It’s Ms. Amberg’s seventh grade math class. People are packing up for the lunch bell. Near the door, a group of students huddles around something, sniggering.
I have a bad feeling in my stomach.
“Hey Emily,” says one. He waves a scrap of paper. “Emily, Jacob Brent wants you. Jacob Brent looooves you!”
This was at the very turn of the millennium, when the internet was just moving from being a weird, mythical beast to an everyday commodity. Fan websites were sparse and ill-organized, and search engines were clunky and slow. So it was a significant occurrence to find rehearsal photos of one of my favorite Broadway actors online. Significant enough to write an exuberant note—probably with a lot of capital letters and literal squees—to my best friend, who shared my obsession with musical theater.
A note that had been read by my friend, acknowledged with mutual amounts of enthusiasm, crumpled, and thrown in the trash, where it belonged. She knew something like that couldn’t just be left lying around. But it didn’t stay there. For whatever reason, the note had been subsequently pulled out of the trash and read by this group of popular, cliquish friends.
“Hey Emily,” says the ringleader. “Jacob Brent thinks you’re so hot.”
I remember exactly who that student was, his name, his face. And I’m sure in the years since seventh grade, he’s matured into a kind and generous adult. But it doesn’t matter—I will always remember him this way, laughing at my nerdy note—my private note—where I had shared a little bit of my delicate tween heart with the only other person who would cherish the information.
I’d venture to say middle school isn’t easy for anyone. Everything is uncomfortable and everything is important. I would hardly go so far to say that I was bullied. Sensitive, yes. Hyper-aware of myself and others, yes. But no more traumatized than any average public school student.
But that didn’t stop me from being painfully embarrassed by my undeniably geeky interests and hobbies. Musical theater was only the first strike. Epic fantasy book series were strike two (this was before the Lord of the Rings movies came out and hobbits became suddenly desirable). My own novels handwritten in spiral-bounds were strike three. And, to make matters worse, I documented the ebb and flow of all my obsessions in my sketchbooks.
I think I would have stopped drawing and writing, if I could have. In fact, in many cases I would sit, picturing a sketch in my head but resisting the urge to put it on paper, because it was simply too geeky, and I didn’t want it physically existing in the real world lest it fall into the wrong hands for someone to judge me. But art was my main creative outlet, and I couldn’t stop everything. To compensate, I drew hunched over my page with my free hand blocking my pencil. I guarded my sketchbook carefully and shared it with only a few people. My writing I kept even closer. These were pieces of my heart, laid down in dangerously concrete form—God forbid the wrong people (which was nearly everyone) see them.
It shouldn’t have mattered. Everyone knew I drew, everyone knew I wrote, everyone knew I was into sword-and-sorcery novels. Everyone knew I was a nerd. It shouldn’t have mattered. But it did.
I don’t share this because I want a pity party or to bemoan the fact that kids can be dicks to each other. I share it because I want to illustrate my baseline—the underlying current for much of my life. I was the opposite of a proud geek. I did not let my geek flag fly. I was so, so embarrassed by the literature, movies, and pastimes that interested me. Art and writing mean being vulnerable—you’re airing out the inner workings of your head and heart, which are usually best left locked up. And that was nearly unbearable to me, from middle school all the way to around, oh, 2014. My husband didn’t even know I wrote recreationally until nearly four years into our marriage. It was the only secret I ever kept from him (except for the chai lattes I occasionally buy after exceptionally grueling grocery store runs).
And that’s why I’m sharing this blog post now, the week of my first novel’s release. Because know what?
I don’t feel this way about Woodwalker at all.
If you follow my Facebook page, you see all the sketches and finished pieces I post. Facebook! Not DeviantArt, where I can lose myself in a community of other geeky artists and hide behind a username. Not Twitter, where I’m anonymous and insignificant enough to just be part of the background noise. Facebook—a place where you can see my face in my profile picture, where my actual, legal name accompanies the images and excerpts I post. Where I am personal acquaintances with at least 90% of my followers.
And I don’t care at all!
And I know when I started not caring. It was when my husband found out about my writing, shortly after my second daughter’s birth. In our old house, our WiFi was pretty patchy and would often cut out during bad weather. One stormy night, after the kids were asleep, I was working on a different novel, always careful to keep my screen tilted away from my husband, who was doing some work of his own. I was getting pretty excited about my impending plot twist, and I’m sure my typing was louder than the rain outside.
After a little while, my husband looked up and said, “What are you working on?”
My answer was automatic. “Oh, you know, just Facebook and stuff.” (Because that’s so much more worthwhile than fiction writing.)
He paused. “Do you have Internet? My Internet’s been out for an hour.”
Well, I was caught. I’m not that good of a liar, and even if I was, my brain was too wrapped up in my thickening plot to come up with anything. He saw the slightly panicked, deer-in-the-headlights look on my face and got suspicious.
“What are you working on?”
“You’re typing like crazy, and our Internet’s out. What are you doing?”
I’ve found there are generally two kinds of people—those who find writing enjoyable, and those who find it to be a unique form of torture. My husband, a civil engineer, is decidedly the latter. So his consternation was mostly born from the revelation that I was willingly subjecting myself to such drudgery.
“It’s a fantasy story,” I said, with that same sudden flight instinct I felt in my seventh-grade math class. “Like… sort of like a book.”
“How long have you been working on it?”
“I dunno, a while.” Months.
He could have responded in any number of ways. At the time, we were a four-person family just getting by on his single income, so he was understandably money-conscious. He could have asked why I had been wasting so much time when I could have been contributing to our financial situation. He could have gone back to his own work and ignored me. He could have laughed, or blown it off.
It’s a mark of how sensitive I was about my art and writing that I half-expected these things from him—not some cocky tween athlete, but my husband, the guy I picked out and said, “yeah, I’ll hang out with you for the rest of my life.” That’s how delusional twenty-six years of self-fabricated shame had made me.
Because of course he didn’t do any of those things. He said, “What’s it about?”
And then neither of us needed WiFi for the next four hours, because we talked the rest of the night. We talked about my current story, my characters, my plot, my setting. We talked about my past stories—the things I had written in middle and high school and only shared with my best friend, the things I had written in college and shared with no one. We talked about my future stories, including this little germ of an idea in the back of my brain—the one about a forest ranger on a quest to restore a fallen country.
And then he asked the obvious question—“Are you ever going to try to publish something?”
“Oh no,” I said quickly. “No, I have no idea how any of that works, and I couldn’t publish this anyway.”
“Well,” he said. “It might be neat to try.”
Apparently that was all I needed, that little bit of affirmation. I started writing Woodwalker later that week. A little over a year later, I signed a contract with my literary agent. And now, a year after that, I am approaching the publication date for my debut novel.
Yes, this means I needed outside validation to legitimize myself and my passions. I admit it. And I don’t care about that, either. After my overblown childhood sensitivity, it honestly doesn’t surprise me at all.
I wrote a novel! It’s being published! And you know what? I LOVE MY NOVEL. Not all of it, and not all the time, but I wrote it, and I love that I wrote it and that it’s mine. And it’s going out into the world! People are going to read it! Some people will hate it! Some people are going to leave disappointing reviews! Some people will even get nasty and mean-spirited! The book may tank and sell terribly and be pulled from shelves! And I don’t care! I’m so excited to have gotten to this point, to be sharing it and my art—my geeky, compulsive art that throws wide all the windows and doors to the quirky, convoluted parts of my brain—and not be feeling like I need to hide it or apologize for it or awkwardly laugh at what a geek I am. That feeling, even more so than publication, is Success for me.
This post has clearly turned into something with some kind of moral, and I’m not sure what it is. I’m not going to tell you to believe in yourself, because God knows I didn’t despite being ordered to in every Disney movie and grade school pep rally ever. It could be surround yourself with supportive people, but even that doesn’t ring true, because I had supportive people around me my whole life and didn’t even trust them. In reality, the takeaway message is probably just grade school blows, especially that one guy in math class. But maybe I’ll just leave things blank and let readers create their own meaning. I’m just happy to have gotten here, proud of my work and excited about sharing it with people.
I talked to a high school friend on the phone the other day, and she was congratulating me on my book. I told her how strange and surreal it still felt to be publishing something.
“Nobody is surprised, Emily,” she said with a laugh. “Absolutely no one is surprised by this.”
Maybe no one, then, except me.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator