Letters From The Past

The first email I got this year was from myself.

I’d written it in July 2012, addressed to the Me of 2022, and scheduled it to arrive in the future. It didn’t come as a complete surprise: I knew I’d written the letter, because I’d been wondering, recently, where I’d saved it. There were a few of them in total, written between 2012 and 2015, all to be read in 2022 (because it was ten years after the first, not because the year was special). But I wasn’t expecting the email, and I suppose on that front, my past self is lucky that I never deactivated my old email addresses despite changing my name.

In this first letter, my sixteen-year-old self speculated about what I might have done in the past ten years, and also tried to give me some advice. This had the weird effect of feeling like I was being patronised by myself, although at least younger me was self-aware enough to know that there was no way I’d be taking any advice from a teenage version of myself. Still, it was a snapshot of my expectations for my future, and one that managed to surprise me despite thinking I knew my past self quite well.

It was funny to see the kind of things I wasn’t sure if I’d remember. I made a reference to Brave New World, then wondered if I’d get it, and supposed that if I did, it was either because I hadn’t read many more books, or because I’d reread it recently. Well, I’ve probably read well over a thousand books since I wrote that letter, and I absolutely couldn’t tell you when I last read Brave New World, but I still remember the helicopters, so sixteen-year-old me needn’t have worried on that front.

Some of my teenage self’s expectations were predictable. “Published? I really hope so. If not, I wonder what happened. Did you stop writing? Give up on your dreams?” I want to say: not yet, give me a few months, come back to me in June and I’ll have a different answer for you, I never stopped, I didn’t give up. I want to tell my younger self that sometimes things take much, much longer than you were expecting. I had high expectations for myself as a teen writer; I was convinced I’d be published before I was twenty, or at least not long afterwards. (You can imagine the crisis I had on my twentieth birthday when I realised that definitely wasn’t going to happen.)

Then my younger self gives me some advice that reminds me exactly how young sixteen really is. “You know, scrapping teenage fantasy doesn’t mean giving up on everything you ever wanted to do, it just means being realistic about it. If you’re still writing, but you have a day job and you’re struggling to find the time, remember – if you really want something, really really, then you’ll get it. Eventually.”

If only the world actually worked like that. If only wanting was all you needed to ensure success. I know what I meant: I know I was trying to encourage myself not to give up, even if things didn’t take the path I was hoping they would. But I was writing this from the point of view of a mostly able-bodied, mentally stable teenager. Becoming disabled and grappling with my mental health has left me with a very different perspective — that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want something or how hard you work, because it will be taken from you. The hardest lesson I ever learned as a teenager was that determination and willpower aren’t enough and you can’t actually overcome every barrier in life just by trying hard enough.

The same naivety is visible later in the letter: “I hope you’re still writing. And dancing. Whether or not you’re a dancer or a dance teacher – and if you’re not, DON’T think of that as failure! – I hope you’re still using that gift somehow.” It’s funny: my sixteen-year-old self had such high expectations for me as a dancer, despite the fact that I’d only recently returned to classes. I really thought I might be able to do vocational training one day, or become a teacher. These days, I’m trying to gradually rebuild enough strength to even do a barre, after being kept out of the studio for the best part of two years by the pandemic and a cascading series of injuries.

And hey, I’m not supposed to think of it as a failure that I didn’t achieve my dreams in that regard. Which, well, I wasn’t, but I appreciate the reassurance anyway — and maybe my younger self would have been proud of some of the performances I’ve done in the intervening years, even if they wouldn’t quite be able to fathom how it feels to have a left knee determined to stop me dancing. I know they can’t imagine that, because of the way sixteen-year-old me went on to tell me I couldn’t give it up now, and should start classes again if I’d quit. Again with the assumption that all anything requires is determination.

It’s strange, to be reminded that once upon a time I trusted my body to still be able to do what I wanted it to in the future. It never even occurred to me in 2012 that it might be my health, not my choices, that changed my plans.

At least there’s one regard in which I wouldn’t have disappointed my past self: “I wonder what you did at uni. Was it ASNaC? Or did you go a bit more normal and do, like, English or something? Please don’t say you did something normal. I’m disappointed in you if you did.” With a BA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and an MA in Early and Medieval Irish, I can definitely promise my younger self that I didn’t do something normal at university.

This anxiety about abandoning my teenage weirdness pervades these letters. Letters plural, because although I did go looking for the file containing the others, I didn’t need to: the 2013 letter showed up in my inbox this morning.

The 2013 letter is an interesting one, written maybe two weeks before I injured my wrists and temporarily lost the use of my hands, developing chronic pain that still plagues me to this day. I’m much harder on myself in that one: rather than simply wondering whether I’d managed to get anything published yet, I told myself, “I’m disappointed if you haven’t made it to successful author status yet. You better have published a few novels though. I mean, I’m seventeen and I’ve completed 12 first drafts and written Watching nine times, so you legitimately have no excuse for not doing anything. You can just dig them out and edit them, right?”

Harsh. But I get it, I really do. Seventeen-year-old me had spent the year writing intensively, averaging about 90k a month. I never stopped. Every time I finished a book I’d start another one, barely resting in between, and I had half a dozen more lined up in my head to work on. It was like I couldn’t stop, until the moment my hands went caput and I was forced to. Of course I wanted to know it was worth something, that it went somewhere, that I wasn’t wasting my time. I was sacrificing my time — and my health — at the altar of writing, and I wanted an answer.

This letter, written two weeks before my injury, shows again that hubris of able-bodied youth: “you legitimately have no excuse”. Would I have said the same if I knew I was going to spend the next year using voice recognition because I couldn’t type? That I would be having to reconstruct my entire sense of self because I lost a huge chunk of my personality, social life, and dreams when I lost the ability to play music?

No excuse. What a letter to leave for your future self. Again, I leap to defensiveness: come back to me in a few months, I’m trying, I didn’t give up. But I know it isn’t this me that past me is talking to, really. It’s that me. It’s the version of me that I was pushing and pushing until the moment I snapped.

Throughout the letter, there are references to fandom and nerdiness (I was really into Hannibal at the time, apparently), bookended by speculation about whether I’d get the references, whether I’d know what I was talking about. It’s like I thought nine years would be long enough to forget everything about my adolescence. And that’s what I mean about the anxiety about losing my weirdness. I think the fact that most of the adults I knew weren’t interested in these things made me think that as an adult, I wouldn’t be either.

I was seventeen, and at seventeen you’re in this weird, nebulous, liminal state where nobody can decide whether to treat you like a child or an adult. You’re an adult when they want you to make choices and take responsibility; a child when they don’t want to have to listen to you. In this letter, I can see those pressures weighing on me, this fear that if I wanted to be ‘grown up’ I would have to let go of all the things that made me, well, me. The bizarre hopes and dreams, the niche interests, the nonconformity… I was even worried whether future me would still be queer, or whether that would genuinely have turned out to be a phase.

(It has not.)

“Please tell me you followed through with SOMETHING you wanted to do as a teenager,” I begged my future self, because apparently nothing scared me like the idea of becoming a “straight, married, normal person with an office job”. And while in hindsight it is hilarious that both of these letters, 2012 and 2013, wonder if 2022!me is married, I can’t help but feel sad for my younger self, who didn’t have a roadmap for their future. I didn’t know how to imagine me as an Adult Who Stayed Weird, because I didn’t know anyone like me. Just as I didn’t really know what a queer future would look like, because I didn’t know any older queer people who might offer me alternative paths to follow.

Both of these emails were scheduled on the same day, in early July 2013, which means I don’t think my 2014 and 2015 letters will be showing up in my inbox over the next couple of days. But I dug them out anyway, and the mood there is very different.

The 2014 letter was written in January of that year, so it’s only a few months later. Still, that version of me feels much older. Much sadder, too: midway through one of the hardest years of my life, grappling with pain and new limitations on my body and my hopes for the future. Maybe that’s what made my eighteen-year-old self so much kinder than their younger counterpart. Eighteen-year-old me had learned that the pressure to live up to your younger self’s expectations could be crushing, and they didn’t want that for me.

They wrote, “I think what I want really though is for you to be you. I’ve spent a lot of time clinging on to dreams that were broken and worthless instead of finding new ones and I don’t want you to do the same thing so, if you can, just be you. Write books if that’s what you do (and I hope it is), but don’t feel like you have to because your eighteen-year-old self would be disappointed if you didn’t.”

Eighteen-year-old me had learned that you can’t keep clinging to something that’s no longer what you want, just because you wanted it for a very long time in the past. They’d learned that sometimes plans change, and it’s not within your control, but if you keep trying to stick to the original map once the road has been redirected, you’re going to end up stuck in a bog somewhere.

Eighteen-year-old me was also less focused only on what I might personally have achieved. They were thinking about the world: “I hope the world is a better place for you. I hope there’s a better Minister for Education than Gove, and not everything is about straight white dudebros, and that the world isn’t so cissexist and heteronormative…” It’s interesting to see these glimpses of my political concerns from early 2014, but it’s tough to imagine writing back to my younger self and telling them how much worse so many things have got.

Not everything is about straight white dudebros, at least: books especially are far, far more diverse than they were in 2014, particularly in YA, and my current self has access to stories than 2014!me couldn’t even imagine picking up from a mainstream bookshop. But the world is a darker place, overshadowed by the pandemic and the government’s perpetual mixture of incompetence and corruption, dogged by climate change, and punctuated by widespread mainstream transphobia in the media. How can I tell my eighteen-year-old self that? How can I take away their hope that the future would be a better place?

I can’t, of course, but it’s a sobering thought.

And finally, we come to my last letter. 2015. “I’m Finn, sometimes, you know,” it begins, because nineteen-year-old me wasn’t sure how to address the letter or how to sign it off, caught in the grips of an ongoing identity crisis. It goes on to wonder why I’m writing, when I have enough journal entries and poems to give my future self a pretty good picture of who I used to be, but then says, “I still kind of want to write these letters. I always think about who I’m going to be. I think it’s because I’m not so sure about who I am now.”

I can understand that. I know myself better in 2022 than I did in 2015, and certainly better than in 2012, but I still perpetually wonder about my future self. If I sat down to write a similar letter to me in 2032, what would I say? I can’t fathom a version of me who is in their mid-30s. It seems impossible. Absurd, even, and any letter I write now would surely feel as childish and far removed from myself in 2032 as the letter from 2012 does now. I know people who have 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plans for their futures, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of what I want to do that: I can’t work towards a goal I can’t visualise.

That’s something I have in common with my nineteen-year-old self, I suppose, but not with my seventeen-year-old self, who thought the biggest risk to my dreams was me abandoning them, and not life getting in the way.

When I wrote this letter in 2015, I had just been told I might have coeliac disease, and was grappling with the idea of yet another health issue to work around. I hoped future me would “beat” my disabilities, but I said I’d understand if I didn’t. If it all got too much, and I took to my bed. Well, I haven’t given up on anything much. But I do spend a lot of time in my bed, and I guess at nineteen I understood that. The fatigue was beginning to close in already.

There’s one thing, however, that really stands out from that letter: “I’m working on the Moth Trilogy at the moment. Book one is proving more difficult than ever, but I drew a new map of Espera today, and I’m pretty proud of it. I hope you’ve done something with these books, because they are taking up a lot of my thought power and energy. If you haven’t, though, I can only hope it’s because you’ve found something else worthwhile to work on.”

The Moth Trilogy became The Butterfly Assassin. The professionally-designed map that will be in the final book is based on the one I drew the day I wrote this letter. Book one may have been “proving more difficult than ever”, and it may have taken another six years to wrangle it into shape, but I got there.

I got there, I want to write back, it was worth the thought power and energy, it was worth the time, it was worth all the other books I wrote and abandoned, you were right.

2015 is the last of these letters, and the one most open to the possibility of changing. I was a self in flux, and I knew I would continue to change. I asked myself whether I’d ever followed through on some of my plans. If I hadn’t, was it because I was too scared, or because I’d found a different path that made me happier? It echoed the post I wrote a few weeks ago, about trying to make my choices based on love, not fear. It seems I’ve understood this tension for longer than I realised — and that I knew sometimes I need a reminder to consider why I’m actually doing or avoiding something.

From my sixteen-year-old self, who couldn’t really imagine giving up on any of my current writing projects, to my nineteen-year-old self, who had accepted that I might move on but really hoped they’d go somewhere, I can see a shift in how my teenage selves perceived future me, and what that says about how they perceived themselves.

Two weeks after writing 2013’s letter, I was forced to face the fact that we cannot predict our future. That sometimes our bodies let us down, and our plans become impossible, and it doesn’t matter how much we want it, that doesn’t mean we can have it. 2014 and 2015’s letters reflect that knowledge. They make fewer demands of my future, but they offer soft hopes: that I won’t have given up or abandoned my dreams, but found better ones. That I’ll have moved on, rather than walked away.

What I learned between sixteen and nineteen was that you don’t always get a choice about which of your dreams you’re able to keep pursuing. Sometimes, things fall by the wayside because of circumstances outside of your control. But sometimes, you move on because you’ve found something better. You set aside an old dream, and create a new one; you shelve a book, and write another. And that’s okay. Good, even. Because you can’t always be trying to live up to the expectations of your younger self, who didn’t know what you know now, who wasn’t who you are now.

But sometimes, your younger self really is the foundation on whom your adult self is built. And all of them, all these past selves, were hoping I would keep writing, and that I would be published by the time I read their letters. January 2022 still sees me in the pre-publication void, but I’m close. So close. By July, the ten-year anniversary of writing the first of these letters, I’ll be able to honestly say, Yes. I did it. I did what you wanted. I did what we wanted.

Even despite the year spent dictating because my hands didn’t work. Even despite abandoning all the novels my teenage self had high hopes for. Even despite not “beating” my health issues. Even despite the challenges of the publishing industry being greater than I ever imagined.

I did it. It’s my debut year. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May.

I’m pretty proud of it, said nineteen-year-old me, and honestly? So am I.

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