Story of Success

How Julia Stephens went from struggling in high school English to becoming a nationally-acclaimed author

“Each of Mortimer Darthe’s steps left an imprint in the moss; it was as if he was the first man to ever venture through the underbrush. Oak trees shot up from the ground and pierced the low hanging clouds; their trunks thick pillars holding up the weight of the sky.”

Every story is a puzzle, piecing together imagery, story-building, characters, and symbolism as the author creates a piece of art. It’s a difficult process that requires skill, practice, and most importantly, repetition.

It was kind of like, as you start writing you start doubting yourself. Like, is this even good? Do I even really want to continue?” senior Julia Stephens said. “It was so hard to submit. You have to write a bad draft first before you turn it in.”

This past year, along with a Silver Key for a separate story, Stephens received a Scholastic Art and Writing Gold Key for her short story submission, Well Dressed Demons. Well Dressed Demons, which tells the story of a hunter falling victim to his personal guilt, is a hauntingly introspective tale with powerful symbols and messages. Stephens had the idea for the theme from her own childhood experiences.

“I have a piano that’s 150 years old, and it doesn’t work. It sounds terrible when you play it, and that’s essentially where the idea of the story came from,” Stephens said. “I would play it as a little girl, just playing on the keys, because I didn’t really know [how to play]. So now when I try playing, the notes don’t sound right and I feel guilty. I was like, why did I have to do that? So I kind of redirected that guilt, and I transformed this story into this monster who plays this magical instrument. [The monster] kind of draws on that guilt and uses it to lure victims.”

“An invisible string attached to his core seemed to lazily yank him forward. “Come to me,” the lingering voice seemed to murmur, and the hunter followed, unable to comprehend why he shouldn’t. He stumbled blindly through the trees, his legs moving on their own, feet gliding down an invisible path.”

Stephens’ Gold Key put her story in the top .05% of submissions for the competition. With over 320,000 unique writings, hers was one of 800 to progress to Nationals and earn the Gold Key. However, writing has not always been something that Stephens has had a mastery of. For a large portion of her schooling, English, and the writing expectations of the class, was her greatest weakness. 

My relationship with writing is very complicated. In 5th grade, my parents were called in to a teacher’s meeting, saying ‘Hey, we may need to get her tutors, because it looks like your kid doesn’t know how to write,” Stephens said. “My grammar was atrocious. I kept failing. All throughout middle school and the beginning of high school, I was failing essays.”

It wasn’t until her junior year, when she took a Creative Writing class as an elective, that her writing began to take form.

“My thoughts are really fluid. It’s like they lap against the walls of my skull, and when I try to translate them onto a page, they turn to liquid. I put them on a page, but they’d lose form, so someone reading it wouldn’t really understand what I was trying to say,” Stephens said. “That’s why I took Mr. dela Rosa’s creative writing class. I was like okay, I need some extra help here. Once I finally had some structure to my pieces, that’s when they started getting good, and I was like ‘Oh my god, these are pretty great.’”

Mortimer dragged himself against the now dying floor, the vegetation’s colors crawling back into white strands. The flowers that once seemed so iridescent with color wilted until petals were nothing more than ash. The wind no longer sang but clogged his lungs and suffocated.”

Her evolution as a writer has opened up a number of opportunities for Stephens. For one, she is now a co-president of the Creative Writing club, and a career in writing is something she’s heavily considering.

I mean, in the future I want to make a novel, but the harsh commitment of being a high school student means I don’t exactly have time for it [now]. I want to make a career that has some sort of basis with writing,” Stephens said. “Maybe not an author perhaps, because my parents are good parents and don’t want me to starve, so I’m not going to pursue an English degree. So maybe, hopefully, like a business degree with a minor in English. Something like technical writing, freelance writing; something more traditional but that does utilize those skills.”

Mortimer could only grieve, as a lost little girl heard the sound of promised joy, and curiously made her way deeper into the mountainous green, stepping over a fallen bow on the way.”


To read Well Dressed Demons by Julia Stephens, click here: