Losing Myself in Old Words
I got a little lost the other day.
I was reading on the couch when my daughter came in and asked me if I could buy her a particular book, which had been recommended to her by a teacher. My eyes lit up. "Be right back," I said, dashing out of the living room. I hastily pulled down the attic stairs, swatting stray bits of insulation away from my face as they drifted to the floor.
The moment my head surfaced in the attic, I saw it, tilted sideways in a clear storage bin as if presenting itself at my daughter's request: Wayside School is Falling Down. "Yes!" I exclaimed, pleased that, for the first time, one of the objects I hoarded as a child "so my kids can use them one day" was actually going to be used by one of my kids.
I climbed the rest of the way into the attic and unclasped the blue plastic lid for the first time in years. Must and childhood wafted up into my nose. My hand slid down the side of the bin, past Babysitter's Club and Christopher Pike books, one-off teen dramas from the Book Fair and even some Saved By The Bell fan merch.
I plucked the book out and moved to cover the bin once more. As I picked up the lid to replace it, though, a worn navy-blue binder caught my eye, its unassuming matte cover contrasting with the glossy paperbacks. What's this? I thought. Here I was going through a bin full of other people's books, but inside the binder must be something of my own. I hunched over for a better look, careful not to smack my head on the rafters above. Some white Avery labels, hastily written with markers and rolling up at the corners, advertised a school council election long past. Eddie 4 Treasurer! Courtney 4 President! Frayed cardboard peeked out from where the seams had split.
I opened the cover with a thumb and forefinger, half-expecting to find nothing more than a bunch of notes from math or science. More things I saved, in case they became useful later, and never looked at again. But the stack of papers that confronted me was much more than mindless class notes.
I recognized the handwriting as my own, though there were at least a half-dozen different styles. I could identify my curlicue phase, my small-print phase, and the unusual every-letter-is-the-same-size phase. Pages and pages that, despite the fact that I wrote them, I didn't recognize at all.
"Here," I called absently down the stairs, tossing the Wayside book onto the floor below. Scurrying steps approached and then faded.
I lowered myself to the makeshift plywood floor and took a paper in my hand. "Hello, my childhood / I'm leaving you today," it began. I picked up another, titled A Single Tear: "Tracing the path of your existence / a river through your soul..."
There were poems, unfinished short stories, semi-autobiographical narratives, and one story with multiple chapters that looked like it might have been a collaboration between me and someone else. Curiously, there was also a completely intact notebook with nothing inside but handwritten lyrics to entire albums by my favorite artists: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Green Day, Gin Blossoms, and so on.
I only found dates on a few of the pages, but best I can put together, the work ranges from grades eight through ten. The poetry was pretty depressing. I shook my head as I read my words from a quarter-century ago - stories of lost love and self-harm, of resentment and a desire to escape - straining to remember what was precisely true, what was embellished, and what was pure fabrication.
The prose was much more interesting. I produced a lot more writing than I ever remembered doing, and I was impressed at how teenager-me used foreshadowing, multiple points of view, and unexplained events to create a feeling of suspense. The last line of one page read, "And so began his obsession with Samantha Keller," and I flipped to the next sheet, disappointed to see a different story in different handwriting. What happened with Samantha Keller?! Now I need to know. Another story used dreams to connect two different characters: what happened in one character's dream manifested in the other's reality. I might even pick that one up again some day - seems like a fun premise.
I spent an hour sitting there, old and tattered binder splayed open in front of me, poring over words I'd forgotten I'd ever written. When at last I sealed the bin, I realized that, along with the scent of home that still lingered in my nose, there was also a feeling at the pit of my stomach - a mix of nostalgia, restlessness, and validation. I don't miss those days, but it was as if all the hours I spent writing as a young person were preparing me in the background for what I would eventually do.
Storytelling is storytelling, I realized, no matter the age. When I was younger I wrote about a boy who fell in love with a girl jumping rope at recess, or about what I called love but what was actually an attempt to figure out where I fit in my little microcosm within my tiny hometown. Now I write words that help me and others try and make sense of the world at large. Commentaries on beauty and fitness and other issues affecting and connecting people around the globe. The content is different, the scope is different, but the craft remains the same.
By the time I swung the ladder back up into its hiding place in the hallway ceiling, my daughter's nose was buried deep in the Wayside book. I slipped past her room, hugging the binder to my chest, and put it on the shelf next to my desk, a reminder that I've been a writer longer than I've been pretty much anything else.
And maybe, one day, when I'm short on ideas, I can pick it up for some inspiration.
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