I’ve spent the past few months mulling all of this over, trying to figure out how to fix it. Throughout that time, my loved ones kept reassuring me, “You are still a writer. You will always be a writer.” And I, frustrated, would respond, “But this is scary! I’ve been fully immersed in writing for 14 years!”
I was saying those very words for the umpteenth time, in an email to a friend, when it hit me: I’d been fully immersed in writing for 14 years. I’d filtered almost every experience I’d had for nearly half my life through the lens of storytelling. I rarely went on a vacation that wasn’t a writing retreat or a “reward” for working myself so hard that by the time I got to my destination, I was too tired to enjoy it. When I traveled to Portland or New Orleans or even to a pumpkin patch an hour from home for fun, I’d find a way to turn it into a research expedition by spending all of my time on the lookout for story ideas. I didn’t even do my leisure activities in a leisurely way: The music I listened to, the TV shows and movies I watched, even the clothes I chose to wear, were dictated by whatever book I was working on. Like, I love the Gaslight Anthem, but I fell in love with them not just for the quality of their music, but because the first time I heard them I thought, This is the kind of music that could help me write a lot of stories. For years, my brother and several friends had been urging me to watch The Gilmore Girls, but I didn’t actually get into the series until one of them pointed out that the series was about a single mom and her daughter, who live in a small town—the very subject I was writing about at the time. I do sincerely love Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, but they belonged first to my characters, and then to me. That’s how wrapped I was in my identity as a writer—so wrapped up that when Amy Rose reminded me that there was more to my identity, my initial (internal) response was, Yeah, there is more to me—and it all feeds my writing! I had been “Stephanie the writer” for so long that I’d forgotten how to be Stephanie, the human being.
When I was little, as I went about my day, I was mentally composing my memoir: Stephanie walks to her locker, nearly getting knocked over by the stupid boys chasing each other down the hall… I still fall into this behavior when I’m in a crisis. When my cat was dying a couple years ago and I was in my bathroom with the fan on full blast to muffle my sobs, I found my thoughts trailing off into fiction: I started to imagine how I might use this exact scene in the book I was working on, replacing myself with my main character and my cat with a dead brother. It was a moment of respite from my grief, and in that way it was helpful, but it also robbed me of experiencing my own pain fully. I think I do this a lot: mentally repurpose reality for fictional purposes, allowing the stories I write to leech experiences from reality.
When I think back to my most creatively productive period, back when I was in college, I realize that I’d spent the three years before that just living: exploring abandoned houses, hanging out in cemeteries, driving around rural Wisconsin. I took all of that in as Stephanie the human being, and it fed my writing later. I think it may be time for me to open my eyes to the world that same way again.
For years, my brain has been stuck on “record”—I’m merely an observer of everyone else’s experiences and even my own. I record them and save them for later, when I can edit the footage to make a story. It’s very hard for me to be part of the action. Aside from last year, when I was moving across the country so it doesn’t count, I haven’t taken time to sit back and enjoy a single summer since 2000. I always make vague plans to have picnics with friends, to go to the pool and the beach, and I’m lucky if one of those plans comes to fruition.
Well, this year’s gonna be different. Summer 2014 will be the summer when Stephanie the human being gets to stop recording everything and gets to hit play. I will go places and do things for the sole purpose of experiencing them, not documenting them. I’ll listen to music through my own ears. I’ll ride out the emotional highs and lows in the moment instead of stepping back and filtering them through art. I don’t want to give up my identity as an artist, I want to reclaim my identity as a person.
I’ve invited my mom, my 17-year-old niece, and a couple of friends to come out and visit me in Seattle at different points during the summer. I’m going to show them my favorite parks and hikes, and we’ll do things I’ve wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to, like whale-watching. I have a friend who just graduated from college, and I’m looking forward to enjoying picnics, concerts, and silent films with her.
I don’t plan to write about any of this. ♦