Essay by Janelle Salanga
I like my ankles.
When the light hits my eyes from the right angle, they look a shade of brown that reminds me of the warmest parts of fall.
I like the caramelized glow that settles into my skin every summer.
About a week ago, I called my best friend from the sidewalk outside my partner's apartment.
It was all very coming-of-age-movie-esque: he'd accidentally fallen asleep after a tiring day. I didn't have his housemate's number to text. It was cold, windy, nearing midnight. Tears spilled onto my laptop as I tried to focus on the online work training due the next morning.
As soon as I heard her voice, everything i'd been holding in spilled out.
"I’m tired of trying," I said, pressing my knees against my face, laptop to the side, forgotten. "I don't think I’ll ever be good enough. I don't even know what that is. I don't even know who I’m trying to prove wrong, except myself."
She sounded like she wanted to hug me. She told me — lovingly, bluntly: You should work on your self esteem. Compliment yourself once a day. Start small.
I read the posts on my secret blog I wrote almost two months ago and didn't cringe at the way the words meshed together.
I like the way I write professional emails: concise, explicit.
When I first started dating my partner, I told him I didn't know how to be in a relationship.
Then I thought of this Hippo Campus song I love, “Golden.” It reminds me of summer and elastic expanses of time, when other choices cloud your mind because nothing else is on it. It’s about love and relationships and the doubts that persist.
There is one long-term relationship I’ve been in: me and writing. I love it. I hate it. I hate myself for loving it, sometimes. And yet I can’t ever picture a life without loving it.
I’ve learned from it, too, and I think about what it’s taught me to help me navigate the new and frightening terrain of a long-term relationship with another person.
The hardest, first lesson: You doubt it.
I’m a slow writer. All the confidence I have in my writing comes from the handful of people who have confirmed that my writing is not a nonsensical pile of crap but an understandable, evocative compendium of words, and a stubborn belief that this is the thing I want most in the world to do, and do well.
I question whether I write because it is the only thing I feel decent at. I question whether my love for writing is valid if it doesn't manifest in a hearty portfolio and daily writing sessions and publication. Do I even have this thing that I claim to have? That I want to make a life out of? Did I never recover from a fever dream?
But I will read a story and it will inspire me to string a couple of words together. A couple of words will turn into a couple of paragraphs. A couple of paragraphs will turn into a couple of pages. And I remember that I love this.
No matter how much I love writing, doubts remain. They will always be there, hiding in another best friend's endurance and writing consistency and my inability to mimic that. In my partner’s easy confidence in his writing, his excelling in something he doesn’t want to make a life out of, and my uncertainty in my career. In tweets from writers far more prolific and published than I could ever dream of.
Sometimes doubts mean you leave. But they’ve also helped me confront whether or not the uncertain overwhelms the good, and unfailingly, the answer is not.
Second: Standing by what you love is scary.
Almost three months ago, I told my parents that I was changing my major. I told them I wanted to be a journalist and an author. I saw their eyes turn frightened.
I want to make my parents proud. As I've grown older, I've better understood the gravity of the sacrifices they've made to provide me and my sister with a better life. I sit with second-generation American guilt. I am lucky to have the space, the time, the relative financial comfort to have this dream and to try and make it a reality.
But yet, I’ve dreamed of living in someone else's skin, not to improve my less-than-stellar self-esteem, but for my parents: To be the daughter I wish they had. Someone who pursues a safe career in a steady industry, who can send home money and provide for her younger sister instead of having to save every penny just to stay afloat.
Still, I’m stubborn. Still, I’ve decided to choose myself.
And my dad surprised me.
"I'm not mad at you," he said. "I just want you to have conviction. If you're gonna be a journalist, be the best damn journalist you can be."
I feel like a sore thumb. I know no one in my major. I don't know anyone else angling to be a journalist and a working writer in the way I am -- maybe aforementioned writer best friend. He's a novelist and computer scientist. I am not.
It’s lonely, estranging, terrifying.
But I ask myself, would I choose to go back to computer science? To doing something my heart wasn't completely married to? I could do it. I hadn't been doing bad before.
I wouldn't want to. Even knowing that my parents would be -- if not happier -- more reassured with a different path, I would choose this one every time. I am lucky enough to have the choice.
Next: Understand how it's unhealthy. Work on teaching it not to ail.
I started writing more seriously after sophomore year of high school. I grappled with sadness, queerness, loneliness. Slowly, writing became inextricable from negative emotion. I wondered — still do — whether I could write about happiness. Whether I manufacture the gray to use it as a crutch: Are my personal crises the only impetus for my writing? Can I only write something sincere whenever I’m hurting or whenever I’m numb?
I am trying to write about happiness in more nuanced ways. But I am also trying to recognize that cotton-candy happiness -- the kind that I wrote about in fanfiction, once upon a time -- is valid too. Narratives where people don't die or get broken up with or otherwise get their heart smashed into smithereens are ones I also want to write, but it will take practice and patience for me to write them. Writing about happiness is a new type of vulnerable I am still learning to navigate.
But I'm hopeful that -- though some days I forget what it feels like to have both feet on the ground -- I can take the moments that make my heart swoon and make them into a story.
And last, I remember, don't be afraid to trust it. To try again.
I haven't written something personal - or fictional - for months. Two of the people closest to me told me, in no uncertain terms, that my characters didn’t feel real enough. It destroyed me. I take criticism too personally. I hold writing too close to my heart.
I told myself I would take some time before writing fiction again to think about characters more seriously. In part, that was true. It was also an excuse, because I felt ripped to the core and unsteady, unsure if anything I would ever write would be real in the ways I hoped it would be. I want the stories I tell to be the ones I wish I had and heard when I was younger. (Even now, i write for myself, and still struggle with overt self-projection in my main characters. I see them as extensions of myself, which is probably why it hurts so much hearing that they don't come across as real and aching.)
A therapist I once visited asked me if, despite my fear of not being good enough, I would still continue to write.
Yes. The answer is yes.
But, I realize, I have to be patient with myself. It takes time to build into better.
Loving people takes time. Becoming a better writer takes time. But time itself does nothing; it’s practice, experience, exposure that shapes "good" into "better."
When I was younger, I squirmed in lines, whether at Toys R Us or Disneyland. I didn't want to wait. I still don't: I have fantasies of suddenly waking up a writer I’m proud of, whether that looks like winning an award or getting published or somewhere in between.
I’m accepting the truth that I can't say "I want" and leave that to fester. I only have so much time. and I choose, every day, to learn from this dynamic relationship. To love words: to use them to tie time and telling together. To love stories and be fearlessly tender in pursuit of them.
This is my favorite thing about me: As my best friend said, even though I say time and time again after being hurt that I won't try again, I dive headfirst into what I love. Even if the pool isn't filled. I dive. I try.
Janelle Salanga is a self-professed Gryffindor and an ardent advocate of used bookstores. She is a current sophomore at the University of California, Davis, majoring in science & technology studies while minoring in political science and communication. When she's not coding or binge-watching Michael Schur shows, she writes for UC Davis Magazine as an editorial intern and is currently directing a vignette for Pilipinx Cultural Night. Her work has been published in The Margins, Occulum, and The Brown Orient, among other places. You can find her (re)tweeting assorted oddities @janelle_cpp. She is a regular contributor for Marías at Sampaguitas.