I remember being in a large white, paneled, cafeteria. There were about twenty vertical lunch tables for recipients to sit firmly while they waited for their names to be called. We faced a small wooden stage that spanned the length of the room and creaked every time the presenter moved, attempting to untangle himself from the microphone cord. As his voice boomed unevenly over our ancient loud speakers, the awards ceremony began. I had won a prize for writing a story about my pet fish, Spike. Growing up in a household where almost every family member was allergic to pets, that little purple betta fish was my pride and joy for the four years he lived. I don’t remember anything about the award-winning story, except that it made my teachers laugh and that it had placed in the nonfiction category. At the time, I considered nonfiction to be facts; nothing but the truth in an educational format. In the beginning, that’s how they teach kids about nonfiction, so they don’t go off on explicit tangents detailing stories their family hopes they never repeat to anyone, especially their teachers. Nonfiction, to me, had previously been books about animals I had to research for habitat projects and news articles I had to summarize for current events essays; not stories about my life, and especially not my story about Spike.
As I grew older, my family used to joke about how I never stopped talking. They used to joke that when I was born, I was already telling the doctors in the emergency room my life story. Though I was a lonely teenager, I would never talk to my friends as voraciously as I spoke to my family; my friends were people I wanted to keep around long-term, but I knew my family had no choice but to put up with me, so they received the brunt of my storytelling. At first, it was all fiction. I would spends hours on the phone telling my grandparents about the stories I was writing, about witches and wizards, bullied boys and girls, fantasy realms, and somehow, somewhere, dead parents. I don’t know what it is about tragedy that young writers are so drawn to, but every character almost always has one dead parent, if not two. Because I had grown up in a household with two very alive parents, I liked writing about different perspectives and gradually learning about my characters as if I were both the writer and the reader simultaneously.
My aunts and uncles would listen at the dinner table as I would tell them what chapter I was writing, or what page I was on, and who had inspired me to spin this tale this week. For the most part, everyone was very supportive of my creative endeavors, always checking in to see how my characters were doing and asking if I had any luck with my writer’s block when I suffered. They all encouraged me to continue but they were pretty sure this was a passing phase. My parents would roll their eyes and laugh as they described me as a future author, joking that I’d be the next J.K. Rowling or Rick Riordan with all the creatures I dreamt up. Characters like Hermione Granger and Percy Jackson really spoke to me because I felt that just as I was attempting to discover who I was, they had also gone through a metamorphosis in discovering who and what they were – whether it be a witch or a demigod—it seemed we were similar in the struggles we faced along the way. In a perfect world, in the perfect reflection, I saw exactly who I was and what my future would look like: me being a famous author, signing autographs for family and friends, and writing books like those that had inspired me. In reality, however, I was a window-daydreaming, lonely kid in elementary school who struggled with making friends and spent all of her free time writing stories she would never finish. Despite this early ambition, I soon found that as time went on, the less I wanted to continue writing. I no longer wanted to live in my fantasy world, and I smashed the mirror that once held my perfect future.
When I arrived scared and sweaty on the first day of freshman year of high school, even I felt the change shatter under my feet as the stories of magical creatures fell into shadows behind me while I inched toward what was the very beginning of my mental illness. I felt more lost than ever; I had a scarce group of friends, I wasn’t very involved, and my depression was all-encompassing. After attending a poetry workshop where teachers spoke about free-verse and emotions, I found that poetry was a more tangible genre for me. Fiction has a format, a formula, and sometimes poetry does too, but not always; because I found that I didn’t need to follow certain rules, poetry became an outlet for my confusion and frustration surrounding my mental illness. I found that I could be more honest about everything when I didn’t have to listen to anyone except myself—everything flowing out of my dollar store ballpoint pen was the truth, or what I thought was the truth at the time. I spent hours writing in notebooks when I should have been studying, exchanging formulas in my head for words that rhymed, and researching different types of poetry when I should have been sleeping. It became second nature for me to write poetry and, soon, writing fiction became a thing of the past. Journals became a go-to gift for my birthdays but I never shared my writing with anyone except the anonymous writer communities on public forums online. Sites like Quizilla and Mibba became my second homes—I could create a profile, write pieces in any genre, and share them with a community of strangers who couldn’t judge me for my past or lack of a predictable future.
You can be anyone on the internet. I could be a heartbroken girl writing poetry about my crushes, even though I had never muttered more than a simple greeting to a boy in high school. Or, although I had never been in a relationship, I could be the heartbreaker, like the pretty girls I knew, who had no problem tossing partners aside like wet laundry. My persona changed with my writing and as I tried on different masks, I discovered more and more about who I was as a teenager and a writer. Somehow, sharing pieces with complete strangers was easier than sharing my work with people who knew me inside and out. For the first time, I wanted anonymity, I wanted a fresh start, and I wanted people to see the work and look at the words, rather than looking at the writer. My poetry at this time was not the healthiest; I was writing about self-harm, depression, and anxiety, even though I didn’t quite have a name for that yet. My fingers often felt heavy with pen and paper, and even when I didn’t want to write, poetry became a release for the negative emotions I couldn’t stop the flow of. Never wanting to leave a worry trail behind, these chatrooms and public forums offered me a safe bubble where I could vent to an attentive audience where we could comment back and forth on one another’s profiles about the menial things that made our lives awful—our bad days, a fight with our parents, and our worries about the future and the past.
In college, I began to work on the staff of our student-run literary journal, and as I was reading college-level poetry, I began to cease my own writing once again. I felt inferior to the pretentious students who were submitting and couldn’t bring myself to write anything of quality, so I stopped writing for a few years altogether. Though I took a creative writing class when I was a sophomore, I just didn’t feel the same draw toward writing as before. It was almost as if I had hit a wall. Maybe when the greats talk about ‘writer’s block,’ they don’t mean the lack of ideas coming to them; maybe they mean they’ve hit a wall in regards to moving forward. My professor said I had a talent for writing, but she could tell I was struggling to whip up something without a prompt. The same spark from before wasn’t igniting and I felt failure in the writing department for the first time in my whole existence.
Junior year, they offered a once-in-a-degree class called ‘Advanced Creative Nonfiction.” A trial class, this was the only time they were going to offer the course, and the instructor was a twice published author who landed herself on the New York Bestsellers list more than once, too. In a leap of faith, I enrolled in the course, knowing that, at the very least, I’d gain some insight from a professional author and hear some talented students’ writing. At the very least, I was wrong. As it turns out, nonfiction isn’t just a basis for research; it is a much more versatile genre. Nonfiction can be storytelling, it can be honest, it can be raw, creative, detailed, vague, or mysterious. It can be short, long, or somewhere in-between and it can be nerve-wracking to write but exhilarating to share. Creative nonfiction can also be memoir, it can be autobiography, it can be short stories like David Sedaris or true poetry like Rudy Francisco. Just like the Wonka-vator from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, creative nonfiction can go up, down, sideways, and out of this world.
Though my family likes to joke that I’ve been a storyteller since I emerged from the womb, I have never truly felt something click as intimately and personally as creative nonfiction did with my entire being. We were given books to muse off of and authors to draw inspiration from, but I had absolutely no problem building my own train tracks and creating my own destination. My professor could say a single sentence and my brain would run off with a memory I had forgotten before that exact second and soon my journal would be filled with stories about that one thing. When we were given prompts, I found myself choosing more than one and writing copious amounts about several things—nature, mental illness, new environments—just about anything I had ever experienced I was likely to write about. Though I enjoy indulging in comfort and familiarity, I oddly found myself seeking out new opportunities to immerse myself in obscure situations that would elicit new pieces. Very quickly, I realized that I had fallen victim to routine; with my college schedule I had been going through the motions—I wasn’t having fun—I was doing exactly what I needed to survive the day, the week, the month, and the semester. In putting myself out there, it became clear that something needed to change and that something was my perspective of spending time versus wasting time. I had wasted time going through my schedule with the same old, same old, when I could have been spending time experiencing new things with new people in new places. It was an enlightening process I would have never encountered without this class that encouraged me to be proud to be different. I had always been different—writers usually are outliers in society because they are often empaths, introverts, extroverts, creative minds, old souls, and sometimes all of those combined and more – but I had never felt proud of being ‘out there’ before and because this class pushed me and forced me to go ‘out there’ and be ‘out there,’ I soon found that I was meant to be there, wherever it was, all along.
In a semester’s time, I learned more about myself than I have in three years of college, where the literal point of everything is to discover who you truly are (you know, that, and get a really expensive college degree you’ll probably end up using as a mousepad). I found passion in writing again, I found exuberance in constructive criticism, and I found confidence in reading my honest words aloud.
I knew some of the students in my class, but by the end of the course, I had truly fallen in love with every single one of their stories. We traipsed through stories of dreary winter nights and spring sodden days, first-times and last-times, and moments of changes in our lives. When one of us wrote about a unique trip to the Grand Canyon, we all pictured it in our heads. When someone wrote about cleaning out their late grandmother’s house, we constructed the mess in our minds. When one girl relayed her previous suicide attempt, word for word, we felt chills engulf our bodies and expressed gratitude toward her bravery of sharing. In a few short weeks, we went from complete strangers to intimate friends. It was raw, it was rough, and it was even unbearable at times, to listen to the hardships we all had endured, but by the end of the semester, we all left campus feeling truly positively affected by our time spent together.
I realized in writing creative nonfiction, I could combine both the details of fiction and the truth of poetry in one genre. I found that tearing my heart out to put on paper was more difficult than I had anticipated, but worth it in every aspect sharing my pieces could offer. I learned to come to terms with writer’s block, to accept and respect distance and time between writing and editing, and to be proud to craft each sentence in every paragraph on every page. My hands no longer felt heavy, and I began to write on paper once again, refusing to type my creative nonfiction assignments unless I had to hand them in. Having an opportunity to be invested in personal candor was an enticing freedom I had never thought to engage with before, and soon, writing became a habit, not a chore.
For twenty-one-years, I’ve been searching for a somewhere to belong. Between the trials and tribulations of public school, I jumped from fiction to poetry effortlessly, but the culture shock of college brought my writing confidence to an immediate stop. With just one course, my entire track changed lanes, my journey surging forth and pushing me toward the destination I had always had in mind. Though I don’t think I’ll ever be a famous author, I will continue to write creative nonfiction and memoir. I plan to write a memoir for each chapter of my life, starting from here on out; one for college, one for my twenties, and one for each decade after that. Eventually, I want to become comfortable with writing about mental illness again, especially my triggers and everything I’ve been through. When I was just discovering it in high school, it scared the shit out of me, but as I grow older, I know my mental illness is an intricate part of who I am and how I’ve grown. I don’t want to waste any more time letting my story sit, I want to spend time rediscovering what it means to be me, how I got here, and where I’m going, even if I don’t know exactly where I’m meant to be just yet. Just like in the beginning, I’ll once again play the parts of both reader and writer, learning about my past, present, and future gradually as if I’m just meeting myself for the first time.
Casey Leming is a writer, editor, and concert enthusiast. She is a senior English Writing Major and Technical Communications Minor at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, she hopes to join the publishing field and eventually publish a memoir. Until then, she plans to place her faith in the universe, take as many naps as possible, and scoop up opportunities left and right.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.