To Thine Own Self Be True: How To Make A Writer

My middle school headteacher wrote a little message in a book that I had collected the signatures and banal comments of my classmates before we all headed off to high school. It was the last time I would see most of them, and certainly never saw that kind old coot again, but the words he wrote in my book were both fitting and excellent advice:

To thine own self be true. Good luck in High School, Mr _____

The wise old owl always intimidated me. I was the smallest child in my year, and indeed the smallest in the next two years below also, and he was not only the head teacher, but also seemed like a giant of a man to me, with glasses that magnified his eyes to an almost terrifying degree and a shock of white hair. He appeared to my young self like a huge version of Einstein…and perhaps he was. You see, the quote he chose to write to me on that day, could not have been more apt.

I was a very strange child. I did not make friends easily, and was often bullied. In high school that bullying ramped up dangerously. I was quiet and bookish, and those two things were anathema to my peers. They smelled the defeat and vulnerability on me, and no adult around me gave a flying fuck about it…apart, I suppose from a couple of kindly teachers, but they did nothing of much effect. The rabble were allowed to shove my head down the toilet, threaten to cut my face, constantly harass me, steal my lunch, throw my homework in the trash, push me around and hurt me on a daily basis. School was hell.

I always remembered that quote in my middle school autograph book. To mine own self be true. It is hard to do that when being yourself is getting you hung by the back of your sweater from coat hooks and you have to run home from school hoping you can avoid being dangerously attacked. My adoptive mother blamed me. She told me that if I was not so weird then I would not be bullied, and told me, basically, to stop being true to myself and be more popular. More like everybody else.

It was not that I made a conscious decision at that point to fly in the face of convention and go my own way. It was more like I was simply incapable of doing anything else. I was too young and too inexperienced to hide who I was. If I had had the skills to do so back then, I would have done. I would have done anything to make the daily misery of being bullied simply stop. My main tormentors were a group of very pretty girls, mostly blonde and very pale with families that could afford to buy them fashionable shoes and bags. Their hair was carefully coiffured into spirals and high pony tails. My mother kept mine severe and short. They wore shell pink nail polish and were girly, took delight in stupidity and having the boys come to the rescue or to their education. I was too scared of them to hate them. The leader of the gang was not pretty, nor slender. She was a large flabby child with long brown hair and an illegal pocket knife. She tormented me on a daily basis, threatening to cut me. I told parents. I told teachers…and somehow always ended up being in the wrong. She was a master at avoiding anything more than a passing rudimentary request to cease and desist. She had lost her father a year or so before, and so was allowed to treat me as her own personal whipping-girl.

To thine own self be true. Unless your ‘self’ does not fit the prescribed set of characteristics that the rest of the world around you demands. I gravitated to others who was outcast for various unfair reasons: their race, their disability, their hair color, their speech impediment. I remained much smaller than everyone else in the year. I was a shrimp and a homely one at that. So I hid in the school library at break time. Going into the playground was not an option. It would have been suicide.

School came and went. I read a lot of books, earnt my way out of the gutter-school I was in, and instead of being moved onto the next stage along with everybody else, I got a break. I was moved to a very nice school indeed. It was all girls, academic and suited me well, apart from the fact there was now a huge pressure to succeed academically, after years of being bullied for being smart. One moment I was tortured by being called a ‘boffin’ and a ‘nerd’, and the next I was expected to be both of those things and do them well. It was my time to shine.

It was in those two years that I finally came into my own. I got a Saturday job and bought myself Dr. Marten boots with my wages. I wore a velvet choker, and torn fishnet tights. I had my hair short, fancying that I looked somewhat like Moe Tucker circa 1969, but instead ended up equal parts riot grrrl and baby-butch. I became something approximating me at last, as most of us do in our teenage years.

Of course it has been many years since velvet chokers, fishnets and black lipstick have been an appropriate method of self expression. Nowadays I wander around dressed like a hip teenage boy circa 1992, which is a somewhat truer representation of myself. I am fond of my sensible skater shoes, and my faded out levi jeans and band tees. If who we all are shifts over the years, so does the outer expression of that inner life.

I started reading a lot of underground, dark, alternative stuff. I became obsessed with music, and the expressions of emotion. All that anger and hatred that had been piled onto me from both the people who called themselves my family and my peer group had to go somewhere, and it went into creativity. Words and music became my outlet.

Unfortunately, I suppose, I became very academically successful. Not a boast, because it hasn’t done me a lick of good over the years, but rather a statement of fact. This is where it all went wrong. Had I simply dropped out and joined a band I think my life would have been very different. Sadly, I was clever, and adept at producing academic work that ticked all the boxes for those people that judge such things. This was where it all went wrong. My mind and my lack of social life went into making me into a success. I graduated high school not just at the top of my very exclusive academic school, but also rather well nationally. It is a source of huge embarrassment to me. It is not ‘me’ being true to me. Who I am is not that girl that did so well academically. I turned down places at the best universities and instead dropped out, got high for a year and then took myself off to a second rate college in a very nice town.

I often look back on that choice and wince. Had I been my own parent I would have taken the reins and insisted I at least spoke to these admissions people and professors, negotiated perhaps doing politics and philosophy instead of law or English. As it was I was allowed to do as I wish. Perhaps there is an alternate reality in which another ‘me’ was not so bloody-minded. Perhaps I could have been a politician, maybe an English professor, maybe even a lawyer. I was even offered a place at medical school. I turned that down too.

I am not sure if I was being true to myself, or else just too embarrassed to try and rejoin polite society. The world was offering me an on-ramp into the world of the normal and successful, and I turned it down and chose to carry on down the road I was on, and to be frank I am glad I chose the path I chose. It simply would not have been true to me to do have tried to shoe-horn myself into the world of normal people. In retrospect I gambled a quiet and safe future, with a life of mundane ordinary financial stability and mediocrity, in which I remained utterly unfulfilled and trapped within a gilded cage of my own devising. I did try it out for a year or so after I graduated. I got a boring grey job, wearing boring suits, doing 9 to 5 in a job with good prospects within a respectable financial industry. I was suicidally depressed, felt dead inside, and spent my life watching the clock. It was a total waste of my time on earth. It was a completely useless experience. I was never going to make it in that non-creative industry, with men who grabbed my ass and brushed against my boobs as they lent over me, and wolf whistled when I kissed my girlfriend (mostly chastely, but full on the lips) goodbye outside the front gate of the office block.

The dangers of not being true to oneself. I never belonged with the suits despite having a great degree a sparkling academic record and the fact that the grey dull business world tried their best to employ me and put me to good use. It was not the fault of the world that runs like clockwork on souls and $$$. It was me, not them. We were just not a good fit for one another. I was fired rather than left, my boss asking me if I was ‘on crack’ and I agreeing that yes, yes I was. It is one way to opt out of employment, and still makes me chuckle to see the look of intrigued horror on his face mingled with utter fury that I dare reject the supremacy of financial institutions. No I was never meant to be any kind of banker of money and farmer of golden settlements. Not me. No way.

I might have made it in a caring profession. I am not easily revolted, I do deeply care about others and not for the outside, but for what burns within. I care about people’s pain and suffering. I might be deeply disappointed in this world, like a traveler finding herself in entirely the wrong place, and instead of Venice, finds herself walking a godforsaken canal in some dire colder, crueler more dangerous and greyer place. I am here for the champagne and gondolas and end up with the leaky fishing boat that stinks of rotten fish and male sweat.

I went out for a walk yesterday, and did some location research for my novel. My journey took me over to a part of town I have never been to before – the Financial District. It never crossed my mind that San Francisco had a financial center where people wear sensible suits and dress shoes, and go to work in office buildings, only to emerge for artisan salads with outlandish names, and cold brew coffees for outrageous prices. I simply didn’t consider San Francisco the kind of place that could grok with such a dirty institutional way of living, nor scrub around in the dirt for scraps of geld and future promises of more. To me San Francisco makes it’s money from programming and Silicon Valley gaming companies, and app farming, or else selling pretty or tasty things, or pulling fish out of the sea. I feel faintly ridiculous now. Of course San Francisco has a cold dead beating heart at the center of the City that circulates wealth around between those who already have it.

The feeling of having fallen down a rabbit hole hit me all of a sudden, as I walked down Hotalling Place and straight towards the gigantic TransAmerica Pyramid which looms ugly and cold at the end of that oldest street in the City. The horse head bollards, the ancient Roman frieze embedded in the lintel above one of the doors, the old bricks and mortar of a part of the City which didn’t burn to the ground, protecting the whiskey over the Churches much to my amusement and that of poet Charles K. Field, who wrote:

"If as they say, God spanked the town 
For being over frisky, 
Why did He burn the churches down 
And save Hotaling's whiskey?" 

It is such a ridiculous place for this monstrosity that rises up so high into the skyline, that I could see if from a good mile away as I walked down Jackson, poking a hole into the clouds and looking monolithic. It is striking, but ugly as sin and does not fit the skyline at all. Placing it at the foot of Hotaling Place, a beautiful little street which marks the old shoreline of San Francisco before wrecked and dumped ships and wharfs claimed fifty blocks from the sea, is unforgivable. The planners must have been tripping on San Franciscan acid, I can’t think of any other logical explanation besides money. Money makes people do weirder things than any psychoactive drug. It is truly a corruptor of the highest degree, whilst being utterly necessary. Money is the difference between life and disaster, between freedom and incarceration, between devastation and happiness. It is not the way it should be but it is the incurably capitalistic nightmare that we are all trapped in.

As I looked at my peers wandering around looking important and polished, with leather on their feet, and impractical suits on, totally at odds with the usual San Franciscan look of disheveled layering, and informal practicality. They were living in a bubble, not me. Their bubble must mean they get to live in those beautiful houses up on hills, that look like they belong on chocolate boxes, and are so quintessentially of this City, that I look at them and long to soak in the vibe that must exist in their bricks and mortar. I have nothing in common with them. I pity them. They have no idea of life, or how to live it fully. They scrabble around in the dirt for money and miss out on the meaning of it all.

I was never going to make their ranks. In the end, I look back on everything, and whilst the past leaves me immensely weary I consider it training for a future in the job I was meant to have, the occupation which I would find fulfilling, and a life that I would spend being true to who I was at any given time, whilst growing into someone who was evolving to be, at least I hope, better than I was before. After all, a writer is not made by easy times and a devotion to normality and doing what they are meant to do.

I walked away from the TransAmerica Pyramid up towards Grant Street and Chinatown. A mere block away from the oasis of riches, is easily as tough a block as any in the Tenderloin. Blood splashes dirtied the sidewalk, and unhoused people lay prone in the gutter. There was suffering and lack. There was extreme poverty and need. There was danger and dirt and smells and the soft underbelly of San Francisco that has existed since we rose out of that habitation in a depression in the landscape and changed our name from Yerba Buena to San Francisco, and joined the United States of America. There is poetry in suffering and overcoming deprivations. There is a sterility to riches and the pursuit of them.

Still I sure could do with a little more riches, and a little less suffering. I am tired now, even if I am true to myself. I hope my old Headmaster might be proud of me, or at least content that I tried to follow his good advice.


      1. Priti

        It’s my pleasure 🙂 and thank you for your appreciation of my name. My name means grace, pleasure,joy, kindness,favor,love 💕

      1. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

        Very interesting and well written piece, thank you for linking me to it. Baldwin is one of the greats. As soon as my son was old enough, I bought him a copy of “Go Tell It On The Mountain”. Baldwin writes about what he sees as the very heart of humankind, whether it pure or corrupt. Thank you for the flattering but undeserved comparison. ~D

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