Friday, July 3, 2015

nothing's wrong but nothing's true

The story goes: when I was sixteen, I wanted to be a writer.

The first time I ever admitted that out loud was at debate camp in 2011. That was the summer I decided to attend a debate institute in Washington wine country instead of the one my best friends were at, and for someone who had been virtually inseparable from the same friends since elementary school, going to Whitman was one of the boldest moves outside my comfort zone I could have made. I wanted to see who I could be when I didn't feel like I was limited by the expectations that came with familiarity, and so when we went around and introduced ourselves to the lab, I said "Hi my name is Vivian, I'm going to be a junior in the fall, and a fun fact about me is that I wrote a story about a schizophrenic violinist."

I had toyed with the idea with identifying as a writer for months before then but the taste of those words on my tongue suddenly felt foreign. I didn't know if I liked it or not: saying it out loud made it hyperreal. I want to write things that mean something to someone. It's one thing to love in private, but to verbalize your love is to take a leap of faith. You trust the keeper(s) of your words with your vulnerability and for someone who has spent her entire life concealing everything, nothing scares me like being open about the things I care about. My bravado faltered ever so slightly when the last half of that sentence tumbled out of my mouth, but to the nine other people sitting in that room who barely knew me, they accepted it as simply one of the first things they learned about me.

I am a writer, I reminded myself over the course of those three weeks; that frighteningly small town gave me a chance to play pretend at someone I normally wasn't before I had to go back to being the girl I was in suburban Seattle. I was very aware of the difference between liking to write and wanting to make something of myself by it: while I was encouraged to do the former, I knew the latter would be met with skepticism. As the only child of immigrants who came to this country as poor grad students and made their way to become doctors (one in the practitioner's sense, the other in the doctoral sense), I have a certain responsibility to continue to uphold their American Dream. Do I love enough to be willing to see myself fail?

In between compiling 2AC frontlines and cutting uniqueness updates to the politics disad, I uploaded that (really long) short story I wrote on inkpop, an online writing community owned and moderated by HarperCollins, and networked my way through the site with some vague hope that I could get my story to the top 5 of the month and have it read by the publishing house. The highest ranking I managed to get was 64 out of 12,241 total uploaded short stories: close in sheer mathematical terms, but nowhere near close enough in actuality. Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough I don't know why. The thing you have to understand is that I grew up believing that I have to be extraordinary at everything I do, and even though (or more likely, because) I was only sixteen, I took my failure to come up on top as discouraging rather than humbling.

What was perhaps most disheartening was that I poured my heart into writing that story and in the end it still wasn't enough. I spent months researching classical music, reading articles about child prodigies, and listening to NPR pieces about living with mental illness; I wrote parts of the story frantically in class—there were times I couldn't get the words onto the page fast enough; and I quietly, secretly made the decision to adapt my favorite memories made with a boy I had never told anyone about in hopes that maybe those moments would mean something to the anonymous readers I got online. "Facing the Music" was much more personal than I dared to admit, but that was the beauty of fiction: I could tell the story the way I wanted to and no one would have to know fact from fabrication.

Later that summer, I wrote my first love letter.

Of course I never sent it to the intended recipient when I wrote "Dear Banana [Republic]," but I still remember the relief I felt when I finally finished it. It was more about goodbye than it was about love anyhow. I guess what I'm trying to say is this: thank you for everything, I'm sorry I never met you half way and for putting too much faith in you, and I'm not going to look back anymore. I'm throwing out these rose tinted glasses that I've worn these past couple years. I didn't think they went well with my outfit either.

It became the first in a series of letters I ended up writing to 8 people in my life at the time, saying everything I wanted to say to them without ever mustering up the courage to give my words to their rightful owners. Instead, I published them on my old blog that no one read, half fantasizing about what I would do if any of them ever did end up reading what I wrote to them and realizing that they were the keeper of my words. I had a nickname for each of them and a matching nickname for myself, inside jokes only I knew the stories to. Sneakers/High Heels. Mac/PC. Snail Mail/E-mail. West Coast/East Coast. It was the ultimate form of passive-aggression because I left just enough room for plausible deniability if it came down to it.
Is there any one of us who kept a diary without wishing deep down that someone would find it and understand us fully, down to the ugliest detail? Is there anyone among us who didn’t hope that the world would learn from that diary exactly how the world had wronged us?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, "Revenge of the Nerds
I was reminded of the almost-forgotten letters I wrote in 2011 when I read a think piece on Taylor Swift in The Paris Review last week. My letters were the most personal things I ever wrote because I've always been too scared to keep a proper, unfiltered diary; I'm too self-aware to betray more than mere glimpses of my vulnerability beyond the sentences I so carefully composed to be published in some capacity, even if they went unread on now-obsolete corners of the internet I used to shout my secrets to.

Prior to 1989, I couldn't say that I was much of a Taylor Swift fan because I was discomfited by how brazenly she would sing about feelings of love and heartbreak. Most of the music I listen to on repeat has more to do with lyrics than necessarily the melodies themselves, and as much as I like the catchy singles I'd hear blaring through the speakers at the mall or on the radio in my friends' cars, Swift's songs resonated more than I would ever admit—the stupid hope in "Everything Has Changed" that reminded me of when a boy I liked drove me home, the regret at a chance I didn't take one early winter that "Back to December" conjures up, the conviction that I was always the supporting role instead of the star of my own life captured by "You Belong With Me"—and I was far too busy to dwell on how I felt.

While her latest album is much less wound-dwelling, I think I'm finally starting to appreciate her older songs for their dreaminess and naivety. Even though a part of me will always remember how awkward and unattractive I felt in those days, hindsight has definitely made it easier to embrace my past vulnerabilities as simply a part of my origin story. I related to the insecurity and longing she used to sing about as much as I can relate to newfound confidence and acceptance of endings she sings about now.

The song that gets to me in 1989 is the final track, "Clean," and it's so devastating because it has that raw, emotional stab that hits just a little too deep. Despite the melodramatic drought/rain imagery in its chorus, there's something so honest about the way this song depicts the end of a love. Getting over heartbreak isn't always a cathartic release: gone was any trace of you but just because you're clean don't mean you don't miss it. Sometimes you miss it so much because you can't ever go back to being the person you used to be, and even if you've moved on there will always be that part of you you can't get back.


"Do you still write?" my debate camp partner from 2011 asked.

It was one of the first things he asked me when I met up with him for lunch in Chicago, three years since we'd last seen each other at nationals in Indianapolis. I was caught off guard by the fact that he even remembered that I liked to write, and I broke my own heart when I heard myself reply: "no, not really..."

The question of when and why I gave up on writing has been haunting me for weeks now. It's been four years since I wrote that short story and I sometimes wonder if the thought of failure or rejection is what's kept me from writing more fiction. Most of the time I accept that I just haven't been inspired to write a story I wanted to tell as much as I did all those years ago about Annabelle, Josh and Giuseppe Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata. Maybe I didn't love writing so much as I loved that story; maybe I'm still not ready to tell another just yet.

Over the years I've gotten better at making compromises in reconciling the dreams I try to keep to myself and the reality that I live in, but there's always something about summer that leaves me feeling more restless and unsatisfied than any other time of the year because it's too easy to to sit back and not be doing anything of importance. Over the last few weeks, I've been constantly asking myself: would past me be proud of who I am today? Will future me be proud of who I am today? I want to be able to live a life that I'm proud of, and there are days where I feel like I've failed myself by not chasing the same dreams I once held so near and dear to my heart.

I want to write things that mean something to someone. I think I gave up on writing but that's not true: maybe I'm not writing fiction or even love letters anymore but I'm still here writing about the things that matter to me on this blog and in the new notebook I bought for myself last month. Maybe I'm not writing things that I hope are meaningful to someone else but I'm still here keeping a record of the things I think and feel, and when I inevitably look back in four years to reread the words I'm writing right now, they're going to mean something to me.

xoxo, vivian

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