I was recently tricked into admitting that I believe in myself.
My therapist and I were basically playing an elaborate game of “what if,” and had come to a hypothetical situation in which a genie offered to remove all mental illness from me if, and only if, I would give up writing. I thought about it more and more and decided I wouldn’t need to write if I weren’t mentally ill, but still, it was a tough decision.
Obviously, I will never have to actually make this choice, but it certainly gave me something to think about. As the conversation progressed, we got to talking about my novel, which has been gathering digital dust on my hard drive for going on five years. “What’s stopping you from trying to publish it?” asked my therapist.
“Well, it needs a ton of editing,” I told her.
“How much editing?”
“I need to completely rewrite it from the ground up,” I explained.
She raised her eyebrows, “You need to?”
“Yes!” I insisted. “It reads like a nineteen-year-old wrote it, which doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just needs a lot of work. I was nineteen, and there were a lot of things I made up and there are areas that need to be cut out and stuff that I’ll keep. I’ll be rewriting huge chunks of it, but also keeping the framework.”
“So what needs to happen for you to start doing that?’ she asked me.
I shrugged. “I dunno… it’s been sitting for years now. It can wait a little longer.”
“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.”–James Baldwin
Personally, I have found this to be true. Most of my stories, including my novel, can be summarized as follows: harm befalls young girl, she copes (usually quite badly), ambiguous ending. In my novel, hesitantly titled The Sea of Jessica, my protagonist Tabby blames herself for a freak accident resulting in her childhood best friend’s death. The story follows Tabby into late adolescence/early adulthood where she is still holding onto her own misplaced blame regarding her friend’s death.
Regardless of how I feel about myself as a person, I am confident in my abilities as a writer. And I am equally certain that when I finally finish editing, rewriting, tweaking, and just generally messing around with the novel, it will be published and it will help someone. As a teenager, I was greatly impacted by the contributors to Rookie Magazine. I read Rookie for years, and I got to watch the project really take root and grow into something amazing. I felt like the writers and artists who contributed to Rookie were my big sisters or neighborhood girls I was growing up alongside. It is my hope that someday my writing will be as meaningful to others as Rookie was to me.
As I continue to tell these stories: harm befalls young girl, she copes (usually quite badly), ambiguous ending, it is easy to see how my narrators are not being rational. My most recent short story, working title: “The Wreckage of Our Past,” follows a young woman named Kennedy, who in the aftermath of a traumatic event that resulted due to her substance use issues, gets sober and grapples with questions about God. When I wrote my first draft, the story was supposed to highlight the irony of a narrator who wants attention but doesn’t know what to do with it. I left the story alone for a while and then completely rewrote it using the same characters and premise.
I was left with this bleak setting, a depressed character, and very little in the way of redemption. It was experimental fiction at best, and to someone who isn’t familiar with PTSD, it probably wouldn’t have made much sense. When I read Sarah Gerard’s True Love, I was enthralled with how skillfully Gerard portrayed her narrator, Nina, to make the reader like and root for her as she made one bad choice after another throughout the novel. I wanted my narrator, Kennedy, to be as multifaceted as Gerard’s Nina. I wanted my readers to think, “Yes, that’s exactly how I would think/feel if this happened to me.”
In a story like “The Wreckage of Our Past” or True Love, there aren’t definite good and bad characters, there aren’t clear markers saying, “You’re Harry Potter and he’s Voldemort.” Had True Love been told from any of Nina’s partners’ perspectives, it would have been a tale of woe about how awful Nina was. And when God is brought into the equation as in my story “The Wreckage of Our Past,” when Kennedy is asking God why He let bad things happen to her, everything gets muddied.
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”–Anne Lamott
I’m not one of those people who believes “everything happens for a reason.” Last night, my boyfriend and I were talking about a situation in which he had been wronged. He was recounting how he asked himself what he’d done to cause his own misfortune at the hands of someone else, and how terrible he’d felt not knowing why this had happened to him.
It was such a familiar line of thinking for me. I don’t think a single day has passed in the years since I was raped that I haven’t asked myself, “What if I’d done things differently? Why did I say X when I could’ve said Y?” But when I heard someone else express this same sentiment, even over a completely different situation, I was able to look at it objectively. Sometimes things happen and it has nothing to do with you. You can be the perfect partner, employee, student, or friend, and things still might not work out in your favor.
How I wish the universe, God, karma, or anything else that might be out there keeping an eye on us wayward humans would dole out punishments like parking tickets. But no, sometimes we get away with things we shouldn’t have done; sometimes we are taken advantage of, or we are lied to, we are belittled, we are lost. And where is God in all this? Where is God when I want an answer that I can recite in polite conversation, that I can pull out of a fortune cookie, or write on a post-it note and stick to my mirror? “Be still and know that I am God.” Great, but what does that mean?
As You taught Torah to those whose names I bear, teach me Torah, too. Its mystery beckons, yet I struggle with its truth. You meant Torah for me, did You mean the struggle for me, too? Don’t let me struggle alone, help me to understand,to be wise, to listen, to know…Lead me into the mystery.Mishkan T’filah
Just as I don’t have a cookie cutter answer for who God is, I lack the same knowledge about myself. For most of my life, I have attributed the majority of my thoughts and actions to mental illness. I do know that an identity that revolves around self-loathing is not sustainable or genuine. Perhaps, just as the self is constantly in flux, God, too, is not some static thing to be “found.” Maybe the only thing that can truly slake that spiritual thirst is continuing to search and being okay with whatever is uncovered, knowing there is always more work to be done, and the possibility that we may never truly be whole.