Things That Grow

I am having some work published in an upcoming anthology.

I was alerted to this opportunity to submit my work by my favorite professor, the same professor who helped find the right home for another of my creations last semester. The anthology, titled Turning Dark into Light and Other Magic Tricks of the Mind, is put together by Quillkeeper’s Press and is comprised of work by and for writers with mental illness. When my professor sent me their call for submissions, I hastily sent out five poems and a personal essay and waited to hear back.

When I’m putting together an author’s bio, adding a picture and my credentials, and clicking “send,” it is not likely that whatever I’m sending out into the world will be picked up. It’s easy to take risks like this when the stakes are low. I figured hardly anyone would see my work and I’d receive an automated email in a few months politely declining my submission. However, when Quillkeeper’s Press emailed me back within a week saying they wanted to include all five poems and the personal essay (which had already been declined by another magazine) I didn’t know whether to panic or celebrate. Most of what I write about is extremely personal, and this essay told a story that wasn’t exactly mine to tell. Sure, I’d submitted it under a pen name, but anyone who knows me would’ve found numerous identifying details and known I’d written it. Ultimately, I emailed the editors and asked them to remove the personal essay, which they agreed to do.

People keep asking me what I want to do with my English degree. In fact, an elderly, maskless man who didn’t seem affiliated with my university at all stopped me on the sidewalk one day as I was walking to class and asked me what I’m studying. “English!?” he laughed. “What the hell are you going to do with that?

“I… uh… I want to be a teacher! I’m late, I have to go now!” (Random people who stop me on the street make me a little nervous.) While the idea of teaching English in a middle or high school sounds terrible, the idea of being a professor of English at a college or university is far more appealing. And once my Intro to Poetry professor suggested that might be the route for me to go, I could clearly see professordom at the finish line of all this higher education.

She and I were talking one day after class about a very rough manuscript of a chapbook I’d assembled for a contest last year. She’d asked me to send it to her, and I emphasized how little preparation I’d actually done for it (Frontier Poetry tempted me with a hefty cash award if I’d only pay a modest entry fee, and I found out about the contest just a few days before it closed). Our discussion began with her telling me she’d thrown my title page away, and then she dug into the weaker aspects of my poems. It was vastly different than the in-class poetry critiques we’d done in which my classmates and I tiptoe around everyone else’s feelings in order to avoid upsetting the poet. And while it is valuable to have people tell me what’s working well, it’s equally valuable to have someone tell me my weak points and places in which I can improve.

Luckily, this is no longer how I feel. When I was relating to my mom the experience of having my professor point out the many weak points in my manuscript, my mom asked me how I reacted to being criticized. I had to think about it, but ultimately I decided it made me feel tough. My professor wouldn’t have told me which sections were weak had she thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

In the past, I would have thrown the entire manuscript out, decided all of the poems in it were terrible, taken an indefinite break from writing poetry, and put my ego in a cast and asked all my classmates to sign it. This time I was able to have a little bit of perspective. It was surprisingly easy for me to accept all of my professor’s feedback, both good and bad.

Poetry is weird. It’s hard to pin down what makes poetry good, and I’m certainly no expert. What I do know is that as I continue to expand my comfort zone, I will be faced with more opportunities and decisions regarding my poetry and writing in general.

I have a fear of being “too much.” I worry that I am an overly intense person, that I am too enthusiastic, too eager. In an effort to quash my “too much-ness,” I disappeared instead. I went out of my way to never cause problems, to never rock the boat, to be as needless and wantless as I possibly could. This manifested in small but silly ways: I wouldn’t ask for permission to step away from the register at work if I needed to use the restroom; if my order was wrong at the drive-thru, I wouldn’t ask them to correct it; if I had a question at the end of class, I’d just email the professor to avoid subjecting my classmates to an extra thirty seconds of listening to me.

This is why I love poetry: it is the most subtle way to scream. I write poems about the things I don’t otherwise talk about. “You’re already a step ahead,” my professor told me, as she handed back my marked-up manuscript. “You know what you want to say. You don’t think you do, but you do.”

Hating myself has sort of become my identity over the past decade. Any insult I could attach to myself became an increasingly distorted picture of who I thought I was until the dissonance between how I viewed myself and how others told me I appeared was laughable. A lot of this was due to PTSD; a few people in my life treated me really, really badly, and I came to define myself by these moments, and to believe that I deserved the abuse I’d gone through.

At the very root of my mental health problems is the fact that I spent years and years in crushing self-loathing. I built my whole identity around that and I did not have a backup plan. All the reasons I had to hate myself have slowly gone away, and I did everything I could to cling to them until even that became impossible. It made about as much sense as me running around telling everyone that the sky was green.

There was not a giant shift, a parting of the sky, or an “aha-moment.” Instead, like many other things that grow, progress was nearly imperceptible. I found myself less and less preoccupied with the past, less frantic for a distraction from the self I was beginning to tolerate. I began to see a life outside of the trauma I endured and the pain I insisted on perpetuating.

I noticed myself beginning fewer journal entries with, “I feel like shit.” Sometimes I’d look at the clock in an idle moment and realize it was already 7:00 PM or whatever and I hadn’t thought about Tim all day. I noticed that I wasn’t constantly screaming at myself in my head for failing to measure up to some impossible standard.

I found myself speaking up in class, even when I wasn’t sure if I was correct. I found myself asking questions in lectures, not worrying about whether it was a stupid question of if I’d already spoken “too many times,” in class. I stopped writing, “I had a surprisingly good day,” in my journal because it doesn’t surprise me anymore when I have a good day.

Recently, I found a note in my phone (where all good poems begin) addressed to my adolescent self, part of which read, “Every moment may not be brimming with happiness, but you will be happy that you have all these moments and a million more, none of which would have existed had you given up.”

I was not certain I would succeed in college this time around. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, and what I have discovered is that I am capable of a lot more than I initially believed. I once believed getting out of my comfort zone would badly derail me, when in fact, it is the only way to the life I dream of.

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