The ramblings of a freelance writer, novelist and avid reader.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Lesson from My Eighth Grade Self

I did that thing today where I stopped writing in frustration and decided I’d chosen the wrong profession. I’m fairly certain every writer goes through it, but I had extra qualms today when I thought about how much writing I actually did in my formative years. Yes, I was on the yearbook staff in high school, but that’s about it. No literary magazine, no newspaper, no file full of short stories and poems; in fact not much creative writing to speak of. I tried to have a Journalism minor in college, but hated the three courses I took in that department and quickly dropped the minor; ironically opting for pre-law only to later give up my free-ride to law school in order to write.

So here I sit during week two of November and I’m contemplating my choice of profession as well as why I’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo this year. In a moment of pure brilliance I went downstairs to stare at my bookshelves for inspiration. I’m not sure why – reading isn’t the same as writing. I can’t imagine being a writer without being a lover of books, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. What I found while staring at the bookshelves was a journal. In fact, not just one – I counted 30 journals. I do vaguely remember journaling as a child – keeping a diary under lock and key to keep it away from my imaginary little brother I guess. Since I keep them all on a shelf now, I must trust my real husband more than my imaginary little brother. I pulled a few journals down in an attempt to discover the writer-in-my-early-years. I assumed most of those journals would be empty because I remember leaving a lot of journaling undone. I expected gaps of months (much like this blog) or even years.

What I found was quite the opposite. Here’s my proof; here is my mind as a small child and adolescent always writing down observations, feelings and ideas. I have journals from elementary school, junior high and even high school. I have travel journals and S.A.M notebooks. Sure, not all of them were complete; sure, they weren’t full of made up tales, stories and teen-angst poetry – but they are still MY words.

The S.A.M. Notebook
What’s a S.A.M. you ask? S.A.M. is an acronym for Stacy, Amy and Mariah – we invented the acronym in the second or third grade and used it throughout school and beyond. How far beyond? Well Stacy’s eldest daughter is Samara or SAM for short (her youngest daughter’s name, Emily incorporates the first letter of all of our middle names as well).

Amy missed a lot of seventh grade – she was struck down with a severe case of mono and missed the last five months of the school year. She’s brilliant, so this didn’t really affect her learning curve or anything; we just missed having her around and in classes with us. Stacy and I started writing down our school experiences in a notebook and then we’d send it home with Amy’s homework assignments; she’d write down her illness experiences and send it back to us. The notebook stuck – even after Amy joined us again in the eighth grade. I think by this time we realized all three of us were heading down very different paths and may not have time to be friends in high school. I had band and synchro; Stacy had running and skiing; and Amy had theatre and all of those languages.
The three of us kept the notebook going throughout most of high school. Oh, the days before email, text messaging and facebook. So yes, I didn’t just want to write early on, I made my friends do it with me. I guess you can look at the notebook as practice for the type of fiction I find myself writing about now.

1990: One Year of Journaling
When I sat down with my stack of journals today, I pulled out the most complete one. The year was 1990 and I received the journal as a Christmas present from my mom (so says the title page – complete with full name, address and phone number). Most of the other journals and diaries I leafed through were only half full at best – but apparently in 1990 I had a lot to say. Now you may call this procrastination, but I still read through the entire journal. I found out the end of my eighth grade year and the beginning of my high school career was a transitional time indeed. By December of 1990 my writing voice had changed dramatically, I’d even started to use the right form of it’s and its – as well as there/their/they’re (thank goodness!).

My eighth grade self taught me some valuable lessons today. It appears I spent most every waking moment I could find writing down observations and character sketches. Like most early teen girls I obsessed about boys – gushed when the boy I had a crush on told me I was beautiful in front of his girlfriend. I spent pages describing band concerts and all of the subtle nuances involved in close circuit interaction without words that can only happen when you share a stage with someone; how you become a part of the whole – a well-oiled machine working on some higher, almost telepathic level. I jotted down notes about swimming – my jubilation at making varsity in eighth grade and my foul response to finding myself in the group routine with my nemesis. Did you know eighth graders had arch-enemies? I felt a little like Sherlock Holmes while reading that segment. There was some lovely (read: sappy) lyrical stuff in there about how music filled every aspect of my life (I’ve always been quite the Romantic) and lovelier (read: sappier) material about taking the stage during my last junior high band concert, including shared moments with a truly kindred spirit (don’t worry, we’re facebook friends now) and my first summer 6 – 10 marching band practice. So many transitions!

Lesson Learned
I get it already: I’ve always been a writer. I spent years writing about awkward social interactions – no wonder I write YA in my adult life. My main characters tend to be eighteen & nineteen year-old girls transitioning between childhood and adulthood; apparently the transitional years affected me the most. I used to write about music and now I can’t write unless there is music. As an adult I’m so very different than my eighth grade self. I have different concerns – I hadn’t gone through those really life changing stages of my life yet – but I’m still so similar.

This is why I NaNo every year. It really is more than just 50,000 words; it’s a soul-searching, truth confronting sort of month – a transition all its own. Don’t worry about my novel word count: I’m currently at 12,245. What I’ve gained is a little more self-confidence and a long overdue chat with my eighth grade self. We had some things to sort out and some dreams to recreate. I’ve also gained a decent lesson plan for a journaling class at the Loft. I’ll have to type up a proposal and send it in. Hopefully some of you teenage students living in MN will be interested.


  1. Fun fact about me: my journal started simply as a way to keep track of every single interaction I had with Jessica Asche, for whom I had an unhealthy obsession. Over time I would add non-Jessica-related facts and it expanded into something more dynamic.

    I still journal quite often. Jessica Asche is the subject of only a fraction of the entries...

  2. If you replace Jess with Dave Stirratt then we probably have some very similar journal entries. I was a wee bit freakishly stalkerish with said Dave entries.

    And since I’ve already shared too much, here’s a journal entry featuring Chris Cope (Sorry, you did not escape my eighth grade musings.):

    Jan. 23
    Well today was a complete disaster. There was one Dave sighting at the end of the day but I don’t even care because he was holding Meridith’s hand and my day was already annoyingly awful. I started a new semester in school and I HATE IT!!! Health is really boring. Chris said he was in my class, but he’s not! I hate to say it, but I miss him. Nobody in my class does anything, they just sit there. How can he desert me in my hour of need?? I will no longer get my daily dose of Cope TV. Who is going to entertain me now??? My B and D days are going to suck big time.

    Apparently I only wrote in clichés and used too much – and yet not enough – punctuation. But hey, twenty years later, thanks for making boring classes more interesting.

  3. Did we have health in 8th grade? I remember nothing about 8th grade. I remember nothing about any other grade, though, so at least I'm consistent.