Young Writers Need to Believe Their Stories Matter
Nick Ripatrazone on the Power of Praise
Each summer day, around noon, I would wait on my back porch for the mail truck. I could hear the truck’s steady hum in the distance—impossibly, I lived at the bottom of a road named Pleasant Valley—and would often run across the lawn to get the mail by hand. I pined for comic books and letters from my sister at college. Each letter, each package, was a possibility.
One day, during the summer of 1989, I got a manila envelope. Please do not bend was written along the bottom. It wasn’t addressed to my parents, my brothers, or my sister. It was for me. It was from Ms. Kryspin, my second-grade teacher at Salem Drive School in Whippany, New Jersey. I was about to start third grade, and would miss having her as my teacher, but was so happy to get a note from her. She said that she brought a book that I’d made in class, The Robin That Played Baseball, to her graduate course, and that the other teachers loved it. “I was so proud of your work,” she said. “Keep up writing your wonderful stories.”
As a little boy, all I wanted was stories. I wanted to hear stories, to read stories, to write stories. Mom brought me to the Whippanong Library, where I would drift among the high yellow stacks. I sat on a kick stool and read books about flying saucers spinning across southwestern skies. Each book was a world. I would come back from those stacks with books piled up to my chin, and started to read them on the drive home. Stories led to more stories. I watched The Twilight Zone and re-wrote the endings. I interviewed everyone in my family and stapled their stories into little books and gave them as gifts.
I believed that stories were how people breathed.
I took Ms. Kryspin’s letter inside and showed my parents. It felt like an impossible joy: that I could be read, and shared, and remembered.
Years later, as a sophomore in college, I took my first real writing course—with a novelist, Tom Bailey. I wrote a five-page story about a bomb test in the Nevada desert. I had been writing that story, in my mind or wherever stories live, since those days in the library. I went to his office for our conference, and he put my edited copy of the story on a table in the middle of the room. He’d crossed out nearly every word in the story. Each word had an individual strike.
He smiled, and then he flipped through the story to the one sentence that gleamed black, untouched. That, he said, is the story. It was about a boy running in the desert, in the shadow of the bomb. The story would go on to become a novella in my book of stories, Ember Days. I needed him to help me find the story. Once he found the story, he was full of praise. He was a coach. He made me believe that I could write.
We need generous teachers. Criticism is a necessary trade, but teachers are not simply editors. They have another role. If we truly believe that writing can be taught, then we also believe that stories can be grown. That growth comes from care. Criticism can be a form of care, as long as it comes from the right place. It would have been uncaring for my professors to leave my stories weak and unfinished. Great teachers find the promise in those stories, and hold that promise up to writers—as evidence to keep going.
I want to thank Ms. Kryspin. She got me started. She knew that I loved stories—that all I wanted in the world was to make a book that someone could hold. She took that little book about a bird and held on to it. She cared enough to write me about it, and I’ve cared enough to keep her words for all these years.
Young writers need to hear praise. Most writers have that person who, years ago, gave us permission to write. Unbridled praise feels inauthentic, but specific, meaningful praise can be the difference in a young writer’s life, during the years when their sense of imagination and wonder needs the most care. The wrong words can wound us, but the right words can make us believe that our stories matter.