In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: Dude this essay is everything! It is a first-hand experience of someone discovering who they are and becoming that person. It’s like watching a flower bloom for the first time. Love!
Initial publication date: 1/19/2016
Evolution of a Story
In the beginning there was a New Year’s Eve party. At thirty seconds to midnight, four bottles of champagne in, I learned the lesson every writer has to learn: written words shape my life.
The ball dropped, and the room erupted into shouts, confetti, and champagne toasts. I leaned over to my boyfriend for a kiss, but instead he offered me a confession. “I read your journal.”
I froze, oblivious to the chaos surrounding us, unable to see or hear anything, except his moving lips. My inebriated brain tried to process the full implications of what he had just said. I tried to find a response, but through the liquor, noise, and people, no words or actions could express the depths of my confusion and fear. He took my silence as encouragement to expand upon his confession, and proceeded to tell me he didn’t like what he read, including, but not limited to, a question I had posed. The question: I wonder if my boyfriend is as smart as me? Looking back I am quite confident he was not as smart as me, because choosing to confess anything to your twenty-three-year-old girlfriend, when she is four bottles of champagne in, is a terrible idea.
My journals were for me, and me alone—a consistent place to record my thoughts and preserve my handwriting’s evolution. At the time of this lesson, I had not yet had the realization that I was a “writer”. At the time of this lesson, I was a girl who turned to pen and paper because writing didn’t judge—it was safe and always available. At the time of this lesson, I was like every young woman I have ever known, and I sought validation from the person who slept next to me at night.
Envision hysterics, and crying, and complete devastation as only a self-absorbed-twenty-something-girl can have and you’re right there in the moment with me. During that all-night, exhausting argument I came to understand: as soon as words were laid out on a page they truly have a life of their own. Each sentence and story would lead the reader to a place they choose to go. As the author, I had no way of knowing where my words would end up—or who would read them.
While that night was dramatic and awful, it isn’t the worst part of the story. The terrible part began the next morning. My driving us home from the hotel, and my apologizing for my writing. My back-tracking over my words, over the truths and self-examinations I needed to write down in order to figure out who I was becoming as a person. My crying and begging his forgiveness. My losing confidence in the safety of writing. Our relationship made it through that night, but my writing did not. I stopped because I didn’t want to upset him. Writing was the first thing to go, followed by friends, activities, and any other things he didn’t approve of, my life snipped apart one disapproving comment at a time. I shaved away so many aspects of my personality that when I finally left him I was in shock at just how much of my life I had thrown away.
I have never been more grateful for my friends then in the moment one said, “Jess, your friends will always take you back.” Luckily, writing will always take you back too.
To say I stuck my toe back in to the writing waters wouldn’t be accurate. I drowned in them. A long-distance ex turned up, and with our first rekindled conversations I remembered what it was like to be me. It was a matter of seconds before I reached for the pen and started writing him letters. Thinking back now, I’m actually ashamed of how many letters I sent him. Those letters weren’t for him; they were for me. I had unknowingly wrapped the freedom of the written word into letter writing. Even though we only saw each other a handful of times a year, that man knew me better than anyone, because on the page I was not scared to be myself. He was the only person I had ever trusted to read my work, and he had become my ideal reader—whether he wanted to or not. While the relationship didn’t last—something more important did. From a combat-zone half way across the world he’d found an Internet connection and e-mailed me four simple words, “You’re a good writer.” And that e-mail stuck, because if he felt it was important enough to pause fighting in a war to tell me, when our relationship was an anomaly at best—he must really have believed it to be true.
Just before my thirtieth birthday, I was still journaling away, but had stopped sharing my work. I’d managed to extricate myself from all men at that moment, and found myself five years in to a corporate career. Scratch that—a terrible corporate career. The kind where I spent my day in a gray cube, and got yelled at by people on the phone, and sometimes I yelled back. My brain was rotting inside my skull. A slow and sad death of neurons day after day, because I never had to think or do anything that challenged me. This cannot be my life. There was a gaping hole in my existence, and I didn’t want to spend the next thirty years living like that.
I started searching. I looked at all the people around me, hoping to find the weird-o happy ones without a gaping hole in their lives. They weren’t in my family—Conoleys weren’t raised to be happy. We were raised to work and get an education. They weren’t at my work—how could anyone be happy when we didn’t even get a window to look out of? They weren’t my married friends—half of them were already looking for husband or wife number two.
But then I found them.
The truly happy people had found their passions and worked at improving upon them. My musician friend, Scotty, who had forgotten more about music than I would ever know, wrote songs and practiced with his band. My painter friend, Jesse, whose living room was so filled with canvases there was never anywhere to sit, spent more of his money on paint than he did food. My computer coder friend, Mary, who could lock herself in her apartment for days coding—whatever that was—would light up like the sun when you asked about her work. I hung out with each of them, and knew I wanted what they had. I wanted my own thing, something I was good at and loved so much I would do it for free, something that would keep my neurons firing and fill that gaping hole.
Now here’s the part where I sound like an idiot, (well I sounded like an idiot with all that nonsense over men, so maybe I should say this is the part where I continue to sound like an idiot.) I had to take a test to find out writing was my passion. Yup. I drove all the way to Texas, paid six-hundred-dollars to a research institute, and spent forty-eight hours doing insane stuff like: arranging eye-shadow into color sequences, writing really really fast, and arranging poker chips with words on them onto place mats. At the end of all that madness I was told my brain was set up for writing and if that didn’t work out I would also do well at disaster management.
I got back to Kansas, looked at those test results and at my shelf of journals and thought why not? I’m already half-ass doing it anyways. Six months after my thirtieth birthday the conscious work regarding my writing began. I met with a career counselor who specialized in job transitions. I read. I joined writers groups. I wrote. I learned how to critique other people’s work. I read. I learned how to have my own work critiqued. I wrote. I sold my first essay. I read. I performed readings of my work out loud—to audiences. I wrote. I had my writer business cards made. I read. I became an editor. I wrote. I did my first radio interview. I read. I finished my first novel. I wrote.
It took me another five years to leave my corporate job, and then my education in the writing field really took off. In five months of intense focus on writing I learned more about the craft then the whole five years I did it as a glorified hobby. The lessons were ones I didn’t know I needed: how to set boundaries, how the time I get to write should be guarded fiercely, how to sit in the chair and work at it every day. I learned that this is what I do, because it is who I am.
Now it’s just me and the work—one word after another. I have hope that each piece will be better than the last. I’ve learned to let the stories go where they need to and send them out into the world. I don’t know where the words will end up, or whom a story may affect—but that’s the part I love. A story is magic, and that has nothing to do with me.
By Jessica Conoley