A few days ago, I got a piece of advice: to write a letter to my eight-year-old self.
We know that we’re shaped, as children, by the people around us. We imitate their speech and behavior, and we base our goals and dreams on what they show us. We want to be like a parent, or a grandparent, or an older sibling. We model ourselves on those examples.
Those people also shape our views of ourselves. When we’re children, we’re wide open. We’re figuring everything out. So we take in the messages other people give us, and these tell us who we are.
Sometimes, those messages are positive. You’re smart. You’re funny. You’re great at cooperating. I love your imagination. Other times, they are hurtful. Why are you so slow? You never do things right. You look dumb in those clothes.
We grow up with those pictures of ourselves lodged in our minds. We usually develop different pictures along the way, but the first ones we got tend to stay with us. In moments of change and uncertainty, they often come back to us like echoes. When we look at those old reflections, what do we see?
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I have depression. Certain things tend to rear up at certain times. Right now, as I’m getting ready for the release of my first novel, which became available for pre-order this week, I feel the ground shifting under me.
This book means a lot. A lot, a lot. More than that. It’s been almost ten years in the making, and as anyone who’s worked on a creative project knows, you put a lot of yourself into that kind of work. This book isn’t just a story: it’s a piece of myself, going out on display.
It’s also a big professional step. Writing is what I want to do. I want this book to be the first of many. Ten years ago, I started planting seeds, and now they’re growing. I want them to be healthy and strong.
That’s why I started thinking about my eight-year-old self, and some of the messages I took in when I was little. The image of that child, with her bangs and glasses, wearing the necklace she made out of pop-beads (remember those?), reflected back to me. I winced for her. I remembered her hearing how she wasn’t pretty, how she was too clumsy, how she never got things right.
Words can be careless, casually thrown. If you’re on the receiving end, they can feel deeply personal even if they’re not: even if they have more to do with the person who throws them, whatever anger and frustration and regret that person is struggling with. But the words stay with you anyway; especially, I think, if you’re a child.
If you have depression, you know how it can sit quiet for a long time. Then suddenly – usually right when it’s the last thing you need; there’s probably a Murphy’s Law in there somewhere – it pops up like the nail in the road that punctures your tire. Sometimes you can tell why it happened; other times, you have no idea.
I’ve gone around with it a lot, and more than usual during this time of change. So when I was asked to write a letter to my child-self, and tell her about the things she was going to do, and how her life was going to look, and especially to tell her how those messages she took in were wrong, I decided to try it. Here are some of the things I told her:
- When you are twenty-two, you’ll go to school full-time for music. You’ll go to a place full of musicians as passionate and talented as you are. It will be a fantastic time. Not only that, but you’ll win a grant to go back your second year.
- While you’re at music school, you’ll meet the man you’re going to marry. He’ll be smart, handsome, funny, and he’ll love you unswervingly. The two of you will have adventures and fun together. He’ll make you laugh every day.
- You and your husband will have cats. I know you’ve always wanted a cat. The first one in your life will be Jackson. Then, later, there will be Max and Robin, and then Alafair and Templeton, and probably others too. You will love having cats just as much as you thought you would.
- I know how much you love reading and writing, so here’s the really exciting news. You will be a writer, an author, just like you’ve imagined. You’ll start out by publishing short stories. Then, the summer before you turn thirty-eight (I know that seems like a long time from now) you’ll see your first novel published.
- I know you’re shy about your glasses now, but when you grow up, you’ll realize you look good in them. You look smart and pretty, like the scholar and writer you are. They suit you.
- Each and every time you make up your mind to do something, you will make it happen. You are strong, determined, and resourceful.
I felt different after writing those things. The internal rollercoaster is still there: one day fine, the next day down. Now, though, I feel like I have a new kind of protection. The part of me that’s still connected to the little girl has a new picture in her head. She sees herself differently than she used to.
My novel, To Love A Stranger, has a lot to do with self-acceptance. Both of my main characters, Sam and Jeannette, grow up with flawed pictures of themselves based on the messages they got from other people. As hard as they try to deny and ignore those messages, they can’t move forward in their lives until they confront them. Sam and Jeannette deal with issues and situations that I’ve never experienced, so I had to draw on my imagination there: but when it comes to the struggle to know, accept, embrace who you are, I was on solid ground. That struggle was a big driving force for me in writing the book. It felt essential to get it on the page: an experience which is so familiar to so many of us, but not as often openly shared.
One of my biggest hopes for Stranger, as I’ve talked about here in the blog before, is that it might do something to make the world a little better. If the story can connect with someone who needs its message, and if it can also say a bit about love and acceptance, and about how music can help and heal, I’ve done my job.
My publisher and I are running a special campaign this month, in which $1 for each pre-ordered print copy of To Love A Stranger will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org). We felt it was important to support an organization which does so much on behalf of equality and acceptance. If you might be interested in pre-ordering, you can find more information on the 10 x 10 x 10 Society page.
I’d like to end this post with a video I posted a couple of months ago, when I first saw my advance reader copies of Stranger. I read an excerpt and played some of the music that inspired the book: a movement from Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye. That was a particularly joyful time. I want to hold onto it.
If, like me, you struggle with self-image and shadows from the past, you might find it helps to write a letter to your younger self. As an adult, it can be hard to appreciate the things you’ve accomplished, but when you tell that child who she will grow up to be, and the amazing things she’s going to do, you will feel proud. (I promise.) That exercise has helped me to tap more of the joy of this exciting time, seeing my book going out into the world, and more of the sense of possibility and promise that goes with it. Fear and nerves are still there, but they don’t weigh as much as they did.
As always, thank you for stopping by. See you next time.