As I sat in my favourite coffeeshop this morning, writing in my diary, I had this moment where I saw myself, and my identity, in a different light. It was a typical Wednesday morning, and I spent the hour between my classes the way I always do: drinking coffee, getting lost in my thoughts. I was writing a diary entry about things which happened yesterday, because I hadn’t wanted to write about them last night. I found myself pausing at the end of every sentence, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story, even though no one will ever read it. I put in little details like the colour of the fairy lights in the Zen room in Tchai Ovna – things which didn’t matter in the sequence of events I was recounting, yet gave life to the story. I wrote my diary like a memoir, or like a novel.
As I observed myself doing this, I thought “God, I am SUCH a writer!” That is an obvious statement, given that I write novels/blogs/poetry, but it was more the realisation that there’s a difference between writing as something I do, and writing as something I am. This morning, sitting in Cafe Twenty 2, I could see myself clearly. I am a writer, I experience the world as a writer. I write diary entries as though they’re scenes in a novel, I picture my life like it’s a TV series. And whilst I don’t view my life as fiction, because it’s not, I view it through the lens of narrative. Everything that happens to me is part of the story. And whilst I tend to be wrong when I see “signs” and think that everything is foreshadowing something, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t narrative arcs and character development in my life, or any of the other things that make a good story.
I spent the rest of the morning thinking about identity, and all the things that make me me. Last week, when I was slap bang in the middle of my first existential crisis of 2018 (the existential crisis lasted about two weeks, but last week was particularly bad, as can be seen in my previous blog post), I began to think that every aspect of myself was merely a symptom of anxiety. The way I talk is a symptom of anxiety, the way I act is a symptom of anxiety, taking four months to get over a guy I liked not replying to my text was DEFINITELY a symptom of anxiety… When I voiced these concerns to my best friend, she was having none of that crap, and rattled off a list of all the things about me which aren’t anxiety symptoms. Things like my interest in robots, my all-consuming passion for coffee, my interest in Eastern European countries. (She even said “Eastern European countries” not “Eastern European men”, so I knew she was serious). I could add many things to that list, but of the three things she mentioned, most of my friends know, at best, two of them. My coffee addiction is self-evident, and I start every story I tell with “When I was in Eastern Europe…”, but I rarely mention that I’m fascinated by robots, let alone that that fascination is because of the robot storyline in my novels. Because that would involve me mentioning that I write novels.
These thoughts had been bouncing around in my head all morning. Then this afternoon I was talking with another friend, and talking about some of the not-so-great aspects of me. He mentioned that I have a habit of talking a lot without actually saying anything. I would call it “talking about things in the most roundabout way possible and using more words than necessary”, whereas he calls it “talking in circles”, which just illustrates the point at hand. I then told him that I feel like I never talk about things I’m interested in, and he said that he’d noticed that. Naturally my first thought was “well shit, that means everyone will have noticed it. Everyone must think I’m boring.” But I started thinking about it, and realised why I am that way.
Back when I was burning in the raging fires of hell (I mean, back when I was in secondary school), I was a very open person. I cared about a lot of things, and I talked about them. I would talk about feminism, about my novels, about ethics…anything I was passionate about. Unfortunately, school is not the kind of place that fosters individuality, and people were absolutely horrible to me because I had the nerve to care about things. Then in my first year of university, there were people I spent a lot of time with who always seemed to dissuade me from talking about my own interests. And I became so used to feeling like there was something wrong with me for talking about the things I cared about, so I stopped.
The other night I was in the pub after improv, and most of the people at my table were having this heated discussion about art, and the value of art, and whether modern art is real art and worth paying money for. It was something I was interested in, yet I didn’t say anything for the whole conversation. Because I am scared of my opinions, scared of my voice.
Looking at that in the context of my conversation with my friend today, I can see that I really don’t help myself. It’s not only that I don’t talk about things I’m interested in, I also don’t participate in the conversation when other people talk about such topics. I can blame that on my anxiety, as I have up until now…but these are not people I’m particularly anxious around. These are my good friends. It was not anxiety which prevented me from participating in that conversation on Monday, it was habit. I am not used to stepping out of my comfort zone, I am not used to letting people know my opinions. I am a people pleaser, I’m scared people will hate me if I say the wrong thing. I’m also compulsively honest, so I know that once I open my mouth, nothing but the truth with come out, regardless of whether it will please people. I thought I was an open person, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to lay all my cards out on the table. It’s a self-preservation instinct, to keep myself to myself. Because in the past, when I’ve been vulnerable and shown my real self, I got hurt, and I’m still recovering from all the damage done to me in school.
There are areas where I’m completely open. Particularly, about my mental health. Perhaps that’s a self-preservation instinct too. When I’m in a bad space, it’s easy to isolate myself, to push people away. So instead I do the opposite, and broadcast my insecurities all across the internet by blogging about them, so that people know I’m not okay, so that they’ll understand why I’m being a crap person for a while. One thing I’ve learnt this week, is that there’s a difference between making people aware of my anxiety issues, and being nothing more than my anxiety issues. It’s like I’ve been hiding behind my anxiety all this time, and using it as a substitute for a personality. But I HAVE a personality, I have interests and hobbies and quirks and weird obsessions. I know why I don’t show that side of myself, I know where those issues come from, but I am in an environment where Eliza the Interesting Person would be welcomed, not shunned. It’s time for me to let her come out of hiding.
I always thought I was an open book, because I have a tendency to overshare. But I realised today that I am a really hard person to get to know. I am open about my emotions, and my fears, and my flaws, but I’m private about my interests and my passions. I’m only open about the bad stuff, and I hide all the parts of myself that actually make me me.
There are parts of my identity that do still shine through: my sense of humour, my favourite colour, the way I show love and affection. But that makes me what? A purple-clad innuendo machine that wants to hug everyone all the time? That’s not a full personality, and I’m in danger of people mistaking it for one. I am incredibly self-aware when it comes to my flaws. I could tell you everything that’s wrong with me, and what I’m doing to try to change that. But when it comes to my interests, I’ll come up blank. I know what excites me, what makes me happy, what I’ll stay up half the night reading about, yet if I had to compile a list of all those things I wouldn’t know where to start. If you asked me to compile a list of my flaws I’d be rattling off words like “jealous, obsessive, over-sharing, unable to let things go, people pleaser, drama queen, self-destructive” before even taking a breath. Yet I struggle to say what I’m fascinated by.
So here is my attempt; my attempt to present myself as an actual human being with actual interests and motivations. This is me: I want to learn Estonian. It’s the 5th hardest language in the world to learn, and the hardest Latin alphabet language to learn, so obviously that isn’t happening any time soon. But by the time I die, I want to be able to speak Estonian. I presumably have 70 odd years left, so I’ve got time on my side. My interest in Estonia has two origins: the fact it’s where three of my novels are set, and my longer history of being interested in Eastern Europe. When I was about nine, my mother said something like “Russia is one of those countries I’d never want to go to”, and ever since then I was fascinated by Russia, particularly Soviet history. And that interest broadened into an interest in the former Soviet satellite states. When I started writing my 3rd novel (also known as my first decent novel) when I was fourteen, I decided to set it in Russia. Then I needed another country for my characters to go to, that was near Russia, and I remembered this article about Estonia that I’d read in Lonely Planet magazine the year before. I started researching Estonia, reading all about it, looking up pictures online. You could say I fell in love with the country by internet stalking it.
When I was 17 I decided I wanted to go there, and by the time I was 18 I’d saved up enough money to make that dream a reality. I worked four days a week, whilst studying for my A Levels, and the week after I finished sixth form, I set off on my great adventure. I got lost before I even got to the airport (I had to get three trains across London, it was a recipe for disaster), and I had a massive culture shock when I got to Estonia and realised the reality of being in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. The thing about countries, and people, is that you can’t get to know them from internet stalking alone. Estonia was this whole other world, and I was terrified and awestruck, and I spent a lot of my time there crying from homesickness. But it was like a religious experience for me. I went on my pilgrimage to the land that my fictional characters call home, and it changed me. I went back there last year, as part of a two-month journey across Europe. Within the past two years I’ve spent four weeks in Estonia, and I feel as though I have only just scratched the surface, especially because of the language barrier. But I am in love with that country, and it’s greater than my general fascination with Eastern Europe. (Disclaimer: I know Estonia is technically in Northern Europe). When I was in Tallinn the first time, I could feel the characters from my novels all around me, as though they were real. There is something magical about that. I had a tie to this country which was unlike anything else. I left a part of myself in all the countries I travelled to, but Estonia has the most of my soul.
I realise now that a lot of my interests are related to the novels I wrote. For example, I love robots. I don’t know that much about robots, but they’re so cool. My novels deal a lot with the idea of robots, and where to draw the line between what is human and what is robotic. So every time I hear the word robot, I’m like “yasss! Robots are so exciting! Robots are fascinating! Robots! Robots! Robots!” (but this is all just in my head, I generally don’t have that reaction out loud). I suppose even my interest in philosophy, in ethics, in personality types, or even my interest in Media audience theory, links to the central themes of my novels which is “what does it actually mean to be human?” That’s the other thing about me: I’m fucking obsessed with my novels.
My novels which I hardly ever talk about… I don’t know whether that’s more to do with people in my old school saying things like “I want to buy 40,000 copies of your books and burn them” or to do with the fact that I’m horrendously bad at explaining what my novels are about, so I avoid the topic entirely. I’m always like “do you know the myth of Persephone and Hades? Well it’s like that…but set in Russia and Estonia…three hundred years in the future…and it’s also only loosely based on the myth, and there’s a revolution…and there’s science involved!” Let’s just say I haven’t *quite* perfected my elevator pitch.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m ashamed of my novels. They’re my greatest achievement, the one thing I’ve created that I can’t talk myself out of being proud of. Yet I rarely talk about them. I rarely talk about any of my achievements. I feel bad when I talk about the time I fell asleep in an exam and got an A, as though I’m scared to admit that I’m smart. I played the saxophone for four or five years, and I’ve mentioned that approximately three times since coming to university. I actually intend to start playing it again, after not having touched it in about five years, so that will be interesting. What I’m trying to say is, there is so much of myself that I hide, from a misguided fear of being judged.
I’m passionate about social justice issues, about politics, about veganism, about romantic comedies and Lana Del Rey songs. I read spiritual self-help books. I’m strict with myself about eating healthy. I’m strict with myself full stop. I have high standards, I refuse to let myself collapse and crumble, no matter how bad my state of mind is.
There is this whole world inside me that I have been afraid to show. The past week or so, I’ve felt like something has been shifting. The catalysts were small: things like getting drunk and blabbing one of my secrets to a friend. Admittedly, I don’t have secrets because I’m compulsively honest. But I have enough restraint to be selective about what I tell to whom. Then last week I drank two ciders too many, and found myself telling something to the one person who could actually offer me a different perspective.
Naturally I spent the next week overthinking the whole conversation, and suddenly I found closure for a situation I’d spent four months tying myself in knots over. Once I had my closure, I started asking myself questions like “why did this occur in the first place?” and “what is it within me that led this to happen?”, and the answers I came up with blew my mind. I have a habit of putting people up on pedestals, particularly men. Then I realise they’re human after all, and feel rather let down. Today I realised why I was so attached to the last of 2017’s Long List of Unfortunate Crushes. For the whole time I knew him I kept telling myself “he was different…he brought out a side of me that no one else does”, as though this was some huge thing. Then today, as I realised just how bad at interacting with humans I am, I suddenly had the answer. This guy was the kind of person who asks a lot of questions, so I always had really interesting conversations with him, because I’d had no choice to talk about all the topics I usually avoid: I told him about my novels, my political views, my life goals, I explained to him the concept of straight/white/cis-male privilege, all because he asked me questions that allowed me to talk about stuff like that. I talked with him about things I haven’t talked with most of my friends about, just in casual conversations. And because he was tall, hot, and Eastern European (which just happens to be my type), I got completely infatuated. But now that I can see why it happened, and look at it from the perspective of everything else that’s been going on in my life, I can rationalise it, and take away any remnants of pain that remained. It took getting drunk and talking to his and my friend about it to make me question why I hadn’t moved on, but it took my newfound understanding of myself to understand why it had happened in the first place.
The other theme this week seems to be learning new things about my friends, people telling me things that I wouldn’t have expected of them, or me telling people things that explain to them why I am the way I am. I feel like a few of my friendships have changed dynamics this week, and I don’t know if that’s a major change itself, or if it’s just setting the foundations for whatever the next major event of my life will be. All I know is that something has shifted within me this week. I’ve reached a point where I have to stop telling myself the bullshit excuses I’ve settled for for so long. It’s unnerving, but in a way, it feels beautiful. It’s like I’ve been curled up tight for so long, and I can suddenly stretch my limbs, extend myself out into the world and explore a new perspective. I don’t know what comes next, I don’t know how much I’m going to change, or even whether or not it’s for the best. But it’s the next chapter of my story, and what kind of a writer would I be if I didn’t want that story to move forward?