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I used to be so brave.

Last week several file folders were unearthed from my parents’ basement, archives from a time between college stints. The tabs had short story and essay titles: “Pity Alexander Fischberg,” “Shoulder to Shoulder,” “The Key to the War,” “The Rape Story.” Inside were typewritten pages of double-spaced drafts.

I lived in Hawaii for nine months in what otherwise would have been my sophomore year in college. I’d started out in speech communications, thought about journalism school but was wary of applying. I’d heard it was competitive and I didn’t want to fail. Besides, some people I knew, including my boyfriend, were packing up and moving to Hawaii. My lack of direction seemed like a good enough reason to go along.

It turned out I didn’t have a lack of direction. I knew what I wanted to do, I was just hoping to land on something more stable and predictable. In Hawaii, I finally admitted to myself that all I wanted to be was a writer. At the time, I thought I would be a fiction writer. I returned to Minneapolis, took a typing course (so the ideas could flow quickly from brain to Brother typewriter), and started sending out manuscripts. That’s where those file folders come from. I remember the stories, but the specific words on those sheets of paper were forgotten.

The first story in the pile still has the rejection letter from Seventeen paper-clipped to it. Regretfully, “Pity Alexander Fischberg” was “unsuited to SEVENTEEN’s needs.” The next one, “Shoulder to Shoulder,” was an essay I wrote about marching on Washington in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Eventually, a version of that was published in a feminist journal; I think it was a Canadian magazine called Hysteria.

“The Key to the War” was about a man I’d met in Hawaii, a black musician who was raised in Los Angeles and was a Vietnam vet. As I looked at the carefully calligraphied title on the folder, I had an embarrassed flashback. Hadn’t I written “The Key to the War” as a short story? Did I dare to assume the first-person voice of someone whose experiences were completely different than my own? I was relieved to read that it’s an essay, telling the story pretty much as it was told to me, although I changed the names and probably tried to sell it as fiction. Although I’m embarrassed by what now seems like naïve writing, I’m relieved that my 20-year-old white-girl self didn’t pretend to be a black man who escaped the Watts Riots by becoming a sergeant in Nam.

The folder that made me think I used to be brave was the one with “THE RAPE STORY” written in purple pen across the tab. I remember it vaguely as a fictionalized account of a personal experience. In the story, a young woman gets raped in the parking lot of the library; a library parking lot as opposed to a church parking lot, which tells you pretty much how I feel about the sanctity of libraries—in my mind, it was as close to the real setting as I could find. I don’t remember the plot or how it ends, just that it was my first, albeit mortifying, attempt to tell the truth of my experience.

I don’t use that word, “rape,” very often anymore. I say “assaulted.” But back then I was outspoken about victims’ rights. Eventually, I would write an article for Glamour about my experiences testifying at a commitment hearing, and addressing the question of whether sex offenders can be rehabilitated (they can not). I was interviewed for a local news story. I believed, and still believe, that the stigma of victimhood had to be overcome in order to protect others from being victims; which is why I spoke out, why I attempted to write about my experiences, even if I had to fictionalize it the first time around.

Emboldened by my peek into “The Key to the War,” I opened the rape folder, hoping to glimpse that youthful bravery, or bravado, from the distance of 30 years.

The folder is empty. After getting over the surprise and the pure nakedness of writing that’s not there anymore, I was relieved. It was probably pretty bad. Still, I remember and honor that brave girl, mailing her double-spaced manuscripts in self-addressed-stamped envelopes, to any publication that paid, even if it was just $25 and two authors’ copies. She’s looking at me now, tapping her foot, asking me what I have to say for myself. Ok, ok. What do we have to lose, old girl?
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