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Kristine: A Question of Identity

A few months ago, I found an old high school friend online, someone I haven’t seen or talked to since the summer after we graduated. To be honest, I never thought I’d connect with this person again, but the power of the Internet proved me wrong. It was a weird encounter and one that sort of sparked an identity crisis within me.

My friend had endured physical hardships but came through those hardships with amazing strength, accomplishing things that literally took my breath away. When I was asked what I’d done since high school, everything I said paled in comparison.

Not that I haven’t accomplished a lot. I have a college degree. I’ve done well in my field and professional life. I have a great husband and beautiful daughter. I live in a comfortable home. On most days, I’m extremely happy with my life.

So why did I freeze when the subject of my writing came up?

To say that I was “still working” on becoming a novelist after almost 17 years sounded…well, amateurish. When I thought about reconnecting with my high school friends, especially this one in particular, I dreamed about being able to proclaim that I’d achieved my goal and was a published novelist. But I couldn’t say that, and it made me feel like I’d failed in the one thing I was so passionate about all during high school.

Talking to my old friend was motivating in a strange way. The conversation pushed me to work even harder to finish my novel and jumpstart my career. If my friend could overcome enormous odds and accomplish so much, there were no more excuses for me.

Turns out my “kick in the pants” came from a “blast from the past.”

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kristine, I feel this way often. I was always “the writer” and in our 8th grade end-of-year superlatives was elected “Most Likely to Write the Great American Novel” and “Most Likely to Host Her Own Talk Show.” No pressure, huh?

    For our 10 year high school reunion, we were aked to fill out a questionaire about what we’d been up to, and some were read at the reunion. Mine was one of them. On paper, I sound like a fairly accomplished individual. Married. Master’s degree. World traveler. Lived in different places. Winner of three playwriting contests.

    But oddly enough, I don’t feel like I’ve done much, because I haven’t lived up to my own dreams for myself, whereas, my high school buddies think I’m doing exactly what they expected of me.

    And of lot of this ties into my own personal feelings of happiness, since I feel like I haven’t lived up to my potential and feel stagnated a lot of the time. I watched Oprah yesterday and had an ephiphany about my life and what it means to be happy. I’ve written about it on my blog if you’re interested.

    Kicks in the pants are good though, and maybe putting our accomplishments on paper is a good way to gain perspective, too.

    January 6, 2009
  2. let me guess, kristine, you reconnected with this old friend on facebook? i’ve reconnected with so many old friends that way, it’s kinda crazy sometimes. reconnecting with your past does make you look at your life a little differently, doesn’t it? i got a letter from an old friend over the holidays. she and i have remained in touch sporadically, but this letter surprised me because it was an apology for acting like such a “jerk” at times and not realizing what a good friend she had in me. i was truly taken aback, because while i knew we had had our ups and downs, i couldn’t remember any particular incident that would prompt such a letter. we all take our own paths, and i think we have to own them as that…no better or no worse than what anyone else has done, just different. i think each of us finds our own way in our own due time. i’m not a novelist and don’t ever plan to be, but in my opinion even working on a novel, published or not, makes you a novelist!

    January 6, 2009
  3. cathy #

    kristine, i appreciate this moment of clarity for you; however don’t discount the fact that you have professionally been an independent writer for a good long time. you may have taken a side trip from fiction to tech writing, but it’s more than many who dream of being writers have done.

    i have an interesting story that may support your confidence: when i first moved to virginia, i noticed a familiarity about a local news anchor. he had the same name as a childhood friend of my younger brother, and a vague resemblance to the kid i knew. i looked up his bio, and sure enough, it was him. in his bio and in talking with my brother, was the remark that his childhood dream was to be the yankees broadcast sports announcer. both the bio and my brother commented on how he really did make his dream come true, if a bit sideways: he is a known face in broadcasting. and he coaches baseball.

    i only bring this up as an example that you are a writer. now you can head in the fiction direction that was a big part of your youthful dream.

    and remember: dinner party conversations net essentially 2 responses when what do you do – i’m a writer comes up. the inquirer suddenly notices they need a refill, or the inquirer tells you they could write a book. (but they never do)

    January 6, 2009
  4. Kristine #

    “But oddly enough, I don’t feel like I’ve done much, because I haven’t lived up to my own dreams for myself, whereas, my high school buddies think I’m doing exactly what they expected of me.”

    Brittany: You’ve nailed it here. This is exactly how I felt, and I agree that it has a lot to do with my own personal expectations and happiness. If I was satisfied enough with what I’ve accomplished, I probably wouldn’t have been so affected by this strange encounter.

    January 6, 2009
  5. Kristine #

    Kelly: What an amazing letter from your friend. It’s amazing to me how our perception of friendships and relationships change as we get older.

    I agree that we all eventually find our paths…but I just wish it wouldn’t take so long! 🙂

    January 6, 2009
  6. Kristine #

    Thank you so much for the kind words, Cathy. I love that we all have these great “reconnection” stories.

    I have to remind myself from time to time that I AM a writer, even if I haven’t grabbed that golden ring title of “published novelist” yet.

    January 6, 2009
  7. Liz #

    I think your attitude is the best. Sure it stings a little to feel like you haven’t accomplished as much as you thought you should have by now – especially in the face of someone who really struggled & still came out on top.

    But here you are being INSPIRED instead of DEPRESSED. You’re comparing, but in a positive way. That’s wonderful! Most people I know would make up a half-lie about themselves and crawl under the nearest blanket to mope. But not you.

    You’re hitting the keys – good for you!

    January 6, 2009
  8. Kristine #

    Thanks, Liz. I can be pretty stubborn in that way. 🙂 I think pride has a lot to do with it, as well.

    January 6, 2009
  9. It’s amazing how things like Facebook, our own blogs, and other social forums attract old acquaintances from days long past. We all want to be able to report spectacular success at our high school reunions, but rather than pulling a “Romy & Michele,” you’ve assessed where you’re at and decided to move forward with your goal in a positive manner. Bravo!

    January 6, 2009
  10. Debra #


    Facebook has made me feel exactly the same way! Sometimes I’m jealous of the people who wanted to be doctors and lawyers in high school, because they all achieved their goals…and while I’m sure it was hard work to get there, it was a path that was laid out for them pretty carefully, and followed a strict set of rules. If you work hard enough, you will succeed. Writing isn’t like that at all – and it isn’t even always about talent – it’s also about luck, networking, nepotism, marketing, and a dozen other things, in addition to the hard work.

    I had a college English professor who said that while poets did their best work in their 20s, no one had ever written a great novel before 40. I have never really studied the question, and I’m sure it’s debatable, but I do think that had I written that great novel that I dreamed of in my 20s, I would not be very proud of it now. I knew how to write a pretty sentence in high school, but I had nothing to say!

    There was a great article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker recently (I think it was probably an excerpt from his new book) about “late bloomers.” He makes the point that there are a lot of great artists who just whipped out a masterpiece at 20, but there are an equal number who toiled away for years and years before producing anything, or becoming known. His theory is that these people are more likely to be perfectionists. I tend to agree with that – while I’m not a perfectionist in most things, I do struggle with wondering whether anything I write is good enough, and I’m trigger-happy with the delete button. I don’t know if that makes me a late-bloomer or not, but I do feel like I have a better perspective on what writing is supposed to do than I did when I was 16 and dreaming of the great novel I would write at 25 – just because I understand more about the world, myself, and everything in between!

    January 7, 2009
  11. cathy #

    debra, excellent perspective!

    i was just thinking today that i was more committed to what i wrote before i became versed in computer skills and the ease of the delete button. i wonder if we all still had to write longhand, then draft on typewriters, if there would be much less dreck published?

    January 7, 2009
  12. Kristine #

    Thanks, Lisa!

    Great perspective, Debra. I am most definitely a perfectionist, too, and I struggle with exactly those feelings. Am I good enough? Is the story good enough? Do I have what it takes to write a REALLY good book? What I really should be doing is just going with the flow, letting my creativity and characters take me where I need to go.

    Cathy, I agree that computers sometimes make it too easy. I often write long hand just to remember what it was like back then, to appreciate the process of playing with words and language without the distraction of the screen and delete button. (I remember doing all my college papers on a typewriter/word processor.) It seems so odd to me now.

    January 7, 2009
  13. I’m not sure I’m a perfectionist, but I read a lot of books and think “How did this ever get published?” I have high standards for the books I read and want to produce nothing less myself. I may not always hit the target, but at least I’m aiming high!

    January 7, 2009
  14. I hear you, Kristine. At my 20-year high school reunion in 2007, various awards were given in a dozen categories. I watched with awe (and a touch of dread) as a handful of classmates vied for the “most degrees” award. I think there was someone who had FOUR degrees, three of them post-graduate.

    What did I get? I tied with one other woman for the “most children” award. We both had four. (Now I have five, so at the next reunion maybe I’ll win in that category all by myself.)

    Gee, four academic degrees versus four children? Somehow the goody bag that I took home for my “accomplishment” seemed sort of humiliating. Someone chalked up a bachelor’s, two master’s, and a PhD — and I chalked up four kids? I felt patronized, and mad at myself for feeling that way.

    If I’d finished and published something that meant something to me, maybe I would have felt differently about the evening. But there I was, among all my old classmates — with a large number of doctors, lawyers, and financiers among them — and all the old feelings of utter inferiority came flooding back. Not that those feelings are ever THAT far away anyhow. As much as it was a lot of fun to connect with old friends, that awful feeling of being “less than” was one of the main reasons that I hated high school — and I couldn’t believe I’d sent myself back there at the age of 38.

    I am a successful business owner and I know I’m good at what I do. That success was important in building my self-esteem, it doesn’t speak to what’s really important to me: my creative work.

    I’m not sure that I find motivation in the process of comparison, but I’m glad that you do. Whatever works, use it! And keep us posted 🙂

    January 7, 2009
  15. Kristine #

    Miranda, I will never understand why awards like those given at your reunion are established. They do nothing but compare everyone else, and those who don’t get awards end up feeling humiliated. Even as adults, we can’t seem to get away from the self esteem crushers of our school years, huh? I admire you for even going to your reunion. I’ve never gone to any of mine for that very reason.

    The biggest motivator of my “blast from the past” encounter was the talk I gave to myself after it was over. I asked myself how I wanted to be seen in five, or even ten years. My answer was…”A good mom and a published novelist.” I let too many years slip by on my creative dream.

    By the way…you’ve accomplished SO much more than your “most kids” award can even begin to demonstrate.

    January 7, 2009
  16. Don’t you feel like, as a writer, you’ve always been “apart” from those people that turned out to be doctors, lawyers, and financiers. From my perspective, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Debra said it best. These are people who stuck to a set path, and who are, from my perspective anyway, “stuck” in their identity.

    Me on the other hand, I can be a playwright today, and a poet tomorrow. A novelist next week. And when I decide I don’t want to write at all, I have a million other creative ideas up my sleeve. I meander. I diverge. I constantly wonder “what if…” and go see what happens. Doctors, lawyers, and financiers will never have these options.

    They look at people like us in wonder. We look back at them in wonder. We’re both asking each other “How do you do it?” thinking the other’s life is so much more accomplished, never realizing that the admiration is mutual.

    January 8, 2009
  17. cathy #

    wow, brittany, i hope that mutual admiration is there. the best i’ve gotten from the other type is that i’m so brave to live so broke while following my dreams! pheh! otherwise i really like your varietal stance, it definitely speaks to me!

    miranda, so sorry about the awards bit. ugh. i went to one hs reunion, 20th, and even without the awards, i don’t need to go again. not that my hs years were terrible, but it was the same old cliques, the same s***. nice to dip my toes in, but that’s a swim i can skip permanently.

    January 8, 2009
  18. Kristine #

    Well said and very true, Brittany. My DH is an accountant, a job I would go nuts doing after a few hours. Although he feels the same way about what I do, too.

    January 8, 2009
  19. Charlotte #

    Kristine, that could have been me writing. It seems quite a few of us are very familiar with this feeling, the burden of expectation (one’s own and that of others) and unrealised potential.

    I don’t have much to add that the others haven’t said above, other than an anecdote. Recently I got a phone call from a student at my old (university) college, who was helping out on a fundraising drive. This happened last year too. They are obviously given a list of polite questions to get the conversation going. The first is that they are “just calling to catch up on what you’ve been doing since you left college”. So I reeled out the same potted CV as last year, feeling as I did so that this must seem absolutely pathetic next to all the successful lawyers, bankers, company heads, marketing executives, management consultants, artists and academics this person was doubtless speaking to in the course of the evening. It seems to me that the majority of my contemporaries have spent the past 20 years working hard to realise their dreams and ambitions whereas I have just dithered about, hopping from one thing to another, never really focussing or actually achieving anything much at all, just getting by, and that I am essentially not much further on now than I was then – only, depressingly, 20 years older.

    The fundraiser, however, didn’t see it like that. She seemed genuinely interested and impressed, saying “but you’ve done so many different and interesting things, lived in all these different places, you’ve worked in theatre and radio, you’ve written children’s books, you speak fluent German, you freelance and find your own work…” She later sent me a postcard (of college) to thank me for “by far the most interesting conversation of the evening”. When I went to stick the card on my pinboard, I realised there was already am identical card already up there from the girl who called last year – and that it said almost exactly the same thing. So I guess my life hasn’t been totally without achievement after all, even though – because I expected, or was expected, to do so much – it often looks that way to me…

    January 11, 2009
  20. cathy #

    what a wonderful story, charlotte! since you have 2 of those post cards, care to mail one to my bulletin board?! lol!

    January 11, 2009

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