I picked the wrong time to stop believing in myself.
Rarely do I question the idea that I’m a good writer. I am no stranger to low self-esteem and negative self-talk, but lately, that little voice in my head (the inner critic) has been tearing me to shreds. So far, college has been a series of “I don’t get it,” moments. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some good things too, such as making connections through Hillel and conversing with my Fiction Workshop professor.
For whatever reason, I have forgotten how to identify rather than compare. In my Personal Essay class, I am the only non-traditional student, and the rest of my classmates are freshmen and sophomores. I feel weirdly intimidated by this class for a few reasons. First of all, because of the personal nature of the class, students are expected to share from their lived experiences. Not only is speaking in class a terrifying and daunting prospect, (in addition to being 30% of my grade!) but I worry about outing myself as a weirdo or being labeled as “crazy,” if I share too much. Similar to my anorexic mindset of wanting my body to disappear, I feel as though I’m wasting valuable airspace when I speak in class, that I must be perfectly articulate and maintain the appearance that I have everything together. Last week, we analyzed an essay titled “Bajadas,” by Francisco Cantu. My professor’s first question was related to the form of the essay, and I spoke up to mention Cantu’s decision not to include standard dialogue tags and punctuation. While I thought this was a good point, (and my professor agreed), she transitioned into the conventions of the essay, and I felt embarrassed for not being on topic.
A later assignment for this class was a two-part short response: “Define ‘personal essay,’ and reflect on the pieces we read in class.” Obviously, I know what a personal essay is (and if I didn’t, we read a lengthy essay about different types of essays) as I’ve been writing them for years on this blog. I decided to be honest in my response and inform my professor that I didn’t understand the deeper meaning in any of the pieces we’d read.
Much like sending a risky text message to a person I care about, I stewed in turmoil over how my professor would interpret my response. “She’s going to think I’m a dumbass,” I told myself over and over and over during the weekend. I checked Blackboard approximately eight thousand times. When my grade was finally posted, I’d gotten 100% on both assignments.
The problem of having a reliable narrator has been a theme in many of the readings I’ve done for my classes. I was first introduced to this concept in my high school senior English class when we read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not only was the class invited to play the role of armchair psychiatrist and diagnose the characters, but the general consensus was that Bromden, the narrator in that novel, was not a reliable narrator because he was (most likely) a paranoid schizophrenic.
As someone who experiences psychosis, yet is still high-functioning enough to attend college classes, this troubles me. Today in my Personal Essay class, we discussed Virginia Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth.” These discussions are student-led, with my professor running interference to help out the leader and making sure the other half of the class, who are tuning in remotely via Zoom, are also included. The assignment for the student leader is a bit more in-depth than it is for the rest of the participants. The leader must compile a brief biography of the author and come up with several questions for the class to discuss.
The first piece of information today’s leader presented to us was that Woolf was mentally ill, had been institutionalized many times, and attempted suicide at least twice before she “succeeded” by drowning herself. (As I was looking for a PDF link to this article, I also couldn’t find anything that didn’t mention Woolf’s battle with mental illness and untimely death.) So, for most people who are reading this essay for the first time, the curators of whatever anthology or textbook in which the piece is presented found it necessary to include this information.
As the class discussed the essay, we became armchair psychiatrists once again. The title of the piece is pretty self-explanatory: the narrator watches a moth die and tells us all about it in excruciating detail. Someone mentioned the shift from third-person to first-person narration. And what do the birds represent? And why did she describe the moth as “hay-colored?” All of these questions were eschewed in favor of ruminating on Woolf’s suicide. Did the moth’s death represent a fixation on Woolf ending her own life? Is the meaning of the essay that life sucks and then you die? One student even blurted out that the essay, “seems like a suicide note.”
Yes, the essay is depressing. People who are depressed sometimes do write depressing texts (see: my eighth grade poetry notebook). But to water down Woolf’s literary contributions, or even just this essay, to be about her own private mental struggles (which the student leader characterized as “mental breakdowns,”) is to diminish her both as an author and as an individual.
What I’m trying to say here is that as an aspiring author, I don’t want to be remembered as “that writer with the personality disorder,” and I don’t think it’s fair to read an author’s material through the lens of their inner demons. Sure, some of Woolf’s mental health issues may have influenced her writing, but as a reader, we are given only what the writer decides to put on the page.
In another class, the professor explained, “There is no wrong way to interpret what the writer’s message may be, so long as you can support it.” He was referring to a short story titled “Dogs Go Wolf,” and its ambiguous ending. While a reader’s analysis of an author’s work can be informed by the author’s outside circumstances, these should not be the primary reasoning for deriving the author’s purpose or “deeper meaning,” from a piece.
Not to compare myself to Virginia Woolf or to say that my work is New Yorker ready, but I would like to conclude with one last point. As an aspiring author, there are many, many outside circumstances that influence my work; not everything I write is mental illness related. I am also Jewish, and before COVID shut down my local synagogue, I would write poetry every Shabbat about Rabbi’s sermon with the intention to write a few poems every Friday for a year and turn it into a chapbook. I am a member of the LGBT+ community, and my longest work to date has to do with a young woman coming out. (Stay tuned for the edited version of the novel!) It has little to do with my own experiences and is based on a private conversation I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping on several years ago.
And if you, reader, find yourself wondering if you have a story to tell, or wondering if you yourself are a reliable narrator, or wondering if anyone would listen to little old you, the answer is probably YES! Begin writing, whether it’s in a good, old-fashioned composition notebook, on the notes app in your smartphone, or something else. Don’t listen to your inner critic. Instead, listen to that childlike voice in your mind that asks, “And then what?” or more importantly, “Why?” The answers will come in due time.
“The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.”John Dufresne