It was the neon light reverberating throughout the campground at 4:30 in the morning in early August on a Pennsylvania mountainside. It was the feeling of my heart pounding as I ran down the girls’ campus hill with my right hand interlocked with a camper’s and my left with my co-counselor’s. It was the burn I felt as we tumbled down and blood met air and I learned for the umpteenth time that summer I was not invincible. It was the weightlessness I felt as we jumped up and ran forth again toward the music and flashing lights. It was the overwhelming sensation of sweaty bodies still in pajamas running around the wet grass and trying to find their friends. It was the look in his eyes when mine met his from across the crowd. It was the dampness of his neck as I draped my arms around him for a squeeze. It was the energy passing from the stage to the campers and to the counselors as though we were all made equal by an invisible bolt of lightning, lifting us above the campsite, making us realize summer was almost over. It was the annual breakout of our Olympics made small for even the smallest of voices and feet. It was the final countdown when we learned our respective teams. It was the second time my heart tried jumping out of my chest when my eyes raced down my team’s list searching for familiar names. It was the feeling of excitement to kick-off the tradition and the feeling of sadness when I realized we would soon have to part. It was the feeling of sadness again when I stood under those football lights, but not for a sport. It was the feeling of longing. It was the stroll back to the bunks with his hand in mine, with no rush to close our eyes again, for once we closed our eyes, we’d be one day closer to parting. It was the stars above us and the fading of the music and the coolness of the summer air that made me want to hold his hand for more than just that one night. It was the darkness that made us say our goodbyes, but that’s not how I grew.
After claiming for most of my life how much I loved writing, I thought all I needed to do to make it my career was to write, write, write every damn day.
During my senior year of college and this past fall, I wrote every day—extensively. I lost track of time and meals and of the world outside of this burning need to wipe the dust off my memories and place them in essays. I didn’t think about becoming proficient in any other areas because I kept thinking about how to turn every noted pattern into a provoking thought or how to mine every important memory for an essay idea. I could write every day without enjoying any other hobbies, and I would technically still be a writer.
But I wouldn’t be great.
I work in a K-12 school, which means I’ve had the past couple of weeks off for winter break. Before break, I thought, I’m going to get so much writing done! I mean, really. Think about it: two weeks of nothing. Zilch. I had zero plans other than seeing family for the holidays and visiting friends. I thought about the memoirs I still needed to read and the essay topics I’d been toying with. I thought about how much I love curling up in bed with the warmth of my laptop, listening to my keys click-clacking away. I thought about the freedom. Then I thought, How am I supposed to continue to write with my temperamental laptop? But then the idea of freedom seemed intimidating: What if I didn’t read everything I wanted to read or write everything I wanted to write? Well, the answer is simple: I never will. I will never be able to do either of these, and that’s okay. I’ve learned to accept it, but I’ve also adjusted to simply getting as close as I can to those respective finish lines.
When break rolled around and I launched into Holiday Mode, my freedom suddenly seemed to slip away. Not only was I not writing everything I wanted to write, but I was also barely writing anything. I was journaling, of course, and taking notes on essay topics I wanted to try. I was mentally tabbing research I needed to explore. I tried new modes of creativity. But I wasn’t writing for hours every day like I had imagined or hoped. I intentionally took a break from writing. I wasn’t going to bed at reasonable hours so I could wake up, brew coffee, and write by my window, and I felt like a failure. I felt as though I was a fraud by trying to apply to graduate schools for creative writing. I thought, Who the hell am I to say I want to be a writer when I’m barely even writing?
Then, something clicked.
I realized I wasn’t a fraud or a fake. I wasn’t in a rut. I still loved writing, I still needed to write, and I still wanted to pursue this lifestyle. I reminded myself I had just spent months trying to cultivate the perfect writing sample and personal statements for my dream programs—programs in which I could explore other facets of the literary community, and programs that would give me the opportunity to use my other passions in order to strengthen my other skills.
I’d just done a lot of work, damnit. I was proud of that!
Even though I wasn’t working on essays every day over break, I was still contributing art to my everyday life. Everything I did had a purpose. One day, I wore pajamas until mid-afternoon and watched Black Mirror with my best friends, analyzing the rhetoric within each episode, and then we ate quiche for a late lunch. I picked up charcoal pencils for the first time in probably six years, and it was glorious. I forgot how much I loved to blend and shade and form something out of nothing. I created collages with rubber cement and photography from National Geographic and art from a 1972 art magazine. I turned off all the lights in my room, burned Sandalwood incense, and listened to Lorde’s Melodrama album. I listened to Lorde and SZA and Cardi B and Maggie Rogers and Stevie Nicks and Chance The Rapper and Childish Gambino and Lady Gaga’s Joanne. I listened to artists and I played with new mediums and I created art. I went on dates. I looked up research about eating disorders and dissociation and sought guidance from a mentor. I read Audre Lorde and Elizabeth Alexander and Nina LaCour and young adult novels and Rupi Kaur and post-apocalyptic novels that showed me new ways to play with language. I lifted weights and taught myself basic kickboxing moves before researching kickboxing classes nearby.
Still, after doing all of these things, I felt like a fraud. I had to remind myself I wasn’t. I was still a writer whether or not I was pumping out an essay every other week. They take time. It’s important to remember this. And I was intentionally using my time to take a break and explore other creative outlets I had nearly eliminated from my life.
When I was thirteen, I started to play volleyball. As one of the taller girls on my team, I learned to love hitting. I loved the way my body felt weightless in the air when I jumped and swung my arm to hit the ball over the net—hopefully to guarantee a point for the set. Soon, though, I realized how detrimental perfecting this swing was to my other athletic love: softball. Hitting on the volleyball court had sent my throwing motions completely off-course. I had to re-learn the motion the next spring, and I did, but I thought venturing away from softball by joining the volleyball team was going to ruin my short career as a softball player. Ultimately, it didn’t.
I began to carry this mindset over into my writing career in college: What if by trying fiction, I lose my nonfiction voice? What if I get worse? Ha! I didn’t. I loved writing fiction, but most of the time I churned out nonfiction instead, and I realized that while I did prefer nonfiction, I also think nonfiction liked me a lot more than fiction did. I lost track of fictional timelines and plotlines and character development. It was a mess. But I tried, and that was important for reminding myself how crucial it is to remember these aspects of my own life for my nonfiction writing.
Writing is a discipline, and we have to remind ourselves of this. I cannot continue this winter break lifestyle of only writing when I feel a spark—that’s not how to form a writing career; however, I did realize I needed to endure this artistic discovery. I had to shut down my laptop and take a break in order to prove to myself I can and I need to pursue this career. I realized the reality of imposter syndrome. I had to watch poets spit each line and listen to the syntax of their performances in order to enhance my own ear. I had to play with charcoal in order to understand how easy it is to smear my work if I’m lackadaisical and careless. I had to watch Lady Gaga’s documentary Five Foot Two to realize sometimes we have to take risks with our own art. I had to push my body until I almost passed out while punching a bag in order to understand how hard it is to learn something new, but how rewarding it feels when we get it right. I had to experience a different sleeping schedule to realize I am most creative early in the morning and late at night, which also coincides with when I am most energetic.
During this hiatus, I also realized how unnerving everything felt without being able to rely on my writing outlet. When I notice patterns, I write about them. When I remember a dream, I draft those images. When I need to better understand an idea, I write about it. During my break, though, I didn’t do that, and, frankly, I felt lost. But I realized I could do it, and I realized how to better rely on my writing in order to get the most out of it. I also gained a better understanding of its power–it’s how I learn to make sense of everything around me. Without writing, I wouldn’t be where I am or even who I am.
It’s important to dive into the unknown and explore those uncharted waters, as cliché as that may seem. It is a cliché because people have been telling us for decades the importance of being well-rounded individuals. Reading and creating across genres is vital, and I implore all artists to do this. I learned a lot by observing other artists and their methods. I choose to write essays and memoir, but, honestly, I’ve read more poetry and fiction over this break. I’ve created more charcoal drawings than I have essays. I intentionally wrote less, but now I cannot seem to write enough. I never will.
When I was your age, I always thought if I eventually gave birth to a daughter, I would name her Elle. I don’t know you as well as I used to, but I was you. And because we once possessed the same body, I will call you L.
I don’t wish I could change what I have done since I was your age, but I know what I wish I could’ve said to you. If we could meet and I could comfort you, I would do it the way we know best: sit somewhere with coffee and music and books, and then we’d go to a movie when the world is dark and the stars are bright where we would stuff our faces with buttery popcorn and drink so much soda we are convinced our stomachs will burst from carbonation.
But you are there and I am here and everything is different. I cannot take you to a movie with buttery popcorn just like I cannot change what I have done since I was fourteen. So I am left with words. You’ll learn how important these words will become. You’ll learn this soon.
Don’t forget to write. I know you keep that turquoise journal in your nightstand. Keep writing in it. Keep using those purple and aquamarine pens you love so much, and when you lose them or when the ink runs out, buy more if you can. The words you will write and string together and the patterns you’ll form will save you, L. You’ll begin to learn that when you feel inspired, you write in purple. When you’re anxious, you write in pencil. Eventually, when you go to college, you’ll write in black. Then, you’ll get bored with that so you’ll try to spice it up by writing in blue. Eventually, you’ll always write in pencil because your anxiety will seem to swallow you and erase your smile. But it won’t. You won’t let it.
Middle schools are messy. The loudness in the halls around you will try to stifle your voice, but don’t let it. I know you are an introvert, and I know you like to watch from the sidelines. Don’t be afraid to contribute to the noise. Shout and laugh. The world needs to hear you.
Experiencing stress is normal. You’ll scream and cry and your stomach will hurt and you’ll think you won’t be able to survive. You’ll think your Algebra test will crush you and everything you’ve worked for and you’ll think your teacher will be disappointed in you, but it won’t crush you. Your teacher won’t be disappointed. One test cannot ruin you. You’ll think that if you stay up into the early hours of the morning so you can study, you’ll perform better on your tests. You’ll think this until you’re in college. Then, you’ll learn that sleep is better than stress and it’s better to take care of your body than to try to pass an exam. You won’t pass if your brain is so tired all it can focus on is how your eyes feel like they’re burning and how badly you wish your chair were your bed. Stressing about grades and exams is much easier to handle when you’re awake than when you’re so tired you want to gouge out your eyes. Some people will romanticize losing sleep for the sake of productivity, but don’t listen to these people. Loving yourself is the most romantic thing you can do.
One boy will not ruin you. One girl will not ruin you. One person will not ruin you. They will mock you and they will frustrate you, but they will also love you and make you laugh. Love is fluid and all-consuming and it can be platonic, everlasting, and familial. You’ll think you cannot be happy without these people if they leave, but you can. You’ll even be happier. When you’re angry with them, tell them. When you want to be left alone, tell them. If you no longer love them, tell them. Just tell them.
Only you can allow yourself to heal. This responsibility does not lie with those whom you love or admire. This responsibility does not belong to your friends or your therapist or your significant other. Only you know what swims around your brain every night, enveloping your dreams and consuming your thoughts into the next morning. Allow others to help you. Allow yourself to open up and be vulnerable. Allow yourself to break apart and melt away and then reform. Allow yourself. When you need to cry, but you don’t want to appear weak, cry anyway. Sob. Cry so hard you can barely breathe. Take deep breaths. Wipe your tears away and then cry again. Expressing emotion shows strength and courage. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable shows your ability to empathize. You’re sometimes afraid of letting people know you need them, but tell them you need them. Let them know how they saved you. They come in the form of family members and friends and strangers and professors. You will meet them and you will remember them. You’ll be better for having known them.
Always say, “Thank you.” One day, you’ll think you say it too much, but then you’ll realize that isn’t possible. Expressing gratitude isn’t annoying or over-the-top or unnecessary. It shows you are a decent human being, and I believe you are.
You can never be too kind. Spread kindness everywhere you go. Walk slower so you can read the poetry hanging in the hallway. Hold doors open. Drive slower in neighborhoods. Spend more time writing and creating, L. Let people know when they make you feel comfortable or when you appreciate something they say or do. Let an author know when their words saved you. The world will not always be kind in return. Be kind anyway.
Stand up for injustices. Like I said, I know you’re an introvert. I still like to stand in the corner of the room near a plant for peace or near a door for a quick escape. But sometimes we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Walk in marches in twenty-degree weather. Wear extra mittens and layers. Tell others when they are being irrational bigots. Volunteer when you can. Donate when you find you have too much. Doing any of these might save a life.
Stop worrying about whether or not you should use a bookmark. You can dog-ear your pages. You can even write on them. Underline your favorite passages. Mark your favorite pages with colorful Post-Its. One day, you’ll open these books again and be thankful you were able to lose yourself in something as fragile and vulnerable as paper. Sometimes, vulnerability is our biggest strength. One day, you’ll be able to smile when you find these books buried in your bookshelf even when the notes in the margins were sad and lonely.
When you are torn between doing what is right and what is easy, think about your situation. Sometimes they are the same.
When the words aren’t coming and you’re alone in your room at 1 a.m. and the boy you like isn’t messaging you back, turn off your phone. Turn on your favorite song or your favorite movie. Burn a candle. Paint. Draw. Be messy. Create. Take a long, hot shower and sing your favorite Stevie Nicks anthem. Re-read your favorite book or your favorite series. I’ve recently started re-reading the Harry Potter series–yes, again–and I’ve been able to find peace. It’s okay to cry it out, too. If you need to, take a long, hot shower anyway, and curl yourself up and face the showerhead. Let the water fall on your face so you can no longer tell if your cheeks are wet from sadness or cleansing or warmth.
Feed yourself. Nourish your body. Allow it to become soft and strong. It’s your barrier and your protector from everything that tries to tear you apart. Starving it won’t make you stronger. It won’t prove your ability to handle stress–it will only show your inability to do so. You can’t starve away or purge away or carve away your sadness and grief and anxiety. You can only nourish your body with food and literature and writing and love and friendship.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Beauty exists, though, and it exists in the way you pet every dog you see, the way you hold the door open for strangers, the way you hug books when they tear you apart, and in your ability to be torn apart. Remember this. Charting your pounds and counting calories will never lead you to perfection, but they will help you master basic addition and subtraction. There are other ways to do this, like in how many cents and dollars you donate to charities and how many earbuds you lost because you listen to music everywhere you go and how many times you sang karaoke in college and how many times you wish you would have.
One day, you’ll sometimes find that all you need is a bottle of wine, a slow playlist, and a circle of friends to remind you of warmth. In the middle of the night, when the warmth you feel isn’t coming from the heater or the love in the room, but from your own body buzzing with each sip of wine, you will feel nostalgic. This nostalgia may cause you to drift away and remind you of when you believed the world to be innocent and pure, but try to stay grounded. It’s okay to be sad about the past, but remember the present. What happened to you is not your fault. Believe me, but above all, believe yourself.
If a man says, “We live too far apart. Let’s try this again when we graduate,” don’t see him when you graduate. Run far. Run fast. If a man tries to persuade you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t do it. If you do, don’t blame yourself. He is the one to blame.
Me too. You’ll soon know what this means if you don’t already, and it will break you. But glue exists and so do I and so does chocolate chip cookie dough. Trust me. I believe you.
Go forth with confidence and kindness, L. You’ll learn how much power lies within empathy, and you’ll understand the importance of spreading it everywhere you go. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you feel too much and you’ll wonder if feeling everything so immensely makes you weak. It doesn’t. It never will. You’ll be thankful for vulnerability one day. One day you’ll write about these feelings and emotions and you’ll reflect. When you realize how writing has saved you, you’ll find yourself at home.