There are all these lists of college subjects you might have foolishly majored in that will eventually lead to your starvation in a gutter. The ten majors that will cause you to starve the fastest!
There are all these lists of things you can do wrong, by accident, just because you thought it sounded interesting, that will end up ruining your career prospects and your life and probably your chance at ever seeming sexy.
There is also a very short list with the three majors that will result in happiness. Or at least enough food to keep you alive.
That list never contains my major. But at the time, I really thought I was being practical. I was going to be a professor, after all.
(Ha! I can’t remember anything! How was I going to be a professor? You need to know FACTS for that)
Actually, by the time I got to grad school, I was so focused that I only took one class that had nothing to do with what I was studying. And that was the class that changed my life.
Walking through Washington Square Park, skirting around the edge of one of those ubiquitous street fairs with the endless mozzerepas, I was telling Bear about a friend.
“How did you guys meet again?” he said.
“In that writing class,” I said.
It was creative non-fiction writing. At the time, the class seemed like it was probably a mistake, and definitely felt frivolous. I figured it would be the least likely to contribute to my eventual (potential) success. I figured it was distracting me from my real work. There were only about eight of us in it. The instructor wrote occasionally for The New Yorker. He seemed really young and slightly uncomfortable. It felt like a piece of cake.
“Let’s go this way,” said Bear, leading me away from the street fair.
“Good idea,” I said.
“I’m glad we’re so similar,” he said. “It’s so nice that you don’t like people either.”
I laughed. “I love that about us,” I said.
And it’s true about street fairs and boardwalks and amusement parks and even many concerts. But also, I need people in a way that continues to surprise me, even though it’s pretty much the most basic human emotion.
I started telling Bear about the class, randomly. About what I’d thought of everyone in it at the time. How this girl, who was so intimidatingly gorgeous, is now my friend. How this girl, whose writing I wanted to mimic, is now my friend. How this spunky, opinionated girl who laughed at herself a lot is now my friend, somehow.
I completed the class without really befriending anyone. With some reassuring notes from the instructor and a grade that didn’t mean much to me.
And then, at least half a year later, someone I’d met there started a writing group. I showed up with a quiche I’d made. I felt immediately, strangely, at home in her apartment.
The group got me working on personal essays and helped me learn where and how to submit them. The group became my support system in an unfamiliar world. I had just made the least practical decision of my life. I’d decided to give writing a try.
The first writing group branched into a second one, for fiction, where I shyly shared the fantasy novel I have been quietly growing– my embarrassing secret passion. And where we talked about our siblings and our parents and our goals and our frustrations and whether or not we want babies one day and love and strategies for job success and definitely our sex lives. Writing group connections led to my first writing jobs. They formed the foundation of my network. People in the groups introduced me to their friends, their coworkers, their editors. The writing groups made me work harder. They made me crazy sometimes. They made me wish that I’d gotten married later so that the writers could be in my wedding. They were part of what made me a writer. And it began with that class.
A class that was not supposed to lead anywhere.
I think people should try to be practical. It’s important to dream, and equally important to learn how to operate in a world that’s wide awake, perpetually pissed off, and often impersonal.
When my brother asked me for advice about what to major in in college, I told him computer science. I was scared. I wanted him to get job offers. I keep reading those Op-Eds in which it’s revealed that no one will ever get a job offer again. In which our country has destroyed my nineteen-year-old brother’s chances at ever having hope, let alone gainful employment. I keep reading those statistics that go “and, unfortunately, those who don’t find a job immediately after college (within fifteen minutes of graduation) will continue to struggle with unemployment and underemployment five and ten years in the future. They will almost certainly live in their parents’ basements. They will fruitlessly attempt to define themselves as ‘artists,’ in order to maintain some sort of social credibility. But ultimately, they will succumb to a deep, unshakable depression. In a sense, they will never truly ‘catch up.’”
I told my brother to do computer science. Just suck it up and do something on one of the success lists. He tried that, and now he’s switching his major again.
“I like interacting with people,” he explained.
And of course, that’s true. Socially, he’s unstoppable. Everyone loves this kid. And the people who don’t secretly wish they were more like him.
I think it’s important to be practical, but also, you never know what practical might end up looking like. It might end up involving some of your most obvious skills—the ones you never thought were particularly marketable. The ones that didn’t win you A’s. The ones that were always there, hidden in plain sight.
Your “real” work might turn out to be something you can’t imagine right now.
When I took that writing class in grad school, I was pretty sure it didn’t count because I liked it so much.
I am pretty sure that creative writing always ends up on one of the “you suck” lists. I am pretty sure that if I hadn’t taken that class, my life would be a lot different. It would not be nearly as good.
I don’t know how to end this, so I’ll just say:
We read too many lists. Life is more of a rambling tale with slurred words and bizarre twists and joy tucked into places you didn’t expect to find it in. It’s hard to come up with a thesis statement. It’s more like a really long poem without any structure.
Occasionally, something that seems like a piece of cake will turn out to be just as delicious.
* * *
Can you think of something you did just because you wanted to that led to a lot of awesome stuff in your life?
Unroast: Today I love the way I can sometimes look good in pink. It always catches me off guard.
P.S. I feel like someone is going to yell at me for this post. Am I wrong to suggest that people should do things they like? That feels a little wrong somehow, sometimes.
P.P.S. The clothing giveaway is going for a few more days! Check it out