A few weeks ago, I met Garth Greenwell at a reading of his book WHAT BELONGS TO YOU. I was completely taken aback by his eloquence and uplifting ideas. During the discussion, he said one thing (among many other wonderful things) that stayed with me: “[I’m paraphrasing] the wrong or hurtful things we hear and are taught as children will always stay with us; we can never grow up to be as if we had never heard these things; but what we can try is to turn them into something useful.”
Now, this might not sound very uplifting at first glance. But the effect it had on me was a sort of a release. I felt released from a felt obligation to make some parts of my past disappear, to make them heal without any scars. This is indeed impossible. We all bear within us our childhood traumas. Sometimes, parents, in an unhealthy combination of love and fear (and lack of empathy), say things to their children that are destructive rather than protective. I’m a parent now; I understand the mechanics of this and try to stay clear of these worry-ridden parental traps. But when I was a child, I did not understand where the hurtful things I heard or was made to believe came from.
But hearing Garth Greenwell speaking about his own childhood and how he deals with the baggage he carried over into adulthood made me realize that I should rather own how I feel about my own baggage rather than try to fix it or forget it.
In my case, I was made to believe that pursuing writing was a bad life decision; that it would one day lead me to being poor and jobless. Who knows! That might have been true had I stayed in Bulgaria and studied literature. Life in Bulgaria was not easy then and is still not better now. But then, I moved away from Bulgaria which cardinally changed my prospects, and the reasons for not supporting me in my passion for writing switched to that I would never be as good as a native speaker was (I wish I had been aware of Nabokov or Conrad’s biographies back then). Cleary, these arguments came from some deep-seated fear: fear that, in all probability, stemmed from my parents having had to grow up in communist Bulgaria where realities were much different from my life today. I just wished they had explained their thoughts to me rather than tried to make me deny a part of myself. I understand now, but back then, damage was caused, and I was unable to share my writing for years and years to come.
So, this leads me to something else. Our childhood baggage would very often result in us carrying around unhelpful narratives about our aspirations and inclinations. And until now, I had thought that in being fully aware of my own narratives from the past, I was above them. But, no. I don’t think I ever came to fully own my writing aspirations. Often, I would trip myself, limit myself, would not dare write something because I thought it too grand for me to write. I never fully became aware of this until the reading of What belongs to you. Several realizations hit me on the drive home: that I needed to own my past; that I needed to own the part of me that was suppressed and set it free; and that the two are connected. Owning the hurts of the past is what fuels turning trauma into something useful; it is what gives us ownership of our present which is never untouched by our past but is at least totally ours.
So, own it.