When I sit down to a computer, my fingers reach for the same familiar keys. It’s a reflex, the writing I use when I’m trying to tear down the walls of writer’s block or when I just want to test out the feeling of a keyboard. Like a true child of the ‘90s, it’s none other than the words to the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I’ve stayed awake nights wondering why this is my writing Patronus, the words that come to me in my time of need. I’ve tried to come up with something else – something, perhaps, more scholarly, more respectable, more recent. But those words always seem to find their way out when I’m staring blankly at the computer screen. A 10-12 page essay I've procrastinated, my thesis, an email I've been dreading -- they all seem to start with a teenage Will Smith in his sideways baseball cap. Suddenly, words appear on the screen; they of course have nothing to do with synthesizing 15 articles on cognitive development. But at least I’ve got something.
I don’t think it’s possible to graduate from elementary school without being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” five thousand times. “A writer,” was my confident, unwavering reply. I knew it, and there was never any other profession I considered.
My first story, written and illustrated in first grade, was "semi-autobiographical" with enough details made up to feel safe (okay, so I changed the character's name), giving the illusion of fiction. Titled, Kindergarten Can Be Scary, it was all about a kid afraid to start school. My teacher laminated the cover and bound it in those soft plastic claw bindings you can only find in elementary schools but that felt incredibly official. The back page mimicked a published book with a brief biographical sketch (I summoned a whole paragraph describing my seven-year-old life) and a picture of me. I was hooked.
In fifth grade, a seasoned 14-year-old visited our class and read rhyming poems that made me teacher cry, the ultimate sign of accomplishment. Like the chameleon I am, I shifted to poetry with an uncharacteristic agility. I stayed up late, angling my spiral-bound notebook toward the nightlight while I wrote. I dredged up the most serious, cry-inducing topics I could think of - death, break-ups, thunderstorms - and crafted as many poems as I could, including a goodbye verse that sounded not so vaguely like an N’Sync song.
In middle school and high school I wrote like my life depended on it. And maybe it did. I took creative writing classes and wrote every day. I bought notebooks, decorated them, and filled them. I mostly journaled or wrote short stories or tried to develop a novel. I felt bound to the genre of fiction and largely borrowed story arcs from my favorite books. While elementary school yielded stories inspired by books like Hatchet and The Phantom Tollbooth, middle school was hallmarked by books like Stargirl, Speak, and The Outsiders.
And then in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Dignan, recommended I read High Tide in Tucson. I took her recommendations seriously and promptly checked it out from the library. “It’s creative nonfiction,” she said. A genre I’d never even heard of.
Within the first few pages I felt like Barbara Kingsolver and I were sitting in a room enjoying a conversation I didn’t want to end. She wrote about biology and crabs and who even knows what else but her conversational writing drew me through subjects I didn’t care about and made me think about life in a different way. That, I thought, That’s what I want to write.
Excited by my new discovery, I scoured the shelves of the library, looking for more nonfiction. I was delighted to meet David Sedaris as well as a goldmine of books on writing: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. When I stood in aisles of bookstores and libraries, the authors felt familiar and I couldn’t help thinking these are my people.
When asked, I still told others that I wanted to be a writer as my profession. It was towards the end of my senior year when one of my neighbors asked me my plans for college and beyond. By this point, I was more specific with my intentions. “I’m going to be a creative nonfiction writer,” I replied.
Her reply was almost immediate, “Oh, you mean, like, the stuff nobody reads?”
I wish I could say I was confident enough to let it bounce right off me. But let's be real, I'm still writing about it 15 years later.
In college I started to realize how angsty my teenage writing was. I looked back on notebooks and journals I had been so proud of and felt nothing but embarrassments that the words were in existence. I don't want anybody to read this, I thought. My internal editor cut more and more of my writing before it ever got to paper. This is dumb. I have nothing to say. People crave stories that are original, extraordinary even, and yet we want it to be relatable - packaged in a way everyone can connect with. I'm not uniquely-the-same enough. No one cares about my life. Worse yet, I began to worry about what other people would think about what I wrote. What if my friends see this? My co-workers? My mom?
While writing had been a daily practice until college, I began to do it less and less. I started to begin every entry with something like, “I haven’t written in a while – I just can’t get myself to do it but I need to get back into it.” Years would pass between entries and still my inclination was to begin the same way. It’s annoying to look back and see the same pattern over and over; I guilted myself about not writing as I was writing.
It became a place, though, where I was even more aware of my mental illness. I could put my most anxious or depressed thoughts on paper to free up space in my mind but it was scary to have it documented and even more discouraging to look back on. I haven’t changed at all. I would think. I’m still just as anxious, just as depressed as I’ve ever been. The thoughts are still the same. I’m still me. Good writing brings with it character development and I couldn’t see any development in the character I most often wrote about. I simultaneously felt like I was a terrible writer and also a weak person.
I became an English-major drop-out after only two semesters, succumbing to imposter syndrome. I slowly but surely stopped thinking that being a writer as a profession was even a possibility. I can’t handle the deadlines. I’m too unpredictable, too sporadic. I can’t depend on it for a living, my rational, practical side said. I can’t write for somebody else. This isn’t for me. I still longed for the idea of being a published author but bought notebooks I didn’t fill and eventually stopped writing completely. Often the thought of writing would graze my mind but it was consistently pushed away. I don’t want to leave a trail of my thoughts. I don’t want other people to know about my experiences. There’s a vulnerability and a risk in writing that I stopped being willing to take.
I didn’t want to be seen.
After moving to Portland to be with Kaitlyn, I was unemployed for three months. After being so defined by my profession, by what I viewed as my contribution to society, the emptiness made me question who I am, what I like, what I want to do. I struggled to find purpose and the persistent rejection emails from potential employers created a fertile breeding ground for feelings of self-doubt.
But it was in the midst of my daily existential crises that I went back to what had sustained me through my K-12 education. I wrote. It didn’t stop my concerns that I would never do anything meaningful with my life and I was constantly terrified about not being able to find a job or ever being able to make money again. But it was satisfying. It kept me going. It gave me a routine and something to work on. It made me feel like, “I’m finally doing it.” I wouldn't label myself as a writer with the confidence I did as a kid, but there was a power in feeling like I was taking back part of my identity.
And here I am. Employed now but restless and low-key constantly planning the next ten years of my life. I'm still not ready to be seen but I also don't think I'll ever be. Turns out vulnerability isn't really something you prepare for; it's just as scary no matter how long you wait. So this is when I start.
Now this is the story . . .