Live Through This

Stranded Soldiers

I keep writing about the same stuff over and over and over. Shouldn’t I be, like, over it by now?

Illustration by Caitlin.

Illustration by Caitlin H.

When I was 22 and working toward a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, I took a young-adult fiction course. Our first assignment, designed to get us into the YA mindset, was to journal about the moment we knew we were “no longer a child.” Our teacher said this might mean different things to each of us and gave a bunch of examples: going to our first school dance, getting our driver’s license, sneaking our first cigarette, learning that our parents were getting divorced.

I had an onslaught of memories/ideas: cutting myself for the first time in seventh grade, my best friend moving away in eighth grade, Kurt Cobain’s death when I was in ninth, smoking pot for the first time that summer, seeing someone shoot up for the first time that fall, losing my virginity in the middle of my sophomore year to a boy I was crazy in love with and then just feeling crazy a couple of months later when he coerced me into having sex with him whenever he wanted, whether or not I wanted to, trying to help my friend Katie get away from her abusive brother. But I couldn’t decide which of these things marked the final, irrevocable end of childhood. In truth, it felt like they’d all worked together to push me into the harsh light of adulthood. If my teenage years were a world war—which is what they often felt like—those were the major battles.

If you’re a regular Rookie reader, you probably already know all about that stuff: my childhood best friend “Juliet,” my best friend Katie, my abusive ex “Greg,” my struggles with grief, depression, self-injury, and substance abuse, as well as my love for Nirvana and the Riot Grrrl movement. That’s because I have been writing about these same experiences for the past 12 years. That is a long time. I am now a fully grown adult with a happy life in a city I adore. And while I think it’s healthy to stay in touch with your teenage self as you get older, is it possible that I’m too in touch with mine? Shouldn’t I be, like, over this stuff by now?

That’s a question that Anaheed, who edited this piece, asked me (though in slightly more polite terms) when I proposed it a couple of months ago. She said that she and Tavi had noticed that a lot of my pitches revolve around the same ideas, experiences, and stories. In fact, my pitch for this one was about writers having themes that they can’t seem to stop writing about—but in my original conception, I was going to talk about how by telling and retelling these same stories, I am rescuing the characters (almost always teenage girls) by pulling them through and having them survive. She asked me to ask myself if, besides my goal of helping young people feel less alone, there was something else going on—she wondered if I might be a little bit stuck. I’ve preached on this very site that you don’t have to suffer for your art. But what about constantly revisiting past suffering? Was that stunting my work or harming me as a person?

While we worked on edits for this piece, Anaheed told me about something that her late mother-in-law, a family therapist, used to say: In a military invasion, wherever there has been a particularly fierce battle for territory, the victorious battalion marches on, but they leave behind a few soldiers to guard their position. Similarly, she continued, when you go through a traumatic time in your life, you “leave a few soldiers behind” to stand guard and protect the person you were then. Those soldiers are also part of you, so some part of you always lives in that place, that time.

The bloodiest battle in my life was the period between age 12 and age 21, and I’ve left countless troops there. I call them up a few evenings a week and for long chats on Saturdays when I sit down to write. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging and honoring the soldiers you’ve left behind, but I think I might be too close to mine. I’ve become that kid at college who is constantly calling her mom or her high school friends. Like, it’s cool to have a close relationship with your family and friends back home, but when does it cross a line into creepiness/codependence?

To some extent, I can justify my endless returns to the scene of my hardest years by pointing out that I write mainly for teenagers, and those were my teen years. But still, why do I mainly write about the hard stuff? I had great friendships in high school, and experienced a lot of joy. And in my fiction, why do I have to keep writing about stuff that I’ve personally experienced? I could totally make everything up! I could create whole new worlds! So why don’t I?

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22 Comments

  • luanda jabur February 11th, 2014 3:56 AM

    I feel you Stephanie. It made me think.

  • xdogbaitx February 11th, 2014 4:22 AM

    lets just say I can relate. I wrote a piece for an e magazine recently on my 16 year old self. Im going back to therapy, mainly to dig up the past because it still seems like its my present. I don’t want to reach 30 still going on about stuff that happened half a life time ago =(

    great article stephanie

  • whateveryazmine February 11th, 2014 4:43 AM

    beautiful piece that is incredibly thought provoking x
    http://www.whateveryazmine.blogspot.com.au

  • 3LL3NH February 11th, 2014 5:18 AM

    I like this a lot. The past so often follows us home.

    Trying to forgive who I once was to be who I am now. You’ve written some good things here/

  • Berries February 11th, 2014 7:19 AM

    That is really beautiful.
    I also have a hard time letting go of the past. I’m in a period of deep reflection at the moment, and decided to go back into therapy.
    All the luck in the world to you. <3

  • Emily February 11th, 2014 10:47 AM

    This was a really deep and thought-provoking piece.
    I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is one of my favorite books (I didn’t realize you were the author) and it really helped me through a rough phase. I used to (and sometimes still do) read that book over and over because it made me feel less alone and it also has some great musical references (hence the title, obviously).
    Just wanted to say thanks for writing it and I can’t wait to check out Ballads of Suburbia!

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 7:04 PM

      Oh, thank you! That means a lot. I am glad it was able to help you!

  • whiskeytangofoxtrot February 11th, 2014 2:18 PM

    This is a really striking piece.

    I am no stranger to grief, and what I have come to accept is that grief over the death of a loved one never ends. It evolves over time, becoming less prickly, less immediate, less gut twisting, less…tangible?…not as all encompassing. But that person shaped hole also becomes an integral part of who we are, not defining us, but forever informing a part of who we were, are and will become.

    I think the same can be said for all the different paths, both those we step onto willingly and unwillingly, that we navigate growing up in this world we live in. You can’t let your past rule or control you, but I think it’s important to respect where you’ve been, and recognize and honour that change and growth are always possible.

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 7:04 PM

      This is really beautifully said. I agree.

  • Kal February 11th, 2014 2:37 PM

    Ah this is so honest and surreal. I am only a senior in high school and I am already feeling like a lot of my writing has characters and plot lines that are all variations of the same semi-broken teenage girl–myself.

    I am starting to wonder if my writing will ever develop past a sort of self therapy/praying it does because I have chosen to pursue magazine journalism and creative writing.

    Stephanie do you feel like spending so much time writing recollections of your past, both hidden and stated changed your career? Like if you hadn’t been so “stuck” you would be way beyond where you are as a writer or perhaps even lagging behind? I can’t tell if keeping part of yourself between lines and words of the things we write is a good or bad thing because in some sense it does feel more genuine if you’ve been there.

    Thanks for this article.

    Kal

    Zymurgyprocess.com

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 6:59 PM

      Kal, I don’t think I’d be beyond where I am as a writer now. Well, I mean maybe if I could have come up with some really insanely popular vampire or dystopian story instead of writing about punk girls, I’d be making more money or selling more books or something, but in terms of growing as an artist and a person, I think my process has been right for me. Writing fiction, nonfiction, and something in between has taught me a lot about craft. And I wrote the things I wrote because I need to for me as well, so I’m happy with all of that.

      Yes, I do think keeping something of yourself in your words is a good thing–it’s just up to you what part of yourself, how much of yourself, etc. It does feel more genuine, but it is also what keeps writing interesting to me. There has to be some piece of me in it or I’m not invested, but the piece of me could be super personal or it could just a place I love. There are lots of possibilities and variables. I hope that makes sense!

  • brookebear February 11th, 2014 4:27 PM

    Thank you so much for this.

    I’ve always felt this way about writing, especially in my creative short stories, but couldn’t pin down the why or how.

    Best of luck to you. I hope to read more of your new writing (including the yucky fulfilling and romantic relationships!) very soon.

  • Sophii February 11th, 2014 4:39 PM

    I love this. Your articles are always so perfectly timed for me Stephanie. Thank you. P.S. I ordered both of your novels a few weeks ago but have been busy catching up on books I’m reading for school. They’ve been sat at the end of my bed and I cannot wait to read them! xo

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 7:00 PM

      Oh, thank you! I hope you enjoy them!

  • UncutWallflower February 11th, 2014 5:25 PM

    This article feels a little too close to home for me, especially with all the Cobain references, but thank you. It’s something I needed to read, and consider the impact of within my own life. I feel like give or take a few details, this is the life I think about, write about, and probably to some extent am living, and to know however cliche it is, that ‘i’m not alone’ in this thinking is amazing, if if you live a million miles away and with the internet I would be an isolated hermit crab.

  • Raychponygold February 11th, 2014 9:48 PM

    This reminds me so much of a Joan Didion passage:

    … I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio… The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.

    Good luck with your soldiers x
    http://www.ponygold.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 7:01 PM

      YES, YES, YES!!! I actually reread that essay while I was working on this :)

  • estie96 February 12th, 2014 2:07 AM

    diaryland sounds really neat actually o_O

    AMAZING AMAZING writing by the way
    spoke to me on a multitude of levels
    love love it.
    thank you.
    <3

    esto-m.tumblr.com

  • Erin. February 12th, 2014 5:59 PM

    Always enjoy reading your essays, Stephanie. Even though I can tell we’re very different people, with completely different outlooks on life (for instance, for that Creative Writing assignment, I would’ve written about why I’ll be a child forever, because a) it’s the truth as I perceive it, and b) I feel the constant need to subvert expectations and create my own realities), but there’s still common ground, and I always feel like I learn something about people through your writing.

    • Stephanie February 14th, 2014 7:02 PM

      I like that idea of being a child forever! And thanks for your kind words about my work :)

  • monsterserenade February 15th, 2014 11:57 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this! Lately I’ve felt like I’m in the exact same place, going over and over and over the same bad memories/time in my art and writing, and I just want something new to work with. I’m so glad I took the time to read this, it’s just so exactly what I’ve been feeling and it’s so good to know I’m not alone.

  • Chorvelynne February 17th, 2014 12:38 AM

    All I can say is wow…to this truly inspiring essay. [slow clap]