Not so famous last words

Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 4:55pm

Sometimes, writing pours from me— hours fall from my grip and the practice renders me tranquil by way of its leisurely, meditative nature. Poems fill pages and characters in lengthy plays and short stories begin to write themselves— I can see the whites of their eyes between the lines of a bright document by the time I reach their final words. Other times, writing reminds me of an unending uphill sprint. Lately, I’ve felt winded.

I digress. 

J.K. Rowling wrote her way out of extreme poverty. Sylvia Plath wrote through seven years of crippling manic-depressive disorder. Emily Dickinson managed lively poems from the bouts of self-seclusion. Hemingway wrote through a first-hand experience with both World Wars and diagnosed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. 

I remind myself of all of these literary heroes when I hit a brick wall of writer’s block, armed with nothing but my weak arms to knock it down. It isn’t a helpful practice, but one I fall into nonetheless. When all of this happened, I told myself: I should write. But I sit down with the greatest of intentions and it’s not that easy. These days, unless met by a deadline, I lack the desire to graze my fingers over 26 letters on a keyboard and tell stories. When I’m not putting pressure on myself to be productive, I wade in hot guilt. I’ve known for a while now what I wanted to write my last piece for The Michigan Daily about. With circumstances, our writing changes. Words are malleable. As it turns out, I am too. 

***

I joined The Michigan Daily when my first serious boyfriend and I broke up. On a December night, the brink of a predicted snowstorm awaited us as I walked away from a person whom I thought I loved following a hasty conversation in an Ann Arbor church parking lot. I retreated to my dorm room and tearfully submitted an application to The Daily’s arts section. I had put off joining any clubs for my first semester of college, hoping to get settled first. I craved distraction and figured joining communities on campus would be the remedy. 

Someone recently told me you have to let yourself feel everything, especially the tough things. At the time of the breakup, I hadn’t heard this advice. I didn’t want to face the tough things. So instead of facing any strong emotion at all, I quelled my bitter sadness by filling my life with clubs and groups and obligations that exhausted my days so I hardly had time to dwell on love lost. The opportunities I sought out to stave off my sadness and self-doubt taught me, pushed me and enthralled me. I stuck with them — theater groups, three minors and every writing opportunity I could grasp — for all four years of my undergraduate education. They entered my life at a time when I thought I needed distraction, when in fact I needed to find myself. I wanted my ex-boyfriend to envy my productivity and stacked resume though my prospects were no longer about him. The choices I made both frustrate and ground me. I am thankful for choosing to join The Michigan Daily and other organizations on campus — these were good choices. But I needed to do it for me and not for the approval of someone else. Perhaps this crippling awareness is proof of four years of growth. 

I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided I was going to dedicate my life to writing. I do know that my first article for The Michigan Daily was published Dec. 12, 2016. It was about my passionate distaste for censorship, specifically regarding books — my first byline. I remember holding the paper in my hands in the lobby of East Quad. I remember leaving my first meeting in the newsroom and calling my mom to tell her I felt like I was finally “somewhere I was supposed to be.” I found my first iPhone note poem, which was written about the vulnerability of heartbreak on March 15, 2017. My beginnings at The Daily and my first of hundreds of poems written from the palms of my hands spiraled from preoccupation to hobbies to career plans. Dec. 12, 2016 and March 15, 2017, you could say, are two days I didn’t know would change my life. In an attempt to understand this goodbye, I’ve endeavored to trace my history at The Daily, and I can’t begin to get through the articles I’ve written — some about theater, others about literature, about food, about women, my family, primary elections and, most recently, about my own experiences with dating, college life and anxiety. At some point, I stopped doing it for anybody but myself — in doing it for myself, in writing for myself, I could write for my readers. Each line drew me inward, inspiring me to believe in myself and to be heard. 

I think about the lyric from Hamilton: The American Musical, “I wrote my way out of hell / I wrote my way to revolution, I was louder than the crack in the bell,” constantly. In the song, Alexander Hamilton expresses his instinct to write his way out of every situation he’s been put in throughout his life; the good and the bad, for better or for worse. When he needs to understand, to remedy, to emote, he writes. I have led an incredibly privileged life. I write from quarantine with my two brothers, two parents and two dogs in the New Jersey home I grew up in. All of us are mostly healthy, happy and safe. But you can drown in an ocean, and you can drown in a puddle. Four years ago, I subconsciously began to use my interest in writing to pull myself out of heartache, melancholy and incertitude. I began to write myself out. In doing so, I realized writing isn’t a hobby for me, it’s not a skill, or an ability. It’s a lifeline. It’s who I am. 

In October 2019, I had a strange breakthrough on a flight home. I was in the middle of an exhaustive journal entry, and slowed my pen for a moment. I read what I had been writing as the notebook shook between my legs over and over and over. This is what I had written:

“The inability to be comfortable with myself throughout my young adult life comes from a desire to be validated, a desire I think a lot of us can relate to. Throughout college, I’ve craved validation intensely — so far as to write about my attempts to satiate the desire by way of social media and my dating life. I’ve spent years relying on someone else to validate me, because I didn’t know how to find that love within myself. This insecurity is born of the I’m not ‘good enough’ troupe. But ‘good’ enough doesn’t really exist. We’re all just enough. I’m just enough. And what we make of the rest is up to us. To me. For so long, I’ve lived with my happiness and worth contingent on the validation I receive from others, namely, romantic prospects. But we can only rely on ourselves. I used to barricade myself in the truth, putting up a facade to mask the fact that I desperately needed to find comfort with who I am on my own. This is the only way I can ever be a productive romantic partner, friend, citizen.”

In these lines, I addressed years of self-doubt, I acknowledged its existence and its origin. I spent time letting myself feel everything — especially the tough things. I pulled myself out through words. I wrote through it. I cannot understand the world unless through words. I don’t go a day without writing something, even if it’s simply a brief description of the interesting hands of a Starbucks barista in my iPhone note app. I spent the past four years at Michigan recognizing this and leaning into it. I would not be who I am without the platform and the community and the world The Michigan Daily opened up for me.

I don’t know much about endings, and I don’t do them well — as seen by the accounts of my dramatic breakups. I have too many words, or not enough. Finality, unsurprisingly, makes me anxious. At the end of this story I don’t get to close this document and walk through the newsroom and take in the dusty stacks of newspapers, boxes of bagels and students hunched over laptops — a lively writers’ room as the closing credits to the film of my most formative experience at U-M fades. An experience that taught me self-love, that shaped my future, that shook me and told me: Eli, this is who you are. This is who you’ve been all along. 

All I get is between these lines, and it has to be enough. I’ll never be ready to say goodbye, so instead, I’ll say this: I love you, thank you.