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sarah · dessen

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A few days ago, one of my babysitters arrived clutching a piece of paper. "Look!" she said to my daughter, holding it up. "Want to see an old picture of Mama?"

This, I thought, will not end well.

But of course I HAD to see what it was, so she handed it over. (Daughter was entirely uninterested in anything having to do with me: she's already a teenager in so many ways!)And there, right in my face, was a picture of myself from 15 years ago, accompanying an essay I wrote for the local paper about being a waitress/writer. THAT SUMMER, my first novel, was not even out yet. Whoa.

Of course the first thing I noticed was my hair, which was doing some sort of weird half-bang, half not thing. Was I actually going for that look? (I fear I was.) There's the fact that my arm in view looks like a big, shapeless loaf of french bread, attached to my shoulder. (Wasn't I working out then? Good Lord.) Then, peering more closely, I recognized the office from our old place, the little yellow farmhouse in Durham (which has reappeared, in various incarnations, in several books since). There's the halogen lamp I used because the room was so dark, as it (and every other one) had dark fake-wood paneling. There's my UNC diploma, hung up proudly behind me, and the little angel made out of paper towels (yes!) that one of my mom's dearest friends made for me. It was like falling headfirst into a pit of nostalgia. I'll say it again: whoa.

And that was before I even read the article, which I BELIEVE appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer sometime in 1995 or 1996, although I can't be sure exactly. It's all about how I was having trouble calling myself a writer, even though I'd already sold a book, and how waitressing was such a good job for me at the time. By this point, a lot of these same ideas and quotes have been recycled for other interviews, becoming what my father affectionately refers to as "my schtick," but at this point, nobody knew any of it.

I can tell you EXACTLY where I bought the outfit I am wearing (which I spent a LOT of time picking out): the skirt was from TJ Maxx, I believe, the top maybe from Marshall's or Upton's. I was not smiling with teeth because then, as now, I was worried about the fact they are slightly crooked. I hadn't even started teaching at UNC yet. In fact, I remember calling the person who was editing this piece for the paper from the office at the Flying Burrito, where I worked, before my shift began to go over his suggestions for changes. Now the Burrito's had a total renovation and I don't even know where that paper towel angel is. These things I have left behind, although it does NOT feel like 15 years since they happened. It's just so weird.

Odder still is that while so much has changed---different house, I'm a mom now, ten books done---a lot has not. I STILL have a hard time calling myself a writer, something I think the 25ish me that wrote this piece would be surprised to hear. And one of the quotes, about how I spend a considerable amount of my time---"writing, thinking about writing, and thinking I've lost any ability I ever had to write in the first place (Not necessarily in that order.)"---is still pretty much dead on, except that now I have to think about things like Team Umizoomi and goldfish crackers as well. Also, my hair is still doing strange things I feel I will regret later on.

But maybe---at least I hope---that this is a good thing. I can recognize these my insecurities as quickly and easily as my clothes and halogen lamp. They are mine, for better or worse, and God knows we're been together long enough to get used to each other. I AM a writer now, and IT is what I do. But in the end, I am grateful to my babysitter, even with the cringe factor of the photo, for putting this in front of me. If you can't look back, you can't move forward. That's still true for me, too.

If you want to check it out---and this I will probably regret, but oh, well---you can squint at it here. The quality isn't great, and one side is a bit cropped, but you'll get the general idea. And see that bread loaf of an arm. Yikes!

Have a good night, everyone!