I was nine years old when the need to write overtook me.
I’m sick; I’m chronically ill. I don’t have a good grasp on what that means, but I have a new black Five Star notebook and a set of Gelly Roll pens (the start of a collection that will later make me the envy of seventh grade math class). I make a girl who looks like I want to look: petite, thin, straight black hair, fair skin, bright green eyes. I put her in my blue hooded shirt, white shorts, and sneakers. Like a cartoon character, she does not need to wash them.
I write her into my favorite TV shows, games, and books. She’s stranded on a desert island thanks to The Baby-Sitters Club, where she kisses a boy who turns out to be her long-lost twin à la Star Wars. On her way home she boards a train, which derails in the style of an accident I heard about in Reader’s Digest (I think this is the one), complete with my newfound knowledge of triage tags.
I can’t sleep one night, so I slump on the floor dramatically: she’s the damsel in distress, and someone must carry her to safety.
I scoop up my pillow and vault with it over the bed: she’s the selfless hero, carrying her beloved to safety.
I pull my mattress half off the bed and tumble down: there’s been an avalanche! Run! To safety!
By the time I’m eleven and she’s twelve, I’ve filled three notebooks and run out of ideas. I get my hands on a demo of Final Fantasy VIII and spend the rest of the evening trying to hop around my room without touching the floor, brainstorming about how I can write her in and have her steal the main character’s heart.
She becomes a teenage soldier, and an accident-prone one at that. When I visit the doctor I can pretend I’m her, getting a blood transfusion. We upgrade our wardrobes together. To get the boy, she needs a red spaghetti strap tank, a black miniskirt, combat boots, and gloves. I never do successfully communicate to my parents why I would like to wear fingerless leather gloves to school.
She and I begin to even out. I lose weight, she gains it. My hair straightens and darkens. I give her crooked teeth. We top off at five foot one before either of us turns fourteen.
The war ends; she survives. She becomes a healer. She becomes a teacher, and this is where her life begins to splinter. I’ve settled her down with her beloved and a truckload of friends. I’ve even given her a steady income. Now what?
I attempt sequels, spinoffs, and alternate dimensions. None of it sticks; I’ve written her into happiness. I’m outgrowing her cast of friends gleaned from other people’s stories. A character who’s not in pain is no good to an author like me, desperate as I am not to lose her. So I do the only thing I can: rip her from her comfortable world and begin again.
Same girl, same name. Her hair is blonde now, her eyes dark. She’s got freckles across the bridge of her nose. When she’s the same age as I was when I made her, I kill her parents in a house fire. Custody goes to her big brother, who’s a different guy than the one she kissed way back when, but who still has an inappropriate relationship with her. I give her a redheaded love interest who looks like my own. I also give her the belief that both men in her life are occasionally possessed by the Norse god Loki.
I still, after all this time, have a penchant for drama.
For my first NaNoWriMo in 2003, I try to put down her story. I get about 3,000 words in before quitting, with the excuse that people keep peering over my shoulder while I’m on the family computer. Really, I just don’t know where to direct her within the confines of the story. She tries to ritually kill her love interest’s ex. She tries to ritually kill herself. Her brother is arrested for a hit-and-run. She turns up pregnant. I amp up the drama; I don’t know what to do with the girl. If I solve her problems, how can she help me cope with my own?
I try again to write it down for NaNo 2005. I finish three chapters, which impress my senior year creative writing class, but not me. Not until close to graduation do I realize that I have finally out-aged the girl. I’m eighteen and off to college. She’s stuck at fifteen, agonizing over the big history project where she’s partnered with her crush.
I give the thing one last go in November of 2006. I’m in my first semester of college. I’ve got a dorm room and a boyfriend and, so far, a straight A average. Despite my class schedule, I make it to 35,000 words, farther than I’ve ever managed before. I believe life is going the way it’s meant to go at last. I’d like to tell you that I no longer need the girl and relegate her stories to history, but it isn’t true.
For a while, she and I still see romance as the end of the line. I’m still sick, but I’ve gotten the guy, and he will help care for me. With him, I will feel loved in spite of my flaws, and I will no longer be lonely enough to resort to imagining that a merry band of fictional characters are my closest friends. I am dedicated enough to this idea that I am willing to overlook it when my dream lover pulls a book from my hand and flings it across the room because behind it, I am falling asleep. He’s right, I should show more respect when reading something he has recommended to me.
I am willing to overlook it when he shouts at me and shakes me for failing to wash his favorite shirt in time for class. After all, I did offer to do his laundry. He’s right, I let him down. I offer to do more to make it up to him. I am willing to overlook it when he slaps me because his cereal bowl isn’t clean. He’s right, I’m lazy. He’s right, this is real life, most couples are like this behind closed doors, it’s the price you pay for love. If I were to ask anyone else, he says, they’d laugh and repeat what he’s told me. I wouldn’t want to be a whiner.
I’ve lived my whole life in a world of fiction. How am I meant to know these rules?
Before I understand what’s happening to me, I’m living in a war zone. So this is what it was the girl I made used to feel when she was running for her life. This is what it felt like when a man held her down. Now, I dress her in bruises. Comparing scars with her is the only way I know to survive.
I need help to leave. External, not internal.
The last time I write about her is for NaNoWriMo 2010. I have been away from the boyfriend for a month. I am trying to process what has happened to me, but she insists upon acting as a filter. I give her what she wants: a man like mine. I have him chase her across county lines. He pounds his fists into her arms and leaves overripe-looking bruises that I describe too graphically. She begs and pleads, but she is powerless to escape.
That’s the girl’s problem. She is powerless. Obedient, kind, bright, and determined, yes, but without a situation to react to, she cannot act.
I can’t afford to be powerless any longer.
I kill her off that year. She’s between her man and another character he wants to get at. She she’s cornered but does not idly wait to die. She charges at him and tackles him, sending him through a window. Together, they tumble five stories down. She’s dead on impact, and so is he.
It’s been three years since then. Her essence is still around, but diluted. I am done being her reflection. I am the one who is real. Today, November 11, would have been her twenty-seventh birthday, had I let her live.
So, here’s to you, Ashley. I kick off this blog in your name. You were there when I needed you, and I don’t blame you for holding me back. Without you, I wouldn’t have written the hundreds of thousands of words that helped me develop the ability to handle what I’m working on today: an epic fantasy series about two immortals who, if you lean in and look close enough, carry the fragments of your heart somewhere deep inside their souls.
I’d be lying if I claimed that I no longer consider my characters friends. They have a part of me, each and every one. It’s what gives them life. Ashley, whose favorite color was red, whose necklace I still wear, had the part that was a scared child, desperate for safety and love. I promise to write my characters well from here on out, but I will never stop loving them.
Rest in peace, little girl. You’ve grown into something bigger.