentations arranged by our wonderful publicist, Andrea Lunceford, we spoke to nearly 1,000 young people about our books and the writing process. The experience was exhilarating and memorable, but it didn’t start out that way.
Writing is a solitary endeavor. Promoting and selling books is not. Giving seminars on the writing and publishing process is not. I enjoyed writing The Successor and The Culling, but when our publicist arranged these events, it dawned on me that the safety of solitude was about to be withdrawn. I would soon be standing on a stage, holding a microphone, and presenting without any editorial safety net. Chuck, my editor and co-author, would be beside me doing his part of the presentation, but I was the lead, and he couldn’t very well stop me mid-sentence and suggest a better way to say what I had just said. I had fears and did not know what to expect.
After a particularly intense run-through an hour before the first presentation, I remember exclaiming to Chuck, “I can’t do this. I hate this!” His reply was simple and direct: “Yes, you can.” The man is all heart. But he was right. I could and I did. When I mounted the stage, I experienced a transformation. I looked around at the eager young faces staring up at me and realized I was looking into the future. Sitting before me were the writers, readers, mothers, fathers, and leaders of tomorrow. By agreeing to these presentations, I had agreed to play a small part in shaping their future. All my fears vanished behind the curtain of this privilege.
My thoughts went back to my own childhood. I never thought I would become a writer. I thought I would become an art teacher. I always had a sketch pad in my hand, even when I was very young. Some of my earliest memories are of lining up my stuffed animals so I could draw their portraits, which my mother then displayed proudly on the fridge.
When I was in 11th grade, I had a particularly wonderful art teacher. His name was Mr. Bertram. My father was in the military, which required my family to move around a lot. Entering the 11th grade, I found myself a stranger in yet another high school, essentially starting over again for the eighth time. I will always remember walking into Mr. Bertram’s class for the first time. He pulled me aside and questioned me about my art experience. I enthusiastically announced my love for working in pencil, pastel, and acrylic. Mr. Bertram waited patiently while I described some of the pictures that I had done in those mediums. I made it quite clear I did not do watercolor. His eyes twinkled as I announced my willingness to do a picture for him in any of my preferred mediums. With a broad smile he said, “Ok, Naomi, I want you to show me your art ability. You have a week to paint me a watercolor picture.” I was shocked. Didn’t he hear me? I tried to reason with him. No watercolor, absolutely not, beyond my ability. He simply smiled, walked back to his desk, and took a seat, indicating the matter was concluded. Watercolor it would be.
I spent the entire period in frustration. I looked through various water color designs, searching for a way to showcase my artistic abilities in a medium I feared and hated. Near the end of my second day of doing this, I realized I was quickly running out of time for completing the assignment. I did the only thing I could: I rolled up my sleeves and began.
My first brush strokes were tenuous and shaky, but by the end of the day they had become fluid, and by the end of the week I had created a beautiful watercolor portrait of a red-headed woodpecker clinging to a flowering dogwood tree. I was surprised by what I had accomplished. I went on to paint several more watercolor pictures; I became obsessed with the medium and soon ventured into mixed medium, pairing it with pastels. Mr. Bertram never reminded me of my previous dislike for watercolor. Instead, he bought me expensive watercolor paper, some of the best paint brushes, and paid $300 dollars out of his own pocket so I could attend a week-long artist seminar. Soon after, two of my watercolors were published in books.
Mr. Bertram had seen beyond the cocky, opinionated 16-year-old who didn’t do watercolor. He saw a self-imposed limitation and the endless possibilities that lay beyond it. He reached out to me and pulled me past myself. He changed my world forever.
I thank God for wonderful teachers like Mr. Bertram, and I now look forward with eagerness to my next round of school presentations. This is not because I love traveling (I don’t, I miss my family terribly) or – because I have a vast store of wisdom only I can impart. It is because I seek the honor and privilege of doing for others something like what Mr. Bertram did for me.
I conclude each of my school presentations with this advice, which I now offer to all who are reading this:
Dream big, and live what you dream. To all of the young people and all others who are young at heart I proclaim, don’t be afraid to dream, and live everyday like your future depends on it—because it does.