I’m not going to call myself a writer, or a poet, or artist or anything to that extent. I’m just one small, insignificant person, and I want to tell stories and change the world. I’ve always loved stories. Even as a child, they had a profound effect on me. I used to make my poor grandmother sit with me and tell me every story she knew, until her mouth was dry and she’d fall asleep; then I’d wake her up to hear more. When I grew tired of hearing the same tales, I asked her to make up new ones. I proved to be better at this than she, so I became the storyteller and she the audience. I told stories to anyone who would listen. A neighbor of ours expressed once or twice that she believed I would grow up to be a writer. This meant very little to me at the time. I had decided that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up, so I could cure my grandfather of his diabetes.
At seven years old, I moved with my family from our home in Armenia to Pasadena, California. My father had obtained a ph.D. in physics in Soviet Armenia. Until 1990, he and my mother lived a relatively comfortable life. Immediately following my birth, however, the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia, who had been so dependent on Russia for all of its resources, tumbled into a decade of crime and poverty. Looting, killing, and robbery became an everyday reality. Water and power were turned on for only an hour per day, and gas lines didn’t work at all, leaving those who were unable to find firewood to freeze in the unforgiving Northern European-like winters. Food was non-existent, even to those who had money. I remember the potatoes; we ate potatoes three times a day – fried potatoes for breakfast, mashed potatoes for lunch, and potatoes roasted in our wood-burning stove for dinner. The roasted potatoes were a heavy favorite of both my brother’s and mine.
Dad came to the States first. His mother and brother were already living in Pasadena, and he joined them, hoping to earn a living and support his family from a world away. I didn’t see him for three years, but I never forgot him, and he was never absent. We always spoke on the phone, and he made sure we were never lacking in anything, from toys to clothes to Snickers bars and, of course, money. In those three years, my grandparents, my mother’s parents, became my life. I believe this was the first instance in my life where my creativity was fully nurtured; a few more would follow. I was my grandparents’ oldest grandchild and the light of their lives. As such, no rule ever applied to me. Their home was mine to do with as I pleased, so naturally I spent a great deal more time there than I did with my mother. Drawing, fashion, and, of course, storytelling, became my regular pass-times here. With no restrictions, a creative spirit blossoms; I was on loose reigns and at the center of both of my grandparents’ lives and attentions. And I blossomed.
Shortly before my eighth birthday, my mother, brother, and I moved to Pasadena to join my father. Though thrilled to be reunited with him, the adjustment to a new life was a difficult one for me. At seven years and ten months old, I started the third grade. I could speak, read, write, and understand English, but I hesitated to interact with my classmates. I felt like an outsider, like there was this profound struggle happening within me that my eight year-old mind could barely comprehend, and nobody noticed or seemed to care. That’s when I discovered books.
The first book I truly gave my heart to was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Oddly enough, my school library didn’t have any of the other volumes of the series, and I had no idea there were more. Harry Potter wasn’t quite the cultural phenomenon in 1998 as it is now. After finishing the third installment, I learned that it had two predecessors and asked my parents to take me to the public library so I could find them. I devoured them both, then read the third again. The fourth hadn’t come out yet, so I re-read the first three until I had memorized each. The story that would define an entire generation had taken root in me. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, that Harry Potter would become what it did, but the second I picked up Prisoner of Azkaban, it became the thing I wanted more than anything. Harry Potter embodied the world of wonder, adventure, and fantasy that I so fervently longed for when I fell in love with stories. I began to read more, anything from Animorphs and Goosebums, to Jane Eyre, to Lord of the Flies. I inhaled books as if they were the very breath my life depended on. And in a way, they were. I had become, and would remain until around thirteen years-old, a very introverted child. I didn’t fit into the physical world around me, so I found a home within the stories.
Early into junior high school, a few of my language teachers began to encourage my creative writing. This was the second point in my life where my creativity was deeply nurtured. My sixth and seventh grade English teacher in particular was quite an extraordinary woman. In place of textbooks, speech excerpts, and dull texts, she had us read actual books, some even far above our grade level. She pushed us to read and analyze novels like Catch 22 and 1984, to think about them critically and, what deeply affected me personally, to allow them to teach us to think about the world critically. I began to notice occurrences around me that had never directly caught my attention before – cruelty, injustice, greed, suffering – I wanted to put a stop to it all, to heal broken people and fix the world, but I didn’t know how. I was just a small, insignificant little girl; all I had were stories and big dreams. This teacher also assigned us a creative writing project each semester. My writing began to reflect my newly-developing world views, and she commended me for it. She told me I had a talent; she began submitting my stories to junior writing competitions. I even won a few.
A few years later, these talents became apparent to a handful of my high school teachers. Rather than force me to fit the “normal” mold that social expectations had carefully constructed for me, they encouraged me to be more. I was old enough, at this point, to understand that they were nurturing both my creativity and my dreams of changing the world; furthermore, they were teaching me how to use my creativity to accomplish my dream. So I listened; for four years, I absorbed the knowledge and wisdom they imparted unto me like a sponge; I read books, studied history, politics, art, music, philosophy…and they taught me how to use my studies to advance my worldview. A few days before my high school graduation, and AP English teacher told me I had the potential for greatness, and the only thing standing in my way was my fear of the power of my own mind. I had no idea what she meant by this, but I would learn soon enough.
At seventeen years and ten months old, I started my freshman year at the University of California, Irvine as an English major. Within a year, I had pieced together my career path. Upon completing my undergraduate studies, I would go on to get an MFA in creative writing, then a ph.D. in literature. I would teach and publish books; I would inspire students the way that my teachers had inspired me throughout my life, and I would inspire the rest of the world with my stories. It all seemed quite simple to me then; until that point, I had been a child, a sheltered, somewhat spoiled child. The adults in my life had always trusted me, protected me, and continuously told me I was special. I had spent lunch breaks and gym classes, football games and school dances surrounded by friends. Despite having to move and adjust to a new country, my life had been a relatively easy one. And suddenly, I found myself growing up and having to step away from my comfort zone, from the places and people who were safe and familiar to me, and it terrified me. I was living on my own, shopping for groceries, doing laundry, choosing my own classes… Nobody told me I was special anymore; I sat in four lecture halls a day with a hundred other people who had been told they were special. I found myself drifting apart from my very large group of friends. I got my first job. I got a tattoo, because it somehow made me feel like I was in control of something. And I fell in love for the very first time. I would like to say that, had I known that that last first would shape and consume my life for five years the way that it did, I would have fallen out of love immediately, but I’m not entirely sure that I had any control over that one either.
I fell in love with a man who had not made very much of his life. I was nineteen, he almost thirty. The more time I spent with him, the more I became afraid of outshining him. I feared the power of my own mind, so I stopped shining and let my dreams wilt away. February came and passed two years year later, and I missed my graduate school application deadlines. And just like that, my meticulously-constructed house of cards came tumbling down. I graduated that June, moved in with the man who had knocked it over, and we got engaged; I took control of having to grow up. Grown ups worked and got engaged; they didn’t spend years in school chasing fantastic dreams of changing the world. For three years, I played grown-up. I woke up, sat in traffic, went to work, came home, cooked dinner, did the dishes, vacuumed, went to sleep, woke up in the morning, and did it all over again. I stopped reading, writing, drawing, painting, playing my guitar – I would say I didn’t have the time, but I simply for the life of me could not find the inspiration. I was a child; I should’ve been backpacking through Europe in the summers and studying and learning the rest of the year. Instead, I was wasting my life supporting a man ten years older than I. A professional would have likely diagnosed me with depression in those years.
I spent three years cutting out pieces of myself, slowly, in small amounts. I barely noticed in the beginning, but as the years went by and more and more pieces were cut off, the feeling that something was missing grew stronger, until it became so unbearable that the need for significant life changes became undeniable. It’s easy to make a mistake. It’s even easier, once you’re falling, to keep falling. Changing direction is excruciatingly difficult; it takes courage, strength, determination, and an inhuman level of willpower. I know this first hand; I’ve somehow managed to win the battle.
I can give you all the details and tell you all the changes I made, but the only thing worth knowing is this: no person or thing is worth sacrificing your dreams, and if the are, they will never allow you to make that kind of sacrifice. People who give up on their dreams are unhappy and unfulfilled. I almost let mine die; I allowed them to wilt away into almost nothing, but it seems that I started watering them again just in time. And now I have my stories again, and my dreams, the two things that I love more than anything in this world, and I will never again take them for granted. So many people gave me so much, and all they asked in return was that I reach my true potential. I owe it to them to try. I owe it to myself. I worked so hard for so long toward an impossible dream, and gave up just as it was coming into view. I’ve now been blessed with a second chance, and I don’t expect there will be a third. I don’t want fame, or money, though I wouldn’t necessarily turn down either. But all the fame and money wouldn’t compare to realizing the ultimate goal: leaving my mark on the world, making an impact. I want someone who is lonely and a bit different, who doesn’t quite fit in, to be able to find solace and a sense of belonging within my stories. If I can accomplish that, I will consider myself successful. There is a passage within the novel Choke by author Chuck Palahnuik which reads,
“The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think, the way they see themselves, the way they see the world, you can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.”
I want to create that lasting thing, to be remembered long after I’m gone.