Writing has the power to immortalize who we are. I see this process as taking an unknown snapshot of precisely who we are at that moment and what we believe. Perhaps this column contains some overarching meaning that I’ll have to reread in the future to discover, just like how I reread my past writings today to find something unknown about them.
Over spring break, I glossed over old belongings tucked away in the bowels of my childhood bedroom. As I rummaged through dusty portfolios and worn-out notebooks, I came across a short story I wrote in fifth grade. Despite the smudged ink and creased corners, my elementary school self surfaced prominently in these 22 frail pages.
At the mere, innocent age of 11, my short story, “Until the Last One Falls,” was my most prized possession. In it, I unraveled the tale of a shy girl named Aly who did whatever she could to avoid drawing attention to herself. This habit of hers continued until someone began leaving conspicuous notes of encouragement and reassurance. As this went on, Aly’s confidence blossomed. And thus, this story of mine rightfully concluded with a happy ending, with Aly emerging out of her shell and no longer fearing her own voice.
Revisiting snippets of my story evoked the undeniable feelings of cringe, amusement and embarrassment. My simple sentences and questionable word choice burned through this documentation, a window to how my mind used to function. If anything, this piece succeeds best as a time capsule of the way I used to think nearly a decade ago, something that wrinkled worksheets and yearbooks can never emulate as writing can.
I couldn’t help but recognize the elements in the story that was strikingly reminiscent of Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me,” my favorite book during that elementary school era. The patterns are so blatantly recycled, reminding me of how much I used to praise that novel to my family and teachers. This admiration of books, combined with my drive to become the youngest author in the world, inspired me to write just like Stead — to write like there was no tomorrow.
As I analyzed the story more and more, I soon grasped that this shy girl I created was nothing but a force of my own self. While 10-year-old me certainly didn’t intend for such a deep sentiment, the person I am now sees how it all aligns perfectly. I drew from my own naive experiences to create Aly. I suppose this makes sense since all that I knew in the fifth grade was how to play tetherball and how to see the world from only my own eyes.
Just like Aly, I, too, feared attention of any form: class presentations, piano recitals, popcorn reading. I did my best to hold my head down and only silently admired the kids who were able to thrive under attention. When I drafted it all in a story, I found that when I wished for Aly to progressively grow more assertive, I wished it for me too. I simply couldn’t be Aly forever.
Because Aly isn’t who I hope to be for the rest of my life. While I grew as a content, reserved child, I simultaneously desired that I could one day share my thoughts out loud and be comfortable in my own skin. I wanted to whittle away the layers of my personality to open up to others easier. I wanted to do things of my own accord and never contemplate what other people would have to say about it. In the simplest terms, I began as Aly. But, as I continue to venture through the unpredictable world, I’m exploring how to be somebody more than just her. I don’t know what the end of everything may look like yet, but I’ll keep searching.
These values I hold close overlap with the sentiments of Aly’s notes. As I reread those hidden messages I wrote for her in the story, I deduce that those are the very values I want to embody and to live by. Aly and I both craved something bigger than ourselves to help us find the best possible versions of who we could be. That’s all it really was.
And even though Aly found her happy ending by the end of the story, I don’t believe I have yet. I still have far more pages to turn, far more notes to remember, far more lessons to learn. Growing up isn’t a linear process, but rather a faithful web of failure and celebration. After all, I am young and confused and far from perfect — and still just trying to figure it all out.
It’ll take longer than 22 pages, but I’ll get there one day.
Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].