The other day I came across a story I had written when I was eighteen. It was the beginning of a story, really, my first attempt at a novel. I was on a big Victorian literature kick at the time, and I decided to write a fictional autobiography in the style of Charles Dickens. Memories of the short-lived endeavor came flooding back. I had started the project as a senior in high school, but had abandoned it after a mere—
I was surprised by the number at the bottom of the document. I didn’t know I had written that much. In fact, I barely remembered writing the story. Quitting—that’s what I remembered. I remembered exactly why I had tossed nearly 16,000 words into an electronic trash folder.
I didn’t think they were any good.
Fourteen years later, as I read the fledgling attempt of my younger self—overconfident, unrestrained, unmistakably buoyant—I felt sad, almost as though I were mourning a former version of myself. Sure, the writing was self-indulgent and lacking the tight, unforgiving economy of an experienced writer, but it was also fun, humorously observant and relentlessly positive.
I can spare the reader of this account any trouble of speculation, I began in unabashed homage to the opening lines of David Copperfield, by affirming that I am not the hero of my own life, but rather have survived in spite of myself.
I went on to give a condensed genealogy of sorts, detailing the childhoods of my parents:
Every summer, my father and his brothers were packed up and shipped to Cuba, Missouri, to spend the warmest months with my great-grandmother Flora who, during the more sprightly years of her life, lived on a small farm. The stories my father would tell us about the summers at great-grandma’s farm were nothing short of legendary, such as the time he accidentally ran over a chicken with the lawnmower…
A generous subdivision of my father’s history focused on my great-grandmother’s neighbor, Mrs. Magnolia Porter. Each week, my great-grandmother sent the boys to Mrs. Magnolia Porter’s house to help her with heavy chores. Mrs. Magnolia Porter spent a good chunk of her time sitting in a creaky, oak rocking chair on her back porch, singing hymns (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was a favorite) and subjecting the boys to Bible lessons. As I wrote,
The boys had a particular fascination with the history of the Israelites in Egypt, though this interest was probably due to extravagant misconstruction on the part of the oldest brother, my Uncle Jack. Did the Israelites go to war with Egypt? (This from the younger boys.) Yes, that was the Civil War. (This from my Uncle Jack.) Egypt didn’t fight in the Civil War! (This from my father.) Oh, yes it did—Egypt was originally a state founded by Fidel Castor Oil, it had a long history of slavery and cosmetology, and it was the only state in the Confederacy to obtain permanent secession!
However, the most memorable moment at Porter Farm (at least, for my father), was the time that devout lady, while bidding farewell to the boys for the summer, placed her hands on my father’s shoulders, lifted her eyes and voice to the heavens, and prayed “in front of everybody” (as my father later recalled).
This circumstance, of course, provided much fodder for the boys during the ride home, for they held the vague but certain conviction my father would transform into a monk by way of spontaneous ordination. They watched him carefully, meticulous to note any physical changes. My father’s youngest brother exacerbated the tension every quarter hour by feeling the back of my father’s head and announcing with great solemnity that he was, indeed, growing a bald spot. (I believe the baldness was somehow associated with becoming a monk.)
In this text I saw only shortcomings. Forget that it was my first attempt at any kind of book. Forget that I was eighteen. This is terrible! I thought. It's cheesy. It's boring. It's amateurish. I wasn't Charles Dickens. I wasn't Jane Austin. I deemed myself a sorry excuse for a writer, and I reprimanded myself accordingly.
Looking back now, I realize how crazy it was to criticize myself so exhaustively. Was this the next Great American Novel? Of course not. But geez. I was in high school. I was trying. And, honestly, I wish I would have written more. How would the story have turned out?
I didn’t attempt to write another book until I was twenty-five, a solid seven years after my first abandoned effort. Since then, I’ve written two books. Both are non-fiction. “I’m not creative enough to write fiction,” I tell people when they ask. “I’m terrible.”
I had tried and condemned myself as a senior in high school. And fourteen years later, I'm still serving my sentence.
Something happened between the opening lines of my first novel and the last dwindling, unfinished chapter. Cynicism crept in. I compared myself to others. I determined I was falling short. I put myself down and doubted my ability. And so, I pulled myself out of the game before it even began.
Just today, as I ran my first good track workout in, oh, about seventeen months, Jake reminded me of what might be his most famous fortune-cookie-worthy proverb: “We need to learn to separate today’s reality from tomorrow’s potential.” And he’s right. Too often, we cut ourselves short simply because we’re not where we want to be at this very moment. In writing. In running. (Think of how hard you've been on yourself in previous workouts and races. Seems silly now, doesn't it?) In healthy eating. (Even the best intentions can be thwarted by pie.) In learning. (I can speak about four random words in six different languages.) In planking. (Like, literally doing planks as a core exercise. I’m so bad at it.)
And that’s a shame. Because there’s a lot of good stuff still to come. And don't you want to see how the story turns out?
So hang in there. I will if you will. And even if we don’t end up writing the next Great American Novel, we’ll have a heck of a time trying.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.