This post is featured on http://www.nikkinigl.com as part of her #WordsByWomenWednesday blog series.
My name is Becky Sarwate and I am a writer with an entrepreneurial, personal flair for the dramatic arts.
At two years of age, I stood on a theater seat and invented sing-a-long Xanadu long before crowd participation movie screening was a thing.
At age four, I produced my own version of the 95 Theses – a compelling treatise listing the reasons why I should no longer have to share a room with my slob of a little sister. While my case was ultimately dismissed, the panel of jurors, i.e. my parents did commend my creative and persistent effort.
At 14, I began documenting my life in diary, the analog blog if you will. In addition to chronicling my crushes, academic and social successes and failures, I also found a safe haven to tell the story of my family – an abusive, addictive, truth distorting narrative that required children to serve as brainwashed co-conspirators in their own deprivation. The journals where a safe space for keeping reality in play. I write almost daily in these private pages still, 23 years later. Dozens of books illustrating my inner life…and evolution from a large scrawling, exclamation point loving, scared little thing into a woman who’s taking her stories to the public.
This wasn’t how my life was supposed to go, according to society’s rules, and reinforced by the sociofamilial culture in which I was raised. I’ve already mentioned trouble at home – a bipolar, hoarding father and a soulless mother who literally and figuratively ashed four packs of cigarettes a day on top of the pile of neuroses that drove my immediate family to the fringes of society. Add nine years of repressive Protestant primary education, depression and the urgency to survive and get out of my home into the mix, and I set my career sights on a different path.
I needed money and stability. I was never having the IRS seize my bank account again, as they had in 1992 after my eighth grade graduation. My parents had stopped paying their taxes for 10 years and I was a minor. When I was 22 years old, my mother committed massive identity fraud against me and fled after I worked up the courage to file police reports. I found myself in bankruptcy court, $23,000 in debt at the ripe old age of 23, on my own finally and completely from that point forward. I couldn’t afford poetry, journalism and the luxury of my own creativity. That’s what I believed.
I spent 10 years after earning a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Illinois trying desperately not to tell my stories. I wanted to change the arc altogether. Through two failed marriages and a progressively soul crushing career in corporate operations (as the daughter of a hoarder, I turned out to be great at organizing and project management), I stopped listening my own voice altogether, let alone writing down anything it had to say. I wanted to be the perfect wife, the well-paid corporate ladder climber, everyone’s favorite party guest. I wanted, at long last just to fit in.
But here’s the problem – I didn’t fit in at all. And I knew it. That job made it hard to imagine getting up every morning with anything approaching inspiration. The same applied to the confining second marriage in which I placed myself, an entanglement I only realized after years of individual and group therapy was perfectly designed to duplicate the familiar dynamic I had with my parents. Dominate me, make me feel small. In silent martyrdom, at least I know who I am. I never had the chance growing up to figure out who I was if not nailed to the cross of some familial cause. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to try as an adult.
BUT. But. But. That voice. The one I tried so hard to choke, that instinct that told me I was on all the wrong paths when I well knew what the right ones were. If only I’d channel that toddler Xanadu singalong star. That voice was always there. And it wasn’t always very quiet. In fact it was often so loud that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus, couldn’t feel anything but that panicked animal escape instinct I felt as a kid. Weary of captivity, my gut instincts refused to go back into the cage in which I’d shut them. Very inconvenient at the time, but enlightenment doesn’t always arrive when we’re looking. I underwent a personal revolution brought about by a resurgent roar of the voice, and four different, but equally important influences:
ONE: A big push from my younger sister who was a constant, positive thorn in my side after I earned a Master’s in English Lit in 2007. She knew all about my secret dreams – and wouldn’t let me forget them (even if I could). This woman was in the trenches with me, every painful step of the way. No one knew my shortcomings, fears and hang-ups better. Yet she believed in me and lifted my passion as high up as she could to help me start to view it as something possible.
TWO: The death of my best friend from ovarian cancer in April of 2009. Jesika was a woman who always pushed me. I didn’t think we could fake ID our way into the Esquire movie theater in 1992 to catch the weekend premiere of the R-rated Whitney Houston classic, The Bodyguard. But she looked me in the eye and said, “You’re as mature as you think you are.” This was the second sister who sighed before asking me if she had to start trolling for homeless people. She wanted to be first to buy the issue when I proudly announced my first feature in StreetWise newspaper. Then she handed me a cosmo and told me to drink up. And this was the woman who died after a tragically brief 17-day battle with ovarian cancer at the age of 30. Before she got to practice law, her own career passion, or marry her longtime boyfriend Kevin, the love of her life. I owed it to this agitator, rebel and unfailing supporter to take advantage of the life I still had.
THREE: A painful divorce from my second husband, a man from a conservative Hindu family. Among many wrenching decisions, he asked me to choose between our union and my fledging authorial aspirations. I chose the latter. Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it. But I had to make that decision mean something. I had to prove those retreating taunts that I would fail, wrong – to myself and to him.
FOUR: The discovery of mentors, mostly female, who could shine some guiding light upon the new path I was walking. Such as Suzanne Hanney, the Editor in Chief of StreetWise, who gave a novice, 30-year old writer with no journalism degree, experience or bylines a shot at six cover stories in 2009. Just because she emailed and asked for a chance, and that email was well-written.
And you know what? It turned out that I could write freelance for publications and causes close to my heart – politics and media criticism for Contemptor, theater reviews for EDGE Media Network, my own personal branded website and blog – without giving up that stability I once treasured above all else. I just had to stretch my mind a little bit. It was women who taught me this, offering different models of success that allowed them to have their own version of It ALL.
Real estate and personal finance expert Ilyce Glink hired me as a web content writer for her brand and small digital publishing company in 2011. She achieved the work/life balance by having her husband (an attorney) handle the legal stuff while she was the face and brains of the business. I have a great female mentor at my current day job. While I blog, write emails, web content and sales materials about the complicated and serious world of credit, anyone who comes across my work still finds my voice. I have a paycheck, health insurance and stability but I lean in my own way – writing about challenges and solutions I once desperately sought answers for myself – identity protection and credit health.
I do not have JK Rowling’s money, David Sedaris’ fame or even the journalistic reputation of Gail Collins. But in finally standing still long enough to listen to and heed the voices in my head, in finding a way to pursue my gifts in a way that satisfies all of my needs, I am following my passion.
What I have learned – at a painful and exhilarating cost – is that we almost always know what the answers are. We really do. But our upbringing, society’s presumed laws, individual experiences and deprivations, education and self-esteem – all of these forces interact to build soundproofing of various thickness between ourselves and our truth. After all, we wouldn’t get much done if we were always off chasing the whims of the id. But a little id goes a long way ladies. Don’t fear it.