How Liberal Arts Saved My Life

one tiny, determined bloom in the desert near Abiquiu, NM

This week, a friend and I were talking about taking leaps — you know, the kind that uproot your life and leave you dizzy for a while, thinking, What have I done?

So he asked me, “Where do you get this faith you have, that everything is going to work out?”

Let me first say, there have been plenty of times where I wasn’t sure anything was going to work out right.

Let me also say, this has nothing to do with religious faith. It’s more akin to an observation of patterns.

My life has felt like a hurricane most of the time: it’s certainly all over the place, and occasionally an eye of calm passes over. My resume reads like a bunch of ten-year-olds scribbled a list of things they’d like to try when they grow up. I’ve worked in a chocolate factory, in a vet’s office, at a wilderness retreat, as a teacher, as an illustrator,as an archaeologist; my internships were in museums, art galleries, pastures, and salt marshes. (I seem to have settled on ‘writer/artist,’ and the kicker is that it’s the vocation that allows me to partake in all the bits of life that interest me — plus, I get to do some fascinating research.)

Fun fact: Since age 16, the longest stretch of time I’ve spent in one place was the 4 years I was in undergrad. In St. Louis. Studying art and archaeology. I generally last about 2 years in one place, which didn’t bother me until I started accumulating things. Dad once said, “You’re like a hummingbird. You don’t light in one place for very long.” I never found that troubling, but I’m starting to get a little tired of moving furniture now that I’m 36. Luckily, I have friends that I feel close to, no matter how we’re separated geographically. I rarely feel lonely. When I do, my friends are only a phone call or car ride away. I don’t find distance all that intimidating.

By contrast, my friend has lived in the same place for over 15 years. He has the steady job, the reliable income, and has for a long time. He says, “How do you leave that and take on the risk?”

It’s a good question, right? As we’re talking about coming to those cliché old crossroads and battling the urge to stay in the comfortable bubble we’re in and yielding to the temptation of something different and exciting, I tell him this:

A liberal arts education saved my life. And that’s no joke.

My MFA is in creative writing. The first thing you learn in Fiction 101 is to torture your characters. If you don’t yank them out of their comfort zones and constantly pelt them with problems, then there is no story and you’re wasting your time. Your story is a collection of escalating scenes that follow this pattern: Give the heroine a problem, force her to navigate her way out, let her breathe a split second. Repeat.

Over and over. Until the end of the story. That’s how you learn what she’s made of.

My BFA is in art. Guess what those four years were dedicated to? Problem solving. Every day. Make a 2-D pattern using an animal I will choose for you at random; illustrate three letters of the alphabet; create a compelling modular sculpture using only plastic forks; design a set of postage stamps that memorialize one of the darkest points in human history.

These may not be the typical ‘problem solving’ activities one encounters in her job or life in general, but my point is this: Being forced to find creative solutions to problems every day rewired my brain. I don’t typically feel overwhelmed when I get to the crossroads situation: I don’t freak out worrying about what the outcome might be, and whether it’s going to work out the way I want it to. My strategy is to leap, do the thing that my gut tells me, and deal with the outcome when it arrives. I take one event at the time, make a decision to move forward, and figure that one of two things happen. It either (1) works out the way I expect (FYI, this rarely happens) or (2) it leads to another problem and I have to sort that one out to move ahead. If it leads to utter failure, it just becomes another hurdle to navigate around. And sometimes, the best things come out of utter failure and what seems like the worst decision ever (case in point: my idea to move to the midwest, where I had some of the worst experiences of my life. But had I not gone there, I never would have met the friend who convinced me to apply for a job with the National Park Service, which was one of the smartest things I ever did. See Also: When I lost my first job after graduating in St. Louis—if I hadn’t been canned, I never would have written that first novel, and wouldn’t have gotten the wild idea to go to a little writers’ retreat in North Carolina, wouldn’t have gone for that MFA in writing…see the pattern here?)

I’m not saying there haven’t been dark times. There have been very bad days. That’s why I’m grateful for the family and friends that I have. But at those times (usually the day after the worst day) I’d think, This is where you find out what you’re made of. Find your way out.

The way out is twisting and turning. Have I made some bad decisions? Of course. Do I have regrets? Sure. Would I change anything? Not really.

So here’s the thing: if I think about my life the way I think about my characters, and consider this whole ride on planet Earth as the trajectory of one of my poor wayward heroines, it seems like that’s really the whole point. Life would be dull without the crossroads and the detours that sometimes lead to dead ends. We find out what we’re made of by the way we navigate them.

Remember the first X-Files movie? There’s this scene where Mulder and Scully are driving on a dark highway, in search of the weird (just another day in X-Files land), and they come to a ‘T’ intersection with a vast corn field straight ahead. Mulder says, “Which way?” and Scully says, “Right.” Mulder says, “I was thinking left.” There’s a beat, and then he drives dead ahead through the corn field, sending ears of corn and stalks flying. And they find the weird.

Taking those leaps isn’t always easy, but it’s not meant to be — and I feel like there’s something to be said for muscle memory in the brain just like in the body: the more you leap, the more you get used to that act, and the more you get accustomed to the problem solving that follows. “Comfortable” and “risky” become more relative. The next leap gets easier. So my pattern is this: Leap. Evaluate. Repair as needed. Repeat.

This article originally appeared on my website, here.