It’s not because they seem arduous—in fact, they seem surprisingly streamlined. It’s not because I’m unaccustomed to writing 500-1,000-word personal essays. It’s not because I’m unclear on my motivations. It’s not like I’m about to give up a good life in Hanoi and move back to the States and take out *terrifying* amounts of student loans to do something I’m iffy about.
See: I want to pursue a Masters in Education with an emphasis on urban education so that I can work with the kind of underserved “at-risk” kids that I once was; so I can help counter the gender/race/socioeconomic/ byline/everything gap by fostering underrepresented voices; so I can at the very least put a little something on the “good” side of life’s equation.
So why the hell is it so hard to sit down and write that?
Last Sunday, I returned from a really great week-long holiday, the first paid time off in my life, which I spent in Taiwan, which I’ve dubbed “the undercover awesome of Asia,” and highly recommend. I came back to my very cute apartment, and the next morning I went to my very cushy job at my very lovely school with my very sweet, international mish-mash of students, where we sang songs about crocodiles and read a book about animal sounds and spent about twenty minutes exploring the textural properties of bananas. On my lunch break I took my new iPad to a coffee shop and read The New Yorker. That night I went to a yoga class and met a friend for dinner, then dicked off on Twitter in the name of Vela before writing a few hundred words, reading my book and calling it a night.
If I get accepted into a graduate program, my average day will look very, very different. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m imagining Goodwill furniture and rehydrated soup packets. Filling out the app signifies letting go of a pretty comfortable expat life I’ve spent two years building, but it’s not the only reason I’m balking. I’m avoiding my grad school apps because they signify officially letting go of Being A Writer.
To be clear, there’s a difference between writing and Being A Writer. Since I was five years old, I’ve done the former and pined for the latter. As a little girl, I wrote voraciously, my most noted work the serialized exploits of a group of girls who were basically a Babysitters Club rip-off. The adults I forced to read these stories—my parents, teachers, pretty much any literate person who came within three feet of me—were all kind and encouraging: “This girl’s gonna be a writer!” I was an insecure, hysterical child, and Being A Writer gave me something about which to feel confident and proud.
Fast-forward to my tumultuous teen years. Since there were always a bunch of other Laurens floating around, and since I thankfully avoided having some god-awful street-punk name, people referred to me as Writer Lauren. I got a thrill out of that. Being A Writer gave me a project—zines and after-school workshops and open mics—but it also gave me something bigger to be than just another fuck-up kid getting wasted on the streets. “See,” I wrote in the inside cover of one of my zines, “I’m not just a teenage alcoholic!”
Later, when I was working in restaurants—an industry I enjoyed and that treated me well, but about which I ultimately wasn’t passionate—Being A Writer was a way to be something bigger than a stained apron and tasting notes, varicose veins and double shifts. And when I finally decided to pursue a full-time career as a writer—when I quit my waitressing job and moved to Cambodia to write what turned out to be an unwritable book—calling myself a writer was a way to validate that, to bolster myself against a failure whose evidence was mounting rapidly around me. Being A Writer was like one of those affirmations you scrawl on a sticky and post on the bathroom mirror, with the idea that if you say it enough, it might become true.
And when it all fell apart—when I was down to my last $400 and my last shreds of sanity, when I threw what was left of my life into three bags and took a one-way bus to Vietnam—Being A Writer was a kind of tethering, a safe familiar place in which to curl up during a time when nothing else felt safe or familiar.
So it follows, right, that submitting the grad school app is a kind of goodbye to all that, to all this—to this person I imagined myself as or imagined I’d become, this identity that I needed so badly in order to feel good about myself.
It wouldn’t be coming as such a surprise if I’d been paying attention to my own actions. About a year ago, I stopped the blog I’d been writing for over three years, a personal-narrative travel blog that had built a sizeable following and garnered me some good connections. I told myself it was because I was tired of the travel conversation, because I wanted to put my writing energy elsewhere. I started writing weirder, less publishable pieces; as such, I started amassing a lot more rejections, a fucking blizzard of rejections, if we’re being honest. Then I signed my first-ever full-time work contract, to be a teacher at an international kindergarten. I was surprised at how good it felt, how solid and happy I felt in the decision—way happier or more solid than Being A Writer ever made me feel.
Last month, while revamping my personal website, I updated my clips and realized that there was only one from 2013. And while I was on holiday in Taiwan, I turned down a personal invitation to submit a travel story to an editor whom I respect, for a paying publication. I told myself it was because I didn’t have good stories that would fit the specific topic and that I’d only be writing it for the money, to maintain contact with the editor, to cling to something that’s no longer what I’m doing, pursuing, trying to become.
Meanwhile, I’ve stopped telling people I write. I rarely post links of my work to Facebook. I have friends in Hanoi who have no idea I was ever writing a book. Writing has become something I do at night, in my bathrobe, under the whir of the fan. It’s not Who I Am anymore, and there’s something comforting in that anonymity, in that privacy, in the fact that there’s only a few people in my day-to-day life that have read anything I’ve written or glimpsed into that messy side of me.
I know I won’t ever stop writing—I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know how else to survive. But it’s shrinking. I’m surrendering to the fact that I’m not going to Be A Writer, at least not in the sense I always thought I would. I’m going to be a teacher—a career that requires no capitalization and turns out to be something I care about a lot more. But still, it’s sad. There’s a grieving involved, a letting go of something I never had, something that never materialized, or only half-materialized—that might have materialized if I was the kind of person who could stick with it, who could solider through the rejections and the byline gaps and the scene of it all, which it turns out I’m not. The things I’ve never really had are always the hardest to let go of.
And so this is what I realized this morning—on the back of a motorbike, where all good Southeast Asia realizations must occur: officially applying to grad school symbolizes a growing up, a goodbye to this girl I was, who needed to Be A Writer so badly just to feel some self-worth. I’m not that girl anymore. It turns out I’m actually a pretty together woman, not without her shortcomings for sure, but not a total train wreck. People entrust their very small children to me and I teach them, and sometimes I teach them really well.
There’s a space between the two, I think, between writing and Being A Writer—there’s a small crevice and that’s what I’ve been trying to inhabit. But the space is so small, I can’t get more than a toe in. What I feel is actually happening is a walking away from Being A Writer and into just writing.
You hear about it: people who work some whatever job and come home to secretly pound away at their passion—to go into that deep conversation one has with the muse or the creative spirit or whatever you want to call it. None of their co-workers know, none of their acquaintances know, not the mailman or the grocery clerks or the kindly old neighbors who say hello. You hear about these people because every now and then, one of them gets discovered and strikes it big. But I bet there’s a helluva a lot more of them than you ever hear about, writing or painting or strumming their guitars, a private endeavor, all of it falling away into the anonymous static that composes that other-worldly thing we get to tap into sometimes as creative folks. And it turns out I like being that more than I ever liked Being A Writer, or being a half-writer, failed-writer, two-bit-and-dreaming writer.
But still, it’s easier to write that, to write this, than it is to write the grad school apps.