I was supposed to be in med school by now. Actually, I suck at dissection, so scratch that. I’d have probably wound up in a lab, looking at nice, sterile slides under a microscope. Science was the plan. It had rules and tangible logic, a promise that greater study would positively correlate with greater understanding. In high school, I was the everything AP science kid, the never-missed-an-exam-prep-session kid, the kid who origami folded what looked like a voice out of textbook pages and prayed it never got wet. But then, of course it did.
Perfection is a dead end. A perfect test score ends in a zero, is applauded and then silenced on a transcript to be filed away. I was a size double zero senior year of high school, the ideal anorexic for four and a half years by that point, not sick enough to demand attention, not well enough to quit walking round and round the same cul-de-sac whittling my stomach down. I could achieve these goals, but without fresh air they would decompose into a dark garden inside me one day.
My cousin killed himself during the fall of that year. He was twenty years old. We were never close—spread across the eastern half of the U.S., my extended family typically gathers only every three or four years for a requisite wedding, graduation, or, in this case, a funeral. Nonetheless, the image of his powdered face and overstuffed chest flash flooded my years of panicked perfectionism, dissolved carefully pleated calorie charts and diagrams of cellular respiration into bits of colored paper, arranging themselves into some visceral understanding of why he did it. Suicide—by gunshot, poison gas, alcohol, and silence—had marked both sides of my family tree, and I knew that no equations or scholarships could keep it from blossoming in my imagination as well. Stuck in my cul-de-sac, I needed something open-ended. So, I started writing.
It didn’t fix me. I was bad at it, but I also learned how to honor imperfection. My first poems were collections of teen angst clichés – hearts, oceans, and all – but poetry taught me resilience. I started college as a biological engineering major, and by the middle of the first semester I switched to English and Spanish. The more I studied, the less things made sense. Once, I wrote an entire paper about how I didn’t understand Ezra Pound, and that was okay.
Junior year, I decided to seek professional treatment for my eating disorder and writing became a tool to free lies that had lain silent at the bottom of me for years. I still struggled, still panicked watching my years’ worth of rules and self-control dissolve as I learned to cry open-ended instead of running in circles to numb out. But I learned to love open-ended too. To give myself to others in a way that didn’t fit neatly into an equation; no matter the numbers, there was always some remainder left. And the better I learned to care for my body, the stronger my voice became. Eventually, I heard about something called an MFA and decided to apply to graduate programs in creative writing (my undergraduate university didn’t offer a CW program).
Graduate school has pushed me to rethink much of what I thought I knew about learning. It’s introduced me to writers whose work has entirely shifted my relationship to language. Poetry workshops have shattered my ideas about reading and writing and how a classroom can function. Moving from a rather insular community in Arkansas to a new city stretched my sense of self in unexpected directions, and here I’ve found a group of writers and friends who continually teach me what it means to be fully human. I’ve met mentors who honor my voice but also call me on my bullshit and push me to put my truth rather than just my intellect on the page. And I never would have guessed how hard that would be.
So, I wasn’t born with a pen in my hand and a song in my heart. Sorry if that’s what you were expecting. Hell, I didn’t even sing along with the radio as a kid. But I do now. Writing taught me how to break patterns that would have tethered me to a legacy of silence and slow destruction. Slowly, I’ve built a voice that’s no longer paper-thin, and it’s taken me far away from that old cul-de-sac, though I’ve still got farther to go.
Emily Bradley is a second year MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she teaches and serves as the assistant poetry editor of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. She loves poetry, falling asleep on the couch, and the color yellow.