I just got back from a student/alumni networking event for Liberal Arts majors at my alma mater, St. Catherine University – a small, Catholic, all-lady college in Minnesota. I had agreed - foolishly, yes, I see that now – to sit down and chat with a bunch of current students about my career trajectory, my past experience, how my academic grounding prepared me for where I am today, and…..I don’t know. Some other stuff.
And I told them the truth.
And their faces fell.
And honestly, I’m not (entirely) sorry about framing the things I said the way I said them. No one really prepares college kids for the directionlessness of the post-college years. The uncertainty. The self-doubt. No one tells kids how much utter re-invention their life paths will require of them, how much they will have to rely on their creativity, their vision, their willingness to change paths, change thinking, change everything. And that’s okay – it’s just good to be prepared.
I told them that graduation really sucked for me. That I floated in a state of ennui for a couple of years, without direction, without spark, without a sense of the shape that I wanted my life to be.
I told them that they’ll never feel like a grownup. That they’ll always feel like a learner – and that’s actually good. If we feel like we’re one step behind where we want to be, it means we’re moving. Life requires motion, and action and response. We can coast when we’re dead.
I told them that they needed to be flexible and creative and innovative with their career choices, that they had to be willing to research and analyze, that they need to be able to apply their skills to one day do jobs that may not even exist now. And even more – that they’ll have to do that again and again and again. I told them that the world is dynamic and changeable and there was very little that they could count on, so they’d have to build a life with their own two hands.
I told them that my career – hell, my entire life -was built on a precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And a couple hocked loogies. And that was okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits.
I told them to be prepared to work jobs that they hate, to take orders from people they despise, and to do it with a smile. I told them that they well may be fired one day for reasons totally outside of their control, that good jobs can go suddenly bad, and that things that seem like scraping the bottom of the barrel can turn into the opportunities that define their careers. I told them to take chances. And that self-employment is a terrifying, exhilarating, nail-biting and beautiful, beautiful thing.
I told them that being a writer required masochism, a thickness of skin bordering on delusional, a willingness to be simultaneously separated from the world and integrated into it. A willingness to go to a place of not me. When I’m writing, there is no me. There is only the book. Indeed, when someone reads my book, there is no me there either. The only thing that exists is this: characters, place, story, and the reader’s relationship with the three. Being a writer is both prestidigitation and vanishing – you see the thing I make, but I disappear.
But mostly, I told them to lose everything that they should be doing. Should is a word that has driven many a twenty-something (including myself, once upon a time) straight into the waiting arms of their therapists. Not to knock therapists, or anything, but it seems that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we forget about shoulds and forget about the standards by which our eighteen year old selves judge our twenty-eight-year- old selves (or thirty-eight, or forty-eight) and simply focus on the paths that we’re on, and pouring our hearts and souls into each blessed (and sucky) day.
Once upon a time, I was a starry-eyed co-ed too. The life that I had assumed that I would have was radically different from the life that I had. And honestly, thank god. Because I was kind of an idiot in college. Much of the turns my life has taken, have been entirely accidental. I didn’t mean to fall in love, for example. And then parenthood kind of presented itself when I least expected it. These things dramatically altered my course – away from the shoulds of my college self into the doing the best I can of my adult self.
I didn’t mean to become a bartender. Or a homeless youth worker. Or a janitor. Or a park ranger. Or a receptionist. Or an activist. Or a journalist. Or any of the random jobs I’ve held in my life. Sometimes you get to seize opportunities, and sometimes you take what you can get. All the same I’m glad that I did the lot of them, because each step brought me to where I am now. Novelist. Mom. Teacher. It’s not a comfortable life by any means, and it’s fraught with uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
It’s a pretty good life, actually. And I’ll keep it.