My inability to discover how to italicize within my blog posts' titles will be the death of me, mark my words. Today, I wanted to share a (slightly edited) version of my first assignment for the Creative Writing class I took last semester. The assignment was to write a personal memoir, and I decided to write mine concerning the creation of my two novels. This is something I haven't talked about on this blog, but it's a long overdue topic to address. I hope you enjoy it!
To understand the seething hatred I felt towards my first full-length novel, Wrong, you have to understand that I was actually angry with myself. It’s a spider web of knowledge, though, because to understand my anger you have to understand the smallest piece of me. My mom lovingly teases me, calling me an old lady. I’ve been to more doctor’s appointments than playdates or sleepovers. It’s been that way all my life, and it will probably never change; sometimes I’ve been content with that, and other times I’ve felt like the world was filling up with water and I didn’t have the slightest idea how to swim. What I always needed to change, though, was the support around me (or lack therefore of).
I've always had my parents on my side, but that was about it. When I was in early elementary school, my physical ailments weren’t quite so pronounced, and that meant my mental disorders were alone in the spotlight. You learn pretty quickly that there is absolutely no compassion, no sympathy, no anything from people that have never experienced mental illnesses and haven’t been educated on what they really are. So my family never talked about what I was going through, or which conditions I carried the names for, or how it was affecting us. I looked to novels for comfort, because if we’re being honest, that’s where I’ve always looked for comfort. I’d had these disorders either since the day I was born, or I’d developed them within the first five years of my life. They had been with me for as long as I could remember, and I wanted to hear from anyone new, even if they were fictional, who had the vaguest idea of what it was like. I wanted to read about people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or depression, or anxiety, or tics. I didn’t even care if they had the same type of depression or anxiety as me, just as long as I could hold a book and feel like I wasn’t so alone.
My mom found two books: she could only find one for my age. It was about something I didn’t and don’t have (Synesthesia), but it didn’t even matter. It told the story of someone who hid what she was going through from her friends and classmates for years, and when they finally found out, it was okay. It wasn’t world-shattering. They didn’t call her names she would remember years later or tease her about the things she hated about herself (which were the reactions I unfortunately encountered). It gave me hope that it could be okay for me too one day. It was that hope that enabled a thought to grow throughout the years.
The thought first came when I wanted to enter a writing contest about people becoming friends despite their differences. My mom recommended writing a short story about a girl on vacation who meets a girl with tics; I was too much of a coward to write it. The term is admittedly me being too harsh on myself, because I was in the fifth grade at the time, but it’s the absolute truth. Even though I didn’t write the story, the thought never left me. When I was twelve and a new seventh grader, a particularly bad bout of both mental and physical problems that would last indefinitely began. On that Christmas, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, I unwrapped a laptop. In the heat of the moment I wrote a prologue and flew through my first and second chapters, because I couldn’t keep the characters and stories from developing anymore. I shoved the project away until eight months after my health took a turn for the worse, when I was presented with the opportunity to spend a month writing a novel. I picked up right where I’d left off and raced through chapter after chapter until I reached the first of many dreaded writer’s blocks.
Most writers will agree that inevitably, every fifteen thousand words or so, the inspiration that had been carrying you along will decide to go on vacation. The only way to get it back is to keep writing no matter what, and so I stumbled forward until it became like breathing again. I switched back and forth for sixty-two thousand words from the kind of graceful quotes you see hung on walls to the kind of plots you want to strangle. At least, I wanted to strangle my plot. Not at first; at first, I was proud to be writing a book. The day I submitted it, four months after I first sat down to really write, I felt numb. I stopped worrying about revisions and editing and focused on the fall of my eighth grade year. The numbness wore off, though, to disappointment.
This wasn’t what I wanted to do. This wasn’t the novel that displayed, as closely as possible, what it was like to live with different mental illnesses. This wasn’t the novel that was supportive and heartbreaking and enlightening. It was a novel that mentioned a few medical diagnoses, but majorly focused on a group of kids who were all desperate for relief from what they were going through. They were all craving someone that would help them pick themselves up and make them crawl to the finish line if they had to, because they couldn’t trust themselves to be their own coach. Maybe most of them were properly balanced between being unable to live a normal life but having to anyways, but my main character was not. She wasn’t a flat character by any means, but her level of struggle wasn’t what my side characters’ was. I told myself that she had less illnesses than the rest of them. I told myself that she formed her depression later in life than the rest of them (as if middle school should be considered “later in life”). It was a healing bandage for a moment, but then it would tear itself away, and it always hurt more than it had before.
It wasn’t Cinderella’s story at all, but it seemed a bit like a royal ball the day of my book’s ceremony. I put on a new, beautiful dress and walked into a bookstore that was entirely warm and bright for every bit the December night was dark and frigid. I was enveloped into a world where I was with my family, surrounded by congratulatory people, and I felt proud. I remember hearing my name called to go receive the first copy of my finished book I had ever seen, and I never wanted to let it go.
The feeling didn’t last. It faded, and faded, and faded as my moment of pride ended. I looked at the book and saw every flaw that had been left in its pages, because no matter how many times you revise, you just can’t edit a novel in two and a half months and expect it to be flawless. I didn’t think it was just flawed, though. Books by famous authors are flawed when there’s a typo; I thought my novel was a despicable creation that was an unforgivable injustice to the topic I’d tried to discuss. Sure, it was my first novel. Sure, I was working under a deadline no famous author would stand for. Sure, I was a twelve-year-old who wrote, edited, revised, and published a book over the course of my summer and the beginning of a school year in which I would later be in the top ten percent of my grade for the scores I made in the classes I had balanced with my novel’s work. When someone else’s work is flawed, you may be quick to judge, but you’re even quicker to assure them that their project is still as lovely as they had intended it to be. When you’re the one who needs assurance, though, you have no mercy to offer yourself. Even the mercy of others isn’t enough to slap you in the face and yell, “You are being the most ridiculous person in the world!”
I was sitting on my mom’s bed, staring at the comforter because I was afraid of looking her in the eye, when I finally told someone else that I was wanting to take a shot at the whole bringing-justice-to-injustice idea. I remember her being quiet for a moment, but never unsupportive. She knew the only way I was going to stop beating myself up every time I looked at my debut novel was if I had a new one as a shield, one that could stand as a hero that would save me from feeling like I’d failed, because I should have realized what I had done with my first novel was important, and beautiful, and a feat most people will never accomplish. That’s just what it did. I was still hiding the reality of my health from others, but I’d met enough forced smiles from strangers who thought I was odd for choosing Wrong's topic that I didn’t care anymore. I wrote what I felt. What others felt. I let every heavy, horrible truth that I had unintentionally been holding onto flood the pages of my second novel. I only had two and a half months to write, edit, and revise this novel, and on top of that, it was one hundred pages longer than my first. The freedom I gave myself led to a better story, though. The characters were deeper. They were more realistic, especially in tying their actions and thoughts to their illnesses, and it made all their struggles and triumphs that much more profound. The plot had a path clear enough that I was able to check off of my key points and then some. Most of all, I adored what I had created.
The day after my second book’s ceremony, I went to place my copy of book two on my dresser, right next to my first novel. As I looked from Wrong to The Commodious Life of Cecily Charn, I realized that my newer novel never could have existed without my first. Without the characters or plot of Wrong, my second creation never could have existed. Not only that, but I had to get over my stage fright before I could put on my best performance. Sure, I might still be anxious when someone tells me they’re reading my first novel. I might ramble on about how I love Wrong but I also kind of hated it for a while, the second is better, and silently plead with them not to judge me.
The fact is, though, I now see both my novels as trophies. Trophies that say I can call myself an author without people giving me a condescending smile and telling me my scattered writings must be great, and I’m sure be a real writer one day (all the while believing the term “author” means I’ve written a short story or two, and while it’s a fun hobby, I’ll grow up one day and realize I don’t want to, that I can’t, be a silly author). Medals that I can use when I feel as though I’m writing the most boring story to ever plague mankind. They’re awards I can use when I wonder if I have a right to be confident in my ability to understand the English language well, and even help others better understand it. I haven’t graduated. I’ve never gone to college and gotten a degree in English, teaching, or creative writing. These stories were proof that it didn’t matter. Even more than that, they were proof I didn’t need to hide who I was from everyone around me.
Whether people didn’t care or cared too much about what my mental health has been and always will be, how comfortable I am with myself and my life has no relation to those who don’t know the first thing about clinical depression, OCD, GAD, or tics. It’s only ever mattered how I view them. For all the pain they’ve caused, for all the inconvenience they’ve caused, for all the hopelessness and complications with other medical issues they’ve caused, I don’t know who I am without them. I don’t know what I’d be like, or what life would have been, without them. I do know that without them, I never would have written my first novel. Without my first novel, I never would have written my second. It’s a butterfly effect of ugly things turned beautiful, far more beautiful than I ever thought they had the potential to be.