Mary Lou Sanelli: Letter To Rose

Provided to the QAM News

Rose, your email came at just the right time.

Because here it is December, and I’m at a loss. Everything “holiday” has been written before. I have my doubts as to whether I can find a fresh angle.

When you become a writer, Rose, you’ll understand, I promise.

Before I forget, your saying that you read my column is the best present ever. How many 15- year-old girls even read the paper? Which makes your gift even more precious. Sure, your mom and I know each other. Still, knowing her, knowing you, I infer no female in your home is deciding what the other female reads, period.

What I need to tell you, readers, is that Rose wants to be a writer. But when she told one of her teachers, she did not get the reaction she was hoping for. In Rose’s words, “I’m told I need a backup plan.”

Rose, trying to do the jigsaw of maturing is no easy feat. But, trust me, if you have already found work that makes you happy, a huge piece of you will not go missing. I will go so far as to say your desire to write may turn out to be your truest friend in life. This might not be an easy thing to hear in your BFF world, but no friend, especially no boyfriend (doubly hard, sorry), will be able to fill that place inside of you that longs for so much.

Only you can fill it. And writing will help.

But, boy, I was thrown into a tizzy after reading your email. You see, in the seventh grade, I called my Home-Economics teacher by my English teacher's name and in front of my classmates, she yelled, "Mary Lou, get your head out of the clouds! Pay attention!”

I was mortified.

How could I have explained to her that I was paying attention. Or that I know how important names are to people, I'm just so bad at remembering them. But ask me anything, anything at all, about what she was wearing, the ever-changing color of her hair, the little lines around her mouth filled with coral-colored lipstick (scary to a teenager), and I knew, baby, I knew. I was obsessed with the details. Noticing was my skill in the world, I just didn’t know how to apply it yet. I didn’t know how to make use of the fact that not only could I remember, sense, specify, describe, perceive, elaborate, but I loved doing so. But retrieve someone’s name unless I know them well, honestly, to this day, I go blank. I soak up the visual, but I’m porous to forenames. They leave me. I’m a sieve.

And surnames? Forget it.

Rose, just think how much time I could have saved if my guidance counselor had picked up on my wordy, descriptive babbles and leaned me toward creative writing instead of laying the secretary/nurse option on so thick. Insecure, vulnerable me might have left high school with a feeling of I’m going to be a writer!

See, the thing about my guidance counselor, the thing about my guidance counselor and me, is when I look back at the two of us sitting face to face in her office with fifteen minutes for concerned-looking her to make a stab at my future, what you have to understand is that I knew that the person before me, a full-fledged member of the adult working world, was going to be of no help whatsoever.

Here’s what she said to me, “You can make more money as a secretary. But nursing offers better benefits to your family.” Benefits? Family? Death to a seventeen year old.

Funny, she said nothing about teaching, which is what she did before becoming a counselor. And she certainly said nothing that helped me perceive my individualities as the very traits a writer needs. Gradually, through the years, I learned this on my own.

High school, for me, bristles with so many of these memories. But not to worry. In time, all the lost little parts of me came together, together enough anyway (there are still gaps), to make me see how I really had no choice about what I was meant to do in this world because I was already doing it.

Just as you are.And it's great, isn't it?

It’s not hard to see how the rest of my life fell into place around me in all the determined, shared-by-writers, obsessive ways it needed to: notebooks full of ideas, every surface of my home well thought out because I thought if I could just keep my place clean and well organized, I could keep my writing goals in order, too.

By the way, I still believe this.

As the world around me grew more daunting, in other words, as I grew older, I sat for longer and longer intervals, trying to make sense of it all, or some of it, any of it. Which, when I think about it, especially as a college freshman, was way better than drugs and alcohol, or dividing a tomato into a day’s worth of calories.

So, Rose, I advise you to keep following the swerving stretch of road onto your very next page.

Above all, promise me, promise yourself, that you will be totally and completely selfish about making time for your own work. Remember the word “selfish” is rarely applied to self-disciplined men. And be open. There will be possibilities that will come along that you never envisioned. Don’t pass them up.

And more than anything, Rose, more than anything in the world, insist on passion.

Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays nominated for a Washington State Book Award. Her previous titles include fiction and non-fiction. She also works as a speaker and a master dance teacher. For more information about her and her work, visit