Every few months I read through my old diaries, sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of mismatched notebooks. My past self was a faithful keeper of her archive. I flip through the pages, reliving pain I had forgotten, lining my memories neatly into place. The thing that strikes me during each reread is how fallible memory is. I always forget I kept a diary during my first semester of university, and I’m caught off guard by it every time. Reading the 2016 diary is uncomfortable, because I have the context of its aftermath.
My 2018 diary is a treasure trove of cringy memories that pinpoint the brutality of being 20. There are parts that make me want to sink into the ground, and small moments of sweetness that make me giggle after all this time. I turn the page in anticipation – I know how the story ends, but I’ve forgotten how we got here. I remember every feeling I felt, but time has stolen the specifics. I look back now at 25 and know which people made me feel loved and valued, which people believed in me. The feelings have stayed, but it is only within the pages of my diary that the details of my history are chronicled. At its heart, it’s a character study. And it’s the year I’ve come back to most in my re-reads. I have zero desire to read my diaries from 2020 onwards, but 2018 fascinates me, because it is where I laid the foundations for my current self, my potential self, the person I hope I can one day be. 2018 was my coming-of-age story, a rollercoaster far more interesting than my pandemic diaries.
Within its pages are snapshots of my psyche. I had an earnestness at that age that made me think I knew myself well, but there is so much I see in my diaries that I can only make sense of in retrospect. I have the language now to explain why I struggled with the things I did, and that is empowering. But with that empowerment comes anger, frustration at the powerlessness I had.
As Maisie Peter’s says in her song Wendy “it gets old being forever 20”. I spent so much of my life in this stage of becoming. My life was a coming-of-age novel, and everything felt big and dramatic. I was surrounded by creative people, academic people. There was so much to aspire to, so much to yearn for. And adulthood is just really, really dull. I’m convinced I haven’t had a personality in 3 years. I am actively forgetting key personality traits of mine due to lack of use, and it’s so weird because those parts of me provide the context for the goals I’m trying to achieve. I forget that I’m naturally inquisitive, because I spend so much time trying to keep my head down, to not come across as weird or unusual. I fill my brain with mental junk food, submerge myself in the ocean of pop culture, rewatch the TV shows I’ve seen a hundred times. I don’t make space for newness. I miss being 20 and doing improv theatre every week. I miss going to class and being forced to have intelligent discussions. I miss the wealth of free time that comes with doing a film degree. I will never get those years back – and I don’t need to. I am loved, I am employed, I have hopes and dreams and myriad distractions. I listen to my audiobooks, lift my weights, learn Ukrainian, spend far too much time reading about the theory that Taylor Swift is a closeted lesbian. Amidst all the mundanity and small joys of my daily life, is my north star: my new novel. I started writing it in late December, and I have carried it with me throughout 2023. A place for my mind to wander, a world that belongs to me.
I spent so long on my previous novel that I barely knew where to begin. I didn’t know what my voice sounded like, or what I wanted to say. My inspiration came from disparate places: film history, the fin de siècle Ukrainian feminist movement, being a lil bit obsessed with an older woman for a ridiculously lengthy period of time, that kinda thing. This novel is precious to me because I’m writing about something I’ve been trying to articulate for nearly 6 years, and always struggled to put into words. It’s this disparity between the actual relationship you have with someone, versus the projections you have in your head. You make them bigger, brighter, give this weight to them that isn’t yours to give. And to them you’re just a person, you don’t hold any depth or significance. Imagine you are a very sensitive person, perhaps you suffer from rejection sensitivity dysphoria. And you’re trying to balance what you know to be the reality with this intensity you’ve constructed in your head. You try to put it in a box, give it a neat little label. If it’s a man, you tell yourself it’s just an intense crush. If it’s a woman, you tell yourself it’s anything but a crush, because you’re not ready to dissect the implications of that. But the feelings don’t fit in a box. They’re not one thing, you’re drunk on a cocktail of 12 conflicting feelings fighting for dominance. Most of them have little to do with the other person and everything to do with you. But this intensity is a mirror you hold up to your life, and their absence is as much a character as they are.
I wanted to use this theme of intense and asymmetrical attachment as a way to explore the horrors of being 20. You look at an older woman, and see hope, a path to follow. And as you get older, you realise you’re your own person with your own path, yet somehow you are walking in her shoes. You’re not following her blueprint to wisdom and success; instead, you’re fighting similar battles. What does that look like from the other side? What does it feel like to see a younger woman look up to you, only to watch her make the same mistakes, experience the same pain as you did, and be powerless to stop her?
My previous novel was about girlhood. I wrote it in my teens and early 20s. Writing in my mid-20s, I’ve turned to womanhood. I look back on who I was at 20, 21, 22, and I have so much to say about that age. I recall my own memories and see a fictional character instead of my own self. It doesn’t feel real now.
It’s not a coincidence that of the three main women in my novel, the 21-year-old is a theatre girlie, always dressed in bright pink and surrounded by her larger-than-life friends. The 25-year-old is hidden away behind the scenes on an island that’s empty half the year. She has her art, collects foreign recipes as a vessel for escapism, but she is filled with bitterness at the world that’s forgotten her. The 30-year-old is brilliant and put together, always out of reach, an absence more than a presence. It is such an illuminating past-present-future look at my psyche, and I’m fascinated by it. I never set out to write self-insert characters, but they appear whether I want them to or not.
Even the world I’m writing in feels like a reflection of my subconscious mind. The fictional setting is a world where magic has almost died out and been replaced with technology. The new cities are built on the impenetrable relics of the old world, immoveable and decaying. Which feels a little like walking through Glasgow city centre in 2023. The past lives on in its state of dereliction, and holds the present and future hostage.
Yesterday it was seven years since I moved to Glasgow. I remember it vividly, the rain and the excitement, the disappointment and loneliness. It’s odd, reading my diary entries from my first months here. I thought I was happy, yet the cracks show in my writing. The writing was on the wall, and on the pages. Happiness came later, in ebbs and flows. Friendship and theatre, travel and academic validation, mentors and inspiration and boundless enthusiasm. I have a different kind of happiness now. Love and stability, writing a novel that feels more personal than anything I wrote before. Plans for a new chapter after seven years.
I’m not living a coming-of-age story anymore, and I’m no longer writing one. I’m writing about what comes after. What does it mean to live as an adult, to mature and face the person you’ve been and the person you’re becoming? To feel like you’ve failed your mentors, failed your friends, failed a test you didn’t know you were taking?
I’ve learnt so much about myself within the past year. I have words now to describe parts of myself that have always existed. Having the language to describe yourself and your experience is powerful, it is healing. So much of my identity, and so many of my hangups, can be traced back to who I was at 20. I learnt the power of my words that year, and it terrified me so much that I’ve struggled with writing since. I learned why I needed to self-censor, and I took it to the extreme. My black-and-white thinking got the better of me. I’m coming back to my voice, but I’ve been saying that for years. Where other people talk about healing their inner child, I’m healing my inner 20-year-old. I’m healing her by writing a novel about intense women with big feelings, by taking her seriously and writing about the parts of her that no one else seemed to understand. I’m healing her by listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s new album on repeat, by letting anger and catharsis take the lead, giving a voice to the frustration that was so inherent at that age. I want to have my 20-year-old’s body, and I want her to have all the wisdom I’ve gathered from the years I’ve lived since. I want to tell my stories boldly again.
I’m not writing a novel about my 20-year-old self, but her real emotions bleed through into my fictional characters. She feels vindicated, she feels loved. I have distilled her essence and given it a whole new world to play in. Perhaps that is the kindest act of self-acceptance – healing inner child and teenager and young woman all at once. To say to her “I’ve made you a sandpit, in it you can build all your hopes and dreams”, give her a place where no one can tell her she’s too much. All any of our inner selves want is to be taken seriously.