Writing advice: What would you say to your former self?

The internet doesn’t forget. But sometimes you forget the essays or articles or assignments you take on … and years go by, and suddenly you get an email one day that says something along the lines of:

I know you wrote this a lot of years ago, but I’m wondering how this turned out because I’m facing a similar situation. Was there a light at the end of the tunnel? What advice would you give your former self?

It doesn’t happen often (to me, anyway), but last week I got just this kind of email.

It was about¬†an essay I wrote in 2013 — a full five years ago. I had honestly forgotten I wrote it. Luckily, the person who emailed me included the link, so I went back and re-read it. Talk about an out-of-body experience! Was I the same person who felt and wrote those things?

Well, duh. Of course I am.

But it was still strange. Maybe because so much has changed. Back then I was still struggling to be “a writer” — three years before I wrote that essay, having never written anything beyond a few film scripts and having settled into a comfortable, good paying job as a librarian, I tossed my career and everything else into the air and moved 1,100 miles to pursue an MFA.

It was scary. For many reasons. You can probably relate.

I am a big believer in documenting your life. Not because there’s anything inherently interesting about any of our daily minutiae, but because it’s useful for measuring time and progress. I’m the kind of person who has those five-year, line-a-day journals, and I actually use them. At a glance I can see, oh, two years ago I was working on X project … wow, things have changed!

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found it’s very easy to get lost in the moment and feel like who I am right now is who I’ve always been and always will be … and to a certain extent, yes, that’s true. Not to get too Zen about it, but who you are in any given moment is who you ARE.

But, really, we also choose to change over time. It’s this beautiful thing called personal growth.

And sometimes we miss the forest for the trees.

So, I went back over that essay to put together the best answer I could for this person. Because obviously I understand what it’s like to give up a career and a safety net to follow a dream. It isn’t easy. And it doesn’t always feel like it’ll work out.

I get it. 

But so. Many. Things. Happened. between the time I wrote that essay and the day this person emailed me — not least of which, my father died, and I’d loved and lost, I connected with a person who helped me heal a lot of garbage, I bought my first house and drank coffee and wrote letters in a cafe beside the Eiffel Tower on my 40th birthday. I ghostwrote a book and became an editor and did a lot of things I didn’t even think were in my plan.

How do you condense all that into a message to your younger self?

For me, it came down to this:

No matter what choice you make, there are always hints of, “What if…?” That’s human nature. But, to me, it was always more important to try the new thing. To have the new adventure. And for that, I’m grateful to my former self.

You always know what you left behind. And you can be 99.9% certain if you stayed where you were at, it’s going to look and feel about the same. That’s great if you love it … not great if you don’t.

I don’t think it was coincidence that the day I got that email was the same day I co-host a monthly freelancing workshop downtown, and I drive by the old library where I used to work.

Every time I’m downtown I am so happy in my heart — so happy remembering the excitement of making plans to move to Boston. So happy remembering the day I found my apartment and got everything settled up north. That was a magical time and incredible experiences grew from my life there. I didn’t always feel that way when I was IN it, but I thank my former self every time I drive through downtown, because there is nothing but gratitude for taking the leap.

For me, everything was worth it. And yes, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t just a light, it was the life I imagined for myself when I was slumped over that dirty pile of laundry on my bathroom floor … wondering if it would ever work out the way I hoped. I tell that person thank you for sticking with the bigger vision.

You give up a lot of security to chase a dream. You go through a lot to take a chance. There are rough weeks and months as you muddle through … but there are rough times regardless.

Finally, I said something that someone once said to me:

This year is going to pass just the same whether you're sitting on a couch watching TV or doing things that stretch you ... the only question is, who do you want to see in the mirror a year from now? Click To Tweet

Whether it’s your career or your personal life, what is the most important thing you’d tell your former self?