Keep the muse alive.

These words hit me real hard. In a good way.

A lifelong friend of Roger Ebert gifted me this advice. I met the elderly gentleman while taking a break from standup paddle-boarding on the Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, MN.

I had just pulled my paddleboard out of the lake. He probably saw me as he walked around the path on the eastern shore. He made a passing, friendly comment, to which I replied something to the effect of “it’s nice to take a break from writing with a paddleboard on the water in this beautiful summer weather.”

He perked up a bit. He knew about writers. He’d been friends with 3 or 4 Pulitzer Prize winners. After a long discussion about a variety of topics, from cultural differences between China and Indonesia to his life spanning from Norway to the University of Chicago and finally to Minnesota.

He talked about Faulkner and Maupassant as if they were friends of his. He rattled off a string of other authors I hadn’t heard of. I could barely keep up.

Every time I tried to compliment him he’d say “f**k that” or wave it off. He didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to learn something new. I had experiences in China to compare to his along the Yangtze River. So some value was exchanged. He was clearly a student of life.

He asked me if anyone had said my writing was good. He asked me how I knew it was good if no one had supported it yet.

I kept thinking…damn, he’s right.

We shook hands at the end of the 15 or 20-minute conversation. He said: “Keep the muse alive.”

In an effort to learn his name, I offered mine. He responded: “I’m Jan.”

I watched him walk back around the east side of the lake.

I searched and searched for him online, but with only his first name I couldn’t find him.

Today I realized it doesn’t matter if I find him. He’s already taught me what I needed in that moment. And it still sustains me, a year and a half later.

But in my debut novel I’m going to thank him in the acknowledgments. To the no-nonsense gentleman who both reminded me how far I had to go and to more than anything else keep the muse alive, I say thank you.