(Oh, and if you can't tell, I put on a bunch of weight. Bodybuilding was starting to come to fruition, and the bigger I got, the more comfortable and confident I became admitting who I truly was to the world. My "protective armor" so to speak.)
When it came time to graduate, I was selected to speak on behalf of the department to rooms full of parents and prospective students about why they should study Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
I knew better than anyone.
That school helped me find my voice. That school is what changed me from a kid who wanted to write, to a writer who wanted to explore what it was like to be a kid. That school encouraged me to learn my own lessons, to fall and get back up again, to let me discover myself instead of telling me who I should be.
I owe that school a lot. It gave me the space to be Me.
I read my short story, Exitec's Success, to all those parents and high school seniors.
After I read my story and spoke on my experiences, one of the kids came up to me afterwards. He had wrinkled clothes, and a few pieces of acne on his forehead. He said, "When is your book coming out? I really want to read it!" He said he played World of Warcraft too.
That was all the encouragement I needed. I saw myself in that kid. And in that moment, I realized who I was writing for.
I threw out every single draft I had of the book so far—hundreds and hundreds of pages—and started over. And this time, I wrote it in the first person. "I."
Yet another obstacle!
To back-track a bit, my senior year of college I started dating this girl from my school (my first girlfriend in quite a while). I am such a driven and goal-oriented person I find it difficult to make time, let alone connect with someone romantically. But this girl was studying abroad from Costa Rica, and I had just gotten back from studying abroad. I had a newfound respect for spending time on foreign territory, and we shared in that.
The first night we hung out, I told her I was studying Creative Writing. She asked if I was working on anything in particular. I decided to be honest and revealed this still very new work-in-progress. She was ecstatic. She loved to read, and she insisted that I share with her the first chapter. I pulled up what I had saved on my phone (in my e-mail) and read the whole thing aloud.
She thought it was a great story.
(Side note: That was probably version #27 of the first chapter. It was changed 100 times over since then.)
She played a big part in my tackling this project. She supported me when I doubted myself. She would read my drafts and give me feedback (she loved literature). She would challenge me during parts where I would shy away from my feelings. And she always, always listened to my ridiculous World of Warcraft tales from the past. Things I found absolutely hilarious and she in no way could have possibly understood, she still tried to understand.
She tried, and to me that meant all the difference.
Well, the summer after I graduated (August, 2013), she bought me a plane ticket to her home country to see where she was from—as a graduation present. She wanted me to understand where she had grown up, and all the things that had made her "her."
I was very nervous to travel to Costa Rica. This wasn't a study abroad trip. I wasn't traveling with my family to a nice hotel in another country. I was going to her home. Where there was no grocery store—instead, people traded vegetables in the heart of town. There was one bar, where she would go salsa dancing. Her backyard was the ocean. Her dog ran the beaches. And every guy there was her protective "older brother."
The moment I arrived, I knew I didn't belong. And she knew I didn't belong. And over the course of 10 days, our relationship slowly began to unwind. Because I was a "gringo," and I wasn't from there.
(If you want to read the rest of the story, click here.)
When we came back from that trip, I became extremely depressed. Our relationship had completely fallen apart. She didn't want to be together anymore. I had just spent 10 days in paradise and at the same time felt completely vulnerable and like an outcast.
Oddly enough, it was right before we left for that trip that I'd stumbled upon what ultimately became the rough skeleton of the first chapter's final version. It still changed many times, but the outline was there. And when I read it aloud to her days before we left for Costa Rica, she gave me a big smile. "You've done it, Cole. That's the voice for this story."
After we came back, from September, 2013 to December, 2013, I shut myself out from the world. I was so mind-fucked from that trip to Costa Rica that I questioned everything about myself and my life. I felt like I wasn't good enough. I felt like I had been lied to. I wondered if I had done something wrong. I wondered if I could have done something different to preserve our relationship. All I did was go to work and then go to the gym. I didn't really talk to anyone. I didn't write. I barely journaled. And when I did pick the book project back up, I realized I was still fuming with anger.
I have this memory of that time in my life when I was working 9-6pm, gym from 7-9pm, and then writing from 9:30pm - midnight, every single night. It was exhausting.
I held that schedule for months. It was my way of coping. But sure enough, at some point I started to barrel through the book again.
The amount of drafts I went through by the time the new year hit was overwhelming. When I say I re-wrote the book in its entirety multiple times, I am not exaggerating. I have folders on my desktop of so many different versions, looking back I essentially wrote 4 different books.