Whose Main Character Am I Anyway?

Whose Main Character Am I Anyway?

“Did you ever hear about the girl who got frozen?
Time went on for everybody else, she won’t know it
She’s still twenty-three inside her fantasy
How it was supposed to be”

– Taylor Swift, Right Where You Left Me

It takes an average of three small talk questions to realise I am not a normal person. I live in Dennistoun? Normal. I studied at the University of Glasgow for 5 years? Acceptable. I’m a formerly homeschooled vegan who’s written 7 novels? Yeah, there are going to be some follow-up questions there. In university, you can get away with being a bit weird. Veganism is normal, being homeschooled doesn’t usually come up in conversation, and the seven novels do make me different, but only to the extent that people frequently ask me to proofread their essays. For years I thought I hated small talk because I was shy. Now that I have to exist in the real world, I’ve learnt that I hate small talk because it doesn’t take long to mark me as an outsider. The further I venture into life beyond university, the more complicated my relationship with my old life becomes. It’s not that I want it back, I just don’t want it to be over.

Last night I had the horrifying realisation that almost none of my writing exists in the world anymore. I have been a writer for so long it’s more natural than breathing, and now it’s gone. To misquote The Fault in Our Stars “I deleted my writing the way you fall asleep, slowly and then all at once.” It started with unpublishing my novel. Self-publishing was a lesson in shame and humiliation. Most people fear that if they put their writing out there, no one will read it. I didn’t just have that fear, I lived it. I spent nine years of my life on a novel, and when I put it into the world, I was met with utter indifference. Everyone who said they would read it avoided the subject, or avoided me. The way my friends, acquaintances, etc, responded to my novel made it clear they were embarrassed for me, and after a year and a half of this, I decided it wasn’t worth it. All the effort, the decade of my life I poured into that book, it was fruitless. Its existence reminded me that nobody cared. When I realised it made no difference to my life whether the book existed in the world or not, I knew it was time to quietly remove it. 9 years, 134,000 words, the best of me: gone. Not with a bang, but with a whimper (if even that). It sits in a bitter place inside me now, in the gap where my heart broke open.

The blogs were another matter. The problem wasn’t that people didn’t read them, it was that they did. Sometimes thousands of people. There were parts of myself I no longer wanted on the internet. I’ve had this blog since I was 15 years old, I grew up with it. I can read through and pinpoint the time in my 18th year where I lost my spark of lifeforce, the time at 20 where I became terrified of my own writing. The best and the worst of me was bared for the world to see, and I no longer felt comfortable with that. I planned to go through and delete the worst offenders, copy and paste them into a google doc for posterity, and lay my teenage years to rest. The document got lost, I didn’t realise putting posts into the trash folder would make them autodelete a short while later. 40 blogs deleted, 70ish unpublished a few months later. I removed them all, save for a blog about astrology. I’ve written one blog since then. It felt pointless after that.

But the realisation that I had deleted all of my writing from the public sphere was horrifying. Writing, for me, isn’t a career path or a hobby, it is the way I exist in the world. Everything is a story, everything has meaning, and sure, it’s caused a tonne of major shitstorms over the past decade, but this is who I am. I have walked as far away from my writing as I could this year, and I can’t leave it behind. So I sit here, stuck in purgatory, torn between a colossal fear of putting my work back out into the world, and the knowledge that it will always be the core of who I am.

I have a bad case of Main Character Syndrome. 5 years ago, baby 18-year-old Eliza moved to Glasgow, joined an improv group, and The Eliza Show began its first season. Remember when I told you I was homeschooled? I didn’t learn to socialise with my peers from a young age. I learnt how to be a human being from listening to Taylor Swift songs and reading YA novels. Do you see the problem here? My understanding of the world was shaped by confessional writing, high drama, and a deep inner knowledge that I would one day fall in love with a close friend. When I did go to school, at 15, it went as horribly as you can imagine. University was my fresh start, everyone was new here, it was meant to be easier. Instead, my social anxiety skyrocketed, my self-worth reached an all-time low, and my flair for the dramatic became an unconscious coping mechanism. You see, if I am the main character in a TV show and/or coming-of-age novel, then of course all these horrible things have to happen to me, it’s part of the plot. Then I will fall in love and live happily ever after, and everything will work out in the end.

My best friend always used to say “if you’re used to someone loving you 5%, and someone comes along and loves you 10%, that’s going to seem like 100%”. I can’t remember the exact quote, or where they stole it from, but it accurately summarises my trajectory from 1st year to 2nd year. I think it was 3rd year when I fully conceptualised myself as The Main Character. An ambiguous incident at a party that summer gave me a whole new storyline to work with, and every loose end tied together. I had finally found the meaning of it all.*

*Spoiler alert: I hadn’t.

I lived in my whirlwind of drama for a couple of years, riding the highs and the lows and searching for something that would make it all worth it. There had to be a story there. It would all work out in the end. I would prove I was good enough, worthy enough of being loved. If I was thinner, less emotional, less dramatic, successful, a little less awkward… If I was just right, I would be worthy of being loved, of being taken seriously. But I was still working with 10%, on a good day.

There is no one year of my university experience that I could pinpoint as the most significant, but 4th year was certainly the most eventful. I returned from two months in Estonia on September 6th 2019, and I didn’t belong in my old life anymore. My clothes felt like a costume, my life felt a little off kilter. That summer, I had lived in a dramatic whirlwind to which my normal life paled in comparison. It didn’t take long for season 4 of The Eliza Show to return. Romantic drama, with enough hints this time that it could finally turn into something. Peculiar glances, weighted words, eye contact that felt like I was being loved at least 15%. In retrospect I want to vomit, but at the time it made a great story. The will they/won’t they, the uncertainty? Straight off the page of a YA novel. This was my world, this was an environment I knew how to act in. Sure, every time I opened my mouth I made the situation worse, but it would all be fine when I proved I was lovable and got my happy ending. That storyline culminated in January 2020 with me yelling “I’m in love with you!!!” (in public, because I am a main character, after all) and was met with a blank stare and enough meanness it has probably scarred me for life. It wasn’t love, it was a mixture of friendship and infatuation based on an idea of someone I had in my head that didn’t match their reality at all. I used to feel bad about this, but I recently read Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes, and there’s a section where she talks about doing this with her friends, inadvertently constructing personas for them that had little similarity to their true character. So sure, I wasted 3 years of my life on that storyline, but I have something in common with the creator of Grey’s Anatomy. The real take-away from this is that I’m so good a writer I can even turn real people into fictional characters. Here is the part where I would plug my novel, if it existed anymore.

4th year wasn’t all bad. A lot of it was. There was a month where I got an average of 3 hours of sleep a night because I was working full time (against my will. Thanks, Hilton), a student, acting in a play, and going to improv at least once a week. I had no time to breathe. But 4th year was also the first time in my life that I had two entirely separate groups of friends. I had my improv friends and my theatre friends. In early February, shortly after the “I’m in love with you!!!” incident, there was a night where I left an improv party, where I was feeling a little off, and went straight to a theatre cast party. A small moment, and yet pivotal for me. I had options, I belonged to more than one set of people. I was finally becoming the person I knew I had the potential to be.

At this point I wasn’t quite jaded about my novel yet. I had hope in most areas of my life. I even had jeans that made me look good. The world was filled with potential! For approximately 4 weeks, before the coronavirus pandemic hit and all my friends moved away overnight.
The summer was an abyss, working in a call centre, invisible to the world. I had little purpose. Going back to uni was a split-second decision, and one of the best I have made, but I was not a main character this time. My master’s went by in a digital blur. It changed my life, gave me a sense of purpose, but I as an individual was not significant to the world. 2020 and 2021 had one saving grace. I went on long walks every couple of weeks with a friend from the play. Our walks and talks sustained me, and in April 2021 it became more than friendship. Love crept up on me, with little drama, less than a week of yearning. Peaceful, safe and beautiful, a love that’s a hundred percent, even on days when I don’t feel like I deserve it. I got my friends-to-lovers romance, the love that Taylor Swift’s songs promised me, a love that some days does remind me of a YA novel.

There are beautiful things in my life. A man who loves me, hopes of returning to uni next year, finally coming back to improv after a year-and-a-half hiatus. There is good in my life. But I feel invisible. I stopped feeling like a main character, throughout the pandemic. I stopped wearing my signature purple clothes, quickly realised masks are incompatible with lipstick, and got over my aversion to wearing leggings in public. I lost my self-expression. And I lost my writing. I gave up all the things that make me uniquely Eliza, and I don’t know what’s left of me. My book is dead and gone, my blogs feel like a pointless endeavour, and my best friends are still half way across the continent.

I changed. (Duh!). And I worry I romanticise my old life now. Yesterday I went for brunch with a friend, and I heard down the grapevine that an acquaintance thought XYZ had happened in an old storyline of my life. If I’d heard that rumour a couple of years ago, it would have bothered me. It wasn’t anywhere near the truth, after all. My reaction was more muted now. I thought it was funny, mostly. But it swept me back into thoughts of my old life. I don’t want to go back, to being loved 10 percent, to friends-if-they-can-be-called-that who treated me like they didn’t even like me as a human being. But I want to write about it, and I don’t think I’m allowed to. Writing about real people is a shitstorm waiting to happen. No amount of changed names would undo the fear that would come with that. But the truth is, I don’t want to write about real people. Because they weren’t real, not really. They never chose the role I cast them in. Villains, maybe, I don’t blur the lines between fact and fiction there. But love interests? They were stories from my head that I inserted onto real human bodies. The only similarity is their appearance. I’ve had a lot of friends ask me what I saw in XYZ person, and I gave a whole range of answers at the time. They got me in a way others didn’t, they looked at me like I was the only person in the room. I have no way of knowing if that’s true now. The closest I can come to an answer these days is: I loved the character I created in my head. It’s easy when someone leaves the country for a year, or talks in such vague sentences you’re forever searching for a way to decipher their meaning. I’m an improviser, honey; I work with the prompts I’m given. So I have my answer that I’m comfortable with now: none of it was real, they were just characters in my head. And let me tell you, I write a goddamn entertaining story. I can walk past those people on the street (three days in a row, because the universe thinks it’s funny) and not even glance in their direction, because that story is over now.

I don’t want to write about individuals, I want to write about myself. My experiences. The moments that defined me from 18-22. Maybe I will one day. Even writing that sentence terrifies me.

I don’t really feel like I exist in the world anymore. And to a certain extent, I could be content with that. If I had a flat that wasn’t constantly messy and gross, and a job that didn’t make me want to gouge out my eyeballs. If I had a bigger bedroom, where I could sit and read and write. I could be happy. I could be. Maybe if I write enough in my diary, I won’t need an audience, I won’t need to make people care. But the truth is, I didn’t get my happy ending. I have a love I didn’t even dream was possible. I am loved so deeply and fully that it has fundamentally changed me as a human being, but love was never meant to be the ending, it is the beginning. My happy ending doesn’t come from one thing, one person, it comes from the combination of three: a partner, a community, and my writing. I used to have a community and writing, and now I have love. But I need to be seen in the world, I need my work to be valued, and, to put it bluntly: it isn’t and it never was. I don’t feel like a main character. Most days I feel invisible. Life after university is empty and unfulfilling. I have little free time, I live on the opposite side of the city from my old life, and each day is identical and boring. I don’t miss my old self; I wouldn’t want to be her. But I miss her opportunities. I miss her free time, her student discount, her ability to see herself as the star of the show. I miss her vitality, in the brief moments where she had it.

I wanted to make the most of this year. If my life plans work out, this will be the only year of my adult life that I don’t devote to academia. Academia is a cult and a pyramid scheme, and I fully intend to be in it for life. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but this is the place I belong. I had grand plans, to set myself challenges, to do something with this time, be the best version of myself, become the main character of my dreams. It’s been two weeks since I finished my master’s degree. Today is the first day I’ve fully had to myself since then, and it was a struggle to get out of bed, to wash my hair, to trek halfway across the city to the gym. I don’t feel motivated, I feel like both of my life purposes are gone, and I don’t know who I am without them. I considered creating an Instagram account, calling it “The Eliza Experiment” and documenting this year of my life. Then I thought about every public endeavour I have attempted, and decided against it. I considered writing blogs, and decided against that. I’m writing this one to prove a point to the mean voice in my head, to prove that I am a writer even if I stopped feeling like one months ago, that’s it.

I lost all the things that made me Eliza. My writing, my social life, my purpleness, my studentness. I want to get them back. I want to write the stories I want to write, because fuck what other people think. I want friends to go on coffee dates with, friends who understand all the parts of me no one ever has. (If any brave extroverts want to adopt me, you know where to find me). I want to dress in a way that captures my essence. I want to skip forward to next September and be a student again.

I want to be bold and brave and live a meaningful life. I want to be seen and valued, to stop living this invisible half-life on the sidelines. And I don’t know where to begin. But baring my soul on the internet seems like a great place to start.

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