The road to self is paved with slumps

Joan Didion

In May last year I was visiting San Francisco for the first time. It was my birthday and I stopped by the City Lights bookstore to buy myself a present. As I browsed, I saw a couple of kids wearing Berkeley t-shirts and discussing Murakami’s latest book. Their conversation was passionate and smart, and the more I eavesdropped, the more I wished I was one of them. Looking at their tattered backpacks, I could already picture myself walking across the campus, following Joan Didion’s literal and metaphorical footsteps.

Back in London, I began looking at the Berkeley course catalogue and sent a few e-mails to the English department. The answer came after a couple of days. Because I already had a Bachelor’s degree from another university, I couldn’t apply for a second one at Berkeley and the only option was to consider a PhD. But reading the long list of admission requirements, I realised that in order to meet at least half of the criteria, I would have to quit my job and study for months, if not years. Once more, I was angry at myself for making all the wrong decisions that lead me to this roadblock.

US universities in particular represent the last stop on a path that had long been paved for academic purpose. In order to make it into an Ivy, the courses you took in high school, your grades and test scores, all matter. Kids who make it usually follow this route from an early age, and everything they do prepares them for the next level- be it an undergrad degree or a PhD. But for me, academic life had never been the top priority. When I read the guidelines for the obligatory personal statement essay, I knew I could never convince the admission board I was passionate about writing because the choices I made did not reflect that. I wasn’t one of the kids who had been writing novels since she was five and hadn’t demonstrated that I was willing to pursue my dream at all cost. In fact, for a long time I didn’t even have a dream or knew I wanted to write at all. My relationship with writing didn’t begin as love at first sight, but rather like the kind of love that comes to you when you’re prepared to accept it.

The first time I thought about writing as a possible career was two years before finishing high school. I loved working on literature assignments and teachers praised my vocabulary, ease with words, and vivid imagination. My love for stories and storytelling began at an early age, as my mum read to me every single day, and once I learned to read myself, I spent most of the time locked in a room with a book in my hands. Expressing my thoughts in writing felt natural and since people kept saying I was good at it, I decided to study Journalism at university.

Every Tuesday during eleventh grade I crossed the city to meet with a Journalism professor. We spent two hours together while he read my homework and I worked on a new piece. At the end of the session he gave me feedback and explained strategies for different forms of writing; one week we would work on dialogue, the following, description or narrative structures. My notebook always came back with lots of red marks and the process of getting stuff on paper wasn’t as easy as I had expected. After a year, I called to tell him I wanted to stop because I didn’t feel like I had what it took to be a good writer. He didn’t try to change my mind but only asked that no matter what I chose to do with my life, I would never stop writing.

Despite the puzzle pieces falling together to indicate I should become a writer, I didn’t feel a burning desire to write. I enjoyed reading Kafka and James Joyce, but my inner life was too green to be able to produce anything other than high school compositions. Not to mention my attention span that changed its focus with the same velocity as blooming days in April. I thought my Journalism professor was a foolish old man for telling me to keep writing when clearly my heart wasn’t in it.

When graduation day came, however, I realised my heart wasn’t in anything. I had no idea what I wanted to do and all possibilities seemed out of reach. I picked a random, liberal undergraduate degree and because I was coming to study in London, I also had to make a trade-off regarding the university’s level of prestige. Surviving in the city required a full-time job, but elite schools only allowed for twenty hours of work per week. I chose to work and did so for the following seven years.

Yet indecision and feeling lost followed me until my mid twenties. I used to change my mind all the time — one day I wanted to work in fashion, the next to be a teacher or a technology entrepreneur, and everything that was excited in the beginning lost its appeal after a short while. Writing had become a hobby of the past, and for months on end I didn’t touch the keyboard for any other reason than to search on Google “how to find your path”. To add to my anxiety, I felt pressured to do what I loved. The Internet was exploding with articles on how young people of my generation turned their passions into careers and did things they cared about. I felt that for someone who didn’t know what their passion was or who didn’t have the luxury to do what they loved, there was no yellow brick road leading to success and happiness.

Even after having long graduated from University I was still jealous of rich kids who went to Oxbridge or Ivies, got internships at their favourite companies and didn’t have to worry about money. I was equally jealous of people who seemed to have always known what they wanted to do and I tried to emulate their lives. It took me a few fail attempts at becoming someone else to hit rock bottom. The spiraling anxiety that gripped my life made me blame my family for not being wealthy, myself for not knowing what I wanted, being born in an East European country and being part of a generation where a liberal arts degree was worth nothing. In the midst of those panic attacks that nearly had me banging my head against the wall, I was searching for something that could help bring me back. Often the solution came through words.

By the beginning of last year, I had rekindled my old habit of searching solace in books. They weren’t self-help, “how to” or business ones, but literature and poetry. The more I read, the more at ease I felt and realised that my problem hadn’t been not knowing what I wanted to do, but simply not being ready to do it yet. Although I couldn’t remember any of the things that my Journalism professor had taught me, this time, it wasn’t about the mechanics of writing. I just had a desire to do it. With my new found drive, however, came a new fear. How could I have earned the right to write if all those years I haven’t been burning for it? I felt like a fraud, like the little boy who cried wolf whom nobody was going to believe anymore. When that e-mail from Berkeley arrived, I knew I was a cheater who didn’t follow the path and now wanted to sit at the table where only people who had been working at their craft for much longer were allowed to sit. It was too late to make it work.

But then life laughed in my face to show me I was wrong. Shortly after the Berkeley incident I was at a friend’s house, a bunch of us drinking posh wine, listening to a groovy record and making small talk. At one point the host asked us to put coasters under our glasses because this wasn’t one of those rented flats, but a house the couple had actually bought. As I put my glass on their expensive mahogany table, I thought being surrounded by people who owned glass coasters was the first sign I was in a grown up apartment. And then it hit me that I might never be able to buy a house. It wasn’t scary or sad, I just had to admit I wasn’t the glass coaster type. I wasn’t someone who followed a recipe, or a path. So far I had been making my own rules and to care whether an elite university would accept my application to read English was just not my style.

I also had to admit that not having been obsessed with writing my entire life, or not having yet read many of the books I was perhaps supposed to read didn’t mean I wasn’t prepared. I did prepare for who I am today, my own way. Studying something I didn’t love and going through with it taught me discipline. So did having to work my ass off doing a shitty job that paid minimum wage. I learned to smile and be nice even when I felt like telling everyone to go to hell, I learned to do stuff I didn’t care about with the same dedication I did stuff I was interested in and to put in the hours no matter what.

For the past seven years I honed my craft in a different way. All the things that I’ve done taught me important lessons about who I am and what matters to me. In retrospect, even the time I spent on work that I didn’t love is not wasted. By sticking with it when the road got rough, I also learned to sit at my desk and write when I don’t feel inspired. Perhaps I would have gotten here if I followed the academic path as well, although, I’m not sure I would have had much to write about other than scholar assignments on Chaucer.

A PhD could turn me into a more refined writer, or it could help me get published and win awards. But could it make me a more honest writer? I doubt that. Troublesome, filled with hurdles and detours, my path is the sum of every choice I made, not the — often removed from reality- vision of who I once dreamed to be. And waking up every morning and showing up, I became the kind of grown up who hasn’t earned her adulthood through the mere act of ticking boxes. So far I haven’t lived and breathed English, I didn’t burn for it the way Mozart did for his music. For a long time I didn’t even know writing was what I wanted to do. But I do know now. And what I know is that I don’t need permission or credentials to keep on loving words.