Sometimes I wonder how creepy and cool it would be to get letters from my future self.
Imagine it: you’re on your way to air out your mailbox (or face the depressing stack of bills and junk mail sitting in the void, since no one really writes letters anymore.) You open it, and there is a mysteriously addressed letter from a place called “The Future.” By a future version of you. I’m sure deep in my memory there exists a science-fiction film based on this scenario, but on a sincere level I would’ve welcomed a bit of guidance from my future self, especially over bumpy parts of my past. (Or maybe I would’ve freaked out and given myself a nervous breakdown — you never know.) Anyway, just as a weird little exercise, I imagined what my present self would’ve sent back to past mes at different ages. Other than werewolf skaters and first love, this is what’s on my mind lately — trying to get the pieces of my past to connect with what’s out there in the future, making the span of time feel continuous and meaningful.
Dear 5-Year-Old Me,
Congratulations on your first library card! You’re going to check out these books all the time: D’Aulaire’s Mythology, some novel about a Midwestern prairie settler girl and her favorite corn doll (told from the point-of-the-view of the doll, GOD I wish I could remember the name of this book, it had a purple library binding cover) and random issues of Mademoiselle, even though you have no clue what they are talking about. Pay attention to this mix, because it’s going to be the key to your imagination when you start writing. You’ll get a toy typewriter for Christmas and you’ll read the Peanuts and think typing “It was a dark and stormy night” again and again is what people mean they talk about “writing.” You don’t really have to begin each and every single story with a dark and stormy night. (Although curiously, every movie you make in film school will take place at night.) You may want to try just beginning your story in the middle and then figuring out what the best beginning would be, since this is what you’ll end up doing when you reach my age. Oh, and when Lisa B. makes fun of your laugh, don’t listen to her. She’s a hater. What’s a “hater”? It’s a word everyone will use in 2009. You can start now.
You’re also going to have a dream that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, one where you come to school with a box of donuts and no one wants them for some reason and you’ll wake up crying because you can’t give away your donuts. You’re going to spend a lot of time unlocking the message of this dream, which is basically deep down you worry that what you have to offer isn’t valuable to someone. The key is that what’s valuable is not just what’s in the box, but in the act of giving, so give even when you think no one out there is that interested.
Oh, and chasing your newest sister around the kitchen while screaming like a maniac at the top of your lungs and waving around a plastic sandbox shovel because she pissed you off? Don’t do that, either. She’s going to bug you about it for years.
Dear 10-Year-Old Me,
This is going to be the weirdest age for you, because deep down you will not understand why half of your friends like boys, who are still mostly stupid and gross except for two main exceptions, who sit in two rows over from you, next to one another. Everyone will be preoccupied with boobs, which you don’t have yet. You’ll have very tumultuous friendships with neighborhood girls, which you’ll be bewildered by. Let’s begin with these, since you’ll spend a perplexing amount of time thinking about these. First, the neighbor girl who called you ugly: she’s a crazy Jesus-freak fundamentalist, and anyone who keeps wearing the same damn tube socks over and over again is kind of a freak. (Seeing those tube socks on girls in ads for a stupid company called American Apparel in the future will make you think of her and shudder.) Second, the other neighbor girl who you’ll get into a huge fight with and never speak to again: she’s actually a nice girl and you’ll miss her long after both of you have moved on, so don’t burn your bridges. One day you’ll realize how weird it is that every girl at this age fixated on one another’s looks, and maybe you’ll wonder if this appearance-obsession is something that women inflict upon themselves and give straight men permission to buy into.
Here’s the thing you should know: people are changing so fast, trying things out, and many pals are situational. You were strangely independent and self-sufficient up till now, so the best thing you can do now is to make a little island in yourself and put everything you love and value on it and let it ride out the hurricane of pubescence. Pack your psychological suitcase carefully, set it out on a boat and meet it in five years when you land on the Island of It’s Going to be Okay at age 15.
The great thing is that you’ll start writing stories because Mr. D. encouraged you. You’ll start writing about spaceships and the future and exotic countries and witches and outlandish, imaginative, fantastical things. You’ll start reading books by Robin McKinley about heroic, dragon-slaying girls. You’ll read Choose Your Own Adventure, which will change your life, and Sweet Valley High, which will not. Remember this, because you’ll go through a phase where you feel like all the deep people write about relationships and post-modernity and semi-traumatic sex. And that’s what works for them. But when you start really digging into massive writing projects that demand sustained effort, discipline and a level of commitment that exceeds most modern-day romantic liaisons — well, you need to remember what it is about writing and stories that made you love them in the first place. And how your writing will, in some way, honor that.
Also: don’t throw out your Madonna memorabilia. Or let your mom throw it away.
Ages 10-14 are going to suck hard. Sorry.
Oh, and when B. in fifth grade tells you that “horny” means someone who reads a lot of Playboy, he has it only halfway right.
Dear 15-Year-Old Me,
You kind of just emerged from the most depressing year of your life, and now you are ready to have fun. You’re going to have a surprisingly good time in high school, not in a boring, popular way, but in a way where you’ll find true friends, stretch your boundaries, talents and abilities, and enjoy life. There’s only one thing that I’d caution you against, and that is anticipating the future so much that you forget to have fun in the present. I know you really, really, really are crossing your fingers to get into a great college and JUST GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE. And you will. But you can kind of let it all hang out a bit more often, because you aren’t even worried about getting your straight As, okay? You’re going to look back and marvel at how easy it all was for you back then. Why? Because you’re free.
Don’t write off all the high school dudes around you. Because all those college dudes are creepy. Think about it.
Dear 20-Year-Old Me,
When you turned 19, you felt like you had finally begun fully expressing yourself for the first time. Of course, a lot of this is college. Sure, you’re going to an uptight, socially conservative college, and Durham feels at time smaller than your hometown. But finally you’re in a place that really, truly values learning, and that feels great. You’re going to go through some time in the future when you feel shut down or tired or a little confused and uncertain and unconfident, but try to keep in touch with that sense of discovery and excitement and possibility that you feel right now. You literally could go in a million directions, and you might feel in the future that you wish you had studied Classics or Cultural Anthropology or something really brainiac-New England-y. But just face the fact and stop the angst — you came in as an English major, you’ll come out as one. This is just college fate.
Also: you should take that job booking bands. Don’t let that dude’s creepy jeans deter you, he’s only going to overlap with you for one year. Don’t ask him about that stain, either. SHUDDERS.
You’re going to stop letting people take photos of yourself because you’ve gotten oddly self-conscious. Don’t let this happen; you’re going to regret the paucity of photos of this time and of you. All those memories you had, of parties and kisses and laughing and crying and everything, and they exist only in…memories. Keep taking photos and let others take photos of you.
Get your act together and study abroad. That’ll be your one regret in college because in adulthood you’ll often be too committed to work or broke to travel as much as you want.
Despite generally having a cool, interesting time, you’ll go through phases where you hate people and can’t even stand saying hello or whatever. All I can say is, people skills! You need them! Even introverts need friends and contacts and acquaintances.
Oh, and that dude you’re so in love with? Don’t be so in love with him. He’s cool, but come on…he’s just a dude.
Dear 25-Year-Old Me,
There is really no socially set behavior anymore for 25-year-olds anymore, for better or worse. This first half of this time in your life is a magical blur of bars, Daryl K outfits, random kisses, saucy misadventures, late nights, museums, intensive reading and experiments in living. You will work so hard that the whole years of pop culture trivia based on TV will be lost to you. Your boyfriend will joke that he has to put you on the international Missing Persons list to see you. You’ll work in Paris, Toronto, Los Angeles and NYC. You’ll learn to improvise and live by the seat of your pants. All I can offer is a few tips and tricks.
One: Shopping is a useless behavior.
Two: DON’T USE YOUR CREDIT CARDS. THEY ARE TOTALLY EVIL.
Three: Fast, cheap and high quality…you can only have two out of three, but never all three at once.
Four: “Commit to quality and it will commit to you” should be your shopping mantra.
Five: Most of fashion is industry-approved misogyny.
Then, as you round towards 30, you will get an adora-bomb of a nephew, and your heart will be drawn back to the roots of you: your family, the natural beauty of the Midwest, music, books. I have to say that a difficult family illness will be the catalyst, but you’ll get through it and be bestowed with a sense of grace towards the family you’ve been given in this lifetime. This is the best of all. You’ll find your way to California and try to convince yourself that this is where you belong. But you don’t. Just accept the fact that you will be constantly coming back to NYC. It’s like your Stockholm syndrome of a city. Some things are just in your DNA.
Dear 30-Year Old Me,
The strange thing about turning 30 is that you’re starting film school. You’re going to subsist on junk food, stunt your emotional life, get no sleep and work your ass off, but you’re going to meet some of the most amazing, creative, generous people in your life. Is it worth it? People will ask you that all the time, especially when it’s for something so risky and with no guarantee of job security. You know what? It is, if only for the people you’ll meet and the leaps and bounds you make in the practice of your craft. Even though you’ll be crazy, on some basic level you will be very happy. And it turns out, screenwriting was actually the best thing for you to learn when it comes to writing novels.
Here’s the weird thing: you’re going to feel a growing strange disjointment in your life — just as most everyone around your age is “settling down,” getting married, having kids, buying houses — you’re going to embark on the biggest gamble and risk on your creative life. Maybe sometimes you think you should’ve done this earlier in your 20s. But at the end of film school, you’ll come to realize that the skills you gained in terms of discipline, hustling for work, and truly motivating yourself independently — oh, and the mental toughness you need when working without a real safety net — were things you developed in your 20s (remember all that flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff?) It’s easier to do it then than in your 30s when bigger commitments call to you and more is on the line. Also, what would you have written and made films about? There’s so much more life experience to draw upon.
The thing about your 30s is that it’s about reality — finding out your limitations in terms of time, energy, money, emotion. You will come across boundaries, and you will set them yourself. You will shut some doors, and you will build the damn house yourself and just FUCK DOORS IN GENERAL. This is inevitable and welcome, in fact. The trick is to feel like the limitations aren’t making your world smaller, but making you feel like this is the inevitable, true, right direction of your life, to focus and be passionate about what your heart truly cares about. That’s the secret to transitioning from your 20s to your 30s with a modicum of enjoyment.
There are some practical things you should know: start saving your money now to shoot your thesis film, because your one regret will be not shooting the film you truly wanted to make because you didn’t have the money. Your school is broke and you can’t rely on them to help you fund your dreams. (You’ll wish you knew this before you went, actually.) You’ll go through some wicked insomnia, and it will seriously affect your life, so don’t be shy about getting help for it. You’re going to wish you had addressed this sooner. You’ll be convinced that sleep is the root of all good health. This is close to true.
Also: let go of “goals” in the most narrow sense of the word. Let go of overachievement. Learn what is true growth and do only that. Learn to say no. Say yes to only beauty and grace whenever possible.
And keep in touch, of course.