Listening to Yourself: How I Learned to be a Better, More Courageous Writer

By Emma Fissenden

Photo courtesy of Emma Fissenden. 

Courage.

What a word. It's a fickle, slippery, wily beast that hides in the darkest recesses of our hearts. I had to go hunting for it in the last year in an attempt to conquer my fears, or if not conquer, then to use the fear to push me forward. It's probably one of the biggest things that helped drag me kicking and screaming through my ridiculous, five-year attempt to achieve my Screenwriting MFA.

Sometime in the last year, I watched a video of voice actor Troy Baker, who spoke about how fear is the only thing getting in the way of you doing anything, about how if we simply gave ourselves over to that fear we'd never do anything. However, if we let go of it, or used it to push ourselves forward, then we could become more than we are. We could widen our horizons, achieve our goals. It's a video I kept going back to again and again and each time, I was filled with bravery. But it was a fleeting feeling. A few hours later, after I took a look at the work I'd done, I ended up doubting myself and my direction once again.

It took me a full four out of five years in this course to actually begin making meaningful decisions about my thesis because I didn't have the courage. Most of my experiences involved me either riding the high of finishing a draft and declaring myself done or sinking into a deep, dark paralysis. My fear wouldn't let me move forward. My fear kept me back, kept me from seeing the story I wanted to write. In the first few years, the few decisions I struggled to make were entirely generalized. I had to begin making decisions about my characters and my story and where those decisions would go. More importantly, I needed to understand the screenplay's story, listen to my main character Azra, and let her guide me through it. The first few conversations I had with my supervisor went a little like this:

Thesis Supervisor: “What's the story about?”
Me: “Oh, a girl going on a journey through a world changed but mostly recovered from nuclear fallout.”
Thesis Supervisor(trying to pry any kind of decision from my obstinate head): “And why is she taking this journey?”
Me: “Oh, uh—I guess she has to because [insert generalized narrative].”

After all of these early meetings, I'd run for the fucking hills (read: my apartment), hoping that I'd be able to hide from any kind of deep, serious thinking until the night before our next meeting. I was deeply afraid of failing, so afraid I'd often do nothing. Over the course of the next year or two, I'd write hundreds and hundreds of pages full of development work: endless outlines, character profiles, details of the world. It was never-ending. And then came the drafts. I'd naively sworn to myself that I'd never be that writer. I'd be brilliant and never need to write endless drafts. Two? Three? Sure. Eleven? If you'd told me I'd end up writing this many, I'd have called you several awful names and hidden in bed. After about the fourth or fifth draft, I'd send the draft to my Supervisor with a note like this:

Me: “I'm done! I love this draft and I really hope it's working now!
Thesis Supervisor: “Yeah, no.”

She didn't really say that, of course—she was kinder and more understanding—but that was the gist of her emails. We went through this process maybe another three or four times, with me beating myself up about my failing to meet my own insane goals, to magically have this project come together without doing the hard work. I ended up in a pit of depression and I didn't know who to turn to or what to do.

Letting go of my fear opened doors for me, allowed me to make decisions, allowed me to pull together a good working draft. More importantly, it gave me the courage to start building myself into the person I wanted to be. I'm not there yet (who is?) but it's my failure through this thesis process that taught me about myself, taught me about my boundaries and what I'm willing to give up.

In your first year you have to submit your ideas for your thesis project to attract a potential committee. It's a strange process, especially if, like me, you have no idea what the living hell you're doing. I played it safe and stuck to stereotypical tropes for my precis, so I'm sure you can probably imagine the reactions of a few people in the department. I listened to them and their negative reactions, and I took them personally. I let them into my core. The better thing to have done, if I were able to go back in time, would have been to take a deep breath and forge forward rather than let the encounter crush my spirit as much as it did.

Over the next few years, my supervisor held my hand and coaxed me through the process of developing the thesis project. Sometimes I misunderstood her copious notes and saw them as a rejection of everything I'd written, which in turn led to self-sabotage. At first I began to push her away, refusing to look at anything to do with the thesis for a good six months because I was deeply afraid of what she might say. She wasn't saying anything awful. She was honest. She pointed out things that needed looking at: characters who spoke in the same way, unmotivated action, places where things I set up didn't pay off. There was a lack of things coming full circle in the script—as if I couldn't even bear to look at what I'd written to edit it. It was an inorganic mess of good ideas executed with the finesse of an amateur.

When someone I was close to told me giving up on the degree was an “option,” I balked. I freaked out, raged for a few days, was unable to get my head around her words. And then something in me clicked. At first it was pure stubbornness. I wanted to show her that I could do this. I began making solid decisions about the kind of story I wanted to write. I made brave choices. I had actual conversations with my supervisor and we collaborated as I made progress on a new draft. And once I reached “Fade Out," I sat back and took a deep breath. I'd done it. It took courage to listen to myself, to listen to others with an open ear, to see what I could do with edit notes without accepting everything I was told to do without question. To collaborate with others instead of hide from them.

It's difficult to know who's best to listen to. How do you really know who has your best interests at heart and who isn't interested in your success? I had to figure out who I could trust for myself. For the most part, teachers and mentors in university arts courses are interested in helping you, but I've found that there are a few who don't want to listen to you as you. They're listening to you from their own subjective biases. Some are able to get past their initial judgments of your worth and actually support you. Some aren't. And that's okay. It's something I had to get used to, to be able to stick up for myself and my creative decisions and ideas but also not expect everyone to jive with them. You're not going to please everyone, or write anything most will like. If you're lucky, a select few will really love what you've written and if you've been brave enough to listen to your own voice, you might even be slightly proud of your work as well.

Have courage. Listen to yourself. You're going to be okay.


Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. She contributes work to The Mary Sue, holds a Screenwriting MFA and is the new EIC of Noble Gas Quarterly. When she's not tackling her next gigantic to do list, she's playing far too many video games. You can follow her on Twitter at @efissenden.

I am an Environment Artist

By Mahreen Fatima

Photo Courtesy of Brought to Light.

Photo Courtesy of Brought to Light.

Before a few months ago, before Global Game Jam 2015, I felt like I would be lying if I told people that I was an environment artist for games. I was afraid that someone would ask about my experience or to see my work – some proof of passion. An environment artist works to design and create architectures, background props, terrain, and atmosphere. I didn't have a portfolio consisting of any environment art or any experience with game development so I felt like a lie. Apart from old digital paintings from late high school and a simplistic 3D model, there was no work that could vouch for me as an artist let alone a 3D artist. It felt as if without a portfolio and résumé, I couldn't be who I wanted to be. If I couldn't show proof, was my passion just wishful thinking?

I had a small belief that I knew what I was doing and that it felt right. Always enchanted by the marriage of architecture, scenes, and narrative, I felt that being an environment artist would be fulfilling. However, these thoughts were always shy and easily open to insecurities. It was hard to justify that just saying “I'm an environment artist” would be enough since I lacked a specialized portfolio. Not knowing where to start, what software and tools were needed, or if being a game artist was even a career option held me back. My solution: I rarely declared my passion.

Instead, I let my parents decide what I would do for a living. From a very young age, it was drilled into me that a doctor was the most respected and objectively best career choice. It didn't feel like there was a point to digging further than becoming a doctor so though my parent's opinion was rather extreme, I went with it anyways just to feel like I had some sort of goal. It wasn't until towards the end of high school that I started entertaining the idea of exploring game development.

A close friend of mine at the time was studying game development and introduced it to me. That was my first real exposure and it made me realize that this was a viable career option. The opportunity to see someone close to me indulge in their passion with such motivation and drive tempted to me to try and find if there was work that I could enjoy. Taking the things I loved such as games, architecture, and drawing, I came up with environment art. Feeling like I knew what I was doing, I moved forward to try and chase this passion.

In the assumption that I knew myself and my potential career, I decided to start studying game development at an art college this past fall. I came prepared to class each day – completely professional and ready to go the extra couple miles. I learned the basics of 3D modeling and made sure to excel in all of my assignments, raising them to what I thought was a professional rather than a student standard. The various clubs having to do with games and/or game development found me a regular attendee. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't in an attempt to seem like I knew what I was doing. I had a quiet but strong need for validation and the next chance I would get to prove myself would be the upcoming Global Game Jam 2015 in January.

It's been three months and apparently I'm still processing the jam. When forming teams, participants were encouraged to declare their specialty so that they could be picked up for that skill set. That was one of the first moments I confidently declared, “I am an environment artist." Having already established myself as someone who is hardworking, efficient, and easy to work with, it wasn't difficult finding my way onto a team. However, I would have never expected how the experiences of Game Jam would affect me.

One moment, I was questioning whether or not I was in the right field and the next I was thrust into a team acting as the lead environment and texture artist. Working with that team over 48 hours, I created my first game, Brought To Light, and over each passing second, I was changed. I didn't have time to think about how crazy it was to be working not only on a game but also as a lead artist. Granted, I did work hard to absorb techniques and skills but I hadn't expected to be entrusted with such a vital position in crunch development. It almost seemed as if people didn't care about my invisible insecurities.

I pushed those doubts away and proceeded to work with the necessary confidence and clarity to advise and lead team members. Going back and forth with my concept artist, we cultivated the art style and atmosphere of the game.. These ideas were passed on to the modelers who worked astoundingly quickly to create and prepare the models for the texture artists. In the beginning, we didn't have an appointed texture artist but I was confident in my abilities and took point. No one knew that I had only worked on three models before, but it seemed like a trivial detail.

If anyone ever asks me how I learned to do that or where I learned this technique, the answer was often Google. Keeping a tab open with a new search every few minutes throughout Game Jam helped me to expand my abilities. In the span of a few hours, I was creating seamless, reusable textures, designing the atmosphere for the game, and helping create environments – things I had never done before. And they weren't too shabby. I was doing good work that someone in my field would do and I was enjoying it.

Somewhere around 4 a.m. on a Sunday, after you've been working tirelessly over 36 hours, you start to lose yourself to fatigue. But it was around then that I had a chance to sit down with the producer and art director of our team to have a brief postmortem. I pointed out how crazy it must seem: working continuously without sleep, watching our health deteriorate. My producer, Chloe Mortensen, replied, "That's how you know you love what you do".

Everything clicked when Chloe said that. It suddenly didn't make sense for me to be insecure when I obviously knew what I was doing. I had the drive to keep moving forward, to constantly improve and actually enjoy my progression. With this realization, I worked through the rest of Game Jam. Even though the last few hours were hectic with things falling apart at the worst times, all I can recollect from those moments were feelings of happiness, achievement, and satisfaction. The act of doing the work that I thought I'd want to do was making me feel good and confirming that I did know myself all along.

When I woke up on Monday morning after the conclusion of Game Jam, I felt an intense amount of dread. I would have to return to my usual lifestyle, working a little, playing a little, and mostly taking life casually. The words Chloe said stuck out and it made sense why I felt so depressed. Somewhere in the craze of Game Jam, I hit a revelation that I was doing what I loved. I didn't mind only getting some three hours of sleep over the weekend nor the high-stress, constantly productive environment I was in. In fact, I loved it and came to crave and miss it.

Later in another reflective conversation with Chloe, I came to further understand the feelings and thoughts that passed through my head during Game Jam. She pointed out how you know what you're doing is right when you “not only fit into your role but also really enjoy what you're doing.” I shared my personal revelations from Game Jam with her and she and I discussed how she could tell that I would enjoy myself in my field since I often push myself to do more and try new things.

Now I'll catch myself being reflective in the silent moments after exchanging a reference with friends to an instance, emotion, or experience from back then. Deciding to participate in Global Game Jam 2015 to create Brought To Light was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. Now that I am instilled with this unwavering confidence in myself, I can proceed forward knowing that not only do I know my craft but I'm also constantly getting better at it.

My changed self, along with Chloe's thoughts now bleed into my artistic process when I'm working, especially during the birth of new game projects. Without silly doubts and insecurities holding me back, I dive into my craft – devouring and learning in a rush. I see the world in texture maps and polygons, lights and render passes, meshes and materials.

I am a different person now. But I was always an environment artist.


Mahreen Fatima is a 3D environment artist and writer usually residing in Savannah, Georgia. As an artist and game designer, she dips her fingers in a number of projects ranging from experimental design for mobile games to silly games with her friends. She occasionally writes a few words for Haywire Magazine. Her thoughts and monologues can be found on her Twitter @kuroudee and her work on mahreenfatima.com.

Merry-go-round

By Elizabeth O. Smith

Screenshot courtesy of Elizabeth O. Smith

Screenshot courtesy of Elizabeth O. Smith

I’ve lived a good majority of my life considering “what if”? It’s cliché, but it’s true that I have longed to walk the road less traveled. Now in the middle of another cool, Midwestern summer, I consider the times when I was young that I let myself be taken down a path I did not want to go to.

A memory that sticks out vividly to me is when the fair came around at the beginning of my junior year. I was grown then, but I was still scared. The mass of screaming children and arguing parents drove my anxiety through the roof. And, being pulled between the merry-go-round, which I wanted to ride, and $5 game stations, which I dreaded since I have no aim, made me think about “what if” again.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across a genre called “visual novels” later in that same year did I begin to contemplate ways in which I could change into the person I knew I could be.

  1. An artist is slave only to the thoughts they create.

  2. An artist cannot separate personal bias from their work.

  3. An artist does not interpret or invent, they recycle and transform.

I call this my mini-manifesto not because I’m claiming anything revolutionary, but because it’s the only way I can make sense of why I do what I do. I am an artist. I am an artist who believes she still has much to learn. I am an artist who manipulates words and colors and emotions into something more.

I started writing out of necessity rather than any real desire to become an author. When I was in middle school, I doodled on the side of my notebooks with no intent to make a career out of it. Back then, fiddling around with my new GameBoy Advance, I never dreamed I’d be the person behind the screen creating the worlds I use to escape into.

When I was young, opportunity was always accessible to others unless I seized it, threw my whole being into it. The drabble above encapsulates those feelings of desperate hopelessness when I couldn’t meet this imagery standard of perfection I saw around me. Writing became my means of escape, and I desperately wanted to feel connected to somebody else. For me, interactive fiction was the means by which I bridged this gap of feeling isolated but wanting to connect.

"Good bye."

I was very lonely as a child. I didn’t understand why my mind worked the way it did. Plus, these feelings of being ostracized were compounded by the circumstances surrounding my race.

Despite it all, I can’t say my childhood was an unhappy one. It was just one filled with more taped boxes, houses, and states than most. Moving from place to place resulted in me not setting down roots. I made friends for a year, and felt a bigger wave of sadness hit every time I had to say those dreadful words...

The anonymity of the internet allowed me a venue to purge all these unwanted emotions. I wanted to become emotionless but realized that without my thoughts and feelings, my creations held no real worth or depth to them. But, no matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t find me.

You see, I hoped from place to place and noticed that my surroundings grew whiter and more Hispanic, and drew more hostility from my own race. I was quirky (weird and intelligent because adults said I was), neither ghetto enough nor willing to play a Tom well enough to fit in anywhere I went.

Representation, for me, could not be confined to certain hours of mainstream TV, or segregated programs like B.E.T, or old black programs such as "Good Times and "Roots," aimed at a society less multicultural as the one I came of age in. I longed to convey the tastes and sounds and sensations that made me who I am today. I longed--and still long--to capture that bit of wordplay that could act as a symbol of lived experiences.

Instead of confronting this reality, I decided to escape. I escaped into a world where I was in control and guided my own destiny. I created characters and worlds and plot lines relevant to my experience. Somehow along the way it started to reach people outside of the small sphere called me.

“Wake up!"

There’s no such thing as art that doesn’t speak, and I’m not of the ideology an artist can ever fully separate themselves from their work. Some part of oneself can be found inside. Why create at all if something or someone didn’t push you to do so?

Artwork is cyclical in nature, much like the progression of history in my mind. It winds and winds around and changes but always ends up repeating itself.

History repeats itself but it’s never the same. This might sound paradoxical, but if one stops to take into account the multitudes of people who experience similar struggles, they’ll come to understand that they deal with it and express it in different way.

In my case, a merry-go-round of disaster marked my passage to the macabre through visual novels and flash fiction. No matter how hard I try to get away from my art, it haunts me, speaking to that tiny place I had locked away inside. Sometimes it whispers to others too.

Text adventures have been the means by which I’ve sorted through problems in my life. Losing my home inspired a visual novel about a girl feeling deserted by authority, feelings of hopelessness in the mites of my depression conjured up 100 words about melancholy, and a desire for security after money struggles in college inspired me to hop on board a NaNoRenO project aimed at change.

I've always been obsessed with the road that wasn't taken. Maybe it's just anxiety speaking, but some tiny voice inside of me always asks "what if?" And, interactive fiction, as well as the short but emotional journey of creating flash fiction, helps me to express what I believe are the outcomes of those "what if" questions. The brevity and constraints that come with short form fiction allow me to really consider the impact of each and every word I use throughout a piece. While I’m encouraged to be more verbose when writing for magazines (since one is paid by the word), my drabbles are a way to covey something in the least amount of words possible. Conversely, visual novels expand the scope by which I can reach my audience and play with the English language. Instead of being limited by text on screen or paper in a certain amount of words, I can utilize pictures, sounds, music, and so much more.

There's a saying that goes something like, "I know myself because I see you in me." I'm probably butchering it but the point is clear. I understand myself through the lenses of others, but that image is often distorted and painted by misconceptions of who I think I truly am. So, when I help create something like the dieselpunk fantasy pictured below, I do so because I want to create a world that reflects the vision of me I see and what I wish could have happened in the world. I see myself as an adventurer, a creator, a daughter, a friend, a mentor, and countless other titles. But, when asked what I do and why I do it, the answer is often simply this.

“Somethings got to change, and I'm going to change it…"

I was lonely as a child, yes, and often afraid, but it never stifled my creativity or desire to make things my way. Many struggles, trials and tribulations halted my path however. The world, it seemed to me, was telling me to give up and give in.

Then, I discovered visual novels and flash fiction. It combined two of my greatest passions and helped me learn to love many more. Various communities nurtured me and also left me more informed on issues I never considered relevant to myself. College gave me the vocabulary to understand saliency of blackness and the predominance of white narratives in my work. I could go on and on but it’s better to just say I got smarter, older, and more willing to try new things.

I decided that not only was I going to create the stories and characters I needed growing up, I’d make a classic out of it.

A classic, in my humble opinion, isn’t always something authored by dead white men. A classic, in fact, doesn’t even have to be something you're proud of. Nothing exists in isolation, it is always influenced directly or indirectly. It grows on me or it haunts me in my dreams, so I return to it time and time again. A classic, by my definition, is a piece of work or fiction that you can’t help but think “what if I returned to it again?”.

“It goes around and around and around-”

I feel like I’m progressing but keep hitting dead ends. Maybe that’s why I love VNs so much, because it’s all about making the right choices I don’t in life, and coming up empty when I mess up.

Maybe I like interactive fiction as it lets me explore so many tangents of being I was uprooted from when I was young.

Maybe I just love good looking men in anime, pixelated, digital formats.

Maybe it’s because I love analogies, or because I long to go to the carnival again and be carefree. Either way, I’ll always remember the feelings I had when I first set pen to paper, finger to keyboard, and started creating for someone other than the scared little girl within.

Who knows, maybe I’ll write your story next.


Elizabeth O. Smith has been active in the english visual novel scene, and general gamedev work, for over three years now. She's been a life long casual gaming enthusiast, and when she's not trying to figure out the barebones of code, she's gearing up to write her next story. Follow her on Twitter, visit the group's website, and consider donating to her Patreon account if you find something you like!

Should have seen it coming

By Joshua Dudley

Photo courtesy of Joshua Dudley.

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. But, most of us never do. Big awful events in life seem to sneak up on us – a break up, getting fired, emergency surgery, bankruptcy. Afterwards we try to rationalize it and say “oh I should have done this, then '“x'” would have happened”. Or, we tell our friends that we should have seen it coming; that we could have prevented it. These events change us; they send us tumbling backwards like a wave catching a surfer at the wrong moment. They leave a permanent mark on us – an imprint that never fully goes away. We can forever look back on that mark as something to be afraid of, as something to try to ignore and forget about. Or, we can embrace it as a hard won lesson, something that will never again defeat us in the same way because we have learned to take a fuller measure of ourselves.

I didn’t see my bankruptcy coming until it was staring me right in the face and I had no choice but to acknowledge it. This was in August of last year, 2014. I had $500 in my checking account. My share of the rent in my 3 bedroom Brooklyn apartment in Bushwick was $720 and coming up soon. Earlier in the year I had experienced a massive flare up of Chrohn’s disease which nearly killed me and, consequently left my finances in tatters. I was unable to work for days at a time. All the while, I was losing weight and continuously getting weaker and my credit card limit was inching closer and closer to maximum after years and years of other unfortunate events. I still didn’t see it coming.

I was an eternal optimist that refused to take a hard look at reality. Then finally, the last domino fell and the blinders came off. I got a Citibank credit card statement in the mail and the minimum payment on the $7000 balance had tripled from $100 to $300 a month, the interest rate having gone up after a yearly offer.

I almost laughed at the absurdity of it – paying $300 out of my available 500 when 720 in rent was due soon and I knew that I was likely to only receive a few hundred dollars in checks over the next few weeks.

Suddenly, I knew what I had to do and I did laugh. I laughed at the credit card debt that I had accumulated in a short period of time during my early years in New York. I laughed at the Chrohn’s disease that greatly hastened my economic peril. I laughed at the dreams that had been stolen from me. I was going to declare bankruptcy.

I excitedly explained the math to my roommate, surmising that even if the credit card companies agreed to work with me it would still take me nearly five years to pay off the $20,000 I owed. Or, I could declare bankruptcy, owe no one anything, and have that same amount of money in the bank instead!

This was something that used to be unspeakable to me. The very thought of it was foreign even years earlier when I racked up $27,000 in credit card debt in just two short years in New York. Bankruptcy meant giving up; conceding that you had failed. I moved to New York to be an actor and left myself no exit plan. Leaving New York meant leaving in a body bag. All the weight that had accumulated after years of failure and depression began to slide off and I resolved to go after my dreams again. I began doing stand-up comedy for the first time in years even though it scared me to the point of near panic. I began to tell stories about my Chrohn’s disease and my bankruptcy and laugh about them because they had no more power over me. I casually dismissed them with a smile and introduced those most painful of topics with a straight face. The audience loved these jokes because they were personal.

“Bankruptcy is such a touchy word you know. It makes people uncomfortable. What’s a nicer way to say you screwed it all up?”

“I have Chrohn’s disease and I never know when to bring that up on the first date. When’s the best time to tell a girl you have a terminal disease and could die at any moment?”


Once I’d resolved to declare bankruptcy, it became pointless to keep paying my numerous credit cards and after the first month the bill collectors started calling. It was like those cheesy lawyer commercials where people are scratching their heads and looking at their bills and wondering how they’re going to pay them.

Due to the prohibitive cost of hiring a bankruptcy lawyer, not only did I stop paying my credit cards, I had to stop paying for my health insurance as well, which meant I was taking a risk that my Chrohn’s disease would come back.

Eventually, I met with a lawyer and he told me that I had to give him $700 in cash before he would talk to me further. Even after that, it was little more than an accounting of how I needed to pay him $1100 more.

It took almost four months of struggles to pay the final total but it was a feeling of sweet relief to go into that office with over a thousand dollars of cash in an envelope, knowing I was on the road to washing away years of heartache. This was in December, a few weeks before Christmas and by this time I was physically and emotionally spent. One friend had advised me to leave New York after my bankruptcy and start over someplace else. I had even penned one of those heart wrenching “I’m Leaving New York and Here’s Why” kind of things. My Chrohn’s disease was starting to come back and I had very little will left in me to stay in Brooklyn, and wait another month until my bankruptcy hearing. So I went home to my parents. I got fed comfort food. I took my vitamins. I tried not to argue or complain too much, and I started writing again for the first time in several years. I penned this comedy piece about my bankruptcy. I felt I had been given a second chance and I wanted to share this great news with everyone. I wanted to help people heal through laughter and maybe give them a sign that this is something that’s okay. It’s going to be okay.

I didn’t get as much feedback as I wanted from the article. I think that even though I had broached the topic in an inviting and unthreatening way people still felt stigmatized about it. Maybe they thought that I should be ashamed of it. “It’s almost like you’re telling people you’re proud of it” a friend told me at church “But not in a bad way” he assured me. I guess I wanted people to relate more to my struggle to see that even though I was telling jokes about it, bankruptcy was a very hard thing emotionally to wrap my head around. Getting across the concept that you could be proud of something that to nearly everyone represented a personal and moral failing was going to be a challenge. But, I was proud of it; I escaped the clutches of a life chained to debt. Millions of Americans are enslaved to a predatory lending system that engorges itself on those who don’t know how to make proper use of credit and have never been taught the importance of staying clear of unnecessary debt. I should have never been allowed to have a credit limit totaling the amount of money I might make in a year. I shouldn’t have gotten a credit card my first year in college because I didn’t know how to use it sensibly. The free slinky I got for signing up didn’t last as long as the interest payments I soon found myself swamped with. If there was a moral failing, it was from the lending institutions themselves.

Then just a month later I paid off my car! Somehow through a tax return, some forgotten checks, and helping my dad run a construction company I had more than enough to pay off the $3200 balance remaining on that loan. Two months ago, I could only scrape together a little over half of that amount for a lawyer. Now, here I was proudly taking a selfie (see above) in a credit union to mark the occasion of actually paying off a car for the first time as opposed to crashing it or trading it in. If I needed more validation that bankruptcy was a good thing, this was it! Everywhere I went I told people the good news that I declared bankruptcy and paid off my car. I was a bankruptcy evangelist spreading the gospel of freedom! I think it freaked a lot of people out who’d been offering casual greetings without really wanting to know the details. When cashiers ask someone how they are doing while ringing up a Slurpee they probably don’t expect to hear “I just declared bankruptcy and paid off my car. I’m doing great!” Not really knowing how to respond I would usually get something like this “oh ok. um. great. Here’s your change.”

Even for the people who were excited for me, full conversion was difficult. I related my good news to an old friend at church. He was overjoyed for me and began telling me how he had a mortgage, a car payment, a wife and kids, and was choking in credit card debt. I immediately began to sell him on the idea of declaring bankruptcy and wanted to sit down with him to show him how it could be a reality. Unfortunately this meeting never materialized and I could never figure out why exactly. I told my sister about it and how it didn’t make sense to me because he seemed more than qualified. He already had a house and a car so a dip in his credit rating wouldn’t really affect him. I realized that some people might be embarrassed about it, but she gave me a different slant. “Maybe he feels a moral obligation to pay back his debts” she said “I mean what happens to that money that he owes? It doesn’t just go away. The banks that he borrowed it from ultimately end up paying for it.”

We internalize a lot of problems and finances are at the top of that list. If I had been open and honest with myself and talked about it with friends and other people, I would have declared bankruptcy a long time ago. Maybe, it wouldn’t have gotten to the point where I stopped telling my dad about how bad it was getting financially because I didn’t want him to worry. Perhaps I would have never been in debt at all. Most families, mine included, don’t tell each other about the things that are really important to them because they’re worried about being judged. I think as a society there’s an implicit agreement that we should handle our own affairs and that by sharing our fears and problems we are being a burden on others. We all carry permanent marks from disappointments and defeats and shattered dreams. But when we don’t share those losses with people that we trust; when we don’t allow ourselves to become vulnerable, scar tissue begins to build up around that mark. We start to become hard, and bitter and the comfort zone that we venture out of becomes smaller and smaller. We need to learn how to reach out outside of ourselves so we can finally let go of the burdens that some of us have been carrying for a long time, some of us our whole lives.

In the end, despite my sheer joy at talking about it, my family did end up judging me because of my bankruptcy. One of them opined that I could “live within my means now” and I got the general idea that they hoped I had learned my lesson. In a way it was my fault for not having the courage to include them in my troubles. Because of these things they probably thought that I had been spending money wildly and foolishly in New York on frivolous things instead of fighting hard just to keep my head above water. But like I said, I don’t really blame them. In fact, I understand. They probably think I should have seen it coming.


Joshua Dudley has been writing forever but somewhere along the way he got overwhelmed by debt, depression, and Chrohn's Disease. Looking back on it he realizes that it just gave him more to write about. Now debt free and with a renewed lease on life he feels he is beginning a creative revival. This is his first published essay. He has a treasure trove of weird and sometimes hilarious things that he never knew what to do with at joshdudley.tripod.com. He is currently a regular contributor to The Elizabethian and can be found here. Reach out to him at facebook.com/joshuadudley.969 and on Twitter and Instagram at @dudleyjoshua.