What Turning 21 Taught Me

What Turning 21 Taught Me

Yesterday was my 21st birthday, and I find myself asking: as I grow older, who do I want to be? I’ve been having an identity crisis lately. I forgot who I am, forgot what it meant to be a writer. A week ago, I sat in my mentor’s office, alternating between scanning the titles of books on her shelves, and meeting the gaze of her green eyes. I had gone there to discuss feminism, activism, how to dismantle patriarchy when you don’t have a large platform. But true to form, I found myself complaining about my personal life. After babbling on about my friend drama, uni drama, and the emotional effect of my parents’ separation, I got to the real source of my distress: I’ve stopped writing, and I don’t know who I am.

My writing, and my identity as a writer, has always been my safe space, the one place in the world I could go to hide. It was something I relied on greatly, particularly in troublesome periods of my life. These past few weeks, I’ve felt like life has been attacking me from all sides. All I want is peace, and I can’t even get it in my sleep, because I have been plagued by nightmares about my waking troubles. Normally, in times of distress, my go-to solution would be to write a blog. I work through my feelings by writing about my experience. But lately I’ve grown paranoid about what I write on the internet. Twitter makes me fearful, I set my instagram to private, I barely post on facebook. Social media is a minefield waiting to explode, but this blog is a whole other level. Because this isn’t some dumb comment that can be taken out of context. This blog is a clear, thought-out exploration of my innermost self, and the fact people can read that and criticise it is downright terrifying. Because you’re not questioning an opinion, you’re questioning my feelings, questioning my experience of the world.

I learnt long ago that I am not always right. It’s an unfortunate fact, but I’ve grown to accept it. Human interactions are tricky, and often things that seem black and white are comprised of nuanced shades of grey. When you only tell one side of the story, you hold a power that can be lethal to wield. I strive to tell the truth in my accounts of my life, but I only know my truth, and it’s easy for wires to be crossed. I don’t want to hurt people, and I don’t want to be so blinded by my own experience that I forget there are two sides to every story. So I stopped writing, and lost myself in the process.

Something my mentor said to me last week stuck with me: “you’re still a writer, even if you’re not writing.” She was on point, as always. I rarely listen to other people’s advice, let alone seek it willingly, but I lap up every word she says to me, because she has this uncanny ability to tell me exactly what I need to hear. The words floated about in my head all week, and I almost wrote a blog a couple of days ago, but my nightmares stopped me. I was too scared of my own writing. But I told myself that’s okay. I’m still a writer.

What does a writer do when she’s not writing? She learns a lot about herself. Firstly, it would be false to stay I stopped writing entirely. I still force myself to write in my diary every day, but I’ve gone from writing a solid 3 pages every morning plus one at night, to diary entries that read “I’ll write tomorrow” or “I’m drunk” or “I have a headache”, or any number of excuses. I also started writing poetry again. Angry, feminist poetry. I used to only write about my love life, but after the many heartbreaks of the past two years, I’ve lost all interest in romantic love. I wrote one love poem in 2019, and I wrote it as stream-of-consciousness bullshit to make sense of a situation that continues to baffle me. Naturally, it was one of the best poems I’ve written. I also started auditioning for theatre — more for the experience than out of any hope of getting the parts. In the absence of blogging/novel writing/diary writing, I learnt to surround myself with other kinds of art.

I watched a lot of television, fell madly in love with Gossip Girl. By the end, I found myself watching upwards of six episodes a day. Not the healthiest habit, but it was exactly what I needed. For one thing, it taught me that I only love drama when it exists inside a screen, not in the real world. More than that, it reminded me of all the things I love about my novel. I love manipulative, amoral characters, who have only the tiniest of redeeming qualities. Those will always be the characters I am drawn to. When I started watching Gossip Girl, I despised the characters Chuck and Blair, and by the end of it I was utterly invested in their love story. Blair became my favourite character because she owns who she is, she learns to love herself because of her dark side, rather than suppressing it. There’s a moment in season six where she realises her talent comes from her more ‘deviant’ nature, and that’s the same way I feel about my writing. If I ever publish my novel, you’ll learn that I have a really screwed up imagination, and my writing is kind of dark.

A few weeks ago, someone told me my blogs read like I’m paranoid. He may have said it as a joke, but our senses of humour are somewhat mismatched, so I can’t always tell which comments I should take seriously. I think I argued at the time, but I’d had about six glasses of gin, so I doubt my argument was particularly sound. I’m not petty enough to write a whole blog on the reasons why I don’t sound paranoid, and I’m not bringing it up now out of pettiness. It’s simply that I’m not writing from a place of paranoia. I know what paranoid sounds like, because it is the most frequent tone of my internal monologue. But my blogs are something else. I write from a place that is often dark. At the risk of sounding like a massive emo, I write from the depths of my soul. I write what is raw, I write what hurts. I write to heal myself, and hopefully to heal others. I don’t do light and fluffy. I could easily have written some listicle of “21 things I’ve learnt in 21 years”, but that’s not how I want to enter my 21st year. I’ve learnt a lot through the absence of writing, and perhaps what I’ve learnt most is the weight of what I write, and the weight of its absence.

Last Tuesday, I told my mentor that writing grew to feel like an obligation. I told her how I published my personal diary in my travel blogs, and I felt like I was invading my own privacy. I felt obligated to finish what I had started, and I felt obligated to find positive conclusions every time I wrote something negative. Writing became exhausting, and I felt like I lost more than I gained from it. She told me there are lots of articles about women’s emotional labour and the confessional mode of writing. Her words struck a chord with me, particularly because I’d never even thought of my blog having a genre. But after a quick google search to double check the definition of confessional writing, I had an aha! moment. I (and others) have dismissed my blogs as being little (enormous) rants into the void of the internet, and not taken them seriously. But all along, I’ve been writing in a legit genre. Admittedly, a genre that often isn’t taken seriously when done by female writers (#fuckthepatriarchy), but a genre nonetheless. I felt validated, and deep down I knew I would write again soon. Then I had a fun nightmare about people mocking my blog, and I woke up like “hahahahaha lol nope, I ain’t touching this”, and I thought that was that.

I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards birthdays and attention. I simultaneously love and loathe being the centre of attention, and an entire day devoted to the celebration of my existence never quite sat right with me. But I had a really tough week, and receiving lots of attention was exactly what I needed. A theme that kept coming up for me this week was that I have a habit of loving people who either don’t know how to love me the way I need to be loved, or simply don’t want to. In situations like that, it’s easy to blame myself. To think I’m too much, that if I was somehow lesser I would be easier to love.

This time was different. I love myself a hell of a lot, and for the first time in my life I simply put up a “road ahead closed” sign on a bridge instead of burning it. I chose the high road, I chose civility, I chose myself. When you love yourself enough, you walk away from things not meant for you. When you love yourself enough, you can see where you’re at fault without blaming yourself for the entire situation. They say love is blind, but in my experience, love allows you to see with a level of nuance you wouldn’t otherwise be open to. Because real love is about seeing someone exactly as they are, and accepting the good and the bad. That is how I love myself.

This morning, I went into the kitchen to make breakfast. On the counter sat an envelope with a card, and a rose quartz crystal in the shape of a love heart. The card, from one of my flatmates, was the first thing to make me cry as a 21-year-old. No space inside that card was left blank, and for someone like me, whose primary love language is Words of Affirmation, that alone could move me to tears. But all the lovely things she wrote touched my heart. She’s like a big sister, who I can talk to about astrology and complain to about my love life/friend drama. She’s also an absolute genius who suggested I print out Aquarius memes and use them as party decorations. My living room wall has been covered in Aquarius memes for two days now and I still think it’s hilarious. I received more birthday cards this year than at any other point in my life, and so many of them are filled with sweet, personalised messages. From people who love and accept the real me. People who love me for ME.

I’m not always good or nice, but I am authentic. My favourite colour is purple, I love astrology, I’m passionate about feminism, I make too many jokes about wanting to marry people I admire (or sell my kidneys for them, or have their babies.), I’m a bizarre combination of contradictory personality traits, and the only consistent thing about me is that I give the best hugs. I spent 20 years trying to be a good girl, and at 21 I’m ready to embrace my inner rebel, ready to raise hell and start a revolution. There have been people who wanted to dim my light. They wanted a candle and they thought I was a wildfire. But I was the sun, and in my eclipse all they could see of me was darkness.

A couple of days ago I discovered a new song, “Moderation” by Florence + The Machine. The first line goes “You want me to love you in moderation. Do I look moderate to you?” and I feel that on a spiritual level. I no longer have space in my life for people who want the moderate version of me, I don’t do moderate. I know my value, I know where I am special. I also know how it feels to squish yourself down because you think it will make someone love you more. It doesn’t work, believe me, it doesn’t work. Even if it did, it’s not worth it.

It took me a long time to see it, because I have a habit of throwing all my love at the one person who will never properly love me back, but I am actually surrounded by people that love me, people that know how to love me. After improv last night, my friends squeezed me tight into a group hug, and sang “happy birthday” to me, and all I could think was that that was the most Eliza thing ever. Those people know how I need to be loved. Everyone who gave me a birthday card knew how I needed to be loved. Because, contrary to popular belief, I am not hard to love. All I need are kind words, compliments, and cuddles. I need equality, honesty, affection. Sometimes I scare people off by being upfront and honest, but I am done apologising for that. If there is one kind thing I can do for myself, it is to refuse to tolerate people who make me feel like I’m difficult to love, or not worth loving at all. People who are indifferent to me, people who don’t invest in me the way I invest in them. I know my worth, and I love myself enough to say “fuck you” to anyone who tries to make me feel inferior.

I just went off on a two-thousand word tangent. How on-brand! What I wanted to say is that turning 21 made me realise I need to get serious about where I’m going, and who I want to be. I need to take responsibility for my life. The first step to doing that is to recognise that being a writer is a huge part of me, but it is not the only part of me. I’m also an improviser, an astrologer, a feminist, a friend. There will be times in my life where I don’t write, and that doesn’t mean my writer card gets revoked. All it means is that there is more to me than my ability to spew words onto a page.

In my TV Analysis class last week, we watched three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. One of the things we discussed was how the characters live together, work together, date each other. Their work lives and personal lives are completely interlinked, and there is no escape from each other. In other words, my personal idea of hell. But I wonder if that’s what it’s like with my writing. Writing is work, but it is also my love, my best friend, my purpose in life. And I get so caught up in romanticising it that I forget it is work at all. But the emotional labour of writing isn’t something I can ignore forever. Sometimes I ask too much of myself, and I don’t want to give myself away for free — or worse, give up my privacy.

I will continue to write in the confessional mode, because it’s what I do best. But I will respect my own boundaries more. A huge part of growing up is knowing where to draw the line, and I still have a lot of work to do there. I know there are boundaries that need to be set in my writing, and the first milestone is knowing that I need to set them. It’s good to have a voice, but it doesn’t mean I need to talk about everything. Tonight I wrote out of inspiration instead of obligation, and it felt damn good to be back.

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