I am six years old and I am stapling a stack of printer paper together, right in the center where I’ve folded a sharp crease so that it will fold in half. I’m making a book. I don’t know the story yet, but I’ll make it up as I go along. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ll draw the illustrations with thick strokes of scented markers, too.
I get lost in the process of creation, scribbling words I think I know on each individual page: “The dog walks to the store.” I haven’t seen many dogs, but we do have a pug-poodle mix named Lucky at home, so I draw my best picture of Lucky. She is blue and the ink smells like blueberries. I like to imagine that Lucky smells like blueberries, too, especially when she’s shaking the water off her body after she’s just had a bath.
I keep writing, not thinking about what happens next. The story creates itself. I am merely a vessel for the ideas that float between dissimilar brains, eventually burrowing into synapses and riding through my veins, extending my arm and flowing out clumsy yet dexterous flicks of ink.
“The dog likes milk.”
The story is really reaching new heights. What an unexpected turn, a dog drinking milk. I imagined it wasn’t regular milk, but sweet and sugary like the last sips of milk left from an empty bowl of cereal–but I don’t write that. This book is just a place for me to dream.
Months later, for Christmas, I get a customized notepad from my aunt. There is a letterhead with my name and the title of my dream profession: Author. I wanted to be an author since I learned how to read, since I learned the magic of words and the feeling of story.
The first book I remember reading myself was called “Comet’s Nine Lives,” and it was about an orange and white cat on Nantucket Island. He wanders away from the lighthouse where he was born and wastes eight of his nine lives with his insatiable curiosity. But all he wants is a place of safety and belonging, a place to call home.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder how many of my own lives I’ve wasted chasing the same thing. I’ve lived many lives, but in each one of them, the main constant has been my desire to read and write. It seemed that no matter how bad things got, whether my parents were fighting about money, or the kids at school were bullying me for being too tall and too awkward, I always found safety in stories. I loved how I could always predict a happy ending. It made it seem like a happy ending was possible for me, and the happiest ending of which I could dream was earning the title of “Author.”
Yet, I never did feel worthy of using that notebook with my name and the word “Author” scribed below it. I wondered how that could be. Was it because I hadn’t grown up yet? Was I ashamed of the books I had written and illustrated? Can a six-year-old even feel ashamed of their own creativity?
I held onto that notepad for years, until one day it just disappeared. Perhaps it got lost when my family moved from Colorado to Utah. Perhaps it got thrown away, mistaken for a common piece of trash. Or perhaps I discarded it myself, never feeling like I would ever truly own the title of “Author.” Still, as I grew older, I kept writing my stories. I kept dreaming of that lofty vocation.
I am seventeen years old and I am reading a poem about my friend that committed suicide aloud at the front of a classroom. The desks are all empty, except for three. In those desks sit three different English teachers as they judge the quality of my poem. I am competing for the title of Sterling Scholar in creative writing. The prize for such a title is a scholarship for college and a special photo in the school yearbook.
To be honest, I care very little about the scholarship. I have no grasp of the cost of education and I assume it will get paid for somehow, scholarship or not. I also don’t care much about having my photo in the yearbook. No one knows who I am, and they won’t remember me or my writing after I graduate. What I covet most is the title of Sterling Scholar. I crave validation for my creative pursuits, and I need it desperately from my superiors.
My insecurities might lead you to think that my parents never praised me for writing stories. In fact, the opposite is true. I think perhaps they may have praised me too much, and I began to think that in order to be loved, I must write. At least to my knowledge, my parents kept every story that I ever wrote, neatly tucked away in the basement should I ever want to read them again. They love my stories, and because of that, I know they love me.
Of course, this kind of dependency wreaks havoc on my life moving forward, and when I find out that there is a competition for best senior creative writer at my high school, I have to put myself in the running. The competition is to be judged by the two senior-level English teachers and one creative writing instructor. I need their approval. I need their love.
To prepare for the competition, I need to compile a portfolio of my best written work. Most of my work seems too sophomoric to submit to a school writing competition, so I throw it all out. I need to create a new portfolio from scratch, and sadly, during this time, one of my close friends had hung himself in his backyard. I use this tragedy as inspiration for my entire portfolio. Our friendship, the moments we had spent together, the things that remained unsaid–all of it is hastily written into a compilation of poems and essays that I ultimately submit for the competition.
What I have not anticipated is the swell of emotion that I experience when I have to read these aloud to my teachers. I choke on each syllable like sips of water that went down the wrong tube and crackle against my esophagus, my throat pulsing and gagging as a steady stream of tears drip off the tip of my chin. I had loved my friend, but how do you confess that to a panel of your superiors just a few short weeks after his passing?
The words I had chosen so hurriedly are clumsy and dramatic. Then, as the teachers stare at me, completely unmoved and void of emotion, I realize I had made a huge mistake by discarding my collection of more polished essays. Why did I think that my pain could be adequately put into words? And why did I think these words would impress a panel of judges?
Looking back on the experience now, I feel so embarrassed for the scene I had made, bawling at the head of a classroom, blubbering over the words of a half-baked poem that I had written the night before. I did not win the title of Sterling Scholar. I did not receive any praise, and by extension any love, for the words I had written when I was seventeen. But I craved it then, especially then, because it meant that my pain was valid.
I am twenty-eight years old and I am waiting in a hospital lobby as I admit myself into an adult psychiatric facility for the first time. The walls are a pale shade of jaundiced yellow, and the longer I stare at them as I wait to be admitted, the more I feel like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous story. I want to rip the yellow paper off the walls and creep along the floor, then maybe my true self will be free to create again. I feel crazy. I wouldn’t be admitted to a psych ward if I hadn’t.
As I wait for a nurse to search my belongings and arrange my medications, I ponder what brought me here. I had been working as a copywriter. I was not an author, but words were still my vocation, and as a result, words drove me mad. I resented the fact that I had to anonymously write the words for advertising campaigns at a furious rate while I hadn’t written a story for myself in months.
When I was twenty-seven, I resolved to write one new essay every month and I would share my work with everyone, including my family. Dripping with desperation, I would email them a document with my latest musings. They were kind, the way that family always is when dealing with their loved ones’ art, but I could tell they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand that my sharing my work with them was an act of love and a plea to be loved in return. After several months of me sharing my work with them, their kindness wore thin.
I was sitting at the counter in my aunt’s gleaming turquoise kitchen swirling a large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in my hand, nervously waiting to hear what my mother and my aunt thought of my latest essay. I had sent it to them the week before, so I knew they had time to read it.
“You write about yourself a lot,” my aunt said curiously.
“Yes, well, as they say, ‘Write what you know.’” I replied.
“It’s just that so many of us have stories that they’d like to tell. Maybe you could write about that instead.”
My mother nodded in agreement.
They meant well, I know they did, but these words wounded me. I didn’t know how to tell them that I’m not that kind of nonfiction writer. It was an odd place to put me in, like suddenly it was my responsibility to be the family scribe. It’s not that I was disinterested in writing about their lives, it’s just that it’s so much easier to write about things from my perspective. I didn’t know what their internal monologues chirped at them every day, and I didn’t know the pain or happiness with which they were burdened. I suppose they wished that I would ask.
The entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t write for nearly a year after that conversation with my aunt. During those months, I really thought about why it was that I ever wrote. No longer was I the innocent child trying to tell a silly story about a blue dog going to the store and drinking sweet milk, nor was I the pretentious teenager that wanted to win awards and affection for my work. Somehow, I felt caught in the middle of these two younger selves. I wanted to play with words and see what unexpected things I could create, but at the same time, I was so crippled by my inner critic that I hardly managed to write anything at all.
Soon, the nurse comes back into the waiting room with a paper bag containing my clothes, my books, and a single hairbrush. She leads me to my shared room which is empty except for two twin beds and two bookshelves. A small, squirrely woman stumbles into our shared bedroom. Her hands tremble and her light brown hair is matted. She mumbles to herself and tumbles onto her bed and turns her back to me. Clearly, she is detoxing from something, though I cannot be certain from what. Her presence makes me feel uneasy. I take a cue from her though and lay down to take a nap. Shortly thereafter, a nurse comes and knocks on the door.
“We’re all about to watch a movie, if you want to come out and join us,” she says with a delicate cheerfulness.
“I’m fine,” I reply. “I’m kind of tired.”
She crosses her arms and looks at me authoritatively.
“Bed time isn’t until ten o’clock. Now, come out and watch the movie. We don’t want you sitting here by yourself.”
Annoyed, I roll to my side and walk out to the common area. The thin hospital socks aren’t enough to protect me from the cold linoleum floor, but I’m not allowed to wear shoes.
When I approach the large wooden table in the center of the common room, a young woman with long black hair pushes a box of crayons toward me.
“You can color if you’d like to. It helps pass the time.”
I take out a blank sheet of paper and stare at it, like I have with so many empty word documents before now. As I stare at the blank paper, I wonder why I ever bothered to write at all. I suppose I continued to write because I didn’t know how to do anything else. That’s why I was working as a copywriter. There were no other skills that I possessed that were worth a damn. Writing, for me, wasn’t just a hobby. It was the food I ate, the car I drove, the bills I paid, the air I breathed. Words were my entire world. When I wasn’t working, coming up with clever words for university enrollment campaigns or telling stories about endangered animals for an environmental nonprofit, I was devouring other words by reading voraciously in my spare hours. I was writing even when I wasn’t writing as I reflected on my own life through a literary lens, searching for metaphors in the mundane.
It’s no surprise, then, that when I stopped writing after receiving criticism from my family, my mental health steadily declined. I had an identity crisis, for if I wasn’t a writer, I must be no one at all. The prospect made my job all the more stressful, for who was I to select the final words any company should use in their advertisement collateral?
Yet, as I sit at this communal table in the psych ward, I can’t shake the impulse to write. And so I scribble down my thoughts with a sickly green crayon, like I was six years old again, not paying attention to the quality. I just need to dim the noise in my brain. When I finish filling up several pages, I instantly feel better. Then and there, I have an epiphany. Writing for a company was never my dream. I think once again of that old notepad with the letterhead and remember that my true calling is to become an author.
After a week under suicide surveillance, I am cleared to leave the hospital–but I am changed. With so much free time to reflect on my purpose, I decide that I need to write to survive, and writing advertising slogans isn’t enough to satiate that need. Within a week of being discharged from the hospital, I submit my application to join an MFA program and quit my job. Somehow, some way, I need to make writing my life again.
I realize that craving affection, validation, and advancement is only detrimental to the craft and to writers themselves. The only reason we should do anything is because we are drawn to it with unbridled curiosity. Some writers will tell you to write because you have something to say and your voice needs to be heard, and there is some truth in that, though I would caution any writer from using that as their mantra. You can write even when you have nothing to say. You can create your own blueberry-scented dogs without giving a second thought as to why you are writing at all.
So, I sit on my couch with my laptop on my lap, and I let my fingers tap whichever keys they desire. I follow a thought without giving heed to where it might go. I try to let go of all of the doubt and the expectations that I typically had when I wrote in the past. This is a new era of creation, one in which I won’t base my self-worth on acceptance. Just let the words flow and let go.
Sara Wetmore is an award-winning creative nonfiction author based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently studies creative nonfiction at Lindenwood University, where she is earning her MFA. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, At First Glance: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose, and Bloodletters magazine. When she’s not writing, you can catch her reading a book, sipping on cider off the west coast of mainland Scotland, or playing with her two cats.