I recently remembered the password to an old email address I made when I was a teenager. I will not tell you that password in case I have accidentally used it somewhere else. Also, because it is even more embarrassing than my email handle was, and it was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Among the emails from my friends, chain letter forwards from my grandma, and photos of me wearing a lot of eyeliner, I found an email from myself with a Word document attached. I opened it to uncover a novel I wrote when I was fifteen.
I wrote a lot when I was a teenager. Very little of what I wrote has survived. I tend to delete or throw out writing that I think is bad, which unfortunately tends to be most of what I write. This book in my old email is the best-preserved artifact from my writing as a teenager.
I struggled with reading and writing as a kid. I didn’t learn to read until after grade three. I know that because we did that traumatic literacy testing in grade three, and I recall sitting at a desk, staring at a blank workbook for hours. Today, when I read, I don’t associate letters with sounds. Words are sort of like symbols to me; I don’t link them with their pronunciation. I’ve learned this is a symptom of dyslexia, which adds up. I often mispronounce words when I read them out loud and am always very off when I try to pronounce an unfamiliar surname. Despite that, and in an attempt to seek revenge for failing Ontario’s distressing standardized literacy testing, I love to read today, and I have written a novel, titled Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead. Writing it provided me an opportunity to convert my experiences with anxiety into something productive. It is a story about a morbidly anxious young woman who stumbles into a job at a Catholic Church where she hides her atheist lesbian identity and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s death.
The story I wrote when I was fifteen was about a teenaged girl who watched cardinals build a nest outside her bedroom window. I have no memory of writing it but can tell by the word “assume” that I was definitely the one who wrote it. (I could not for the life of me spell the word “awesome” when I was fifteen; I spelled it “assume.”)
In recent years, I have begun to find teenagers adorable in the same way babies are. A particularly awkward and homely teenager especially pulls at my heart strings. I have audibly “aw’d” at groups of gangly teens as if they are kittens. I am the type of person who is kept awake at night ruminating about all of the humiliating things I have done and said; however, I am removed enough from who I was at fifteen to see myself then as someone very separate from myself now. Because of that, I was surprised to not feel embarrassed by the story in my email. Reading it felt like reading a novel written by a teenaged stranger. Don’t get me wrong, the book is terrible; however, I laughed while I read it, felt a wave of sympathy for my teenaged self, and—overlooking the bizarre spelling mistakes—I felt kind of proud of this self-hating dyslexic teenager for writing a whole weird book.
I fight an impulse to erase every word I write. Every time I read over something that I’ve written I highlight it and my finger hovers threateningly over the backspace key. I have been resisting pressing down more lately though, since finding my teenaged book. I am hoping that if I make it to seventy, I will look back at what I have written now in the same way I look back at what I wrote when I was fifteen.
Should I have erased this?
Emily R. Austin was born in Ontario, Canada, and received a writing grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts in 2020. She studied English literature and library science at Western University. She currently lives in Ottawa. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is her first novel.