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?

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. ♦

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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]