Some days I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up; being a writer is high on that list, but I’ve badly sabotaged myself already, for unpleasant reasons.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer…well, in kindergarten I wanted to be a paleontologist (I was so young most people thought I couldn’t pronounce the word) and in 4th grade I wanted to be a marine biologist, but also in 4th grade I started writing my first novel, so I think that counts for something, yes? Logging yet another year as a precarious academic has me thinking about other options should a contract not come through for me. And that has me reflecting on why writing has been meaningful to me for so long, and why I’ve veered away from it.
The first reason is fairly pedestrian. I internalized the “good people get jobs” message in grad school and decided to become a rockstar scholar. I stopped writing short fiction and poetry. I stopped worldbuilding. I channeled my creativity into cooking, dance, and role-playing instead (yes, I was the nerd who Vampire LARPed her way through grad school). I figured if I put all my writing energy into scholarly writing, I’d get an amazing amount of conference papers accepted and journal articles published and I’d have a kick-ass career, right?
Wrong. I’m not unhappy that I have a ridiculously prolific publication record, I’m just bitter that I gave up creative writing on the false promise of a steady career and a guaranteed job. I’m sad that I was so naive as to think it was a zero-sum game, that I couldn’t nurture a small flickering flame of speculative fiction and poetry alongside the jargon-y academic prose.
The second reason I gave up writing is…much more personal, and much worse, in a way.
When I tried to assemble my broken dreams into some semblance of a life after being one, then two, then three years out of a PhD program with no steady tenure-track job in sight, I was married. One of the (few) good things to come of that marriage is that my partner said to me, “You want to write? Treat it like a full-time job until it becomes one; write every day, whether or not you’re getting paid.” And so I did. I was already blogging a bit, so I did it more. I found some freelance educational writing gigs that helped pay down my student loans. I poked at some poetry and eventually started publishing it.
But then it soured. “It” meaning both my marriage, and my nascent attempts at writing again.
My marriage fell apart for a variety of reasons, but key to this post is the fact that I was not a primary earner (I was adjuncting a couple of courses a semester, which pays a pitiably low wage) in the relationship. And at some point, in a discussion about whether to stay put in Indiana or flee for the coasts, my ex looked at me and said, “Well, I bring in more money, so I should have more say in these decisions.”
It took me a while to be able to vocalize why that statement upset me so much (and believe me, there was other fuckery afoot, which led me to lots of therapy processing the trauma of being gaslit and emotionally abused). Because, basically, my life partner had simultaneously said “yes, pursue this life dream of yours” and “because you are pursuing your dream you are less than an equal partner in this partnership.” It really fucked me up.
The thing that gets me is, in both of these instances, it feels like my own damn fault for turning off the faucet of creativity, for listening to outdated university success advice in the first instance and listening to someone who wanted to control me in the second instance. Because what else do you call it, what is it other than manipulation, when someone says “yes, do X” and then also “because you are doing X, I get more control over your life now”? How am I supposed to reconcile that, when what appeared to be good-faith life/career advice from my life partner (at the time) turned into a bid for control and power, a way to keep me financially dependent on him despite worsening conditions?
…dear reader, I’m a writer, and I don’t even know what to write about this. At first, in grad school, I was promised false hope and that turned me away from writing what I love, and next, in my marriage, I was bludgeoned with it, and I cannot peer deeply enough inside myself to find long-term inspiration without breaking down.
I have ideas. So many ideas. Ideas for stories, poems, novels, articles, blog posts, flash fiction. But when I bear down and try to seize my passion for writing and take it to the next step of planning it out enough to make it happen, everything evaporates and dissipates. I’m left alone with my memories, fears, and failures. Maybe if this weren’t also a pandemic year I’d be able to push through it. Maybe not.
I am hoping that I am not broken forever, that I can once again look upon writing and not cringe away as the memories flood back in, reminding me of the things I gave up, the things I compromised, the people I let into my life.
I just want to write again, to believe in myself as wholeheartedly as 4th-grade-me believed in my fantasy novel about a girl who cross-dressed in order to become a knight (I know, totally unoriginal, but dang, 10-year-old me was into it). I want to be able to fall into worldbuilding again without that trauma coming knocking, reminding me that someone once saw fit to control me with that very desire. That I crumbled, became afraid. That I’m still processing how it felt to be a transaction.
It took me longer than usual to draft this blog post; normally, I get an idea for a post and words just flow, slowed only by how long it takes me to do any supplementary research. I am sad and I am scared: scared that I don’t have what it takes to dig deep anymore, to do the intensive labor required to create realistic fiction (whether mimetic or speculative). It’s just…scary, to confront this loss of passion and start to trace where it might’ve come from (especially as that dovetails with themes of feeling broken in my life, such as how the decision to initiate divorce came from my ex yelling at me in couples therapy telling me I was broken…what if I am broken? ugh).
Perhaps this is a cautionary tale: Kids! Don’t stop doing what you love! Or perhaps not; perhaps it’s a weary person struggling to categorize their experiences in order to better understand and move forward. I know there are words and ideas in me, more than those that’ve trickled out through the blog posts and poems that’ve slowly crept into the world. Just knowing they’re there helps; hopefully I can cradle that knowledge, and with it, walk into the light.