I learned to fax at the age of twenty-six. As a receptionist for two publishers, inhabiting a little gray cubicle, I received calls, sliced open envelopes, ripped apart invoices, and – yes – sent faxes. When the fax machine beeped, I felt it was talking to me in a friendly way, until the outgoing faxes piled high, and the high-pitched noise squealed. I started to wish I could become an editor. My supervisor said, “You’ll get your foot in the door.” I could almost taste the sweet, delicious news of my future editorial success.
When I had a peaceful moment at my desk, I wrote. I wrote at home, too. It refreshed me. I made myself laugh as I detailed my days and my foibles. I filled notebooks with lengthy journal entries, funny short stories, comedy routines, prose poems, and comics.
At work the journals assistant came by, his black salt and pepper jeans swish swishing, as he dropped off checks for me to tally. Often, he stopped to chat. He shared nuggets about people in a way that made me visualize them and hear their voices. I treasured his stories.
One day he asked, “What do you do outside of work?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“So is my sister; you ought to read her book.”
A few months later, she arrived at the office, sauntering through the door. Even before she announced herself, I knew they were related. Like him, her smile shone past her high cheekbones, radiating light to her eyes, merry with laughter. When I said, “I read your memoir,” her face glowed, surprised and delighted. I mentioned I was a writer, too, and we talked about my short stories and cartoons. Her encouragement boosted my self-esteem sky-high. She was just four years older, and an author to boot.
Soon after, I gave him a story I had written. “You are excellent, as always,” he said. He later told me he attached it to his fridge and showed it to everyone. I beamed as though my story had won a Pushcart Prize.
Outside of my family, I didn’t have much of a following. But I had him. His care made me feel I had a greater purpose than my receptionist persona. Because he valued my words, I confided my stories about work, family, roommates, relationships, and my mishaps, describing what happened, how people looked, and what they said. He allowed me to hear myself—what sentences worked, which words brought my story to life so that he experienced it exactly as I had, what punch lines made him laugh. By having someone to tell my story to, I was learning how to shape and fine-tune it.
On the job front, I despaired, hands sweating, as I typed yet another cover letter. I agonized that I could not move beyond receptionist. Now, as I spend my days writing, I know I received something greater—mentoring. Both my co-worker and his sister were role models for me. When he told me she would be published in a women’s magazine and The New York Times, he was showing me the path I could take. He educated me with his attentive listening. Whether I went on to write essays, fiction, or poetry, he had faith in me. His confidence is a gift I carry over twenty years later.
I still read his sister’s books. Her memoirs motivate me to make my stories come alive. They inspire me to write beyond the facts and share my truth. And reading her memoirs is also my way of saying thanks.