If I had it to do it all over again, if I could put a message in an envelope and send it back to my past self, I would pick one thing to change: drive.
Here’s the thing. When I was younger I was shy. I’m not shy now. I’m an introvert. Say what you like about the flaws of personality tests, but they have, on occasion, changed the course of my life for the better. When I first moved to Colorado Springs, after a disastrous stint temping at another business, I started working at Wells Fargo. They hired me on full-time and I got to go to their training classes: everything from diversity to the legalities as they apply to equity loans. I like learning things the way some people will read the back of a cereal box. I had fun.
One of the classes was a personality class, with a focus on getting along with people who aren’t the same as you.
This helped pretty much everyone who went through it. It wasn’t Myers-Briggs (in which I’m an INTP, the architect/icon breaker, thank you very much) but it was close–True Colors. I’m a green, which means I’m a rational/curious type. A nerd (go figure).
Here are some of the things I learned that I still take with me: I hate having people in my personal space…unless I’m exploring with them. If you can’t explain it to me on a rational level, then it’s probably not worth my time–although I accept “because I want to/feel like it/I don’t know how to explain it” as perfectly rational responses. I don’t have to go along to get along. I don’t have to fit in. It’s not my job (that’s blue and gold). It’s okay to be me, and I’m supposed to be near the edge of things, messing around.
It was freeing.
Shortly after I went through that class, I started being more forward about chasing down learning opportunities. I got a promotion, became a QA, pissed everyone off for judging their work against objective standards, learned how to do everyone’s jobs, worked on documenting everything…and, because I was doing what I was good at, I could expand into other dimensions that I wasn’t as good at. Like sympathizing. (I’m good at empathy but that’s different–watch me pick up an accent inadvertently around someone else, or start using the same hand gestures, or agreeing with someone else’s opinion after spending the day around them.) Or standing closer than three feet to people. Or giving out hugs.
It was like a hierarchy of personality traits: first I satisfied my need to be myself, and then I could satisfy the needs of other people. Instead of being “shy,” I could interact more with people. And, because most of the people there had been through the same course, I could say, “I’m sorry, I’m being very green today, and I need some quiet time” and they’d let me have it. They’d joke about it, but they’d let me have it. And they could say the same to me, and expect me to respond at least at a basically appropriate level.
In the middle of all that, I discovered I had drive.
I’d been pissing around with writing for years, but hadn’t really done anything other than write poems and a few story fragments. I’d determined that I wasn’t really (or at least primarily) a poet, and that I should be writing fiction. And then I’d given up: because learning a new form was hard, and complex, and I didn’t really know where to begin. I’d write enough to keep my ego intact and leave it at that.
Then I discovered I wasn’t happy with “leaving it at that.”
In fact, the hell with “leaving it at that.”
My dream was to be a writer. Why wasn’t I writing? Why wasn’t I learning? Why wasn’t I just giving myself over to my dream? They tell you to follow your dreams, right?
Well, it turns out that drive makes other people uncomfortable.
The first time I left a room with people in it, having a conversation, in order to go write, was hard. I felt like they were staring at me. The conversation stopped. I felt like I was abandoning my daughter. I felt like I was wasting my time. It took me an hour to write a hundred words, and that wasn’t the only night that I pissed away most of my time staring at a page or a screen and going, “What the hell am I doing here?”
But I felt better. I felt more myself. I felt more like I could function around other people. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
However, people tried to keep me from writing, for whatever reasons:
“You know you’ll never make a living as a writer. You need to come up with a backup plan, like being a substitute or marrying someone rich. You know that women don’t write as well as men (yes, I got that one). How are you going to balance being a writer and a mother? Children are supposed to take up all your time. How will you take care of your family? I bet your house is dirty. Wow, you sure are pushy about this stuff. [Sigh] If only I had time to write…but I’m too busy with my real life (what, mine isn’t real?). You obviously aren’t a success…you’re just writing genre fiction, after all. Well, I haven’t heard of you. How much money have you made? Self publish? Isn’t that for crazy people with pamphlets? How many copies do you sell? Is it enough to justify your decision to self-publish? If I were you, I’d just give up, because obviously you’re not going to get published by a real publisher. You sure have a lot of…aggressive energy. Why don’t we just do what everyone wants to do? Look, this is how everybody does it. Why are you being so uncooperative?”
And so on. I often find myself awash in a sea of defeatism, of people trying to sell me the benefits of being stuck in a rut, even among other writers. Especially among other writers.
There are reasons. I’ve tried to defuse other people’s dreams. Yes, really. I’ve caught myself at it. Dreamers are like little birds that have to slam against a window hard enough to leave a print in the dust before they’ll try to stop flying through the damn window. “Look,” you say, “that’s a window, not a hole in the wall. I support your ability to fly but Jesus do it somewhere else.” And then the dreamer slams into the window. Again. It’s frustrating. You want to shake them. “Why won’t you listen to me?!?”
But the longer dreamers throw themselves at windows, the less likely they are to be windows, and instead be holes in the wall for them that would be solid panes of glass for anybody else. So I’m learning to keep my mouth shut when it comes to other dreamers, too. It’s easy to be a hypocrite about this stuff, is what I’m saying.
So. Here’s the letter to my sixteen-year-old self:
You’re a nerd. This turns out to be a good thing. It’s your purpose in life, so don’t let people tell you that it’s not okay to be smart. Also, you’re also a writer (yes, really). You’ll have ups and downs, you’ll try things that don’t work out, but that’s okay. You’re worried about not having anything worth writing about, too, which will also take care of itself. The main thing is to not let anything stop you from putting in your time writing. Write every day. When people try to discourage you from writing every day, flip ’em off. They’re just being rude, so go be rude right back to them and write. This too is part of your purpose in life. Every day that you try something new in writing is a day that you’ll feel better and more confident about yourself. Tell people you’re a writer. You don’t need to have “success” to be a writer. You just need to write. It’s okay to be driven. That’s the word you’re looking for, when people try to discourage you. Say, “Thanks for the advice, but I really am driven to do this.” They probably won’t get it, but that is also okay. First you have to take care of yourself, and then you’ll be able to make things look tidy for the church ladies of the world. You know what I mean.
I was going to tell her not to go after that Creative Writing degree, because it turned out to be a lot of misinformation and dead ends, but…nah. It’s all fuel for the fire.