I’ve kept a journal every day for the past eleven years.
Most of you know the story: what began as a Star Trek fan-fiction became the story of my life. As a writer, I sometimes wonder if my journals will ever be of interest to anyone who doesn’t know me personally. I highly doubt anyone would want to read endless pages that all basically say, “I hate myself,” and then go on to describe the incredibly self-destructive and sometimes downright dangerous things I did to prove to myself that I was as worthless as I felt.
I have almost never gone back through my journals. I have no desire to relive my adolescence or early college years. People who claim that high school was the best time of their lives kind of scare me, as that was definitely not my experience. Recently, though, in a quest to write an “experimental fiction” piece, I reopened some old notebooks.
Although I have completed the experimental fiction assignment, I still have no idea how to define this sub-genre. My Fiction Workshop professor is a bit odd. She begins each class with a meditation and asks us to “set an intention” for each class. I do know that I have a “somatic writing” exercise coming up, and I am not too excited about that.
When I signed up for a Fiction Workshop class, I thought I’d be working towards finishing editing my novel and polishing up other short stories I’ve been working on, all while working on new ideas. I also thought I’d have assignments that made sense. My class was assigned to read Ruination, which is a novel only in the sense that it is printed on paper and bound by a cover. It has no discernible plot, hardly any characters, very little dialogue, and ends with a list of various types of plants that looks as though it was copied and pasted from a Wikipedia article about gardening.
Needless to say, I was quite confused about what I was supposed to have gleaned from a book that seemed like complete gibberish or a fever dream at best. I met with my professor during her office hours via Zoom to get some clarification on this book and about what I was supposed to do for this experimental assignment. I don’t like to ask questions that I could answer myself by looking at the syllabus for the class, but even after scouring the syllabus and the rest of Blackboard, I was still mystified. “What are you looking for from this assignment?” I asked my professor.
She flipped the question around on me and asked, “What are you looking for?”
I didn’t think, “A good grade,” was the answer, so we started talking about Ruination. The author of the book, Katie Jean Shinkle, actually visited our class and answered questions about her book. She explained that at the time of the writing, she was “obsessed with girlhood and master gardening,” and was working on her dissertation. My class asked her questions about what she meant when she said this or that in the book. Shinkle couched her answers in academic language, which made her sound very sophisticated and knowledgeable, but didn’t actually say much about the meaning in her book. I didn’t want to tell my professor that I thought this author was full of hot air, but I admitted that I didn’t really get it.
My professor asked me about my high school experience. “What did it feel like? Did you feel somewhat ruinous back then, somewhat ruined? Remember what it was like to be a teenage girl?”
I was so concerned about doing this assignment to some exact specifications, which did not exist, that I over-thought it. Ultimately, I realized there was no wrong way to experiment, even if I didn’t like the ideas behind the assignment. Back in March, I’d tried my hand at writing a horror story, something I’d never done before. This story, titled “Angry Girl’s Prayer,” followed Gee, a young woman working overnights at a corrupt big-box store, who is plagued by voices, visions, and a troubled past. The story has several elements of classic horror: monsters, pools of blood, a cult, and at one point a scarecrow comes to life and chases Gee through a cornfield. What more could a reader desire?
A plot, maybe. The story didn’t hang together at all, but for an assignment like this, it didn’t need to. Still, I hated the story, so I decided to go fishing in my journal for some lines that would surely be pithy, articulate, and experimental. What I found instead were pages and pages of sadness and self-destruction. I never realized what a ruinous life I was living. After flipping through just a few pages from about five years ago, I’d skimmed through an account of me confessing to my parents that I was failing a class I’d already failed once before, and couldn’t comprehend why they were upset with me. There were pages describing how I routinely didn’t show up for my minimal commitments, (which were pretty much only work and school), but how it wasn’t my fault. Pages about how angry I was that people had the audacity to care that I was continually self-harming, and if everybody would just leave me alone, everything would be fine.
I was shocked to see how much has really changed. Back then, I was so wrapped up in my own suffering that my entire worldview was warped. I simply did not care if I lived or died. I hated myself and my life, and I had no hope that things would ever get better.
But things did get better. Quite a bit better, actually. I’ve gone from sleeping all day, having nothing to look forward to, and being completely isolated to being an active student, a good employee, and (dare I say it?) a pretty good person. Maybe the saying, “Grow through what you go through,” is right. I wouldn’t say I’m grateful for what I’ve experienced, but I cannot change the past. Most of all, I have hope that things will continue to get better and I will continue to thrive.