One of the most natural and acceptable getting-to-know-you questions for college students is, “what’s your major?”
“English,” I’d say.
Then they’d ask a question that was all at once boring and also deeply triggering if you, like me, didn’t have a real answer. “Oh, so what are you going to do with that?”
“I’m not sure,” is what I said for years. Then in my senior year I decided that I should start putting out there into the universe what I actually wanted. “I want to write for a living.” Pipe dreams. Everyone knew it.
Last night I sent some pieces of writing to a friend of mine. Something that I wrote without any audience in mind so I was able to be more free than usual. I was writing just to get this experience down on paper. Just because it was begging to be written.
This morning she texted me, “seriously, your writing is beautiful.”
I’m going to sound so arrogant right now but this is a compliment that I’m used to. It’s easy for me to not hear it and just say, “thanks” because I’m embarrassed by flattery. But I knew that she meant it. I knew that she was saying that something I said landed with her. My routine, robotic, “thanks” would have disregarded her. So instead of responding right away, I decided to hop in the shower and think about what that means. Because I don’t always write beautifully. I don’t always write in a way that connects with people. As I’m doing it I can tell, “this isn’t going to work. No one is going to hear this.” And I’m usually right. I don’t know how I know, I just know when it’s right and when it’s not.
What I wrote last night was vulnerable and even a little scary. It was all truth.
Right after graduation, I did get a writing job. My first grown up job. In Brookings, South Dakota at SDSU. This was great because I got to stay in a comfortable university setting but I’d get to be one of the grown ups! A department hired me to assemble their course catalogue and put it online. The writing part? Oh, I’d get to write the course descriptions. Yeah… that’s utilizing my talents! I’d spent the last four years writing whatever people asked me to write, I could do it and get paid for it for sure. Then, when the catalogue was up and running they asked me to write pamphlets for different courses and tracks and stuff like that.
It was the worst. I was terrible at it. In addition to not understanding the basic structure of how a public university operates (I went to a private school), feeling like a complete outsider, living so far away from the people that I loved (though my best friend did live with me at the time and that was an actual life-saver at times), writing because your life depends on it is horrible. I got the worst writer’s block. And not only that but this was stuff that I just didn’t care about. Which made it infinitely harder to dredge up any damns for the task at hand. I don’t care about the classes you have to take to keep your teacher’s certification. Some people do, I do not. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force it.
When I was fired after six months, I was relieved more than anything. I vowed to never have my life depend on my creativity. It took me years to get my magic back. But my magic is back, don’t you think? I’ll be cocky, it’s fine. My magic came back this summer.
I do write for a living, now. But “for a living” means something totally different. More like: to stay alive.
After my shower, I picked up my phone and responded to my friend’s text:
“Seriously, your writing is so beautiful.”
“Only when I’m telling the truth.”
That’s the one. That’s how I know whether or not you’re going to hear what I’m saying. When I’m just filling space. When I’m hitting an arbitrarily self-imposed deadline, you don’t care. You don’t! You just don’t and that’s fine. In fact that’s good. That keeps me here in this honest space where I want to live forever.
Thank you for keeping me here.