Lessons From Hungry Horses and the Wisdom of a Mentor


I watched my third-grade teacher write these words on the blackboard: "Young Writer's Contest." She announces, "We are having a writing contest, and each of you will write a short story or a poem this week to be entered into the contest. All the surrounding schools are participating. The winner from each school gets to spend a day at the University of Washington and see what it's like to go to college!"

The University of Washington! In downtown, by the Space Needle! I know that place. They have a giant art supply store there. My dad took me there once, and it instantly became my favorite place on earth to be. They have endless rows of crayons, pens, and pencils. I saw so many colors and paint tubes of every kind I didn't even know existed. I have to win this contest! I felt determined. I would write the best poem any third-grader had ever written.

Confronting the Blank Page

3rd Grade Elli Milan smiling with long flowly hair and a polka dot dress

After school, I told my mom about it right away! "That sounds so exciting! What are you going to write about, Elli?" she asked. I thought for a minute but didn't have a clue. I shrugged and went upstairs to my room. Sitting at my desk with a blank piece of paper in front of me, I realized I had no idea what to write about. I started thinking about the contest, and the thought of not winning worried me. I couldn't think of any good ideas and didn't even know where to start. I was just thinking about words but couldn't figure out how to form them into any kind of idea or poem.

I started to feel anxious. The more I fixated on it, the more anxious I felt and the blanker my mind became. I wrote my name in the top right corner of the paper and 'Young Writer's Contest' below it. Clutching my pencil, I stared at the paper, but nothing came to me. A chance to go to the art supply store at the University of Washington began to feel like an impossible dream. I started imagining my teacher becoming upset with me for not turning in any short story or poem for the contest.

I sat frozen in my chair for what felt like forever, thinking of every poem I knew. "Roses are Red," "Sylvia Cynthia Stout, who would not take the garbage out," "Fox in Socks," "Green Eggs and Ham," and every other rhyme swirling in my head. How could I ever write something like that!? The longer I thought about it, staring at my blank paper, the more panicked I felt. A hard lump started to form in my throat, and I wanted to fling myself on the floor and cry. I was so frustrated that I couldn't just start. I will never win this contest.

Writer's Block Strikes

Young Elli Milan smiling while on vacation with her mom and brother

I decided to go downstairs and ask my mom for help. "What's wrong? You look upset."

"I can't write my poem! I don't know what to write about. I'm so frustrated!" I said, on the verge of tears.

"Why not think about a fun trip you went on or playing outside?" my mom suggested, trying to help.

"That's so boring. I can't write about that!"

"Okay, how about something imaginative? You are in a made-up place; maybe you are a princess who lives in the clouds, and you ride cloud horses. That's not boring!" My mom was really trying her best.

"But that's too hard! Nothing rhymes with cloud! I'll never win this contest!"

"Stop worrying about the contest and just write a poem. It's okay if you don't win."

She didn't understand. She had no idea. I was getting so incredibly frustrated and angry I couldn't hold back the tears any longer.

"Elli, you're getting really worked up. I think you're having a mental block. Just go upstairs and do something else for a while. Something will come to you. You can always write about your horse, Macho," she advised.

But I was in full-blown panic, convinced I would never be able to write a poem that would win this contest. My mom didn't understand, and she wasn't helping me at all! By this point, I was crying loudly and kept repeating, "I can't do it!"

Now my mom was frustrated and said, "Go upstairs right now and shut your door. I don't want to see you until you're over this mental block and your poem is written. Now, git!"

The Unlikely Muse

Enraged, I screamed, ran upstairs, slammed my door, and flung myself onto my bed. I screamed all my frustrations into my pillow. I didn't know how to pull myself out of this horrible feeling. My thoughts were consumed with every reason why I couldn't write this poem. I'm not capable. I'm too stupid. I have zero ideas. I will forever live in my room and never see anyone again. I was like Rapunzel trapped in a castle, never allowed to leave all because I couldn't write a poem!

I lay in bed, trying to catch my breath and stop crying. I started thinking about my horse, Macho, and his cute face covered in mud. I thought about every morning waking up while it was still dark and the cold Seattle rain my horse had to live with. I thought about all the mud everywhere, and how my boots would get stuck, my feet would come flying out and land in the gross, horse poop mud, soaking my socks. Why would I write about my muddy horse? I got up from my bed, went to my desk, and picked up my pencil.

"Fine! If she wants me to write about my horse, I will! She'll see what a stupid poem this is!"


I begin to write:

It's cold and dark, and I'm in my bed,

I have to feed the horses, my mom said.

I hate the mud,

I hate the rain,

Feeding the horses is such a pain!


There! That's my poem. Now I can get out of this castle! I grab my paper, swing open my door, and stomp down the stairs. I hear my mother say, "You better have something written, or I'll send you back!"

I slap the paper on the kitchen table and say, "There! I wrote a poem about my horse!"

My mom, perturbed by my sassiness, pulls the paper toward her and begins to read.

Wisdom From a Mentor

Two of Elli Milan's horses as a young child

I expected her immediate mean face and a sharp finger pointing to me back to my room. But instead, she said, "Hmm, I really like where this could go! I think this could turn into a great poem, but Elli, we really need to feel like we're there. How does it feel in bed, maybe with the covers pulled over your head? It rhymes with 'bed'!"

I could see my mom's excitement growing. "And where am I when I tell you to feed the horses? What are you doing when you get out of bed? Isn't the floor cold and shivery? Are you still sleepy? It's so dark outside. Tell me more about the yucky mud and the rain. Really imagine yourself there, see every detail, and describe it. You're doing great! Now, go upstairs and work on it some more."

What? I was shocked. I had come down here to prove to her that I couldn't write a poem, not to get inspiration! I slowly pull my paper from the table and drag my feet upstairs, feeling the pressure and tears begin to build.

I tried my hardest not to spiral back into my dark hole of young writer's block and sat at my desk again. I took out a fresh piece of paper, closed my eyes, and imagined myself in bed, hearing my mother at the door. I don't want to go outside in the cold alone to feed my muddy horse. I'm there. I can imagine it now.


I write:

Cold and tired, I lie in my bed,

With all my covers pulled over my head.

My mom's at the door,

What's that she said?

"Get up, Lazybones,

There are horses to be fed."


I imagine my mom reading this part and getting mad because she sounds so mean and cranky, but I don't care.

I remember what she said about 'being there' and what the floor felt like. It feels dark and shivery, just like she said! I can't get it out of my mind. I'm just writing what my mom said now. Is this even my poem?


Dark and shivery, my feet touch the floor,

I put on my clothes and head out the door.

The rain hits my cheek,

"Oh man! Watch it pour!"

Feeding the horses can be such a chore.


There's mud, and it's yuck,

I hate having my horse in all this muck.

I hate the poop, I hate the rain,

Feeding the horses is such a pain!


There! I'm done! It's a masterpiece. Now I'm done with homework, and I can go do what I want.

The Turning Point

Young Elli Milan standing with her mom and brother next to a red Ford Bronco

I bring my new poem downstairs and hand it to my mom. She reads my poem and says, "Oh! Elli, this is wonderful! It's so descriptive, and I feel like I'm right there with you! Great job!"

I'm so glad she can see my hard work, and now I'm set free to do what I want. "So I'm done, right?"

"Well, not quite. The problem with this poem is it's sad and depressing. Nothing good happens. It makes it sound like you don't even like your horse, and maybe we should sell him to a little girl who would love to feed her horse and doesn't care about the mud."

All my hopes dashed! I could tell she was going to make me go back upstairs and rewrite this stupid poem!

"I want you to think about how Macho feels to see you in the morning. He's so hungry, and he's been waiting for you. What does he do? Does he nicker at you? Look at his face; what does it look like? What does he do when you throw him his hay? Maybe this is the turning point in your poem, and it's when you decide it's worth all the gross mud because, in the end, you love Macho, and he loves you. We face cold, muddy rain for the ones we love."

Even though I really liked what she was saying and got a new vision for my poem, I had to roll my eyes at her, acting like this was the worst news ever, and stomp back upstairs.

I get out a new piece of paper, write my name in the top right corner, "Young Writer's Contest" below it, and "Final Draft" beneath that.


"Horses Are Hungry"

Cold and tired, I lie in my bed

With all my covers pulled over my head.

My mom's at the door,

What's that she said?

"Get up, Lazybones,

There are horses to be fed."


Dark and shivery, my feet touch the floor,

I put on my clothes and head out the door.

Rain hits my cheek, "Oh man! Watch it pour!"

Feeding the horses can be such a chore.


I walk to the barn, and mud splashes everywhere,

But I hear a nicker from in there.

Soft eyes sparkle, and nostrils flare,

He pokes out his head to nibble my hair.


From up in the loft, I throw down the hay,

Greedily he eats, saying thanks with a neigh.

Although sometimes I would rather play,

Feeding the horses is okay.


That's it. Finished. I don't care what she says; I'm done! No more writing. This is the poem I am submitting to the Young Writers Contest. I bring my poem downstairs and tell my mom, "It's finished, and I'm done."

She reads the poem and says, "Perfect! I knew you could do it! Even if you don't win, this is an amazing poem!"

The Young Writer's Contest

I was so relieved! I was so happy to be finished with this ordeal. I will turn my poem in tomorrow, and I don't even care anymore if I win. I was kind of hoping I wouldn't win because if I did, I felt like the poem was half written by my mom. She helped me so much. The whole thing was her idea. I couldn't have written it at all without her help.

That Friday, our teacher was announcing the winner, and I was so nervous and scared and hoped with everything in me that I would NOT win. I wanted to go to the University and see the art supply store, but I didn't want to win with my mother's poem.

The Unsettling Win

But I did win. They chose a winner from each third-grade class from each school, and my mother's poem was chosen from my class. I sat on the long bus ride to downtown Seattle all the way from Woodinville and thought about how I had to read my mother's poem in front of everyone at the University. I felt sick, but I didn't want anyone to find out how much she helped me. It was a difficult day, and I felt like a phony. I sat with a bunch of kids I didn't know and listened to everyone's short stories and poems. I never got to see the art supply store, either.

My parents bragged about me winning the Young Writers Contest to all their friends, and I felt ashamed and like I didn't deserve it. Through the years, I never wanted to think about it, but I continued to write to get better, and better at it. 

The Legacy of Mentorship

Elli Milan standing with her mom, smiling

It wasn't until I became an artist and mentored many creatives, teaching them new techniques and helping them blossom into amazing artists with their own voices and styles, that I realized we all need help.

Every artist, musician, or writer is only where they are because of the heroes who have gone before them. Someone else opened the door for them, unlocked the mysteries of creativity, and taught them to really BE there – to see the details and look closer at their source. They were critiqued, and their craft was honed by experts who knew more than them. Yet, their art is their own. What they put onto canvas or on the page is their soul, not the soul of their teachers.

Now, this poem I wrote in the third grade is a treasure to me, and I see that it prophesies my life's journey and the role I have in helping other artists. I am forever grateful for my mother's patience and perseverance in shaping me into the artist I am today.

Share your thoughts in the comments below!


  • Nicola Carley

    I love this story as I can relate to it SO much. I would have been the little girl your mum talked about being happy to go feed her pony in the mud as I used to volunteer at my local riding stable all weekend in the worst of the UK weather just to get the chance to be around the horses. Often I wouldn’t even get a ride. I too used to write prolifically as a child and was encouraged by my mother but it is only now at the age of 45 that I have finally been given the chance to really push my own creative side and my partner who is a couture level carpenter/artist/designer is my mentor. I feel very lucky. Thank you for sharing. p.s. I now have two beautiful ponies and also hate having to go deal with the rain and mud! The fact I waited so long to be able to own them motivates me more than ever to battle through it.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Wiw! Good for you! I live in Florida now, the sunshine state and when it rains a gets muddy I’m so depressed about it! 🤣 most of the time it’s beautiful and sunny and you can ride almost everyday.

  • Arpi Krikorian

    Ellie you are such an inspiration and I am so happy to have found your beautiful family and all its offerings. I am a 52 year old illustrator with a niche market. I’m Armenian and in love with highlighting my beautiful heritage but I have lost my voice as a painter. I stand in front of a canvas and I don’t know where to start. I signed up for the Mastery Program two weeks ago and am getting so excited to discover who I really am as an artist. Thank you for sharing your invaluable experience and knowledge.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Im so happy to hear you are in the Mastery Program! You will definitely find your voice through it! The world needs to hear your voice esp. as an Armenian artist! To see your paintings prophesy over the land of your heritage, to paint the world you want to live in. To paint the true destiny of Armenia!

  • Christine

    Hi dear Elli,

    couldn’t stop reading your Story. I find you are so talented in writing, speaking and painting. Your discipline and knowledge is amazing. I do the Mastery program because of you convinced me. Now, i Love it. I am excited, where it/YOU will lead me. Thank you for never giving up🥰
    It is funny, last night i dreamt about, that i visited you and your family at your home.
    (Sorry, for my broken english, i am a german/Serbian woman in your age😉).
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    I’m so happy you love the Mastery Program! Maybe one day we will meet!

  • Ruth

    Lots of giggles to this story as I recall similar stories about myself and being a mom.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yes Ruth! I thinks it relatable. So many of us were that child and that mom! 😊

  • Aruna Mettler

    I loved your poem. It was honest and to the point. Congrats for winning the competition! You were a beautiful girl and are a beautiful women. Love your stories they are so real.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Aww! Thank you. I think all of us have felt similar in our creative process. I think I strangled early in life with perfectionism and performance without realizing it, or being taught about it. Makes me think if this is something that should be discussed in schools.

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