Musings + Essays

Melencolia, Ebenezers, and My Longtime Experiment with Language.

By: Jen Shoop

In seventh grade, my homeroom teacher asked us to select an artwork of our choosing and write an essay on it. I recall classmates groaning at the assignment, but I was delighted. Even now, I get a thrill out of the open-endedness of the prompt, a barely-mantled invitation to corral the ping-ponging thoughts of a twelve-year-old into something of shape. I selected an obscure wood carving by Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer titled “Melencolia.” My election is as close to a portal into the psyche of a 1997-era tween as you will find. The theme was slightly morbid in the way of the Ouija board and dark lipstick and subtle obsession with witchcraft then in vogue, and overtly self-indulgent in the way of a twelve-year-old. These were the years of tamagotchis, sleepovers, passed notes with “do you like Katie? check yes or no,” butterfly clips, lip smackers, spin-the-bottle, boys who wore flannel shirts unbuttoned over white tees, Alanis Morisette, chanting “Bloody Mary” into the mirror, “Teen Wolf,” the Goth trend, pamphlets labeled “Your Changing Body,” the book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, chokers, and those hideous black Steve Madden platforms with the stretchy band that conformed to the top of the foot, which my Dad aptly dubbed “clod-hoppers” which he in turn sometimes appended to just “clogs,” which then became a stand-in for any footwear he disliked for the rest of my life. (A strange kitten heel with a jarring buckle on the toe? “A clog,” to my Dad.) Of course, I was too much of a skittish rule-follower to ever actually chant “Bloody Mary” or play the Ouija board. I was convinced that if the devil didn’t get me, my mom would find me with my palms over the board or my hands in front of my face and my life as I knew it would be over. I knew this with confidence because she had once told me that her father (my Granddad, a pious man) was appalled by the cocktail of the same name — or, more accurately, the non-alcoholic variation, the Virgin Mary, and would refuse to order it on naming convention alone, and she delivered this information with such firmness and reverence that I still think about it to this day when I see it on a restaurant menu. Anyhow, I suppose that writing an essay about melancholy was as close to rebellious self-expression as I could get as that time. It is agony to be a tween! was the subtext. Durer gets it.

I think back now and imagine my teacher smirking as he skimmed my loose-leaf paper. Amidst a sea of reflections on “Starry, Starry Night” and Degas’ dancers, here was…Albrecht Durer? Is that even an artist? he might have asked, not having Wikipedia as an easy reference. These were the dial-up days — DOS prompts, computers that weighed a shipping ton, heavily-pixelated Michael Jordan v. Larry Bird, etc. How I even found Durer is a marvel to me, although I am fairly certain it was from a set of encyclopedias my father kept in the basement that we mainly used as “bricks” in fort building but found sporadically useful for oblique self-expression in open-ended essay prompts.

My teacher gave me an “A+,” on the assignment, which was not unusual for me, but added: “See me after class,” which was. My stomach dropped. The last thing I needed was my teacher to ask if I needed counseling, and I was aware enough that my topic might have earned me that conversation. How could I have been so bold?! I immediately started worrying about whether my parents would be called. Would Sister Joan, our principal, be involved in all of this? Ah, the spiraling of a 12 year old Catholic girl!

When I timidly approached my teacher’s desk at lunch, he grinned.

“Durer, huh?” he asked. I gulped, but found the smile disarming enough to begin to resume some posture of normalcy.

As it turns out, he simply wanted to praise me for my writing, and for the effort it must have taken to source the artwork I’d written about. He also looked me square in the eye and said: “Keep writing.”

The episode now reads like a parable to me. I took a risk at self-expression and it was fraught with peril and in the end it not only paid off but spurred me forward.

Keep writing.

Two of my uncles used to say the same thing to me, often in long-form letters. “Still writing fiction?” my Uncle Jim would ask me when I was thirteen, fifteen, nineteen. He’d urge not to stop, once tucking a xeroxed copy of a favorite Salinger short story of his into the envelope, as though an ebenezer for future attempts at fiction.

Keep writing.

My mother enrolled me in writing workshops, sat in audiences at poetry competitions where I would read my work in trembling sotte voce, kept a hand-written story of mine in her bedside table.

Keep writing.

The other day, I sat down and wrote an email to three girlfriends of mine telling them that — without their even knowing it — they had shaped my life as a writer in a meaningful way. I had just moved to New York, just dissolved a business with my husband, just had a baby, and I felt adrift and throttled. All three of them were successful creatives in their own right, and I was entranced and encouraged by not only the quality of their art but their fearless entrepreneurship. They became models for my own confidence. But mainly, it was their earnest acceptance of what I was doing, the way they’d ask what I was working on or let me know when they particularly liked an essay, that motivated me.

Keep writing, in different words.

It is easy to be deterred by criticism, and more often than not, I am the loudest of the howling wolves nipping at my heels — that is, I am often the harshest critic of my own work. In past occasions where my writing has been poorly received, I have sometimes felt like saying, “Oh I know. Tell me about it. Horrible!!!”

And you know —

I think I have not thoroughly acknowledged the patronage that has brought me through. For most of my life, when generous people would say nice things about my writing, I would flush, change the topic, dissent. But obviously some of the encouragement seeped through, lodging itself in the tender spot beyond the armor, and I doubt very much I have gone even one day — even one single day! — of the last few decades of my life without writing, in no small part because of that furtherance. Sometimes, that writing has been in narrow, fractional modalities: fragments of essays jotted on a notepad, turns of phrases captured on my iPhone Notes app, even “oh! I love the way she put that!” awarenesses that later spring up, daisy-like, in my musings. And sometimes, it has been long, heart-wrenching essays that consume me for days and leave me as fossil. All of it — even when there is no pen on paper — is writing, though, which to me is process rather than product. Some of my best writing happens while on mile three of a run or laying awake in the middle of the night: it is the unfurling of words into empty space. And so writing has been a lifeblood. A through-line. The backbone of my professional career, a partial-casting of my identity. And it wouldn’t be that way without the teachers, family members, friends, readers (you!) who have unwritten my longtime experiment with language.

All to say: today I am taking a pause to give praise where it is due, to sit in gratitude with the memory of that teacher’s encouraging stare over my strange seventh-grade essay. And I want to pay it forward. So to anyone who needs to hear it today: keep going. Take the risk. Lean into the encouragement. Let this note today be your own ebenezer.


+On getting into a flow.

+Do you consider yourself creative? (The TL;DR: even if you don’t, you are.)

+Writing, fishing, and The Roaring Fork.

+More words of encouragement.

+On selecting English as a major.

Shopping Break.

+Thanks to the reader who pointed out this adorable exaggerated-collar sweatshirt! SEA vibes but on a more manageable scale (and much more affordable).

+I will be doing an entire post on this promotion in a few hours, but Shopbop is running one of its buy-more-save-more events, and it includes this very popular blouse.

+Last-minute Halloween buys: Halloween PJs, 50% off, and Martha Stewart bat mirror clings.

+This tunic sweatshirt looks like Saturday morning lounging perfection.

+This is to me the perfect sweater for throwing around shoulders during this transitional season. Great colors, not too bulky, super soft!

+Glass salt cellar at a great price. Thinking of putting this in Mr. Magpie’s stocking alongside his annual stocking stuffer of Maldon salt.

+These frames are so fun!

+This $35 gingham top! WOW! Instantly reminded me of the Emerson Fry blouse. Perfect tucked into high-waisted flared denim with this bag or beneath joveralls.

+Cute, affordable shacket in the blue plaid and camel colorways!

+ICYMI: H&M’s new arrivals are on fire.

+I don’t know how I missed it, but this piece from Target’s designer collab with Sandy Liang is amazing! I would probably pair it with polished navy slides or loafers and a headband.

+These limited-edition floral slides are so incredibly chic, and would go with basically everything here.

+Speaking of fab shoes, these mules are perfect for the holiday party circuit.

+Corseted velvet dream.

+I know I’ve shared this before, but this sherpa funnel-neck is just so fun.

+As is this sherpa belt bag — currently 25% off!

+This patterned bulletin board is SO fun, and currently on sale! Kind of love this as a sneaky way to fill up part of an at-home office wall with color/design but save a little money (versus artwork).

+Such a classic dress, in a great moody blue.

+We are a ways out from Christmas, but these paper placemats in festive prints are so fab!

+This travel hanging bag looks impossibly well-designed.

+These striped pillows are so handsome (and on sale!), and these green herb-motif plates from the same shop are super chic and a great deal as well.

+Into some of the fall prints at Chappy Wrap, like this herringbone.

+All my favorite fall finds, in one place.

+Cute scores for little boys and fall basics for them, too.

+Fall athletic gear!

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8 thoughts on “Melencolia, Ebenezers, and My Longtime Experiment with Language.

  1. How fortunate that you had these writing mentors/cheerleaders! Like other commenters, I am grateful that you are still blogging. You hit just the right balance of content for a type-a mom like me! 🙂

  2. And how thankful am I that you have kept writing – a sentiment I’m sure is shared by many other readers!

    A side note on Durer – he was a focus of one of my philosophy/religion/literature – “great books” classes in college, except my professor had a thick Boston accent and pronounced his name “du-rah”. I remember it took two full classes before I looked at the syllabus (he had passed out copies of the etchings rather than have us get a book) and realized we had not been studying an obscure medeival artist “Dura” but in fact the renowned (and possibly still slightly obscure) Durer. I’m so impressed that you found him at age 12 because he was clearly unknown to me at age 19!!

    1. Ha!! That’s amazing — “Du-rah”! Also thanks for the subtle nudge to check the spelling! Yikes! I’ve for years thought it was spelled “Drurer”!!

      Thank you also for the kind words and encouragement, my friend! 🙂


  3. It is surely a gift to reduce the highs and lows of human emotion, mothering, partnership to mere words that we fumble to describe these esoteric topics. You give voice to these indescribable feelings in a way that is authentic, humble, and quietly encouraging. Your writing is a cheer to keep going, but a quiet one, recognizing that often it’s hard, sometimes it’s scary, always it’s brave. Other bloggers claim to write on these topics – ‘filling your cup’ – but it’s clunky, awkward, a random muttering of self-praise and a startling lack of self-awareness. You are a breathe of fresh air and this blog is the loveliest corner of my internet.

    1. Oh my goodness — thank you so much for the incredible compliments. I’m totally bowled over and humbled. Thank you for your readership and for the exceptionally kind words! I’m lucky to have other moms, women, readers like yourself sitting in solidarity with me!


  4. I have been a daily reader at least you were pregnant with mini (and possibly even before that!), but have never left a note for you before. This post today was just what I needed to hear on a Monday morning, and finally motivated me to let you know how much I have enjoyed your writing over the years. In a world where more and more are shutting down their long form blogs and moving toward exclusively posting on Instagram, I love sitting down with my coffee in the morning before work to read your words and thoughts. To echo your sentiment above, please “keep going” and continue to write!

    1. Wow – thank you for your longtime readership, and for taking the time to write this kind note to me today! I’m so spirited to hear that people still have the time and patience to sit down and read in longer-form style — my preferred medium :). Concision is not my forte. If I were a part of speech, I would be a long, dangling, run-on dependent clause. Haha 🙂

      SO glad to meet you after you’ve been reading along all this time!!


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