Elena, or why I started writing in the first place

I wrote this originally as a reflection assignment in which a certain short story of mine was criticised rather harshly for what I believed to be unjust reasons. This was my response to the so-called criticism, and also a personal reflection on why I started writing in the first place.


I have written this story so many times now.

They started as letters. The first day I met her, I wrote her a letter, and threw it out the window of a moving train. She faux-pouted and then smiled at me, my words no longer important or meaningful compared to the look in my eyes. That was the first letter I ever wrote to her. The next forty or so, I haven’t a clue what they were about anymore, and they’re just as well lost to the wind; but I’m now convinced beyond any doubt that they were what endeared me to her – these stupid, silly letters, one every day, most of them filled with whimsical dreams of Europe and love, of root-beer and summertime: like I said, stupid, silly things. We were both really young, and arrogantly, hopelessly naive. We had no idea the kinds of things awaiting us; but back then, really, it didn’t matter so much. We were in love, so it goes, and when you’re in love, you think you’re invincible, you think you’re endless, you think you’re forever.

Then she died.

I continued writing her letters after that. I didn’t know what else to do; 645 days, 645 and counting pages of affection and anxiety and arousal and agony – it had to mean something, I felt it inside me, I really did – but I couldn’t explain what it was. Maybe I didn’t even know what it was. Sometimes I wonder what kept me writing: was it love? Hope? The promise of something beyond even death itself, perhaps – or just muscle memory, the ghostly visage of a phantom pain? Whichever one it was, it was the only thing that kept me going for a while.

It didn’t take long for her to seep into everything else, either. You can trace through the papers and essays I wrote since then a map of my suffering; in each distinct node and cluster, the genealogy of agony, and the teleology of grief. You can see where the memories started becoming indistinct, where the root-beer and summertime evaporated into a hazy glow of lost dreams and wistful nostalgia; where she started slipping away into a fugue of ambiguity, despite all my best attempts to bring her back; where cautious acceptance ebbed away into weary resignation, and I lost my will to fight back against the tides of oblivion.

And then came the stories.

I have written this story so many times now. There are pieces that stay roughly the same: sections which I’ve transposed by memory through sheer force of mechanical repetition; phrases which stuck with me in our endless, numbered days and resonated for years afterwards; moments, details and the briefest glimpses which I couldn’t forget no matter how hard I tried.

The rest comes and goes.

The pieces which have changed: how it happened. Why it happened. Where I was, and what I could have done – or what I couldn’t have, more accurately. Who we were; what had happened between us which set her down that doomed interstate in the first place. These are things I’ve lost to the undertow, or in some cases, more than willingly gave up in toxic, cirrhotic jerks: remember to forget, so they said. These are the parts which, for each and every time I tell this story, corrupt and come together, gather and flow to become as the river of my memory, expanding to fill the firmament of her. For each iteration, each constant vision and decision and revision, she is revived, she is exalted, she is crushed, and so am I: an entire history of violence condensed to a singular moment, inexplicably and hopelessly lost in a split second of rending metal and jagged glass.

And so this is my latest revision.

I’ve been told that this is not how a story should look: that this is not how a story should go. A story has structure, so I’m told, and a story needs character – something compelling to drive it forward, to keep readers reading. This is all good and well, and there’s not a single part of it which I can deny; the confusion then, on the reader’s part, is not one of lack of comprehension, but miscomprehension. To put it frankly: this is not your story, and I don’t care if you read this. There is plenty of theory on good writing out there, much of which I have read; people have been writing about it for centuries now, and I am well-versed in the rhetoric of proper storytelling: of how to draw a reader in, how to captivate her, how to bind her to your story even long after she’s turned the last page, and all that’s left is a lingering sensation, as delicate and present as a good perfume. But this is not good writing, and this is not your story.

I know it’s not within the confines of assignment, and that with a move like this, I am placing myself, and my grade at critical risk. I have indeed revised it from the original, as instructed; but these revisions are revisions of memory, of emotion, rather than of narrative efficiency or compelling storytelling. The story remains the same, and the same flaws which were pointed out have not only been left in, but have probably been intensified. This is not out of disrespect, to be certain – not out of disrespect, not out of arrogance, not out of self-presumption – but out of sincerity. This is the story I want to tell, and I’m going to tell it – genuinely, sincerely, exactly how it comes to me. To do anything else would be dishonest, and gratuitous. I could’ve just as easily told a much different, more conventional story which would’ve satisfied the guidelines laid out to precise exaction; but this is what came to me, and although it’s not my best piece and I’m not the best writer by any standards, I will still stand by it nonetheless because this is a story that must be told – not for you, not for anyone else, but for her, and for myself. It’s not meant to be profound; it’s not meant to be poetic; it’s not meant to be world-changing, or genre-defining (and even if it was, I would still have failed, spectacularly). But it’s what I feel, what I am, in a way, what I’ve let define me, and what I’ve defined the world as; and if that doesn’t matter to you, well, at least it matters to me.

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