How Writing My Young Adult Novel Helped Me Reclaim the Queer Girlhood I Lost
The years I suppressed my queerness are a loss that I’m exploring and grieving—if only through fiction.
While writing, I often thought of girls from my past—the ones I thought were pretty or the ones whose hair I loved to play with, or the ones who made me blush when they told me I was beautiful—and I’d hesitate, attempting to parse who were friends and who were crushes. And then there are the few I know I liked in a romantic way. The ones I held and touched like we were girlfriends, the ones I dreamt of kissing. The ones I tormented myself over. The ones I hated because I didn’t hate them at all.
There were some I violently pushed away. Friendships I destroyed because I couldn’t accept that I might have wanted to be more than friends. There were even a few whom I know I loved but to whom I never had the courage to say out loud that I loved them. On the page, these relationships emerged more clearly.
Nothing Burns as Bright as You is my feminist manifesto. It is the gay emo love story of my heart. It is painful and I hope people find it beautiful, because despite the story being made-up, every emotion within it is real.
Through writing Nothing Burns, I realized that my delayed realization wasn’t wrong or something obvious I’d missed. When I’m being generous, I think this happened for a reason. What is for you will be for you when the time is right or whatever, so one could argue that I came into my queerness exactly when I should have. When I’m feeling less than kind, I blame a complicated web of institutions and experiences: society, my religious household, biphobia, and heteronormativity. I was deprived of a wider worldview by what I was taught. I was shamed by what was expected of me. When I’m feeling funny, a small contingent of my friends and I, who have all experienced a similar delay in recognizing our own sexual orientation, call ourselves #latequeers. (Yes, with the hashtag.)
The years I suppressed my queerness are a loss that I will have to live with, but it’s one I’m glad I finally got to explore and grieve, if only through the lens of fiction. When I finished the novel, I found that I’d forgiven myself for the toxic roles I’d played, for all the ways I’d made or been a mess. The book provided enough narrative distance for me to see and finally process some of my clumsiest choices, some of my most latent queer thoughts and feelings.
You know how you can watch a movie and guess everything that will happen to a character, but they can’t yet see it themselves? That was how it felt as I reread the story I’d written. I was able to say, “Oh, you don’t even see what you’re doing,” and, more revealing, “Oh, honey, you don’t even know who you are.” But now I do. Some of my most heartbreaking relationships were unhealthy because I wasn’t ready for them to be better. I don’t think they could have been anything other than exactly what they were.
To be a #latequeer is to live with this duality: to love your life (if you’re lucky) and to wish you’d known yourself sooner. To want everything you have and to forever wonder about the possibility of what it might have been like to have something else.
I look at the flowers from my wedding differently now. They aren’t frozen at their most beautiful—they’re stagnant. They’re stuck. One day I touched them a little too roughly and petals fell away, littering my floor like confetti. I don’t want to crumble if things come at me unexpectedly. I want to be like the flowers in a field, alive and wild, changing with the seasons of my life the same way they change with the weather. Maybe wilting sometimes, but always blossoming again when the time is right. So far, I think I’m doing okay.
Ashley Woodfolk has loved reading and writing for as long as she can remember. She graduated from Rutgers University and worked in children's book publishing for over a decade. Now a full-time mom and writer, Ashley lives in a sunny Brooklyn apartment with her cute husband, her cuter dog, and the cutest baby in the world. Her books include The Beauty That Remains, When You Were Everything, the Flyy Girls Series and Blackout.