Mary Vensel White: On Touchstones and Finding Writing Support Systems


Several years ago, I placed three jars on our mantle and every day, I would walk up and speak to them. To the first, I would offer only praise and positive messages: You are amazing; You’re doing a great job; I’m proud of you. The second jar would be ignored altogether and the third received what was basically, verbal abuse: You are terrible; No one likes you; You’re a failure. Each jar was filled with water and two inches of white rice, compactly settled on the bottom. I encouraged my kids to treat them similarly, and they particularly enjoyed coming up with new ways to denigrate the third jar. We continued for weeks, the jars becoming a fixture and a habit in our home.

Maybe you also heard about Masaru Emoto, a Japanese researcher and photographer who conducted similar experiments. He filled many petri dishes with water, which he praised, ignored, and insulted, and then he photographed the water microscopically. Good energy produced crystalline, snowflake designs; bad words created ugly results—discolored, polluted-looking blobs. Emoto’s findings suggested that human consciousness—specifically, emotional energy—could cause changes in the water’s very molecular structure. And because up to ninety percent of a human’s body weight can be attributed to good old H2O…well, you get the implication.

So did it work? In the case of our amateur efforts, it most certainly did. The abused rice looked brownish, the ignored grains dingy gray. The rice fortunate enough to be nourished with good will and encouragement retained its bright, white appearance. Or so it seemed to me. It’s quite possible something else could be said about visualizing the outcome you want to see, but that would be another experiment, for another day.

Like Emoto’s water, we all started life with some sort of feedback and if you’re lucky, you had parents who made you feel special, capable, and good. When you talk to a group of writers about their early influences, many will talk about the people who set them on the writing path, or encouraged a bookish life in one way or another. In my case, all roads point back to my mother, a voracious reader who made sure there were always books around, both on our many shelves at our house, and in the stacks I’d bring home from the library. Most importantly, her confidence in me was substantial, and I was fortunate to always feel capable, and special, and able to accomplish anything through hard work.

There were the librarians, of course, who pointed me in the direction of something else when I had finished one or another author’s oeuvre, and a handful of mentors: my fifth grade teacher, who read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler at the end of the school day, as a reward for good behavior; my English teacher during freshman year of high school, whose intense love of Shakespeare was so palpable that I left each day buzzing with Romeo and Juliet; the community college professor who told me I should consider an English major after reading my essay about how much I despised Sons and Lovers.

Maybe your early supporters pushed you along, and now you have a writing community from which you draw strength. Something all writers have in common is a comradery about dealing with rejection, and a reverence for those moments when we or another writer has received a bit of positivity or acceptance. Maybe you’ve been able to parlay your efforts into support from an agent, an editor, a publisher.

Certainly, this type of encouragement seems like the Holy Grail for a writer. Having a person or an entire team of people get behind something you’ve written is definitely a feel-good moment. But even successful authors will tell you that where there is sunshine, there are still gray afternoons and an occasional downpour. Those moments of support from outside sources may or may not come regularly: praise for your work, acceptances into programs, or literary journals, or onto a publisher’s list. But one thing you can rely on, if you nurture it, is self-belief. One action that you can take daily is to step up to your water-filled self and say: You’re doing a great job.

If you have one of those spouses who understands when you have to hole up for weeks at a time to finish a story, great! If you have a weekly writing group who encourages you to complete that novel, fantastic! If you have a wonderful agent, or a faithful friend who replenishes you, or children who think you’re incredible, all good. (But don’t forget the inverse of that: if there are people in your life who deplete you, or infuse your gleaming grains with dinginess and negativity, pour them down the drain.) And by all means, return to your touchstones for sustenance: that teacher who believed in you, your mother who always exaggerated your abilities because she saw you with rose-colored mom glasses, that first time something you wrote was read, or praised, or published.

But use your support system as what it’s intended for: to support YOU, so that you can support yourself. At the end of the day, it’s just you and the notebook, you in the soft glow of the computer screen, you in the labyrinth of plotting, planning, and dreaming. You are a writer. You’re a writer because of your touchstones, supporters and successes. But you’re mostly a writer because you write, and because that’s when you feel most like yourself.  Somehow, you keep finding the audacity to continue writing. So go ahead and replenish your molecules; radiate some positivity inward: You are amazing. I’m proud of you. You’ve got this.


Mary Vensel White is a graduate of the University of Denver and DePaul University, Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Lindenwood Review, The Wisconsin Review, Author Magazine, The Rumpus, and other places. She is a contributing editor at LitChat.com and does freelance editing at typeeighteenediting.com. Her debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was the first book published under HarperCollins’s Authonomy imprint. A second novel, Bellflower, will be published in early 2019. She lives in southern California with her four children.

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