an autobiography of writing

“Maybe it’s the gap, the feeling that someone isn’t listening, doesn’t get it, has half heard us, that compels us to write and explain. That’s why we turn around and speak to our past, as if others can hear us now, as if we can finally hear ourselves and catch our fleeting lives.”
—Natalie Goldberg

It’s giving me Lana del Rey and Mazzy Star vibes. Desert apocalypse. . .
I love the breakdown at the end, but I am always a fan of parallax in narrative. . .
It’s a perfect paragraph. Except for the last three lines.

I am taking a graduate workshop in fiction writing and my story is up for critique. This is the second graduate-level writing class I’ve taken, and the classes feel entirely different. Different schools. Different years. Different student demographics. Most of the people in my current workshop are literature PhD students and they love to reference Faulkner and Foster Wallace and obscure French cinema. It is my first formal writing course in six years.

I want to talk about my writing, but I don’t know how. Maybe that’s always how it is with things that matter the most. Words escape you. They cannot be held. Do I start at the beginning? Do I start with the first award I won, the first piece I remember, my first stilted lurching attempt at a novel?

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been writing forever.
What I’m trying to say is that this might be the thing that matters most.

****

I am in primary school and my friends are reading The Boxcar Children. Books are kept in colorful plastic bins pushed against the wall, arranged according to reading ability. I too am reading The Boxcar Children. I am reading the junior version, however, because I can’t read the original series. This is, perhaps, the first time I feel shame.

****

Growing up, I wrote for validation. It was a creative outlet, yes. I enjoyed doing it, that too. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging when the world felt made entirely out of right angles, yesyesyes. But as much as I remember the pieces I wrote, I equally remember the red pen marks that came with them. It felt like English teachers held my entire heart in their hands, that this was my sanctuary, my place of vulnerability, and that their red mark pen marks had the potential to make or break my entire week. One time, a teacher gave me a B+ and wrote not my cup of tea on a werewolf story I’d written, and I cannot accurately describe how much those words hurt, how I remember those words just as clearly, just as sharply as I remember certain breakup lines.

Things feel different now. I’ve become a better writer, and I don’t find everyone’s feedback equally valuable. Some people’s opinions matter. Some don’t. Sometimes I wish I could extend this confidence, this carefully cultivated apathy, into other areas of my life.

****

I am a freshman in high school. It is the beginning of the school year and our assignment is to finish a story. The entire class has the same beginning, and we have to write the ending. I have fun writing mine and feel proud of what I’ve produced—a story about two estranged brothers and the nostalgia and the regret that chafes between their memories. When the assignment comes back, there is no grade at the bottom and very few notes in the margins. The only substantial scrawl is a single line at the end: see me after class. I put off that meeting for weeks because I am too anxious about what he’ll say.

****

When I was in middle school, my dad gave me his old laptop. Nothing worked on it except Microsoft Word and Minesweeper. No internet. No Sims. My goal was to be a writer, a novelist. I’d brainstorm different ideas, do fake character interviews, plot entire books out, I even wrote the beginning of a screenplay. It was a lot of beginnings, a couple of middles, and absolutely no ends. I never finished anything.

I finished my first (and currently only) novel at 24. I’d always written shorter things in college, and upon graduation, I was excited to finally write longform fiction. It took about a year and a half, and I hated it by the end, all 320 pages of it. But I remember driving 45 minutes to the nearest Kinkos and eagerly picking up the manuscript and how the weight of it amazed me, how I swelled with pride for this thing that I had accomplished, this thing that was entirely mine. I had hopes that with revision I would come to love it again, so I took it with me on my road trip out west, and I would sit in my red collapsible chair, feet on my back bumper, scratching revision marks and new ideas onto the paper margins, dreaming of ways it could be pulled out of the grave. But the whole thing was unsalvageable and it was at the Grand Canyon that I decided to abandon it entirely.

People often tell me that I should look at it again—You’ve come so far! Don’t give up!—that maybe it’ll look better now, years later. But as with many things, in writing, you need to know when to let go. When something isn’t worth the time and effort required to make it great. So I let it sit. I let it gather dust in its spring-green binder. I work on other pieces now. It was never going to work.

****

I am in high school. I find out that my poem has won third place in a state-wide contest. I tell my mother, and she doesn’t believe me. But you don’t write poetry? She asks, confused. She’s not really wrong.

****

I’ve always believed that writing will save me. And it has. Over and over again. Quotes and stories and characters I’ve threaded myself with, slipping into syntax, metaphors steeling bone. I often think in terms of writing. How can I describe this? How can I take this moment and turn it into something tangible, something lasting? I remember things better when I write them down. Sometimes I regret writing them down.

****

I am a sophomore in college, and my story is up for workshop. It is a fictional story, but I’ve put more of myself in this one than anything I’ve ever written. I think it’s good. I think it’s interesting. I am worried people will read it and see the honesty embedded in the fiction, which I desperately want and don’t want at the same time.

This is one of the best short stories about drugs I’ve ever read, my professor tells me, tells the class, and the flush of validation I feel, the intoxication I get from that compliment, is indescribable. I’ve never done drugs in my life, but I think I know what obsession feels like. And I think I know what it feels like to feel empty, to feel like a husk left out to dry.

I am elated, and I share the story, and the praise, with my parents. My dad asks me one clarifying question, and I realize that they see with total clarity what I am really writing about.

****

I am in grad school. Reading stories like yours is like a breath of fresh air, someone writes in their feedback. I save his comments. For his other insights, yes. But I mostly save them for the praise. Red pen nice words things really haven’t changed that much, huh?

****

My grandmother died the other month. She got really bad on Christmas and passed away a couple of days later. She hadn’t been well for a while. The last time I saw her, it was just my grandfather and me. We filled out forms and got our temperature taken and went into the small reading room in the front where three chairs were resting in a triangle, each side a perfect six feet.

How’s your writing? That was one of the last things she asked. Some iteration of that. She always asked that. Even when she wasn’t quite sure who I was. Even if life itself was stained with indistinguishable color. What are you writing these days?

Identity unravels and reknits itself. We are never the same person. Who are we and how did we get this way and what does it mean to love something at 10 and love that same thing at 25, at 50, and what does it mean if you love that thing less, what does it mean if something you’ve defined yourself with starts changing shape? What is the difference between loss and growth? It has been a year of upheaval. There is so much I don’t know.

****

It feels dramatic to end on death, but all my stories are melancholic blue-tinted things that glitter and blaze and scream. I read a love poem recently and it occurred to me that I’ve never written one of those.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still in love with words even if I don’t know what that love looks like anymore.
What I’m trying to say is that some things never die.

****

I am in graduate school. Someone comments on my story, you use litotes so well in your piece.

I have absolutely no clue what those are.

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