Pseudonyms and Milk Carton Faces

In The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Janie recognizes her own baby photo on the back of a milk carton (the pre-internet version of an AMBER alert). The resulting drama stretches through a total of five books and was even adapted into a made-for-tv movie.

The part that stuck with me happens early in the story. Janie is in English class, finishing an essay. She writes her name at the top of the page but the way it looks on paper is sooo boring. She'd already tried sexing up her name last year from Jane Johnson to Jayne Johnstone.

Now she took the "h" out of Johnston and added a second "y" to Jayne.

Jayyne Jonstone. It looked like the name you would have if you designed sequined gowns for a living, or pointed to prizes on television quiz shows.

Later on, her English teacher hands back the corrected essay.

At the top of the page he had circled Jayyne Jonstone, adding, "Janie, you having an identity crisis?"

I burst out laughing at this point. Every single time. 

Like Janie, I hated my name. I thought it was sooo boring. It never felt right, like I was an amnesiac trying on a name.

In high school, Susan turned into Susyn then into Suzzyna. Teenage insecurity and awkwardness donned a figurative cloak made of y's and z's. I'd watched enough teen movies to believe in the magic of makeovers. Suzzyna could dazzle the world into submission. She was the superstar my parents pushed me to be — unafraid, confident, beautiful, successful.

I wore her cloak for a very long time. And when Suzzyna wasn't bright enough, I created other personas based off of people I admire. I eventually ended up with so many that I could even choose which one to put on, like costumes hanging on a rack.

Doors turned into stage curtains. Whenever I was about to walk into a room, it felt like I was waiting in the wings, counting down my entrance. One deep breath to suppress my fears then I'd step out into the spotlight.

Afterward, once the curtains lowered and I was safely back in the wings, I could never remember what happened on stage. All I had to go by was audience reaction. Applause told me I did something right; laughter meant it all went wrong.

Living this way was stressful but it didn't seem too bad. I graduated, got married, started a career, but after having worn so many masks this long, I couldn't remember what I looked like.

When I tried to be myself, anxiety cut through my skin, flaying away composure to expose raw panic. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I was trying to make sense of my naked body when I'd only ever seen the photoshopped version. I'd been taught to judge myself by how well I blended into the glossy pages of a superficial world.

It wasn't until recently that I learned those masks were a coping mechanism. What I'd thought was teenage insecurity and awkwardness turned out to be crippling social anxiety, complete with selective mutism and sensory processing issues. 

Whenever environments or situations became too much to handle, stepping into a different persona dialed down the panic. Adding y's and z's into my name helped me feel just safe enough so I wouldn't shut down. 

Looking back now, I see how this anxiety has affected my writing. I could only ever write under pseudonyms — each one tossed aside as soon as I felt unsure. I experimented with voices and styles, trying to mould myself into someone I thought I should be. And because I worried what others thought, I did what I'd always done — disappear into yet another persona. The unfortunate result? All the things I had to say vanished too.

Which brings me to the point of this entry.

I dug up some old blog posts that had been published under pseudonyms. They've been migrated to this site because I want to start writing under my own name. No more personas. No more masks. (A brand new site design marks this occasion.) I may be afraid of so many things, but I know now that I am also confident, beautiful, and successful. I've always been. All I needed was to recognize the face on the milk carton — the missing me that I've only just found.

Mike Myers on Creativity & Perseverance

At the 2014 Savannah Film Festival, Mike Myers sat down with SCAD's President, Paula Wallace, for a candid conversation. After watching a two-minute clip of the interview, I found myself transcribing some of the things Myers said, particularly the portions on creativity and perseverance.

On natural talent: "As I'm getting older, I don't quite know what natural talent means except a willingness to study and persevere in the face of rejection."

On rejection: "Don't give up. NASA has a fantastic expression which is: There's no failure, only early attempts at success. You know, there's a lot of rejection. The rejection should inform you and not define you. The reward of doing this work is the creativity itself. I make something every day. I don't show it to everybody but I make something."

On the joy of creativity: "If you focus on result, you'll always be heartbroken. If you focus on product, you'll sometimes be heartbroken. If you focus on process, you'll never be heartbroken because that's the joy."

Extremely timely advice.

To me, writing can be heartbreaking work, because it's near impossible to tell if I'm improving. There are no grades, no performance reviews. My brain is wired to measure my worth in work, finances, relationships, because I feel the need to justify my existence in this world. When I was younger, having a direction (or destination) was important, but writing reminds me there is value in not having a direction at all. It's scary and hard but IMHO, more fulfilling.

Here's the original clip:

A New Year's Reflection on Five Years Worth of Writing

I've been writing regularly for five years. And in those five years, I have written the following:

  1. Three fanfic pieces (10K to 20K words each)
  2. Two novel-length manuscripts (150K words)
  3. Six novellas (15k to 30k words each)
  4. Hundreds of blog posts, short stories, personal essays spread throughout various websites

It might not seem like a lot, but prior to those five years, I only wrote about 100k words in the span of ten or fifteen years. Creatively, that is. I'm not including papers for school or reports for work.

I wish I hadn't stopped. If I'd been writing for all those missing years, my writing would've been on a whole other level today. But then again, I'm not sure if I really had anything meaningful to say back then.

Time goes by so fast. I was a different person five years ago. Different priorities. Different dreams. It's the end of 2014 (at least it was when I was writing this), and nostalgia has been keeping me up at night.

Also, a really bad cold. (I'm surrounded by snotty tissues right now.)

I tell everyone that Bioware changed my life. Looking back, if I hadn't been so inspired by their stories, I wouldn't have started writing again. If I hadn't been writing, I'm not sure I would still be here. At some point, showing up, typing out my words one at a time became my only way to breathe.

I talk about the girl I used to be as if she was a different person. And in a way, that's true. The cells inside me today are different from the ones that used to make up my body back then. But maybe there's a thread that connects the kid-me to the person I am today. If there is, I'd like to imagine that little girl—the one I see in my writing—giving me permission to keep breathing.

Growing up is a funny thing. When you're young, you think you're growing into the person you want to be, but I'm starting to think it's more about rediscovering who you used to be. We're made up of scattered memories—some good, some bad—but it's not until we're older that we can tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

I've always liked this particular quote by Steve Jobs:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."

Which also happens to be the first part of my favorite motivational video:

I have a love-hate relationship with well-worn paths. It feels like I've been out of step with life since I was old enough to walk, yet I can't not be out of step anymore than I can stop writing. The more I talk to other writers, dreamers, artists, weirdos, the more I see this sense of unease, or dissatisfaction, in them too.

If wishes were real, then my New Year's wish for you would be to follow your heart no matter where it leads you, to fall down a lot, to dream. I hope you dance. A lot. With or without pants. Be brave, be strong. I hope you find your joy, that one thing that keeps your feet on solid ground when things turn crazy but also that one thing that will give your heart beautiful, giant, extraordinary wings with which to fly.

I'm starting to ramble. I blame the cold medicine.

Anyway, my goals for the next five years? Keep writing. Keep making meaningful art. Keep breathing.

In Which I Finally Understand Bruce Lee and Discover What “Being Like Water” Means to my Writing

My birthday is coming up. This one feels like a milestone even though it's not. I'm not turning thirty—I passed that a while ago—but I think my heart's finally catching up to my age. It's a good feeling, because I think I finally understand what Bruce Lee was talking about.

"Be like water," he said. "Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow."

When I first heard that quote, I was in my twenties.

"Ridiculous," I said. "Water's weak. It's shapeless. It dilutes."

I wanted to be like fire: vibrant, painful, all-consuming. The passion of my youth was like a roaring bonfire. I graduated from a program that I'd fought so hard to get into and got a job everyone told me would be near impossible to get. I binged on life so hard that I never had to deal with the repercussions of taking whatever I wanted whenever I needed it.

I was a winner, because I had to be.

Part of that was to make up for lost time. When I was in my teens, I felt like rock: dull, lumpy, stuck. I was forced to sit still while life roared at me like wind buffeting against cliffs. Whether I was in class or at home, I was surrounded by people who knew what was best for me. I followed someone else's dreams, believed in someone else's way of thinking. It may have taken a while, but enough of my pieces chipped away until I was ground down to sand.

And now, with another birthday on the horizon, I finally want to be like water.

It's not about being the strongest or the brightest in the room, it's about showing up and having the discipline and honor to put in 110% no matter how shitty I'm feeling. It's not about being shapeless, it's about having the quiet confidence to flow around obstacles. Not to smash or burn them away, but to accept their presence and acknowledge the resulting ripples as beautiful and necessary things. It's not about following a path—whether career or personal—it's about being true to yourself.

And the truth is: No matter how I've changed, my writing has been the only constant in my life. Maybe the style or the purpose behind it has changed, maybe I wrote on blank pages with pencils instead of on a laptop, but the act of creation makes more sense to me than anything I've ever done. I may have wanted to be like fire or forced to be like rock, but my writing has always been like water.

And it only took me a couple of decades to figure that out.

The Writer as a Modern Nomad

I sit down to write another thousand words in my work in progress, but my writing seems a bit more mehhh than usual. I'm having a hard time focusing. I think I'm getting sick or maybe my body is trying to recover from traveling so often the last six months.

It's hard to be back home, to be forced into a regular schedule. I miss being on the move, but writing while traveling is hard for me too. It takes a while for me to put an experience into words, because I don't realize how things affect me until long after I'm home. It's always the smallest things that end up sticking to my brain.

In Rambles: A Field Guide to the US, Eric Peterson writes that stories are about a man leaving home or a stranger coming into town. I think that's why I need to travel every so often, I'm happiest when I'm unsettled, because stories are about movement.

Life should be about movement.

If I stay in one place too long, I feel like a stranger in my own skin, like all the boxes we're supposed to check off in the game of Life become the only measure of a life well lived. It's a load of crap. I know this. What's on our business cards shouldn't mean more than who we are, yet I'm guilty of judging people and allowing myself to be judged. My family includes doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, lawyers, and here I am, just a vagabond writer, struggling to put experiences into words.

Traveling isn't only about seeing sights, it's about the experience of being a stranger in someone else's town. I'm a solitary traveler. Some people make friends easily, but I'm not one of them.

Being a nomad means not having a home. It means always moving and being unsettled. Hard to do because biologically and culturally, we're supposed to form attachments with people and places. I have my day job where I'm as attached as a house to its foundation, and then there is my writing where I feel the best when I'm unsettled.

There is a lot in common between traveling and writing. Our ability to create art expands our metaphorical horizon the same way our literal boundaries expand each time we travel to a new town. To be able to stand as an observer when we're strangers in someone else's town is to be able to witness what it means to be human: chaotic, unfathomable. To write someone's life, even if it's the life of a fictitious person, is to find a bit of meaning in that chaos.

On the side of Dog Bark Park Inn, a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in Idaho, there is a sign that reads: A Noble and Absurd Adventure. After driving a thousand miles, I stumble out of my car to stand beneath this sign. There's not much around me; I'm surrounded by fields of wheat. There's no reception, no wifi, and the nearest town has a population that's less than the number of students at my old high school.

I don't know why I drove so far out of my way or why I chose this place as my destination, but all it took were those five simple words to illuminate the thinnest thread of meaning throughout my life. Writing is like building a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere just because you can. It's noble and absurd, and that's why I do it.