Last evening, I had the opportunity to talk to a graduate-level writing class. The class was actually one I took as a graduate writing student, and I was excited to return to the class and see what it was like a decade later. So many memories overtook me when I entered the English Department. Even though the department has been remodeled, it’s still musty and un-airconditioned. Looking at row after row of books – poetry! nonfiction! literary novels! Shakespeare! John Dunne! Alice Walker! – and the names of professors and their office hours, I felt at best profoundly nostalgic. In the few short minutes I spent in the English Department’s lobby, I ran into three people I knew. I’d come from work, so I was still wearing my extra tall black heels and a dress that sort of looks like a water color painting, and I felt foolish. “I’m invited to be here!” I wanted to yell. “It turns out, I have expertise!”
Between undergraduate and graduate school, I spent eight years of my life pursuing degress in English Literature and writing. I know my way around English departments housed in old buildings, sunlight streaming through rarely-washed windows – I am aquainted with the late-afternoon malaise that washes over before evening classes begin, which have their own special energy. I know who coined the phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief” and I understand allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and Mythology and lines of poetry like “one man loved the Pilgrim soul in you” and “hope is a thing with feathers” float through my mind on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I have listened to more conversations about Derrida and Foucault than I care to count. And when I think about how those years built upon one another, naturally, classes and papers and writing projects building upon one another, well, it comes as a rather crushing blow to remember that I am now in health care public relations, expected to have a Pavlovian response to my blackberry and keep my writing simple and straight forward.
My talk in front of the class went well – so well the students asked nearly an hour’s worth of questions afterward. It felt so terribly satisfying to take time out of my day to first of all, prepare for the class, second of all, rearrange the information for better delivery, third of all, deliver my talk to an engaged audience and fourth of all answer questions – I can’t even put it into words. I had so much fun – the kind of fun that made me realize maybe my working life isn’t as much fun as I sometimes think it is.
Right now, I live in fear that eventually I’m going to be made to wear google glass, or whatever the name is for that weird eye internet google thing. Years ago I swore I’d never be tied to a blackberry, and now I am. Later, I promised myself I wouldn’t ever tweet, and now I tweet regularly for work. I’ve since told myself the second someone expects me to attach a computer to my head, I’m outta here, but really, how can I even truthfully think that now? I’m so far from the girl who could spend hours studying Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats that I swear I saw the ghost of her walk by me last night, gently shaking her head, feeling sorry for thirty-six year old me. Of course, she was probably on her way to have a cigarette – it’s good that some things change.
The weird thing is, I’m not even unhappy! I like my work -often I could even claim to love it. I am compensated well, I work (mostly) reasonable hours, I love most of the people I work with and my work regularly interests me, so I’m not entirely sure where this sense of brokenheartedness comes from…maybe from not following my dreams? From some weird sense that I let the professors who so encouraged and believed in me down, even though many of them have either passed away or retired to esoteric parts of the world mainly to be left alone?
I think some of my angst over this stems from the fact that my current role in my office doesn’t particularly embrace intellect. One of the minor criticisms my boss gave me in my recent annual review was the idea that she thinks I overthink things too much. “This probably comes from your graduate school training, but you don’t have to think about things so hard!” she said. I HATE hearing that, even if it is true. Thinking about things hard – tackling complexity – those are the sorts of things I’m good at!
I’m lucky enough, though, to be able to look at the situation from the other side, as well. I’ve watched many of my friends, after our graduate degree, attempt to become freelance writers. While a few have succeeded admirably, many more have lived in a nightmare of pitches that are never responded to, completed work that is never paid for, and even projects canceled halfway through because a company suddenly cancels a project. Perhaps even more upsetting, none of the friends who pursued Ph.D.s at the time I was in school ended up in tenure track professorships, save one – the rest still live year to year renewing contracts with no hope of tenure and zero support for their research. When I think about that untraveled road, I wonder if I’d even be carrying this second child. Would I be able to afford him or her?
It’s funny, all the different lives we are capable of leading. Even if I’m experience a little buyer’s remorse, as it were, I’m grateful for the different opportunities I’ve been given, and I’m even more grateful I’m the kind of person able to adapt when necessary. I can recall more than one professor telling me “You should only get a Ph.D. if can’t imagine doing anything else,” and I felt so stymied by that declaration. Not imagine doing anything else? Why, I could imagine doing EVERYTHING else!
I’m not in any way ashamed of ending up in public relations – there is honor is simply getting up and going to work every day – and I am in the company of many writers. And a lot of the work I get to do is creative and rewarding. But I also don’t want to become the kind of person who, upon beginning Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, breathes a sigh of relief for (a.) understanding it and (b.) enjoying it (not that I would know anything about that…) – I need to revise the way I’m thinking about my work, and possibly the projects I’m taking on. I am proud of what I do, but if talking to that one class taught me anything, I could do even better work – probably kick-ass work – if some of the circumstances I’m in now change.
Working is so weird, really, especially if you are lucky enough to do something you enjoy even halfway. You have to do it for a long time unless you are independently wealthy so you should probably do your damndest to make sure it’s something you like. I constantly waiver between considering myself relatively competitive and wanting to a be a leader at work, with visions of someday working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or or the World Health Organization, and wishing I had a more laid-back career – maybe a free lance writing gig combined with teaching yoga, or something like that. That said, in my mid-thirties I can see a lot more possibilities for converging my interests than I ever did in my mid-twenties, and I’ve realized nothing has to be an either/or situation. I have a lot of friends who don’t like growing older, but so far, I am a fan of it – I like the perspective it gives and the opportunity it offers for incorporating what I used to think of as my many divergent interests into one full, fascinating life.