As published in WestWord magazine, March/April 2016.
I have to continually take a deep breath when I write and tell myself that it’s okay to keep typing, that no one has to see. It terrifies me, writing down how I actually feel, writing about who makes me feel that way. I mean, I turn it into fiction, but people are going to know exactly who I am referring to when they read my story. Then what will they say?
Writing has become my source of therapy, ever since I began writing at 14. My grade 9 Language Arts teacher told the class we would have to build portfolios of creative writing for our assignments. The class groaned, but I was curious. Our project was to write a collection of pieces from various styles of poetry and prose. I immediately fell in love with creating a parallel universe where I could retell my story in a different land with different social structures, different politics, and explore the limitless ideas that comes with writing fantasy. Over the course of the year, I continually expanded on my imagined world, explored new topics, let my immaturity flow out of me shamelessly, and tirelessly shared my work with hopes of approval from my peers.
For the last few years, I have struggled with many things in my personal life: a relationship gone horribly, abusively wrong, university teaching me that “life plans” don’t mean a thing, and familial relationships that strained my heart to no end. At this point it had been six years since I began building my fantastical world. I had rewritten the beginning about five times, each time weeping at the hideous amount of immaturity that my story was infested with, and at that six-year point, I really felt like I had nothing to put on paper. I had a world, characters, a tone I wanted to achieve, a hundred hours of brainstorming and creating races and cultures, but no story.
Over this past summer, my wonderful boyfriend and I had a four-hour drive ahead of us to reach Canmore for a vacation with his family. I had been craving writing, talking to my psychologist about how much it had helped me in the past with personal issues and how I felt like it could help me then. I decided that this would be my holiday project, to write a large chunk of my story and hopefully have some moments of self-discovery and healing.
The trip started out great. The sun was shining, we were all packed and cozy in our tiny Yaris, and I was in my favourite summer outfit with my Starbucks iced tea close at hand. I always find that road-trips make me feel like I’m flying; nothing can touch me and nothing can hold me back. About halfway to Red Deer, I pulled out my notepad and plopped it onto my lap. I wrote down every idea I could think of, googled interesting names for my characters, decided how I was going to represent people, and knocked around ideas with my boyfriend over the logistics and religion of my world. I had to decide how to recreate divorce in a medieval-like world. I had to make a mental (and eventual hard-copy) map of my world with practical distances between towns and villages. All of my university-trained problem solving was going towards my creation and it thrilled me.
By the time we reached the resort, I was elated and couldn’t wait to sit on the balcony beside the mountains and write. I finally felt like I had a plot for my story, or at least a really good starting point. After all the unpacking and socializing with the family was done, I made tea, pulled out my laptop, and headed for the balcony. Getting as comfy as I could on the wooden stool outside, I breathed in the mountain air, set my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop…
All I could think about was the people who would read what I had written. Would I offend them? Of course they would know the people I was referring to with certain characters. What about my family? They might very well disown me if I ever published such a work. What if my abusive ex decided to pick up my book one day? What if the church didn’t like how I chose to represent it?
I struggled to put something down on the page. I fumbled with words and tried to start, but it wasn’t making sense and had no flow at all. How was this happening, after I had been building up to this moment for most of the day beforehand and looking forward to it for even longer still? I sat there, useless, until my boyfriend found me and asked what was wrong. After explaining everything to him, he took my hand and looked me in the eyes and said, “This is for you. Not them. You can edit for the world later.”
I could not believe how right he was. Before I had even gotten the words on the page, I was worrying about if I needed to seriously consider having a pen name to avoid condemnation from my future readers that would know me personally. I knew that I needed to write. I knew I needed to get angry. I knew I needed to write about my past abuse so that I could defeat the panic attacks, come out stronger, and have the words on paper instead tormenting me from the inside.
I knew that my words were safe with me and that no one would see them unless I specifically chose to share them. I became so angry that people had the power to dictate what I wrote in private, let alone publishing. And yet here I was, internally censoring myself for the sake of other people, people who didn’t need the therapy of writing that I did, people who didn’t understand what I had been through. In some ways, only the words on the page could understand what I needed and make me feel not quite so alone.
One evening I was sitting in my room with my laptop in front of me and I felt like I finally had the strength to revisit some difficult places of my past. The room was quiet, it was nearing midnight, and I felt this strange resolve within me. I began writing, returning to the romance that came before the abuse of my previous relationship. As I progressed through the scene was I creating, I began shaking. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. I couldn’t breathe very well. I tried calling my best friend, but she was already asleep. I took a moment to breathe and decided that I needed to finish this scene. When I finally stopped typing, when all of the words I had inside had finally made it onto the page, I started breathing normally again. I sat in silence, focusing on breathing, listening to my body and my heart. Slowly, this feeling of strength rose up inside me. I felt like I had conquered so much more than writing a scene. I had conquered that past that was still haunting me. I had said everything that I needed to say about the pain and the lies. I found truth, came to peace with it, and never had nightmares about my ex again.
The first draft of my novel is for me: therapy, healing, and creativity. After that, editors, publishers, and trusted friends can say, “Yeah, you need to change this for print.” I have two very close friends that I send all of my writing to, no matter what it is or what it is about. The more I write without inhibition, the more they are moved by my pieces, and I’m learning that it is making me a better writer.
My creativity is an animal; it is so majestic when it is wild and free, but I have to fight the fear that people will be more comfortable when it’s tamed and house-trained. I have to remember to save the comfort for the tea on the table beside me while I read, the blanket across my lap, and the feel of a book in my hands that I love so much. When it comes to writing, I have to get uncomfortable and let the words run wild. People are always going to have things to say, but I’ve learned that my priority needs to be on voicing my story, for my sake. I can edit for the world later.