When I first started writing, I made books out of construction paper folded in half, and set my stories on them in crayon.
I remember the first was a rather dramatic family saga. The baby’s name was Mark, after my dad, and he was quite pleased until I informed him that the cat ate the baby. It’s true what they say: you shouldn’t upset the writer, though I couldn’t tell you now what my dad had done for his namesake to warrant such a fate. Anyway, the family rescued the baby Little Red Riding Hood style – I suppose my dad had redeemed himself, or maybe I just felt bad – and they all lived happily ever after.
I don’t remember the other stories, just that there were others, and I shared them with everybody, even people from church.
One day I came to my desk in our family’s dining/school room and discovered my work in progress all cut up, courtesy of my younger brother. He swore up and down that it was an accident, and he didn’t know it was my book, but I’m pretty sure he did it because he was mad at me about something, because how could he not have known it was my book? Anyway, my mom gave me a notebook to start writing my stories in, so there would be no doubt in the future what was my book and what was just paper with my writing on it.
It was blue, and I still have it, although there is a story missing, because I ripped it out and gave it to someone as a present. I continued on writing in the notebooks for some time. After the blue one, there was a red one (which I no longer have), and after the red one, a green notebook (which is safely kept with the blue now). Judging by the quality of the stories remaining in the blue and green notebooks, the missing story and the stories in the red volume were probably not any good, and that’s how I can live with the fact that I don’t have them anymore.
I went back to my book-making ways, however, when my family got this extra long paper that was perfect for folding in half and writing stories on. I was working on a historical fiction piece about my great-grandma, Evelyn, for whom I was named, and how she met my great-grandpa, whose name was actually Gilbert, but in the story his name was Ernest, because one of my brothers told me that was his name. (And if you’re seeing the Bert and Ernie connection there, that’s exactly what he was going for.) I was quite smitten with my little romance, but one day, I came to my desk and couldn’t find my story. I looked everywhere, interrogated everyone, and while describing what it looked like, my oldest sister confessed to throwing it away while cleaning a few days prior. It was gone, and I was devastated.
My mom reprimanded me for not writing in the notebooks, and I came to accept my own responsibility in the matter. Besides, the story wasn’t that good anyway, and this was a good opportunity to improve upon it.
So I did. I gave most of the drafts of that story away, and I only have one left. I was still into dramatic family sagas, but I replaced man-eating cats with rabid squirrels, town murderers, and Adolf Hitler. Again, the draft I have is not good by any sense of the imagination, and I tell myself the other drafts probably weren’t either.
I kept writing. I can’t tell you what, because I don’t have any of my childhood and teen writings except what exist in the blue and green notebooks, and one other that I had the good sense to keep.
This time, it wasn’t one of my siblings. It was me. And this is why.
My younger siblings and I were part of a homeschooling acting group. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds: at our largest, there might have been ten of us, and we put on a grand total of two plays before things fell apart. Anyway, we wrote our own scripts. I say “we,” but both plays we performed were written by my friend, and my contributions were perpetually shot down. (Which is not to say I didn’t make them anyway). When I finally wrote a play, it had to go through my friend’s mom for approval, and it was rejected on the basis of “no offense, but it doesn’t have a point.”
I accepted that.
My older sister (who knew I had written the play) asked me when we’d be performing it. I explained that we wouldn’t be performing it, and why. So she read the play, and she didn’t see the problem: it was the story of a Depression-era family whose father was away looking for work, and they took on boarders so he could come home for Thanksgiving. She thought it was good, but she was my sister, and you know, she’s supposed to say that, so I was still not buying it.
Then, my sister got my mom involved.
My mom told me I would not be doing any more plays with this acting group. In my thirteen-year-old mind, that didn’t make any sense: I felt like I was being punished. After all, my play wasn’t that good, and it didn’t need to be that big of a deal. For her, though, it was the principle of the matter: she’d never vetted my friend’s scripts, and I was every bit the writer my friend was. (According to her. I did not have this opinion of myself.)
After that, I couldn’t leave it alone – the disparity between the responses to my script. The advice I got at every turn was to let it go. But I was thirteen, and I didn’t know what that meant.
One day, I got so tired of thinking about it – got so tired of seeing the stacks of notebooks full of stories and wondering if they were any good, if I was any good – that I piled them all up and hauled them out to the trashcan all by myself, and deleted dozens of stories off of my computer. I kept the blue notebook, because it was my very first, and I kept the green notebook, which is surprising to me now, because the stories in it aren’t very good.
And that’s how I let it go. Out of sight, out of mind.
I wrote a little bit after that. I wrote a short story called The Little Glass Slippers, which truly isn’t any good, but I kept it because my dad edited it, and he liked it enough when it was finished. I started several dramatic family sagas during this time, but never finished them, and all but one ended up in the trash. I even wrote a few mysteries, also trashed.
My dad wanted me to pursue an English major in college, but I refused, because I wasn’t really even writing at the time, and I couldn’t imagine wasting the money or energy on something I’d come to loathe.
I blogged sporadically throughout college (first on Xanga, then I came to WordPress). It was therapeutic, not because I had a lot of followers, but because I didn’t. I could write what I needed and not have to worry (too much) about response.
Until I did.
I ended up deleting those blogs, too.
Well, I’ve been writing again for three years, I still struggle with this habit of throwing things out. (Usually not literally, anymore, since most of my work has been on the computer).
I’ve thrown away and deleted papers and stories and poems and ideas.
And I’ve told myself that it doesn’t matter, because they weren’t any good anyway.
And if they weren’t any good, I’m not actually missing anything.
I went through my writing box again this summer, perusing the blue and green notebooks and laughing at my younger self. I know I’ll always keep those around. Being in the middle of edits on The Field, and somewhat sick of looking of looking at it, I bypassed the folders of old drafts. I’ll get rid of those later.
Then, I came across a story I started writing when I was fifteen, The Sisters Woods. Another family saga – so I say I started writing it when I was fifteen, but really, I’ve been writing this story since I’ve been writing stories. As I flipped through the pages, even of the earliest drafts, I saw something promising, and dare I say it, good. I saw things that made me glad I kept it these eleven years, when I’ve rid myself of so much else.
It made me think, ever so briefly, What have I trashed that may have held promise?
Then, my laptop breathed its last. Nothing was backed up. I lost my 90,000 word WIP, A Year with the Baptists. I lost 3,000 words of a science fiction concept, Update, that I’d been playing with. I lost numerous short stories and poems.
And I tried, guys. I tried telling myself that my writing wasn’t that good anyway, that it was a good opportunity to start fresh with A Year with the Baptists. I tried telling myself it was my fault and I deserved it for being a klutz and not backing anything up ever.
But I couldn’t get around it: It didn’t matter that my meant nothing to anybody else, because it meant something to me. Suddenly, the distance I’d worked so hard to keep between myself and my writing closed.
I felt empty, empty, empty because I am missing a lot. I felt angry at myself for how I handled my teenage problems (in what universe did I think destroying my writing would solve anything?), and how other people handled me. I felt sad because I spent so much time trying to forget this part of myself.
Some days, I’m still dealing with these things because I’ve only just now given myself permission to feel these things and grieve my losses.
It’s your writing. There is real hurt in the world. I’m going to hear that dozens of times this week, I know. To me, this has really hurt. Dealing with my pain is not intended to deny or lessen pain anywhere else.
And while this post specifically addresses my journey as a writer, you’ve got to know it stands for the story of every relationship I’ve ever been in. It stands for the story of never believing I’m good at anything, not just writing. It stands for the story of me learning how to grieve and cope in healthy, non-destructive ways.
This summer, I had a dream. I was in my family’s old house, where I started the nasty habit of throwing my work out. The house was empty, except for a box in the closet. I opened the box, and inside were the notebooks and papers containing all of the stories and poems and ideas I’d thrown away over the years. I just sat and cried happy tears.
Then I woke up, saddened with the knowledge that such a box doesn’t actually exist. Not here and now, anyway. Perhaps God has it somewhere tucked away for me in eternity, outside of time and space. Or maybe I just need to grieve it – really, grieve it – and it will no longer haunt me.
I don’t know.
But I am hopeful that where I am at in this story is not the end, it’s a turning point.