On our last night in Costa Rica, we wrote letters to our future selves. (“We’ll mail them to you in four years,” said Morrison, our program leader. “So you’ll be in your third or fourth year of college.”) I smiled when I heard the assignment; I love to write. I used my favorite pink pen. (Dear Future Sami,” it began.)
I had no idea where to start. I thought about English class, like I always do when I’m writing, and I thought about audience and purpose. (“Those are the two things you must always consider while writing,” said Mr. Ross, my English teacher.) That was when I realized why I was having so much trouble with this letter: I had no idea what either of those things were supposed to be.
Okay, I knew that I was writing to a 20-year-old version of myself, but that still didn’t tell me very much about my audience. If I were writing this letter a couple of years ago, it would be a little easier. (“I can’t wait to be a senior,” I told Catherine when we were shopping at Target before freshman year.) Obviously, I wouldn’t know everything, but even freshman-year-me could tell you that senior-year-me would be living in Albany at the house that I’ve lived in for sixteen years, going to the same school with the same friends and taking the classes that I’m expected to take. (“These are the math classes I’m going to take in high school,” I told my mom as I highlighted the honors track on the course sheet my Algebra I teacher gave us on the first day of school.)
But I was writing this letter, and I had no idea what school I would be going to, what city I would live in, what friends I would have, what classes I’d be taking. I didn’t know what I could possibly write to a girl who I could only assume things about, who couldn’t write back to answer my questions, and who probably wouldn’t want advice from a high schooler who only pretends to know what’s going on.
Purpose was even more confusing. Because the thing was, I wanted my letter to be perfect. (“I hope this letter saves me,” the romanticist in me secretly thought, “like in the movies when someone is lost until they remember the person that they used to be.”) I wanted it to be inspiring, or even just to be useful to me in four years. But writing something useful to an unknown audience was impossible.
I couldn’t write a letter to my future self because I was afraid: I was afraid of being judged by myself, I was afraid of disappointing my future self with my high expectations, and I was afraid of the fact that I wasn’t able to even imagine the girl I was writing to.
Perhaps the only really useful thing I could offer to my future self was something that has an expiration date: the truth. It’s easy for me to write lies, even if they’re just pseudo-lies, truths that brush only the surface. It’s easy to write things that I think I would like to hear four years from now. It’s easy to write things that make up a persona of someone that I’d like to be. (“I just write really cheesy things,” I told the girl sitting next to me in my 8th grade English class. “It’s what teachers like.” Note to past-self: It’s not.) But I’ve written and read enough of that to know that even my own constructions of perfection are judged by my future self, and I would rather judge my past self for the truth than for lies.
My favorite thing about writing, after all, is that if you just write the truth, you don’t have to search so hard for meaning. It’ll just be there. That’s my favorite thing about prose, anyway. My favorite thing about poetry is that it’s a good place to hide all of the things you’re way to0 afraid to say in prose. But that’s for another day.