What Even Is Writing?

The act of writing has this fascinating quality: it seems so incredibly simple, putting words to paper, but its powers and nuances expose themselves the more we tinker, and they teach us how complicated we are. I am in about the fourth week of the poetry MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, and each week as I am encouraged to question the limits of what we call “writing,” stripping away my biases and assumptions, I just as quickly unearth a shard of something writerly lodged so deep in my brain I couldn’t have found it without all that digging.

In the first week or so of class, we did a lot of introductions and ice breakers: getting to know each other as a community of writers. Timidly looking back into my childhood, I remembered a few short stories I typed up when I got excited about going to a young writer’s conference, and a composition book filled with quirky writing exercises from first or second grade. What I didn’t think about was the pile of journals that, somewhere deep inside, I knew was sitting in my parents’ attic. I went home this weekend to celebrate my grandma’s birthday and went looking for this:

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It’s a time capsule from the year 2003, when I was 13 years old. 12 years ago. I stuffed it in a shoebox of mementos long before I moved out of my parents’ house, and eventually forgot exactly where I had put it. Every so often, I would think about it and wonder if I had accidentally thrown it away. But no–it was still there. I opened it and was pleasantly surprised, and a bit bleary-eyed, truth be told. I very affirmatively listed exactly who my friends were, and that our favorite pastimes were “singing, girl talk, giggling.” I was not so sure what I would remember most about 2003, my biggest accomplishment of the year, or what I wanted to be when I grew up. In hindsight, who sees things that way at 13? Somewhere deep down I knew it was okay that everything was so fleeting, from the music to the family vacations to my ever-changing hobby of the week. I was unintentionally hilarious and spot-on when I filled in this blank: “For now, what I love most about being 13 and 11/12 years old is being almost 14?” I don’t think anybody has a super-great time being 13, and when I was in the thick of it myself, I clung to the hope that the next year would be a little better. The bonus postscript wisely stated “Never be normal & remember who you are!” and then listed the elaborate nickname I had amassed for myself: “(King Earl Cindy Ella Evil the Pink and Purple Fruity Pebble Penguin-Ox with Monkey Pox Fiber-Opticness Girl Drama Stuff HUH!) As of now.” I think that was as long as it ever got.

Once I was able to put down this bittersweet snapshot of my girlhood, I moved on to these bad boys:

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There they are in all their angsty preteen glory. Yes, that is Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Yes, that is Britney Spears with a mustache and full goatee drawn on. Yes, that is a Lisa Frank sticker, puppies, diaries with useless little locks on them. The definitive collection spans from 1999 to 2004: about five years of pretty persistent record-keeping. Though I haven’t read them covers-to-covers, I skimmed through some of the entries and was a little shocked by what I found: lamentations about the onset of puberty, a play-by-play of the middle school gossip (who I had a crush on, and therefore which girls I was/wasn’t friends with that week), a narration of a heart-wrenching week when my dad just lived somewhere else and my parents weren’t even sure if a divorce was in the cards, and a page where I wrote “I ❤ MY FAMILY” and did some doodling “to let off some steam.” Overall–the thread that connected the days, months, and years of my adolescence–was the desperate need for somebody to talk to who would just listen. To the kids at school (even my friends), I was annoying and overly emotional. My mother was all ears and thought she could fix all of my problems, but I did not trust her with my feelings because I already knew the kind of things she would say. Other adults were just adults. I needed a middle ground. A big sister. A therapist.

I recognized the symptoms of depression and anxiety in high school, and got too busy with that whole can of worms to dwell on my childhood much. I would shrug it off and say “I don’t really know if I had a happy childhood–I think I’ve blocked most of it out.” Now I think that was one more way of invalidating my emotions, like almost everyone else did. This isn’t quite a tragedy, though. I did learn to make lasting friendships and eventually found my “tribe.” All that scribbling I did wasn’t for nothing, as I have proven, by making it into a fantastic MFA program in creative writing. The icing on the cake is that I have a perfectly preserved record of those lost years, written down by the only expert qualified for the job: Me. And now that I’m a totally legit poet, I can use all that fodder to make art that will be taken seriously, in ways my little 6th-grade self never would have thought possible.

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