The first time I called myself a writer was two years ago, and only because an actual writer friend made me — presumably so we could talk about anything other than my tediously basic insecurities. I worked full-time in tech and was too afraid to admit that I spent any time writing at all. I was terrified of people thinking that I thought my ideas were interesting enough — and that I was talented enough — to make the effort of writing them down. Earnestly doing something terribly, it seemed, was the most embarrassing thing.
I had always stuck to — raced on — the proverbial “track.” Raised without the basic luxuries of health insurance, consistent heat, or reliable plumbing, I had one goal growing up: to not be poor. So I studied electrical and computer engineering in college, and went to business school after that. There was no space to ask myself what I was interested in, beyond making money.
Then I made money. Not a lot, but enough to chip away at my debt, order a refill without worrying if it were free, buy a T-shirt at The Gap instead of on sale at Old Navy. Once I had the simple luxury of choice under my belt, the idea of trying to make more money felt like throwing myself back into the fire at the very point that I had escaped. With the only goal I’d ever had already accomplished, I felt stranded in the middle of space by the time I hit 30. I know, it’s a total cliche: corporate type realizes money doesn’t make her happy. But for people who grew up with no safety net, a narrow focus on money when you’re a young adult isn’t stupidity, it’s survival.
By the time I got around to asking myself what I was actually interested in, I didn’t know how to do anything I was actually interested in. It seemed like most people had used college to read as many books as possible, cultivate taste, and explore ideas of social significance while I’d been heads down in Fourier transforms and assembly language.
It never occurred to me that the aspects of myself that were distinctly female might warrant exploring, that my struggles as a woman were valid and not just me doing something totally wrong.
To fill my gaping creative hole, I dated artists. Or at least, I dated men with artistic sensibilities. Or maybe I just dated men who liked to tell me why my artistic sensibilities were wrong. Having always worked in tech and business, following the lead of a confident man felt strangely natural. Of course, this meant that my oeuvre was all men. My love for these men was not insincere — Franzen turned me onto writing and I still swear by at least a handful of Ryan Adams records — but because they were all I knew, it never occurred to me that the aspects of myself that were distinctly female might warrant exploring, that my struggles as a woman were valid and not just me doing something totally wrong. There was no voice explaining the echo chamber I was trapped in, at least no voice I cared to listen to.
I’m not proud to admit that I wrote my first essay to distract myself from sending an email to an ex-boyfriend. I had sent him about a thousand after our breakup, and he’d replied to exactly zero. It was only when my sister suggested that maybe I should write about said guy, not to him, that I considered writing for an audience of more-than-one. I worked on that essay (about dating, naturally) obsessively. The audience thing turned out to be a non-issue since no one ever read it, save for my sister and best friend (readers are the true heroes of writing). But it didn’t matter. Writing that essay made me realize that maybe I had something to say after all.
I started writing in secret regularly. At 33 I knew nothing of the literary world, other than the brooding men I read to impress the brooding men I dated. But I couldn’t deny that writing, this slowing down of the world, processing ideas through my own lens, was all I wanted to do. By that time I had abandoned my corporate work for nonprofit jobs — another attempt to find meaning — and though the work was far more powerful, I still couldn’t shake the desire to write.
Bolstered by a tsunami of feminist female voices exploding in pop culture (a phenomenon more or less absent from approximately 1990-Beyonce) I slowly started to share my writing. Not knowing any better, I treated writing like tech — fail fast, iterate often. I sent my work to every possible contact I could find on the internet. Having written in secret for years, something in me had popped. If one publication didn’t like my work, I changed it and sent it somewhere else. Literary magazines didn’t occur to me because I didn’t know they existed. Instead I self-published on Huffington Post and Medium, pitched editors at the publications I read without knowing where they ranked in literary credibility. And eventually, some things hit. I started to publish more regularly — not a ton, but enough. Enough to feel the thrill that comes with ascribing tangible, shareable words to muddy, ungraspable feelings and in doing so build connections between myself and others with what once felt like the darkest and loneliest parts of my existence. And that was enough to never want to stop.