Today I took my last exam of my sophomore year of high school. I guess I can officially be classified as a junior now, but that’s a pretty terrifying thing to think about. The exam was in English. We had to write a reflection on ourselves, the year, and how the general themes in our class affected us. I started writing and then I couldn’t stop. It was natural– I was just writing about writing.
This is a condensed version of what I wrote in my final.
I don’t like talking about identity.
This is because it has never been very easy for me to identify myself. As my world changes around me, so my identity changes. There have been times in my life where I feel a very strong disconnection between who I am and who I’m expected to be, and so I feel that way today. I’ve felt that way for most of my sophomore year. I walked through the front doors on my first day at my high school in the fall of 2014 a completely different person than I am today, and I know that in two years, when I’ve graduated, I will likely have changed all the more. However, the one thing I can say about myself that stays constant is this: I am a writer. I always have been, and I always will be. That is one label that I don’t mind putting on myself. This year allowed me to explore my identity through literature and writing in a way I never have before.
Author Sherman Alexie came to my school do an assembly talk in the fall. I was so excited. I think there’s a part of me that just freaks out at any chance to get to meet a real, published author (because quite frankly, sometimes I forget that those people actually exist and they’re not just names on a book cover, mocking my own current lack of publication). The thing that stuck with me most from his talk was this: he was asked why he writes, and he responded with something along the lines of, “I write to matter.”
That made me start to think about myself. Why do I write? And I eventually came to this conclusion. The reason I write is twofold, but simple. First, I write for self-gratification. There is a part of me that can never abandon the characters and worlds I have made up in my head, and I will always cling to that as a part of my very disheveled identity. Second, I write so other people will read my writing, hear my ideas, get to know my characters and the stories I’ve worked so hard to develop. Like Sherman Alexie, I write to matter. I write to leave my mark on the world, even if that’s in the most miniscule way I can.
This year in my English class, I rediscovered something very valuable– that I have this in common with most writers, published and unpublished alike.
Writing and reading are two of the few things which have stayed constant for me this year. Relating to words on the page and finding myself in characters when I am unable to define myself outside of these walls has been what has kept me grounded. Reading into the themes of depression in Hamlet and lost identity in Tom Stoppard’s drama Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead hit very close to home for me, because I could see parts of myself reflected in those characters. I learned to define myself via characters and literature.
Without question, the thing I read that spoke the most to me this year was The Catcher in the Rye. I had been meaning to read the book for a very long time and never got around to it, so I jumped at the chance when we had an independent reading assignment. To make an understatement, I absolutely loved the book. J.D. Salinger’s writing was stunning in that everything Holden Caulfield was narrating seemed so very real to me, despite the fact that he is a fictional character. He was so vivid. I know now why the book is considered a classic. The themes are universal– depression, lost purpose, judgement of others, disconnection, internal struggle. I felt like I was living the book.
In a way, even though I will admit that existential dread is not my favorite feeling in the world, connecting myself to characters written by other writers and knowing that I am not alone has helped me persevere. I think something that is often overlooked about writing is that it is largely about connection. It’s about letting others know that you feel what they feel. Writing makes me feel connected; reading reassures me. It’s a circle.
This August will mark two years since I started writing my first novel. It’s also been over a year now since I started sending query letters to literary agents. I’ve learned– in a quite pessimistic way at times– that the publishing industry is unpredictable, subjective, and full of inevitable rejection. One day there are ten rejection letters in your inbox, and the next, someone wants to read your whole manuscript. I’m planning a lot for this summer in the writing world– revisions, more queries, blogging, starting new work. Last night, I was reading over my latest manuscript, While I’m Here. I wasn’t doing a close read, so it wasn’t exactly very hardcore; I was just skimming and taking out things that I thought were unnecessary. While I was reading, my subconscious was bombarding me with questions: what if I’m not good enough? What if I’m too young? What if the reason I keep getting rejected is because I can’t be good enough?
The questions were fleeting, and they terrified me.
But here’s the bottom line. Those questions and that fear– they’re the existential dread. It’s almost a little beautiful in a way. If I went through life without ever questioning anything, there would be nothing to think about. I’m convinced that writers are some of the most existentially conflicted people on the planet. It’s part of what makes those underlying themes so powerful, even if they’re not necessarily existential. Those intense feelings within a writer’s world are what shape the stories that get written on the page.
I can do this. I have confidence. And just as long as being a writer is part of my identity, I know I will overcome those struggles and come out triumphant on the other side. One day– even if it’s not tomorrow or next week or even a year from now– I will be a published author. One day, people will know my message. One day, I am going to matter.