July 27, 2012 by Xenogirl
I am writing this letter while seated at one of my favorite locations… in front of the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore here on the Left Bank in Paris, just steps from the Seine, Notre Dame, and Île de la Cité. This is the very spot where my husband and I scurried in from the rain to spend the afternoon browsing through shelf after shelf of books. It is a magical and glorious bookstore, rich in literary history… a place that reminds me why I am so in love with the written word and the ideas wrapped within them.
As a very young child, books were truly my first love. Each week, my parents drove me and my sisters to the local public library. I would study the shelves like a young Nancy Drew, investigating each title and dust cover with excitement and curiosity. The number of books I took home was limited only by the weight I could carry. With aching arms, I would eventually haul the teetering pile up to the front desk. The rhythmic sound of the librarian’s machine punching the due date on the check-out card filled me with anticipation. As a youth growing up in small town Wisconsin, reading was my only way to explore the world; I could visit new cities, solve mysteries, meet extraordinary people, and set forth on epic journeys. Day after day was spent hidden behind the pages of my latest literary adventure. Many late nights, I attempted to surreptitiously read by the dim glow of my digital alarm clock soon after my mother had yelled for me to go to bed.
Remember? What about those early experiments crafting my first verses and stories? I “wrote” my first poem before I knew how to actually write words; that poem is still in my baby book, transcribed proudly in my father’s hand writing. In elementary school, I attempted my first novella: twenty-seven hand-written pages (with drawings) about a brave girl, a magical land, and a lost medallion. In high school, I wrote. A lot. My most prized possession was my electric typewriter, which my parents had gifted to me for Christmas one year. Poetry and essays and short stories cluttered my notebooks and my brain and my backpack. An English teacher even persuaded me to submit one of my stories to a state writing contest. It didn’t win, but my teacher’s vote of confidence was an award onto itself.
Back then, I always assumed that when I went to college, I would major in English. Of course I would be a writer! But somewhere along the way, my dreams and priorities changed. Honestly, I cannot even recall why or when I abandoned writing of the creative sort. In college, I instead found myself challenging my intellect with political science and philosophy and research methods and career goals and adult worries. Perhaps it was a growing yet misguided sense that maturity required leaving the creativity and imagination of my youth far behind me. Like a dearly cherished but forgotten stuffed animal, my love for writing was packed away into the dusty basement of my childhood memories. Hence, my life moved forward on a very different path.
Years passed. But then, remember when I turned 41? The mid-life crisis. Ugh. Oh how I struggled with my identity… my calling… my purpose. It was a dark and painful time. That summer of 2012, I just quit, much like an exhausted dog on a leash digging in its heels and refusing to take one more step. I couldn’t go forward on that path any farther. Not. One. More. Step. I cried a lot. Eventually, I started to write, albeit tentatively at first. I even started my first blog. Remember… my personal blog? Hitting the “publish” button each week was exhilarating and yet so scary. I was again writing creatively… wrestling with ideas and imagination… shaping and ordering and willing words onto the keyboard! Writing no longer consisted of plodding through the dry, technical productions that had defined my adult life. Soon, I began to see glimpses of that girl I had abandoned so many years before. I became braver. Bold, even. I started to write, honestly and authentically. I started to dream again. Ultimately, I clearly envisioned the answer to my existential questions — I was, indeed, a writer.
That answer terrified me.
Looking back, I can declare that all the fear, doubt, and pain of that summer and the year ahead were worth it. I faced many late nights alone, staring at the keyboard, questioning every idea and word that wandered across my intuition. I wrote, sometimes badly, sometimes well. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. It consumed me. At the time, my greatest fear was that I would spend the next year of my life drafting a pathetic novel that would never be published. I was afraid that my longing to write was merely a cliché, soon-to-be-regretted, mid-life delusion. Was I really a talented writer? Was I creative enough? Did I have a story within me to tell that anyone would ever want to read? Was it too late?
Henri Mattise once proclaimed, “Creativity takes courage.” Indeed, that summer I had to make myself painfully vulnerable before I could rediscover myself and redirect my life towards fulfillment. I became vulnerable to risk. Vulnerable to criticism. Vulnerable to failure. Every excuse imaginable ruthlessly plagued my mind. I anticipated the very worst… and yet somehow, I chose to write anyway. Idea by idea and word by word, I slowly reshaped my frightened and insecure spirit into my first novel.
So, more years have passed since that dark, yet transformative, summer. As I relax here in Paris, I can see my fifth book displayed in the window of the bookstore. My fifth! There are copies for sale in both English and the recently translated French version. I will confess that there are few things as satisfying as holding that first printed edition in my hands. Thumbing through the pages and inhaling the scent of the freshly bound paper is a soothing gift to my troubled soul. There is a rare joy in reading the words of my heart in print, bled out in the blackest of ink onto each numbered page. Words that change lives. Words that inspire. Words that can even change the world. This I believe to be true. Even today, as an author, doubt is still a constant companion of mine. However, now I understand that such vulnerability births the very creativity, expression, and fulfillment which I endlessly seek.
Writing this letter to my younger, aspiring self is bittersweet because I know I will receive it in the midst of that painful summer. I will read these words in the dead of a warm, silent night, shortly before the birds begin chirping in reprimand that I must soon sleep. As I read each word from my future self, my destiny will seem unrealistic, impossible, and foolish. That night, I will carefully fold this letter and hide it away in my journal. I will cry, not for the last time that summer, but then I will steady myself. Finally, with a deep breath, I will turn back to my keyboard in determination, and I shall write.