Many of you have noticed the activity on the site lately, the five essays I published over the past two months:
Simple concepts, universal themes that I hoped everybody could relate to while still acknowledging that this is me. Raw. Uncut. Digging beneath the surface to reveal the true self, dealing with restrained demons, accepting me for who I am, [insert any of the other psychobabble phrases/cliches I’ve had to listen to over the years].
Basically, five pieces of nonfiction written by me for the exact reason I ever picked up a pen and paper in the first place: to figure out why my head is so screwed up.
I wrote these essays over the span of four years between undergrad and graduate school, and until now have had them sitting on my computer just–quite literally–taking up space (not a lot of space, obviously, but space nonetheless).
Never sent them out to magazines for potential publication, never even really considered trying to have anybody look at them other than the few of my colleagues who helped me revise them over the years.
And sure, these essays are creative nonfiction. On some level they’re meant to entertain, yes, but they’re also meant to be an outlet for issues I can’t talk about candidly in real life (which pretty much applies to all my issues).
In other words, these essays were/are therapy. My actual thoughts, the inclinations and ideas and memories that make up who I am, make me tick from day to day. Which therefore made them much too personal for public consumption.
So I filed them away and didn’t really think much of it. Set to work on the marketable stuff, the funny stuff, the suspenseful stuff, stories that would entertain people. Make them laugh, not cry.
And so it went for years, these essays tucked into a folder deep in my portfolio, collecting the equivalent of digital dust.
Then one day, a month and a half ago–couple of days after Quarter Life Crisis was published, actually–I was in a nostalgic mood and decided to go back and read one of the essays, “Open”, the story of my two friends who were murdered in cold blood one night when I was almost nineteen.
I wrote “Open” as an undergrad at Florida State about three years after the incidents in the story took place, a couple of months after I was made to testify in the trial of my friends’ murderer, Jonathon Nodal. “Open” was written, initially, for a nonfiction workshop class, and when my professor–Ned Stuckey-French–read it he immediately told me to revise it and send it out. He had connections, he said, and I should come to him when I was ready.
Which seemed like not too bad an idea at the time. I mean, this was what I was aspiring to be, right? A Published Author, capital P and A (also my initials. Coincidence? …Yeah, definitely, but still kind of cool). And sure, I considered myself primarily a fiction writer, but a publication is a publication.
Work went on throughout that semester and the next, and–along with my other works–I kept tinkering with “Open” (titled “Knock at the Door” back then), hoping to be able to hand it over to Ned one day and see where it ended up.
Yet, after months of messing around with structure and details and the exact progression of my memories, the essay was still affecting me in a way that made it hard to put in front of other people. I’d print it out and be ready to mail it off, then leave the manila folder sitting on my desk and never make it to the post office, or I’d look at a magazine’s submission requirements and find something small that made me sure they’d reject the story outright and that I should just not send it to them at all. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I just wasn’t ready to put the experience out there.
The beginning of my senior year at FSU, there was a writing contest in the English department, a categorical competition leading to the presentation of Spring writing awards given to undergraduate and graduate students every year.
At the announcement, Ned urged me to enter “Open” in the nonfiction portion. I was skeptical at first, having already figured out that putting that particular essay out there for public viewing wasn’t an ideal situation for me.
Sit and wait around while people pored over it? Analyzed it, dissected it and, ultimately, told me it wasn’t good enough?
Hell no. Karen and Justin deserve more than that.
But Ned was enthusiastic, and he was (and still is) a renowned professor in one of the most recognized creative writing programs in the country; if he said “Open” was good enough, then I’d take his word for it.
The day I won the George and Ruth Yost Award for Best Personal Essay, I was happy. At first. I got the email notifying me I’d won, that I’d be receiving a plaque acknowledging the award and a check for $100–not a lot of money, but definitely a decent chunk of change for any college student (at the time it was a common thing to find me digging for coins in my couch just to buy some ramen noodles). I was elated. Not just that I’d won an award or that I got some money for it, but that I had won an award for my writing.
You see, up to that point, I’d been writing in the dark. Sure, people had told me that I had some talent, that I had passion (whatever that meant). But I had been at it for years by that point and had yet to get anything published. I’d written story after story and even made a three-hundred page effort at writing a horror novel, and all I’d received were rejection letter after rejection letter.
After my recent failed attempt to get into various graduate programs across the country (rejected by every single one that first time around), the industry was starting to get to me. I still had another two semesters of undergrad left, and a couple more workshops to refine my ability, but I was crashing. I seriously needed some motivation, a kind word, anything.
And I got it when I won that award. And it really helped. For like…a day.
Then I deposited the check, used it to pay part of my rent–I lived in Tallahassee, rent was like $350 a month or something crazy cheap like that–then sat down in front of my computer to look over what had just won me that money. I started to read the essay again, this time in a new light, with validation and a sense that my future as a writer had become very promising. Then I finished it, and I was suddenly so dejected that I couldn’t really do anything but just sit there crying at my computer with the blinds in my apartment drawn while I read the words I’d written about my friends and ex-girlfriend over and over again and thought about how my first bit of recognition as an aspiring writer would occur because of their death.
I decided right then I wasn’t going to publish that essay. I wasn’t going to send it out and risk rejection letters, risk critiques, risk succumbing to the ever-present anger that I’d been doing such a good job (or a better job) of keeping control of up to that point.
So I filed it away. For years. Came back to check on it every once in a while, read the words and remind myself about what had happened (not exactly necessary, seeing as there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them), but ultimately keeping it to myself.
Cut to a few months ago, staring at the essay once again on my computer. Thirty years old now, an author with a published novel and a dozen or so published short stories under my belt, and I’d suddenly had an entire paradigm shift.
Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than for people to read about my friends, read about what had happened to them, read about how it had and still does affect me as a writer and as a human being. How it shaped me, motivated me, depressed me, nearly killed me, and ultimately brought me into adulthood in the most violent way possible.
But the fear of rejection still sat inside me, the thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable form letters I’d receive if I sent it to a mainstream magazine.
So I figured I’d do it myself, on this medium here, this blog I’ve been using to promote my work for over two years now.
It was then I realized I had done the same thing–filed away for sentimental reasons–to a couple of other essays I’d written over the years, essays that had started out as me trying to tell a true story, essays that turned into declarations of the heart and ultimately helped me get over some crucial moment in my life, gaining so much emotional weight that the thought of them sitting on some apathetic editor’s desk (not a knock against you editors; I’ve been there, I know how daunting that slush pile can be) made me sick to my stomach.
So I decided to publish them all on here, and once that was done I’d compile them into a single short eBook. And since these essays define who I am, I would call the eBook Definition, and give it away for free.
Because I don’t want to be angry about this shit anymore.
Because I don’t want to sit alone with my own thoughts in my head anymore.
Because one thing I’ve realized over these years of rehabbing on society is that you’ve got to open up to the people around you if you ever want to grow into a functioning individual.
And I don’t really know any way of opening up more than this.
Download Definition for free by clicking on the cover: