Yesterday I had a third short story due, and I was panicked and blocked and my mind was blank. So I read everything on my hard drive to see if I could use any of it -- nothing, nothing. And in desperation I went to my file cabinet and looked at some of the things I wrote back in college. I found an old short story. There's a lot wrong with it, but there was some good in there, too. Some of it was terribly embarrassing but changing the point of view and eliminating a couple of scenes and trashing the tortured dialogue gave me something to work with. I've loosened up as a writer, I think, and this weblog is one reason why.
But the interesting part wasn't the old story or what I did with it. It was a letter I had written to a trusted reader, paperclipped to the story. I read that and found myself really surprised by it. In the letter I wrote with confidence and direction about my own writing, my aspirations, what I thought my own strengths were and what I still needed to learn. I wrote, "I still don't know how I want to be as a writer, but I know I want to do it; I know I need to do it." This was in 1992. 1992, people. And yet, in 2004 and 2005 it took all of my nerve to say the same thing; I still feel wavery and unsure and brave and scared for saying that I want and need to write.
So what happened to me? What took away that confidence? Where did it go, and how did I lose hold of it for so long?
I've had occasion to ask myself this question before. A couple of years ago, when I was walking with Neighbor, we were talking about my chronic sense of being "doomed" romantically. (A feeling I have finally shed, over the last couple of years.) She was trying to flesh out this feeling. Have you always been doomed? asked Neighbor. I sighed. It seemed like such a silly question. Of course I've always been doomed. I'm broken, fundamentally flawed, I wanted to explain to her, and whatever that secret flaw is in me it's deep-seated, innate. But before I answered I thought about it and I realized that I hadn't always felt doomed. In fact, I had once upon a time felt pretty confident in my own lovableness. That night I went through my own journals, reading what and how I wrote about boys. It was striking. There have always been suitors and possibilities, but my reaction to them changed dramatically my junior and senior year of college. I began writing about how I felt like I was "tricking" people who were interested in me, how I didn't know who I was, how I didn't know how I could fit into someone else's life when I was so unsure about my own. As I read the journals it was pretty clear to me: if I was doomed, I hadn't always been so. I lost myself somewhere in my junior year of college.
What happened? I don't fully know. I became a science major instead of an English major, which I knew was "tricking" people. I fell in love with a scientist, and thought that because I admired his mind, my own mind should work like his did. And when it didn't, I thought that meant I wasn't smart. My parents sold the childhood home I'd lived in for 18 years and built a new place, in the country, with a guest room for me. A dear friend of mine had been raped that summer, and she was struggling and I didn't know how to talk to her or how to help carry her pain, and I was terrified of being clumsy, so I froze and withdrew from her and felt like a terrible person because of my ineptness. I threw myself into sailing and my relationship and hardly engaged in my classes, feeling lost and bewildered. By senior year, my boyfriend had graduated and moved away, my dear friend took the year off from school, and I felt pretty alone, taking classes that didn't interest me, trying to pretend I was a scientist and knowing I was a fraud and a failure, convinced I wasn't smart after all. I lived way off campus, out of town, on the water, and some days I didn't even go into New Haven. I swam and read books that weren't assigned and wrote and sailed and drank a lot and pretended my heart wasn't breaking and hooked up with boys I didn't care about to convince myself that I was attractive. Ugh, it was such a lousy time. The only good things about that year, the two things that saved me, were sailing -- my crew and I were starting to get good, and we had ambitions, and I'd started lifting weights and could feel myself getting stronger and more confident, and I'd mostly figured out the politics and drama on the team and was beginning to feel comfortable and relaxed about how I fit -- and my secret society, where I turned all of my curiosity about people and how many different ways there are to live in the world.
So I've been climbing out of this hole for the last dozen-plus years, I guess. When I was a sophomore I knew I was smart, I knew I was a writer, and I knew I was cute and lovable. By the time I was a senior I didn't know any of that anymore. I've been gradually re-learning those things. Good heavens, did it have to take me 14 years? I wonder what else I lost, along the way. I wonder what other lingering damage there is from those years. I wonder how to recognize something like this, and whether any of my college sailors are at risk of faltering, turning away from their inner strengths. I wonder if I can help prevent it.