At the American City Diner in Chevy Chase, 17-year-old Sarah Stillman cups her hands around a glass of water, lowers her head, and stares into it. She directs me to do the same.
"This is a water meditation," the Georgetown Day School senior says. "You have to think about what you want this water to symbolize."
She looks around, blushes a little, and leans across the table. "Those boys are from my school," she whispers.
We stare into our glasses. Dishes clang. A cash-register drawer rolls open. Conversations buzz nearby.
"Now drink it," she instructs, taking a big sip. "The idea is that you drink into your life whatever you were thinking about. I was thinking about joy, about how I feel really happy now."
Her mood may have to do with the fact that Stillman has published her first book, Soul Searching: A Girl's Guide to Finding Herself. In it, she encourages girls to look inward and discover what makes them unique. The water meditation is in a chapter called "Focus Your Mind." Other chapters include "Cultivate Your Passions" and "Create Good Karma."
Soul Searching has been reviewed in a dozen publications, mostly favorably. Besides the 10,000 copies in stores, Teen People's and Scholastic's book clubs printed additional copies for members.
This month Stillman's first royalty check comes in. But she'll be in Indonesia interviewing workers at the Mattel plant where Barbie dolls are manufactured. She hopes to write about the experience.
"There is so much irony in young girls' working in a factory to make Barbie," she says.
Stillman began having nightmares in seventh grade. She checked out library books on dream analysis and began keeping a dream journal, which she believes helped her work through her insecurities about not being cool enough, popular enough, pretty enough.
"Eventually, my dream journal became more than just a place to rehash my nightly visions," she writes in her book. "It developed into a venue for understanding my reality."
Two years later, Stillman was flipping through a teen magazine and saw an ad for an anthology seeking articles by girls. She sent in a piece on her dreams. It was accepted and published in Girls Know Best 2: Tips on Life and Fun Stuff to Do.
The publisher, Beyond Words, flew Stillman out to Los Angeles to film a TV show about the book. While there, she and one of the book's editors discussed how few books there were for girls on topics other than makeup and boys.
"I thought it would be good if girls could find something to read on spirituality," Stillman says.
When she got home, she went to the library, borrowed a guide to book proposals, and spent the summer after her freshman year in high school working on her idea. She sent a proposal to Beyond Words, and it was accepted.
When she got the contract, Stillman knew she had lots more days at the library ahead, but she didn't mind.
"I can track the progression of my life by the Dewey Decimal system," she says. "In seventh grade, I was in the 100s, psychology. In ninth grade, I was in the 800s, how to write books. This year, I find myself going to the 200s and 900s, religion and history."
Stillman writes letters to herself that she opens years later. She likes to recall her former self and to hear her younger voice. While working on Soul Searching, she noticed her voice maturing.
"There was this big disconnect from the front of the book to the back," she says. "I had to rewrite and rewrite so it matched."
Her editors say they had to edit Stillman less than many of their adult authors. "We were very impressed with the depth of her writing," says her editor, Michelle Roehm. Through simple language, she tries to make complex subjects accessible.
"How do we begin 'uninventing' ourselves and figuring out, from scratch, who we really are?" she writes. "By asking questions, we determine which viewpoints are truly our own, and which are the result of other people's urgings or expectations. As soul searchers, we can never accept prepackaged, one-size-fits-all truths."
Stillman says she sometimes wishes she'd been alive in the '70s, singing protest songs and shouting at antiwar rallies. She admires the writing of Tim O'Brien, author of books on the Vietnam War, and says she relates to folk singer Joni Mitchell, to whom her book is dedicated along with her parents and brother. Her activist bent inspired her to start a feminist group at Georgetown Day last year and to become president of the school's chapter of Amnesty International.
For now, her social consciousness manifests itself mostly in her writing, which Stillman sees as a way of giving girls new ways to explore themselves and their world.
She admits that coming up with a second book will be hard, but she's sure there will be one.
"I only have a few more years to give adults an inside view of kids," she says.