Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2013 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
On New Year's Day a few years ago, I went on a long train trip next to a white guy in his fifties who'd lived his whole life in South Carolina. As we talked, I got the strangest urge: I wanted to open my mouth and say, "When I was a kid --" but I had no idea how I'd finish that sentence, what anecdote or alien baseline I wanted to tell him about.
A week later, getting a haircut from an Astoria barber who'd emigrated from Italy at the age of 16 and never gone back, I had the same impulse. And it happened more and more often, more in conversations with strangers than with friends, and more with people younger than me than with my elders. I don't know why I got the impulse, or why it started waning, or whether it will go away.
Maybe it's maturity, or settling, or my dad's death and my mother's stories. Maybe it's that as I feel stronger, I find it easier to look back and not regret the paddling-about and flailing, my strange and circuitous paths to becoming who I became; I need to be OK with who I am in order to be OK with the past that made me. And maybe it's my increasing awareness that personal stories are important. Rules divide, narrative unites. If I don't tell you my stories, how will you know how different we are, and how we are the same?
I want to tell more stories. Share more of my story. At Hacker School I've entertained classmates with tales of software engineering before git, or how I met Leonard before the word "blog" -- those feel more like "when you were a kid," though. I want to finish that sentence that just hangs there like a stub.
Part of my story is that, when I was a kid, I was good at school. Sometimes this is useful. And, thanks to my family, I found writing pretty easy, and as early as elementary school busied myself with additional writing for school newspapers. That kind of skill, pumping out text for immediate informational consumption, became no big deal.
I was editor-in-chief of my junior high newspaper, then wrote and edited for my high school newspaper, then copyedited a tiny bit on my college newspaper. And it's just been scribble, scribble, scribble since then. If I limit myself to fairly journalisticish prose:
Twelve years ago, at my parents' request, I wrote an introduction to the Youth section of a community magazine. I thought about it today because a peer and I happily agreed that code we write today is far better than code we wrote in September, before Hacker School. I had written:
Like all writers, I often write things that seem great ... at the time. But, when I wince at my previous work, I try to remember that it's not the work that's changed; it's me. We're all growing and learning; a new perspective lets me see new sides (some of them unpleasant) of what I did before. I say to myself, "I could do that better now, if I did it again." And that means that my life between then and now has been worth it.(I don't love that prose, but how dismaying would it be if I did?)
I hope that, years from now, when the children whose poems and stories and articles you're about to read are entering adulthood, they find some time to look back on their younger selves. They might even read the words in the following pages that they themselves wrote so long ago. And I hope that they will see, with surprise, how much they've grown, and take hope from that, because when we see that we have had reason to hope, that gives us reason to hope again.
High school journalism changed my life (to answer Jed). It gave me experience in spiral learning, interviewing, responsibility, and writing for a non-college-educated audience. Sometimes I was bullied by classmates. I dealt with praise and criticism of my work (yes, one needs to learn skills to deal with both). I had interdependencies and met deadlines to help my community.
Today I helped a colleague prep for a job interview by asking questions and helping reshape and translate the answers, finding stronger phrasings and themes. Finding the story. Maybe that's the most useful thing I got out of journalism: the skill of arranging facts in the shape of story. I don't want to write fiction; making things up only tickles my fancy if I can make people laugh. But I love understanding the world better by binding events together into a narrative, and then sharing it.
When I was a kid, I liked reading and telling stories. And I still do.