It’s taken me over 20 years to write about what happened to me in high school, and I’m OK with that.
When I was 15 years old, I experienced a strange and abusive friendship. It lasted the length of a school year, and was both traumatizing and self-defining. Even at the time, creative and ambitious kid that I was, I told myself: someday this will make an important novel.
I also used that promise to help process the painful experience: it wasn’t all for naught — the shame and confusion, the hurt, and anger — it was future fodder for a great literary work. But not yet.
Then I was in my twenties, and it was too soon: I had to learn to write first.
I had to master the craft. I had to gain experiences, and explore the world. And in doing that, I found other things to write about — and they were more pressing, more present, more interesting. More digestible.
Later, in my early thirties, after I had studied craft and had the degrees and the pedigree, I knew enough to know that writing that high school story would be hard.
I wondered: What would the ‘point of view’ be? Would I write limited from a 15 year-old mind, or with the knowledge and hindsight of an adult? What would I make the ‘point of telling’? Present day? College? In the moment of the experience? What style would best render the confusion and complicated deceit of the experience? Realism? Impressionism? Lyricism?
I wondered and I wondered — and in the end, it was overwhelming. I tied myself in knots and again wrote other things (or, more often, nothing).
I put it off. I told myself I didn’t want to “waste” that story. I told myself I’d write a few other novels first, and then I’d get to it.
In the meantime, I didn’t write any other novels. I wrote around the other novels, too.
The Three Bullies: Brain, Culture, Craft
When I think about what kept me from writing that story, I think about it in a few different ways.
One, the resistance was psychological: I didn’t want to re-enter that trauma and muck about in one of the darkest periods of my development.
Two, the resistance was cultural: the trauma involved many events that our society likes to sweep under the mat; I knew it would be “important” to put them on the page — but it didn’t make it feel good, or easy, or simple.
Three, the resistance was creative: I never felt I had the chops to make it as good a story as I owed my 15 year-old self to make it. It would be hard to make it good. It would be near impossible to make it great. (And if I were ever going to be The Artist I so desperately wanted to be, I had to make it great!).
These three bullies — brain, culture, and craft — all living inside me, kept the story safely in my mind and memory for decades. Until this year.
GTFO (Of My Head)
Spoiler: since the beginning of COVID-19, I’ve written over 200 pages of this story. It’s frightfully bad in draft form, and not fun material to explore, but I’m finally confident enough not to let that stop me. How? What changed?
A few things.
One, you know well: thousands of people around the world starting dying of a new virus with no known cure and no known treatment. I don’t have to tell you what that can do to one’s sense of “having time.” Simply put: I decided I didn’t want to die with this story inside of me. Even if it came out like a lopsided birthday cake.
Two, I realized that all those years of procrastination, all those years of fear and fight, all those years of giving in to resistance were my preparation. The ingredients had been collected. The cake (as it were) was ready to be baked.
In quarantine, days were not defined by external actions, places to be, and people to please. Rather, they were defined by going inside and staying there — and I don’t only mean inside the house. What I found deep in me was the 15 year-old I’d once been, but now he wasn’t frightened or confused. He was waiting patiently in my creative conscious, ready to climb out.
In an interview on Russell Brand’s podcast, “Under the Skin,” Elizabeth Gilbert describes the process of publishing her novel, The Signature of All Things, with full knowledge of its imperfections. She lets go of the novel despite not being able to get one character right. When her agent, editor, and friends point out the flaw, she tells them: “If I could write a better book I would. Maybe ten years from now I’ll do better. But the only way that’s gonna happen is if I start a new thing.”
My story is meant to be told, because I’m here to tell it. It’s as simple as that. And the only way I’ll know if I have what it takes to make it “great,” is to make it — great, good, mediocre, or something else entirely. The only way to honor that 15 year-old me is to get to work getting his story onto the page.
That’s what twenty-three years of resistance taught me. I’m glad I stuck around to learn the lesson.