When I think back to what it felt like to be a teenager, I remember, above all, how alone I felt. I remember searching high and low for books that might reflect my experiences back to me. Reading about people who are facing the same hardships as me has always made me feel less alone, even when they’re fictional characters. When those people overcome those challenges, I feel like I might be able to, too. Back then—this was the early ’90s—most of the novels I found in which a teenager deals with death or has a problem with drugs seemed preachy and/or fake; I couldn’t find anything about abusive relationships or self-harm. The internet was in its baby stages, so unless a book was in the library or at my local bookstore, I didn’t know about it. (I didn’t, for example, know about this book.) Instead, I turned to music—especially Nirvana and Riot Grrrl bands—that addressed the painful parts of life and felt as hurt and angry as I was, vowing meanwhile that if I got out of high school alive, I would write about what I’d been through. Maybe girls in the future would find my books and feel less alone. Then at least I could feel like something good came out of those ugly times. So, while I don’t remember what I ended up writing about for that journaling assignment in my YA fiction writing class, I remember feeling excited to do it. The whole reason I was taking that class—the main reason I was even studying creative writing—was to write about these kinds of experiences.
It’s common for first novels to be described in reviews and college classes as “thinly veiled autobiographies.” Then, theoretically at least, as writers mature and get better at their craft, their work doesn’t lean quite so heavily on real-life events. I kind of went in reverse: With the exception of one nervously posted and quickly deleted DiaryLand post when I was 22, nothing I wrote in the first couple of years of college bore much relation to my real life. I wrote short stories about diner waitresses in the Midwest, girls who ran away to Los Angeles to be models, and a lot of Francesca Lia Block–style magical realism. My first novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, is about a girl who becomes a rock star; I myself have zero musical talent. Though when I look at that work now, I recognize a few of the characters are more than figments of my imagination. A couple of my stranded soldiers snuck their way in there, mostly in the disguised form of my shittiest ex-boyfriends.
Once my writing (and my emotional fortitude) got a little stronger, I started to edge closer to writing about my own life. I was still writing fiction, but with more nonfictional elements, and no longer in disguise. Kara, the protagonist of my second book, Ballads of Suburbia, was a stand-in for my teenage self, and she went through the same things I had when I was in high school, with a few identifying details changed, and a few experiences heightened or exaggerated. It hurt to write these things—literally, I gave myself an ulcer during revisions—but by giving parts of myself to my characters, I was able to look at them from a bit of distance, as something outside myself, which gave me a whole new sense of understanding and forgiveness toward myself. It felt almost like the thing I’d been trying to find in therapy: closure.
Hold up! I still wasn’t all the way there. After all, I’m still writing about a lot of this stuff today. But the time I started writing for Rookie, three years ago, I had worked through a lot of my guilt and fear and was ready to tell my real stories. I hoped that telling them would give me some real closure. And mostly, it did.
Writing “Secret Wounds,” my essay about self-injury, definitely did. Writing about Kara’s cutting helped me have compassion for High School Stephanie, but since self-injury is so based in secrecy, I felt that to a certain degree, I was still hiding my scars behind Kara. When I finally wrote about my own experiences and signed my own name to them, I didn’t need to write about them anymore. I’ve said all I have to say on the subject.
Other issues have been more complicated. Addiction is something I can’t stop seem to stop writing about, because even though I addressed my own substance abuse issues in my early 20s, there are people close to me still fighting that battle, and I worked as a bartender until last year, which gave me different perspectives to consider. There’s a soldier still sitting at the end of the bar I tended, and I know I’m not done going back to talk to her yet.
The grief I experienced as a teenager was mostly metaphorical—I linked Kurt Cobain’s death with the death of my innocence, which is only a little bit embarrassing to admit. But a few years after that, when I was 28, I went through three deaths in six months. All unexpected. All people who died way, way too young. More recently, I lost my cat, Sid, which also had a profound impact on me. So I’m not done writing about death. As with addiction, I’m still having so many new experiences about this subject that I feel like I still have new angles to explore.
One more thing I still can’t get past: my abusive high school relationship. I’ve written about it so many times, in so many ways. I’ve fictionalized it, exaggerated it, and addressed it head-on. I spent years circling around it in my writing, slowly moving closer and closer to the painful, bloody center. I had stranded a lot of soldiers during that relationship and even more after when I tried to escape through alcohol and drugs and anger, destroying friendships in the process. I felt mostly successful in that the relationship stopped invading my real life, but it was still present in my fiction.
As of last year, the closest I’d gotten was stage two, the “mostly fictional” version of the story. Meredith, a character in the YA book I just finished writing, has a boyfriend named Bret. In one chapter, he coerces her into having sex with him, even though she doesn’t want to. I wrote it in one hour, without stopping. I wrote it from memory. When I gave that experience to Meredith, I stopped feeling guilty about it. Instead, I cried for her.
After that, I started working on a nonfiction essay—a huge one, 16,000 painful words that I’m still perfecting. I hope that this one does the trick, and that I’ll have finally gotten all the peace I can.
It’s not just painful stuff, though, that I write about obsessively. One of the soldiers I stranded in high school spends all her time listening to Nirvana and Bikini Kill, hanging out at the local park, spending late nights at Denny’s, driving around in her (my) car. I like checking in with her. She helps me remember what Forever felt like..
But lately, I’ve been writing about some new stuff. Not just new for my writing—new for me, too. I’ve been writing about romantic relationships that are hopeful and mutually fulfilling (ew!). I’ve been mentally composing stories set in my new hometown: in the quiet Washington woods or on the crowded streets of Seattle. And I’m still thinking about all of this. I’m not sure how to treat my stranded soldiers. I don’t want to abandon them altogether. But I no longer need them for a muse.
I think this year will be an interesting one for me, because it marks 20 years since Kurt Cobain died. I spent the 10-year anniversary in a state of deep reflection and introspection, but I think this year will be different. This year, instead of continuing to mourn the guy I worshipped as a teen, I intend to celebrate how far I’ve come since. ♦