By Nicole Stump
Setting: Toys”R”Us, 1999
Under oppressive fluorescents in an all-pink aisle, I knew something was wrong with me. My mother had just started what would likely develop into a long conversation with a fellow shopper (hooray, small towns). At age 10, I knew better than to interrupt adult conversations, but not even the promise of a Pounce the Cat beanie baby could settle my immediate need for my mom.
I got her attention by throwing up on her shoes.
A few hours earlier, I’d been in the doctor’s office, breathing in the smell of disinfectant as a medical professional loaded up my arm with a routine tetanus shot. We speculated that my clean up in aisle 4 was linked to the vaccine, so I’ve spent the past 18 years writing “possible allergic rxn to tetanus shot” on medical paperwork, and I’ve studiously avoided places with rusty nails.
This past week, my identity as a possibly-allergic-to-tetanus-vaccine person was challenged. With upcoming travel plans that take me into “These vaccines are highly recommended” territory, my doctor and I talked out the risks/rewards of having the tetanus vaccine again. We checked out my entire vaccination history (5 tetanus-related vaccines before age 5 with no reaction), recounted the Toys”R”Us spew story (“Maybe it was a coincidence?”), and decided that an hour of supervision post-vaccine would be the best option.
As I sat in the waiting room with strict orders to let the receptionist know if anything felt weird, I realized several things feel weird. (Here’s where I use a lot of creative liberty to connect my childhood medical history to musings about writing.)
It feels weird that memories may be vivid, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth. My memory tells me I vomited at my mom in Toys”R”Us. My mom’s memory is that I spiked a high fever. Neither memory helps us know if the possible-vomiting/possible-fever in 1999 was linked at all to the preventative measure we were taking by getting the booster shot. My mom and I both agree that we went to Toys”R”Us, that I felt miserable, and that I interrupted mom’s conversation.
Here’s the thing: writing memory needs to be truthful, but the truth may be an emotional truth, not the factual truth.
It feels weird to shift identity. Since the only strangeness I felt in the waiting room was on an existential level, I need to embrace that I don’t have an allergy to the tetanus vaccine. This changes some small parts of my narrative–I probably could have helped my husband blow in insulation in the attic, our rusted-nail haven. My reluctance to do manual labor is no longer a medically-necessary avoidance, it’s an “I prefer air conditioning” thing. This shift in identity is subtle, but it positions me to take more ownership in my actions.
As writers, we have ownership of how much effort we put into writing time. If you’ve had the luxury of taking writing classes in high school or college, it’s likely you were given time to write, deadlines to meet, and a community of writers to talk to and receive feedback from. But writing classes end, and self-motivated writing routines have to fill the gap. When deadlines are self-generated, finding a writing community is crucial. There are people in the world who will become your response group and accountability partners–find them. They’re lurking on the internet, in coffee shops, in novel-writing classes, and they’ve been waiting for someone like you.
It feels weird to notice the lengths we go to prevent things. Medically, I’m totally down to take a series of refrigerated pills to avoid getting typhoid. Writer-ly, my preventative actions are equally fear-based, but much less productive. There’s a fear of sharing writing with people, born from seeing other people getting their writing torn apart. While it’s tempting to avoid writing so ego can stay intact, writing is worth it. Write down the slop. Document the nonsense. Suffer through the painful and cringey words. Through the dump of ideas, there will be useful kernels–a combination of words that feels crunchy, an image worth repeating, an idea that shakes a secondary storyline. Our ideas matter, if not for public consumption, for the process of making the brain work in this complicated way.
The moral of this blog post: write it all down, especially the parts that feel gross. Find a writing community. Get updated on your vaccines.