Since I was in fourth grade and wrote an awful short story, I’ve wanted to write. What I wanted to write was pointless but I knew I wanted to create something. And since then, it’s been my one goal in life: get published and write something important.
My first story I ever wrote—that wasn’t from a writing prompt or lead by a classroom discussion—was in elementary school. It was called, “Friendy the Tree” and was about a little girl who was best friends with a tree. The tree started small but as the years went on, both the girl and the tree grew up together…and that was about it to the story. I remember there was a school talent show and since neither my singing nor my dancing skills were good enough to perform anything interesting, I decided to read my story instead.
I was elated to read this story I had written. I climbed up onto this stool in the gymnasium in front of my entire grade. I remember my legs were too short to reach the ground and how they dangled and swung out of nervousness over the edge. I read, as I still do when I’m nervous, quickly and jumbled together. Afterwards a teacher told my mom and me they would make my story into an actual book and carry it in the elementary school library. Jumping up and down, I looked at my mom with happy tears. “I’m going to be an author! I’m going to be a real author!”
The school never did that, of course. Why they promised it in the first place to a young, overly enthusiastic child is beyond me but obviously no one published my crap story. Why? It was “The Giving Tree;” even some of the words and passages were the same. So, one of two things happened: either no one noticed the exact connection but they could tell the story was awful or they didn’t want to hurt my eight year old feelings and decided not to bring it up.
As I got into middle and high school I continued to write short stories and horrible poetry, as most angst-ridden teens do. In high school I started mapping out what I thought would be my first book someday. Years later though, I abandoned the book because I realized the plot was contrived to the point that salvaging any major themes was useless. Yet even then, leaving high school I knew I wanted to be one thing: an author. I knew I wanted to go to the University of Iowa and wanted to apply someday for the Writer’s Workshop graduate program (I abandoned that dream after reading horror stories). I applied to be a part of the Writer’s Living Learning Community at Iowa my freshman year and was elated to be placed on the floor. When I started my freshman year, I had this image of writers sitting around in hallways, discussing their craft and pushing each other to produce the best pieces they could create.
I wrote very little and found a lot of drama.
As I got more involved with my major I thought I would find more like-minded people and find my closest friends within English. Instead, I learned rather quickly that I hated most English majors.
Nearly every English class that I was in had at least two people competing to see who could out-asshole the other with their wit and brilliance. Sometimes, I was that asshole. I felt like I had to prove myself constantly and even if I did, I wasn’t “English-y” enough. I hadn’t read all the books you were supposed to read to be a “real English major” and didn’t know the centuries of jargon I had somehow not been told I was required to know. It wasn’t that the hostility was in the classroom but rather self-made among the students. There was elitism among students who thought they knew the true future voice of English and how it should sound. I did well within my major, garnering an English GPA of 3.75, but I did well not because of my intelligence or my expertise in the creative field.
I did well because I’m a wonderful liar and clever bullshitter.
I spent most of my time in my English classes at Iowa figuring out how to write what the professor wanted and in what style. And damn, I was good at it. Subsequently, I felt freer in my creative writing classes, where I did most of my writing. What I wrote didn’t have to be perfect or presented in a precise manner. I could create without fear of it being inadequate or too commercial. My stories got better as the years progressed and I maxed out the number of times I could take the writing courses.
My sophomore year I applied for and was rejected from the Creative Writing Track that would have allowed me to graduate with honors in English. The story I wrote was a risk I thought the administration would like (a story written entirely in second person) but I was devastatingly wrong. The response was, in so many words, “We liked your story but it isn’t our style.” I got the news while I was traveling around Europe on my semester abroad, almost five years ago to be exact. Sitting in a café in Paris, I wore dark sunglasses and let dramatic art film tears roll down my face.
I told myself I didn’t need the track to make myself a great writer and focused more heavily on my short stories. I tried a class on performing autobiography (loved it) and even playwriting (hated it). Before I graduated, I told myself, I’d figure out what I was going to write someday and make a vague plan. But as my senior year came and went, my thoughts turned to more pressing issues: food and shelter and money. I started working as a waitress before eventually moving to Illinois where I would add bank teller to my list.
When I got to Illinois, I stumbled into a freelance writing gig for a website and did so for almost a year. I loved it. There was talk about me becoming some sort of social media mind behind things and potentially running the site and I got swept up in the dream. I wasn’t writing fiction at the moment and this was my answer. After about six months though, the money stopped coming in. I kept writing for them because I told myself: if you’re writing, you’re not a failure. After about a dozen pleas to be paid and being owed almost $500, I left.
I spiraled shortly after—though if I’m honest with myself, I had been spiraling for a while—into a deep suicidal depression for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons though was that I felt that every moment I wasn’t creating, writing, or reading that I was letting the world down somehow. I didn’t understand why yet but I knew I was a disappointment if I didn’t do what I had always said I was going to do since I was a child. No one tells you that you have to fulfill your childhood dreams, but I’m a stubborn sonofabitch. My not being a successful writer immediately meant that all of that bullshit I had spewed for years had been for nought. If I wasn’t a writer what was I? What was the point to any of this?
The worst part is since graduating, people ask me about writing constantly.
“Are you writing?”
“Written anything good lately?”
“Are you still working on that book?”
“Have you finished your book?”
“Are you getting published soon?”
“Are you still writing?”
It rings so loudly in my head, like an alarm I cannot turn off in the morning: ARE YOU WRITING ARE YOU WRITING ARE YOU WRITING WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING IF YOU’RE NOT WRITING WELL THEN WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING ARE YOU WRITING?
Somehow many years ago when I was young, when I struggled with friendships and felt alone in the world, I told myself: you’re something if you write. When I was depressed as a kid I told myself I was fine as long as I wrote or created. After reading Harry Potter, I thought if I could make something like this then people would love me. As a suicidal thirteen year old I thought, “What is the point of going on? What is the point to any of this?” Different answers got me through the days. And when I would come out of depression bouts my answer was always the same: write.
I think part of me thought that if I wrote some amazing book or created an earth-shattering YA trilogy I would be…something other than sad. I wouldn’t be teetering on the edge between sane and breaking apart. Creating meaningful works would make my life worthwhile and make the pain worthwhile. And that translated, in some way, to contentment. Peace, or reasonably resembling it, would emerge if I could just quiet myself and do something fucking important.
After my most recent bout of suicidal depression, my answer remained the same: create and you will find calm. I busied myself with cross-stitching an entire wall of art and tried blogging more. I read more last summer and it was all, in my mind, some sort of preparation for writing. If anyone asked me about writing, I would say I was getting ready.
Sometime late last summer though I realized I didn’t feel like writing. The truth was I hadn’t felt like writing for years. Writing fits for me have always come on sporadically and without warning. They could last for weeks or for hours. But a genuine desire to write fiction had not been with me since I was around twenty two, and maybe even longer than that. Were those genuine desires or rather stressful answers to class assignment deadlines?
Since then I’ve been trying to tell myself it’s okay if I don’t want to write. I know I still enjoy writing, but it’s more stream of consciousness blogging and personal essays. Maybe someday I’ll publish a series of essays on the monolith that is my embarrassing childhood (if anyone knows me, you know there is plenty of source material). Even just this I churned out in a matter of an hour. So somewhere inside of me exists the desire to write and create, but the necessity of it is something I’ve been fighting to force for almost two decades.
Toward the end of December, everyone starts to think about their New Year’s Resolutions. This past year I was still in a haze of c diff recovery and newly out of the hospital. But somewhere between all the supplements, I settled on my goal for the year. And it wasn’t just going to be my goal for the year, but for my life as a whole.
My new goal in life is to be happy.
There are no other strings attached to that statement; the goal is happiness. Now, that may sound like some millennial narcissistic bullshit, but it really is all I want out of this life. Even a couple times in the past few months when I’ve been sitting with people and we talk about our goals in life, I’ve made an effort to say this instead,
“My goal is to get at least one thing published, yes, but honestly I just want to be happy.”
Changing my goals has given me the room to breathe and focus on my own mental health and wellness. Your happiness is never not important and it’s crucial to remember this. As long as I’m feeling generally fulfilled in my life, it’s okay if my after work or weekend activities are mindless; not everything needs to be driving toward some divine purpose. It is okay for happiness to be the journey, the goal, and the ultimate destination.
When you suffer from clinical depression and anxiety that isn’t going to go away, it’s important to remember that happiness is a worthwhile goal. It may not get me any Ted Talk deals or movie rights, but it’s okay if your goal in life is to be right with yourself. I will never reach a point where I am 100% happy all the time or even all day. Some days feel like one step forward and thirty back. But I’m learning to live for the days where I can make it two steps forward and only one step backwards.
So far, I must say, I’m doing an alright job. And for the first time since graduating, this past year I feel like I’m finally reaching my goals.