To be frank, I don’t know how to begin this letter because I genuinely don’t know if words will be able to properly convey my gratitude. As far as fictional characters go, you’ll always be number one in my book.
I’ve been inspired by a good number of strong female characters, but I’ve not seen myself in any of them the way I saw myself in you. It was hard to fully accept that I too, once upon a time, was a lost girl. When you’re bullied as a kid, it’s hard to understand that what people say about us isn’t accurate. As much as our parents can be there to remind us of our value, it doesn’t change the fact that over the years as your skin thickens, your heart also becomes more susceptible to pain. And as a result, you tend to build walls around it. Because I desperately wanted to fit in, I gave the world the chance to tell me who I was while I walked around unsure of what happened to the little girl who used to believe in happiness. Somewhere along the way, I was saved by my faith in Christ at 16, but the walls I had put up never fully went down. Somehow, it was always hard to believe that I could truly be happy, that I could open my heart even though it’s been shattered, and that I could be brave enough to show the world who I truly am — the nerdy, overly enthusiastic dork.
I am a more open person because of you, but most importantly I am braver. I’ve only ever known temporary courage, but in watching your journey unfold, I now feel bravery is a permanent resident in me. I wasn’t an orphan like you, my family members are complete and utter perfection, but for as long as I can remember, away from them, I’ve always been a lost girl. (Fun fact: my mom is so much like Snow with her unwavering optimism, it’s absolutely adorable!) Your story has been far worse than mine for you weren’t ever chosen into a permanent home, but in a similar way, I wasn’t chosen anywhere else. Some teachers ridiculed me as opposed to helping me. I wasn’t anyone’s best friend for the longest time. And it’s cliché to say, but I felt invisible. (Except for that one time I accidentally tripped and spilled a bit of ketchup on a girl’s shoe, which resulted in her yelling at me in front of the entire cafeteria. You’re never invisible when you screw up.)
I once told a few girls I loved Star Wars in the playground, and they mocked me for it. You weren’t appreciated for being a geek, you were appreciated for being popular and pretty. You were annoying if you loved anything different. And for years I molded myself into whatever people respected because I had to feel safe enough around them. I had to feel accepted. Of course when I found my voice later on things weren’t so drastic, but I still found myself hiding my enthusiasm. And the older we get, the “cooler” negativity becomes. When you’re positive and kind all the time, people start believing you’re “fake”. They think our lives are easy, breezy but they fail to understand that it’s a choice. Therefore, in order to start fitting into this version, I hid my enthusiasm. I hid it because I didn’t want to be annoying. And once one person tells you you’re annoying, it stays with you for the rest of your life. Then in a way I never imagined, I was once again a product of what people wanted to see. I was still myself, but a casual version. I wasn’t okay with showing vulnerability because it was perceived as a weakness. I couldn’t openly say things like: “Oh my God, that scene made me bawl my eyes out!”
Then one day, in the most frustrated yet fervently heartfelt tone you said: “people are going to tell you who you are your whole life, you’ve just gotta punch back and say no, this is who I am” and I paused the episode because I couldn’t stop crying. It was as though you were talking to me. As though you were upset over the fact that I’d spent so many years being a punching bag for the world, and from that moment on, I kept telling myself it’s okay to be honest because Emma Swan is. I was 20 at the time. It wasn’t easy at first — much like your journey, it took time. Reaching that level of true openness took time. However, most importantly, your journey gave me the key to understand that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I say or do because someone’s not going to take it the way I intend. We can’t please everyone. We can do our best to help and be the best versions of ourselves possible, but we’re also human beings, and we are imperfect.
You’re bold, beautiful, badass, and brave — but you’re not afraid of being vulnerable. And you have taught me that it takes more courage to open my heart than it does to close it. You’ve taught me that crying isn’t a weakness. It takes courage to feel and it takes courage to be honest about those feelings. Through your journey you’ve shown me that I have all the strength in me to conquer anything (thankfully, there are no dragons in this world.) I may have been a lost girl and maybe a part of me always will be, but I am not nothing. I was never nothing. And the moment you uttered those words, you spoke to me once again. You spoke to so many of us who’ve allowed the negative voices to tell us we’ll never be enough; we’re nothing.
No matter how far we come, negative voices will always attempt to govern our minds — they’ll always attempt to stir us away from the truth. I have the greatest family members and the most amazing friends today whose steadfast support is the reason I’m standing tall. (Except I’m actually short lol.) But the world is a negative place still, and for a writer: positivity, vulnerability, and enthusiasm aren’t always praised. If you aren’t offering intense criticism, you aren’t doing it right. However, writing about your journey has inspired me to open up in ways I never thought possible. It’s made it 110% okay for me to be vulnerable, to write with heart, and enthusiasm. It’s made me a better writer. It doesn’t matter if my style isn’t another’s cup of tea; it’s perfectly fine for me. And if it’s able to inspire me, I’m sure it’ll inspire at least one another person in the world — and that’s enough. At the end of the day, people will see what they want to see, but as long as I lay my head on my pillow and know that I’ve been kind to others and true to myself, I’m not nothing.
We may have been lost girls, but we’ve always been special. Everyone is. We’ve been somebody. We are somebody. And today, we choose to be heroes. I don’t have an entire town to save, but I strive to make lives easier, and sometimes that just means being there to hold someone’s hand when they’re hurting. It means encouraging those around me. Most importantly, it means choosing the honorable road even when it’s difficult. It means fighting even when I’m breaking. Because I am now brave enough to be myself, I am exactly where I’m meant to be. I am where I need to be. And I am exactly who I want to be. And you know how hard it is to trust once your heart’s broken, but I promise that when the time comes again, I won’t run away. I promise that I will never let another tell me who I am. And I’ll always come home to the places I miss.
I’ll always be braver because of you and surely someday, I’ll tell my children about you. I’ll tell them how there’s no shame in admitting that a fictional character has inspired me in all the right ways. (Sometimes, as great as our family can be in offering advice, we don’t discover things until we search for them on our own. And I didn’t realize I was searching for strength when I began watching Once Upon A Time. I didn’t realize that a character could help me improve my voice as a writer until I began analyzing your story.)
Thank you for allowing me to see that strength is the raw combination of bravery and vulnerability, kindness and passion. We’re all imperfect and complex, but the important thing is to learn from our mistakes, apologize when we’re wrong, and strive towards becoming the very best versions of ourselves. Thank you for reminding me of the fact that it’s okay to be an Ugly Duckling — they grow into swans. Their time to shine will come. Thank you, Emma. Truly. I’ll never forget you.
I wrote this letter as a contribution to Katie’s (Nerdy Girl Notes) Fan Mail Project and it’s not too late to submit your own. It’s cathartic to write these feelings out. And it’s going to be an amazing book to read all once it’s released. Imagine it, an entire book filled with letters to female characters from people all over the world!? I’m going to need 10 copies.