BY Sang Kromah
People tend to forget how hard it is to be a teenage girl. The pimples. The bullying. The self-esteem issues and insecurities. The painful task of trying to figure out who you are all while studying for classes, studying for the SAT’s, and trying to have a social life. I5 is a confusing time and sometimes it feels like no one understands or can relate to what you’re going through.
At 15, I wasn’t sure about much, but the one thing I knew for sure was the fact that I was going to be a writer. I knew that since elementary school and had developed a habit of writing and reading on a daily basis. But being 15 and choosing books over boys wasn’t something that most of my peers could relate to or if they did, no one ever vocalized it.
With #NoteToSelf, the goal is to interview women from all walks of life in an attempt to uncover who they were then and who they are now. This bridges the gap between generations because somewhere there’s a girl, who may be a little lost and in search of someone they can relate to…someone to assure them that they’ve been there and it does get better.
Meet Karen Eisenbrey, a Seattle-based author and rocker, who she leads a quiet, orderly life and invents stories to make up for it. Although she intended to be a writer from an early age, until her mid-30s she had nothing to say. A little bit of free time and a vivid dream about a wizard changed all that. Karen writes fantasy and science fiction novels, as well as short fiction in a variety of genres and the occasional song or poem if it insists. She also sings in a church choir and plays drums in a garage band. She shares her life with her husband, two young adult sons, and two mature adult cats. Eisenberg’s novel, Daughter of Magic has a May 22, 2018 release date.
Karen Eisenbrey (KE): Preacher’s kid, bookworm, decent singer, OK drummer, lousy basketball player. Introvert with little to no social life. Quick to anger, laughter, and tears. Boisterous at home, quiet in public. Physically small but not dainty, moderately cute but unwilling to make much effort. I could have passed for 12.
PG: Where were you at age 15? (Physical location)
KE: Bickleton, a tiny unincorporated farming community on the Columbia Plateau in south-central Washington State. Everybody knew everybody and took care of each other. A lot of people were related to each other, but not us. The Bluebird Capital of the World, it’s in a beautiful shrub-steppe landscape in the middle of nowhere: 30 miles to the nearest gas station, 40 to the grocery store, 70 to a movie theater (in my day). Really good schools, if small: 85 kids in the school district, grades K-12; 11 in my class. Everybody went to the prom who wanted to, with or without a date; parents went, too, just to see all the kids dressed up. (In the attached prom photo, I’m with my sister and parents. That’s me in the upper left, wearing the only one of 4 prom dresses I didn’t sew myself. I found this one on a clearance rack for about $10.)
PG: Where are you now? (Physical location)
KE: The lovely Maple Leaf neighborhood in Seattle, WA.
PG: Did you know who or what you wanted to be at 15?
KE: I was beginning to toy with “writer” and/or “rock star” but with no idea of what was required for either. I’d never met a working writer or been to a rock concert, didn’t know anyone in a band or that bar bands were a thing. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work in an office. (Guess where I have always worked.)
PG: 15-year-olds tend to hate everything, what was going on in your world that you hated and wanted to change?
KE: Can I say disco? But seriously, I’d been going to school with the same little bunch of people my whole life. I felt like they didn’t get me and I didn’t get them. I had endured some minor bullying in elementary school and was pretty guarded around my peers. Nobody was actively mean to me during this period and I had a few kind-of friends, but people didn’t go out of their way to include me and I took everything personally. I wished I could change the dynamic but didn’t know how or if it was even possible after so many years. In that time and place, equality for girls seemed to mean acting more like boys–being strong, tough, athletic, not too sensitive—while still being pretty and feminine. I wasn’t any of those things and hated that there didn’t seem to be a place for a nerdy little weirdo like me to just be herself and have that be OK.
PG: At 15, we always think it’s the worst of times; were they really the worst or were they the best of times?
KE: It was the late ’70s, so not very good except in terms of movies. Star Wars helped me a lot! For me personally, things were improving over how they’d been a few years before, but it was a boring, demoralizing time to be a teenager: no large-scale youth movement to join; The US had gotten out of Vietnam without actually making peace; the Cold War was still scary. There was some interesting music happening that I was going to find out about soon but hadn’t yet. It’s kind of weird to recall a time when I hadn’t heard the Ramones or Bruce Springsteen! The so-called Moral Majority was just getting started, which I thought was awful but I was surrounded by people who thought it was great. My dad was the pastor of the one church in town, and more liberal than much of his flock; uncomfortable times in a small town.
PG: What were the top 5 songs on your playlist at 15?
KE: Please. “Playlist” wasn’t a word yet. I’m not sure “mixtape” was even a word yet. We listened to albums, intently, while studying the lyrics. My family shared one stereo, so everybody listened to everything. I didn’t have many records of my own; I relied on what my older brother brought home. He had some good people advising him. Most of what I was interested in was at least a few years old, and a lot of it was almost as old as I was. This would begin to shift in the next couple of years (both older and newer), but when I was 15, I liked Who’s Next (“Baba O’Reilly,” “Behind Blue Eyes”) Quadrophenia (“Love Reign o’er Me”), John Lennon’s Rock and Roll (“Stand by Me,” “Peggy Sue”) and the soundtrack to Star Wars. The original cast recording from A Chorus Line was also in heavy rotation, but that was mostly the doing of my mom and sister. Still, I’m sure I could still sing along to most of the songs. The car I was learning to drive had an AM radio, so I heard a lot of Top 40 hits and tried very hard not to like them. I was a musical snob without really knowing what I was snobbing about, but it was an era of pretentious prog rock and shallow, over-produced pop. I was longing for punk without knowing it.
PG: What literary, movie or TV character did you identify most with at 15?
KE: Luke Skywalker: a nobody from nowhere who leaves the backwater and saves the galaxy with his new friends and special powers. I also identified with R2D2: small and gets no respect but actually knows what’s going on. I liked and admired Princess Leia but couldn’t really identify with a somebody from somewhere.
PG: At 15, what was your idea of a dream job?
KE: Getting paid either to read books (without having to write book reports), or sing.
PG: What were you reading at 15?
KE: Everything by Madeleine L’Engle (Time Trilogy, as it was known then, and the Austin books) and Ursula K. LeGuin that the Bookmobile could lay their hands on. I had already read and loved the Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness; this is probably when I read The Lathe of Heaven because I read it before the PBS production came out the next year. Lots of C. S. Lewis, too, including his Space Trilogy. Probably some trashier sci-fi and fantasy, but I don’t remember the titles. This was also my James Michener phase; I think I read Centennial and Chesapeake around that time. I continually re-read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, so they probably came up. I finally read Little Women after seeing a mini-series on TV. My sister had tried to read it when she was 10 and didn’t like it (because she was only 10) so I was skeptical going in, but at 15, it went over pretty well. Jo making a life as a writer in the city made an impression on me.
PG: As far as high school stereotypes go, which category did you closely fit into?
KE: Quiet bespectacled girl in the corner with her nose in a book. Also band geek. And lab tech. But it wasn’t a stereotypical high school. There weren’t enough people for strong cliques, and everyone did everything. In spite of having no athletic ability, I ran track and played JV basketball (and managed the varsity team when they went to State that year.)
PG: Who are you today and what makes you successful?
KE: Today I am a published author, as well as drummer and backup singer in Seattle garage band Your Mother Should Know and competent amateur choral and solo soprano. I’m married to a composer, and the mother of two twenty-something young men. I work part-time as office manager for a small church, which is about the most perfect job for me I could imagine. What makes me successful is that I’ve put together a satisfying life with plenty of space for creativity. My spouse and I fully support each other’s creative endeavors and neither of us has illusions about making a living at it. It’s very freeing! It took me years to start writing fiction. I wrote for still more years in isolation until I found my voice and the stories I wanted to tell, and then I started letting other people see them. That took courage I didn’t know I had until I’d done it, but it created a feedback loop that fed my confidence. That and sheer dumb luck brought me into the orbit of people who believed in my projects maybe even more than I did. So what makes me successful is showing up and doing the work in order to be ready when an opportunity climbs into my lap and starts purring.
PG: What achievement of yours would your 15-year-old-self be most proud of?
KE: It’s hard to choose between my first book (The Gospel According to St Rage), the songs I wrote and recorded for it (with help from my brother), and the new book (Daughter of Magic) that’s coming out in May from Not a Pipe Publishing. I think I could have imagined writing the books and would certainly have enjoyed reading them, but the songs came as a complete surprise. I’ve always sung but songwriting eluded me until I tried it in the guise of a fictional teenager. Yeah, I’ll say the songs, especially that I’ve performed some of them live, singing and playing drums at the same time. At 15, I couldn’t really do that.
PG: Today, are you the person you thought you’d be at 15?
KE: In the sense of being an author, yes, though I think I would have been appalled that it took as long as it did and that there’s so little money in it. And that I’ve ended up doing office work, though it turns out to be a great fit for me. Although I had little social life and didn’t date in high school (or college, for that matter) I never doubted I’d someday be married with children. Undying optimist, I guess! I didn’t imagine I’d have sons, though. Somehow I figured I’d have daughters, but the boys have been a happy surprise and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
PG: If you could say anything to your 15-year old self, what would it be? (Your answer can be however long or however short, you wish it to be)
KE: Your people are out there. You’ll find them sooner than you think. Some of them are weirder than you are. That’s OK.
Also, those drums you just bought? You’re going to need them later, so don’t sell them. They’re keepers. They’ll only sound better with age, and they’ll be vintage collector’s items. You will look dauntingly cool in your 50s.
St Rage: https://strage2.bandcamp.com/
Your Mother Should Know: https://yourmothershouldknow2.