The first story I remember writing was written in clumsy six-year-old scrawl on the wide-lined pages of a marble composition book. It was about a dinosaur who had misplaced its egg. The bronchiosaurus wandered its prehistoric terrain, trying to find its way back to what it birthed. Sometimes it was right around some corner of the forest, and yet, thanks to one mishap or another, the two just could not connect.
The egg was me. I was in first grade, trying to make sense of the absence of my father. Imagining realms and crafting metaphors allowed me to navigate my feelings. I began writing to understand how I felt, to cope, to survive, to protect myself.
My teacher responded with enthusiastic encouragement to keep writing (and the reward of a sour apple Blow Pop). So I began writing poems. In third grade, an intense 3LW and Spice Girls obsession transformed the poems into songs. When puberty happened and my cynicism spread and my dreams of being in a Destiny’s Child–style girl band with my cousins withered, the songs shifted back into poetry.
I continued to write about feelings of abandonment, about unrequited love, about (what I didn’t yet know to call) depression. I wrote to comprehend how I fit into the world around me, in the large unit of society, the small unit of my family, the smaller unit of my own body.
In high school, I failed miserably at most attempts to write an essay. I turned them in weeks late and underdeveloped, because I didn’t want to pretend to be an authority on anything, to pull anything apart and make assertions about it, to pretend to know something for certain. But I thrived in my creative writing class. It was there, with the support of a teacher named Mrs. Fiorentino, that I began to believe I could be a writer, began to call myself one. It was on her letter of recommendation that I got into the college of my choice, which I found by Googling “best creative writing schools.”
I didn’t last long there. The same depression that made its home in my work made a mess of my ability to succeed at school. I dropped out, moved back in with my mom, and began working as a breakfast waitress at the Holiday Inn. I was 19 when I began getting letters and calls about paying back student loans. I was 19 when I realized how silly it was of me to think I could ever make enough money from writing to fund an education in it. Because who was I?
Still, when friends would check in on me from time to time, they would always ask, “Are you writing?” Because they understood that whether or not I was writing was intimately tied to my well-being, to my ability to be okay. And then I got married, and my husband would come home from work every day and ask, “Have you written?” And I had a thousand reasons for why it was useless to try. Every six months or so, a sentence would visit me, and I would turn it over and over in my mind and maybe jot it down, and that was that.
When I was 22, I got pregnant with my first son. I was working as a cleaning woman and quit when I found out I was expecting. I then began working as a room service attendant. And I started thinking about legacy, about what I could provide him. My mother was a woman who (part miraculously, part relentlessly) catapulted herself out of her class to provide stability for us. I knew that without a degree, my options were limited in how much I could provide my son. But I had to find something. A nagging seed embedded itself in my brain that said it couldn’t be futile to try my hand at writing professionally. It felt like a foolish dream, but even more foolish not to make an attempt.
I pitched a few places. By pitch, I mean I sent fully written essays to submissions slush piles with no knowledge of etiquette or decorum or insight. The essays were my best attempt at mimicking the style of other successful online writers. I got no response, with the exception of one form rejection. And then, one day, in a fit of frustration and pain, I self-published a long list of things that had hurt me. I wrote no initial draft; I typed it directly into the text box on Medium. I published it to five followers. It reached millions.
The Huffington Post asked if they could republish it. Another publication that previously had not responded to me reached out to apologize and asked the same. I was viral, all eyes were on me, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I asked a friend for advice, and she said, “You have to pump out content now, keep it coming, ride the momentum.”
So I did, for two years.
I learned what kind of writing the internet wanted. The kind that picked things apart and made assertions, the kind with a moral objective, the kind that answered questions. The kind I most struggled to write. I felt pressure to teach people about what it was to be me, when I wasn’t certain myself.
After the birth of my second son, my writing output dipped drastically. The core focus of my day had been child-rearing and keeping my depression and anxiety in check. When friends and family checked in with “How’s the writing coming?” I always answered, “I have nothing interesting to say.”
But how could that be, if I was still here; still a thinking, breathing human experiencing the full breadth of her emotions? I had never placed the burden of being interesting on myself before. I had never run out of things to try to know about myself, of questions on ordinary living to explore. I had never been creatively repulsed by the mundane nature of daily existence. Writing had always existed to help me process just that.
I realize, in looking back, that writing for an audience and writing for money had caused my work to shift toward favoring what I felt would affirm it and not what best served me. I wanted my writing to serve some purpose outside of myself, some ability to transcend the smallness of my own internal world.
But that world is the landscape I occupy before I meet the one outside of me. And I think now that it’s as noble to seek a full understanding of that world as it is to learn any other.
I resolve to return to myself now, to writing for the sake of myself, for the purpose of making myself better. For the purpose of documenting myself. Of declaring that I am here. I am here, haunting my house most days, quelling tantrums, cooking dinner, confounded by everything, making sense of it. My best hope in pressing “publish” is that you might find something of yourself in me. My best hope is that I might be a mirror, and that the mirror might help you make sense of something, too.