Dear Allyn, aged sixteen,
In many ways, you and I are strangers. The passage of twenty years will do that, making strangers of even the closest of friends, and you and I are closer than friends, family, even brothers. You are me at sixteen, I am you at thirty-six. Twenty years.
You may find it difficult to credit, as I must appear to be nothing like you at all. You have a full head of hair — thick, black, bangs cut like Spock. I have practically no hair on top, just fuzz, and my temples have long since gone grey. The scar on our forehead that marks your hairline is now well removed by inches from any stray follicles on my forehead. You just started shaving, and you might every other week or so. I shave twice, maybe three times, a week and, except for one brief period in college, a beard isn’t something I try. You are yet to have the accident that will leave you with the scar on your right forearm. Even our handwriting is different. You may find the penmanship of this letter to be not just alien but girlish, but if you look closer, you will see that my handwriting is much the same as yours, just more evolved, more refined. Your handwriting, when I look upon it, is curiously jagged, to the point where I sometimes wonder if we had some musculature problems in our shared youth; your straight lines are not especially straight. And my letters are much larger than yours. Your handwriting isn’t crabby, it’s just small. No, this does not mean that your eyesight has done bad and you write larger to compensate. I simply became more precise with the pen over the years.
Yet, there are things about you and I that are much the same. You have a kite that you cherish and that you fly as often as you can on weekends, as do I. You have a crate of LEGO bricks; I have that same red ammunition crate. You daydream at school and fill your notebooks with random scribblings; I made random scribblings of my own every day, though not necessarily on paper. You play wargames and fancy yourself secretly as a military genius; I also play wargames and think much the same. Deep down, you and I are not that different, though some of our interests have diverged. I, for instance, no longer read Star Trek novels, while your voraciously consume them. People change over time, and twenty years is a span of time.
What is the world like for you at sixteen? George H.W. Bush is President. The Berlin Wall still stands. You live in West Virginia. You are a senior at Philip Barbour High School. You will see the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time — and yes, I am jealous. You will see Sylvester McCoy in Doctor Who, and then West Virginia Public Television will follow that will William Hartnell’s episodes from the early 1960s, which will blow your mind. For that matter, you will not see Colin Baker as the Doctor until this year as well, and I can only wonder at the impression Colin Baker forms upon your psyche. You are an Alex P. Keaton Republican; had you been able to vote last year, you would gladly have pulled the lever for Bush over Michael Dukasis. You have a circle of friends at school, though few, if any, are especially close.
There are things at sixteen that you have not yet done. You have yet to read The Great Gatsby or Ender’s Game or Dracula. You have not read the sonnets of Petrarch. You have never given a woman a book of Byron’s love poetry. You have not seen Say Anything… or Dead Poets Society or, for that matter, Blackadder. You have never been to a concert. You have not bought a compact disc. You have not gone to a Star Trek convention. You have never been in an airplane. Nor have you been to New York City, and you have certainly not been to Las Vegas. You have not learned to write your name in Elvish. I doubt you have thought of writing a short story for publication. You have not learned to drive a car. You have not been in a car accident. You have not lost your virginity. You have not learned to chop wood. You cannot tie a necktie. You do not have a sham English accent. You have never eaten a digestive biscuit, nor do you have any idea what a digestive biscuit is. You have not eaten Turkish Delight. You have never been drunk. And you have definitely never been high.
Am I revealing anything about your future by mentioning all the things you’ve not done? Perhaps. But I have said nothing of how any of these things are accomplished, nor what any of these will mean for you. In truth, these are things that everyone experiences at some time in their lives. Perhaps not the Star Trek convention or the Elvish writing, but consider — look at the Star Trek fan fiction you have written, the Star Trek novels and comics you have read, and tell me honestly that you would not attend a convention. Or think of the number of times you have watched the Rankin-Bass animated The Return of the King and tell me that J.R.R. Tolkien does not have a hold upon you, that you wouldn’t, someday, investigate his invented languages. These events may be niche, but they are also you. Your life, inevitably, will lead you to both.
Yet, the very act of writing to you at age sixteen, from my vantage point two decades hence, will reveal something to you about your future, even if inadvertently. Consider Doctor Who for a moment. There is a story I’m fairly certain you’ve not seen as yet — to be honest, at this point in your life you’ve seen just a fraction of what the BBC has made — about the Doctor and his wife. The Doctor, as you know, is a time traveler; for him tomorrow can be next week or just as easily last year. His wife does not travel with him, though she may have when she was younger. She lives her life linearly, moving into the future at the same rate you and I do — twenty-four hours into the future every single day. They live their lives out of sequence, and she keeps track of their meetings and their adventures in the only way she can — in a notebook. In this particular story, they meet comparatively early in his life, late in hers. She has known him forever. He knows her not at all. Causality prevents her from telling him anything about his future — “Spoilers,” she terms it — but she cannot help but reveal a few tidbits about his future. No matter how cautious she is, things happen inadvertently. Things she thinks are obvious are unknown to the Doctor.
This is the way of everything, really. We all have our blind-spots, blind to ourselves, blind to our place in the world, blind to our past, blind to how others perceive us. There are things I know of you, and there are things I do not know, that I can only guess at. Then there are things true of me, but they may not be true of you.
There are things about you that I do not know. I do not know what you think of the Beatles, though I know you are aware of them, and you may remember the woman that introduced us to the Liverpool foursome better than I, as she is only two years in your past. I do not know if you have seen The Princess Bride, though I know it first happened sometime around your age. I think you have seen Beetlejuice, and depending upon when you receive this you may have not yet seen Batman. I am not sure if you have read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land yet, and I am fairly certain, though not entirely, that you have not read any Philip K. Dick.
I can only guess at you. You may find me less of a stranger, despite outward appearances, than I find you. I remember you imperfectly, like shards of glass or puzzle pieces — outlines, fragments, moments, oftentimes lacking the context for comprehension. My perception of the past, our past, is much like your perception of the future. And that is what that “feeling” you have is, though it may be some time before you recognize it as such, when you finally piece the mysteries together. Or perhaps you already know; such is the problem of having such an imperfect recall.
I am not writing to tell you where your life will take you over the next twenty years. The point of life, if life can be said to have a point, is to live it and to learn the lessons it teaches. While telling you to do this and avoid that may rob you of experience, it could honestly derail my life. All the things that you do, all the people that you meet, all the places that you see, all the emotions that you feel — they lead you to me, they are my past. I would not be who I am were it not for you. To quote “The Five Doctors,” “A man is the sum of his memories, a Time Lord more so.”
That is a Doctor Who quote, by the way. You are still a few years from being anything more than a casual viewer of the show, and I suspect you would not recognize the quote. Your taste in quotations would be Star Trek and Isaac Asimov, I suspect. Perhaps even a few movie catch phrases, though only a few.
Rather than tell you about where life takes you, I will tell you a little bit about who you are. And I will give you a piece of advice that you need to hear. I may mention people and places that you do not know yet, and that is inevitable. Like the Doctor’s wife, there are things that I know that you do not, but I cannot make my point without sharing them. I will, however, attempt to be circumspect, though from your point of view you would wish I were less so.
Now, with our long preamble over, which reminds me intensely of an Alan Moore story outline, not that you have read any at this point in your life, I can share with you three words of advice, the three most important words you will ever hear.
Don’t. Be. Afraid.
Fear is a great inhibitor to human endeavor — and to life in general. The fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, the fear of embarrassment, a dozen others. Fear holds people back. Fear inhibits risk. Fear inhibits action. The shadows lurking, real or imagined, do such damage in life.
Don’t misunderstand. Fear has a real use. It is a survival mechanism, hardwired into the human nervous system by millions of year of Darwinian imperatives. But many things that people fear, many things that you fear, are imagined terrors, and they hold people back and make life less interesting and less rich than it could and should be.
In your life, there are five things you should especially not be afraid of.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Say No.
This will be one of the most difficult things for you in your life. Saying no.
Throughout your life, people are going to come to you with your problems, people are going to drop work in your lap. They do it because you look like you have all the answers, they do it because you get the job done. You want to help people. You want to fix things. You want to make people better. You want to see the job done right.
Learn to say no.
Your time and your energy are not infinite. And you do not have all the answers. You cannot fix everything. And you will occasionally hurt, sometimes deeply, because you cannot fix something.
You will feel that by saying “no” you are letting down the people you care about. You will feel that you are disappointing them. Put aside those thoughts.
It is okay to look after yourself. They will understand.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help.
As much as the world comes to you for answers — and they do — the one person you do not have answers for is yourself.
You think that because people look to you for help, that you can help yourself. You think that you can puzzle out a solution, that given enough time and enough mental energy a solution to your problems will present itself.
Only, you don’t know where to begin.
You will feel that asking for help is an imposition on your friends and family. It will never occur to you that people are imposing upon you by asking for your help at other times.
Others can help you. When the chips are down, when there is something you do not know, when you need advice, insight, or a different perspective. You cannot see it all. Ask for help. It’s not a sign of failure that you do.
In fact, sometimes asking for help can nip a problem in the bud, and keep it from growing and festering into something far larger.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Yourself.
You are a unique individual. There is no one else in the world like you.
Don’t conform. Conformity does not become you.
Don’t compromise your ideals. You have strong beliefs. Express them.
Don’t settle. There is an Asimov line you like to quote — “Changelessness is decay.” Everything in this world can be better, but it does not happen on its own, and you will have to fight for it.
Don’t lose your innocence. There is no one who sees the world as you do. You are filled with boyish wonder, the universe is new to you every day. That is a rare gift, and you must never lose that. Never stop learning, never stop investigating, never stop exploring.
Don’t lose your hope. To quote Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Or a quote you won’t recognize, “Look to the stars, for hope burns bright.” In everything, there is always hope.
Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself. You wrap yourself in layers, you wear masks. There are people who have known you for decades who think they know you, and they know but the barest tip of you. You wear your layers like defensive armor. Let the real person inside out.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Write.
You fill your notebooks at school with scraps of stories. You spend your hour every day at school as the computer lab monitor writing on the TRS-80s in the lab. You write and you write and you write, but you never show your stories to anyone.
You feel embarrassed about your writing. You lack self-esteem in your writing. You fear that someone — friends, parents, anyone — will mock your writing. You worry that you will be told that you are wasting your time. You wonder what others will think.
And so you keep your writing to yourself. Your writing is a private thing. At times, your writing frightens you. You lock it away so you cannot be mortified by it, so that its power can’t harm you.
I will tell you that, yes, your writing today is atrocious. I have read your Star Trek/Foundation crossover novella and, to be polite, it is not good. (Or have you not written that yet? I am uncertain.)
You have a voice. You have things to say. When you find both, it is a strange and magical and wonderful thing.
You have to practice your writing. You have to write, whether you want to or not. You have to finish what you begin, even if you do not know where you are going.
You are capable of writing things that move strangers to tears. Your writings will give friends goosebumps. You will alter the way people see the universe with your words.
Your writing comes from a private place, deep inside you. There are things in that place that frighten you, there are things in that place that are emotionally overwhelming. Find a way to harness that raw emotion and use it.
At times, you will be ashamed of your writing. At other times, you will labor over a sentence for hours, even days. Set aside what others may think, tell your internal editor that without words on the page there is nothing to edit.
Take pride in your writing. Yes, it is personal, and because it comes from the heart you fear that it reveals too much of the real you. But there is power in your words. There are worlds in your words. Your words are something to cherish and celebrate. Use them. Share them. Shout them from the rooftops.
Don’t let your fears inhibit you. Stories will be rejected by editors. Strangers will question your sanity. But your family will be proud of your work, your friends will be amazed.
Your writing will take you to places, will introduce you to people you cannot imagine. It will open doors in your life.
And, just because I can, I am going to reveal a little secret.
There is a line in Dead Poets Society about the power of words. What is the use of words? “To woo women.”
In your experience, that will be true. When you unchain your words, when you set your fears aside and embrace the power of the pen, that will be absolutely true.
Embrace your writing. It is one of the most important and most powerful things in your life.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Feel.
You are drawn to redheads. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. Michael Whelan’s cover to Second Foundation had a profound influence upon your life.
Many years from now, you will meet a redhead named Jennifer. You will one day be talking, and she will blindside you with a question you cannot answer because you do not understand it. She will want to know how you can function. She will think you are high all the time.
Her reasons for thinking this, when you press her for context, are these. You are exuberant like no one she has ever met. You are random and you are innocent. And you are emotionally intense in ways I doubt she had ever experienced.
You have a psychedelic personality. You perceive the world differently than others. For that matter, you perceive time differently than anyone else seems to.
There is a reason you layer yourself defensively. The world, when you let it in too closely, wounds you deeply. You have deep and strong emotions. A picture of a refugee camp in Africa will move you to tears. A newspaper story of a stranger dying of cancer will feel like a punch in the gut. You keep the world at arm’s length so you don’t have to feel — if you don’t let yourself feel, you won’t become hurt.
Others you meet will be nonchalant. They will brush the hurt away as though it were dust on the shoulder. They will not understand why simple things hurt you so much. They will not understand why you bear the scars of events long past.
I am telling you to open yourself up to the hurt. It is the fear of hurting that keeps you from feeling. But you must learn how to cope with the pains of life.
And you will, in ways that do not involve layering yourself defensively to keep the world at bay.
Your depth of feeling, when you share it with those closest to you, is one of your greatest strengths. There is great passion and great empathy within you, and some will even call you a saint, though you will never feel especially saintly.
0. Don’t Be Afraid to Love.
Did I not say that I had five pieces of advice? And yet, here is a sixth? Consider this, then, the Zeroth Law of Allyn. An Asimov reference; see, we’re not so different after all.
You will spend a period in your life feeling unlovable, and you will find ways — especially your work — to fill the hole in your life that you will not entirely recognize. To some extent, you will feel unlovable because you feel incomplete and unworthy.
The irony, Allyn, is that the people you love in your life will feel unworthy of you.
Your capacity for love is infinite, and there are people who will find that overwhelming. They will feel undeserving of your affection and interest and devotion. In some cases, they cannot reciprocate the feelings, because their capacity for love is finite. In other cases, they see themselves through your eyes and believe themselves to be wanting, believing that you have put them on an unrealistic pedestal. In reality, you see not what you want them to be but what you know in your heart they are capable of being. Your desire to help, your compulsion to make the world a better place, these are part and parcel of how you love.
There is something that you do, that you won’t understand for a number of years, and curiously it is a work colleague, not a lover, who explains it to you best. You have the capacity to make someone feel that they are the only person in your universe. You will be unaware that you do this, because you cannot imagine doing otherwise. That feeling you engender is a powerful gift. Don’t misuse it.
You will make mistakes of the heart over the years. You will hurt because of those mistakes, sometimes for years. To give you an example, one strangely direct given the circumspectness of the rest of this missive, Annette.
When you meet Annette, you will think nothing of her. She comes into the periphery of your life. You will come to know her, however, and you will even become fond of her. You will find her troubled, perhaps even broken. She will be a victim of her life, trapped and damaged by her circumstances and her experiences. You will not try to “fix” her; for reasons I will not elucidate you will recognize that, in this case, you cannot. You will, however, be kind to her. You will listen to her. You will be supportive of her. You will care about her, and she will love you for it because no one had ever cared about her.
No, she is not “the one who got away,” to borrow the hoary cliche. There is never a point in your life where you will look upon her that way. However, you will carry a burden of guilt for some time because of her. I am here to tell you, Don’t.
Just by being yourself, you taught her things about love that she never knew. You helped her see that she was vibrant and important and worthy, things that no one in her life had ever made her feel. And for six weeks she knew happiness and joy and even passion in ways she had never known before, perhaps never even thought possible. What happens with Annette is ultimately unfortunate, but it is also not wrong and you should not feel guilty because of it. You made her life better, even if just for a brief instant.
You are made out of love. There are few people in this world who are. It is something to treasure.
You are a unique individual, and you have an interesting life ahead of you. There are people you will meet along the path that will shape your life and change your life in places you cannot imagine. You are more important that you realize. You are more loved than you know. And you will make more of a difference in the lives of people you have yet to meet than you will ever suspect.
Remember, life is about the journey, not the destination. And there is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for. Don’t let fear consume your life. Enjoy the next twenty years and do magnificent things. 😎
Allyn, aged thirty-six