How to Be Your Own Story

When you fictionalise your life you have to invent some of the words yourself—the way they taste, the way they sound in the air—and twist them until no one can tell what hell you pulled them out of. When they ask, you tell them you read a lot as a kid, and then you let them poke at your surface to give them some clarity. They don’t need to know how you encouraged yourself to leave the mind and step onto the paper, with all your words held tightly in your arms. How you were careful not to drop them and break the memories from which they came. How much time you spent reshaping them until they no longer looked like the story beneath the story. No. They don’t need to know that the words are you. You need to tell them that you were inspired by books and movies and general knowledge, and get on with your life as if art were just an insignificant part of it that you inexplicably swallowed whole the first time you tried it. No big deal.

The process can be excruciatingly slow. Either no fire comes out, or not enough fire goes in. In the midst of it, you are all alone, your existence becoming dim and strange. You keep quiet and still to preserve mental space, waiting to put the new pieces together when they are ready. People talk about you in low voices about you. You seem calmer, more confident. The restlessness seems to be gone now. The spark in your eyes has gone out, they say. Parts of you are burning. The party is in your honour. Except none of them were invited. You hear them through partially open windows. You hear them through thick walls. Sunlight pours across your skin, your shadow lies flat on the bedroom door. You have soft eyes and long hair that you wear loose and keep gently stroking as you listen. There is shame. There is fear. But then there is also dizzying freedom. Your heart beats all over the place, except in their hands. It beats in your mouth, your ears, your nose, your toes. It’s a delicious feeling. Peace for you will come later, when your imagination is not so vivid anymore, when the spark hasn’t lit up so much inside you that you have to let it die down a little before you start typing, because otherwise you’ll burst into flames. You let them say you have matured, and you smile, but your smile is a secret.

This is the map of my heart. My name is the highest mountain, and this up here is the moon. This is the sun. I still name the stars after people I know, but I change the first letters and mix the rest together. That way no one can make the connection when they read me and wonder what really happened to them. I think that kind of play has always been my thing, the thing that attracted me to literature in the first place. I like to define and then paint outside the lines. I limit myself, then I rebel against it. I burn down the woods—here and here. I am the woods, so I come back—but over there. These cities are all graffiti, music festivals, and tree-lined streets. At night, headlights shine in all directions, and I spill dark blue ink and sprinkle stars on them. Boys wrap their fingers around the necks of beers and girls standing in yellow towels by the windows, holding hands and breaths. When the day comes, my sun splashes like water, and the glow spreads among the people. They go for long drives and drink orange juice and toast parked in the sunlight, and bread crumbs fall into their laps. I love nothing more than sharing the brief history of my heart without actually confessing anything. I don’t romanticise people out loud, but I sprinkle them with writer’s dust and lower them into my writings. My face no longer has the helplessness of someone you don’t believe in, and my hands are no longer an afterthought. I know how to make things come true, advancing upon them like holy cities, pushing aside everything that isn’t them.

Life outside doesn’t stop. Wide, soft moments grow on the edges of the map of my heart, like oil stains. I let them grow until they can no longer be ignored. They demand to be written down, to be given a place on the map. I keep writing because they keep coming back, long after I’ve lived them. I can’t resist them because I know they’re right. They belong here. Some are strange and full of promise, temptations at their finest. I need them to order my story, to give it meaning and sense. New rivers and roads will be built with them. Some are heavy and smell of rot, but they too must go in. I just need to change one or two things; there. It’ll be new land, but no one will live there. It’ll just be the distance between two places. I grin. I feel invincible, like I can take anything life puts in front of me and turn it into whatever I want. Lying on the sofa with my eyes closed, I don’t need any other form of escapism. From here on out, it’s easy. I feel my heart begin to harden and new words begin to form, turning into a cone of light, waiting for me to choose them. This is the place where I start to write. Art mixes with life again. I can breathe a sigh of relief. I begin to create, then recreate to my liking—wisely, ruthlessly, furiously. I know this will happen again, and again, and again. Biting my lips, I try to steady myself.

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