Erik and I were talking yesterday about my plans for the future. He asked whether I have ever considered freelance writing. I told him I didn’t think my writing would translate well into magazines or newspapers, because I write for myself and no one else wants to read what I have to say. Witness this blog, for instance.
One of the most admirable – and completely maddening – things about Erik is he never lets me off the hook.
“How do you know you don’t have an audience?” he asked reasonably. “Your blog probably gets a lot more readers every day than you think it does, and you haven’t really tried writing things for a larger audience anyway. How do you know you wouldn’t succeed?”
He took another tack. “I was just reading an article recently on that writer who exposed Standard Oil. What was her name? Ida Tarbell.”
“Yeah, I know about her,” I said. “But I couldn’t be like her. I don’t have that kind of vision.”
At this, if I recall correctly, Erik actually snorted. “What do you mean, ‘you don’t have vision’? What does that mean?”
I really didn’t feel like explaining.
“Okay,” he was starting to get heated now. “I’ll believe a lot of the things you say about yourself. But I can’t let you have this one. What do you mean, ‘you don’t have vision’?”
“I’m just not one of those people,” I said, looking at my lunch. “I don’t do great things – I mean – I don’t have lofty ideas or whatever – I’ll never make anything of myself.” Even I knew I was just making noises.
Erik didn’t even dignify my remarks with an answer. “Just look at this,” he shot back, totally galvanized now. “Before she wrote History of the Standard Oil Company, Tarbell did a lot of other things – she was a biology major in college – she was a teacher – she lived in Paris – she was an editor. I bet she didn’t love all these other jobs! She had to try a lot of different things before she figured out what she wanted to do!”
More noises. “Yeah but I bet she was really brilliant at them – or something…”
Erik shifted impatiently on the sofa. “One of the things she did was ‘write a teaching supplement for home study courses,’” he read off his laptop. He looked fixedly at me. “I don’t think you can possibly say there’s anything glorious about that.”
“Maybe they were really good…” I trailed off. We were both pretty disgusted with me at this point. “Look,” I said, “I just don’t feel like discussing this right now, okay? Let’s talk about it later.”
We never did get around to having that talk (this wasn’t my doing; something came up with a friend and we had to put other things on hold), but the discussion hasn’t left my mind. I know, and I recognized even at the time, that I was being stupid and was not engaging Erik’s remarks. But I didn’t want to have that conversation. I’ve been running away from it for a couple of years already.
As you might have picked up from other entries in this journal, at some point, during my first or maybe second year of grad school, I lost my confidence. It’s a cliché that “pride comes before a fall,” but maybe it does. The year before I came to Los Angeles I was confident to the point of arrogance. Dance had made me fitter and more exuberant in my body than I’d ever been.
I played in two piano recitals. I had gotten into grad school on the strength of tight relationships with professors and a senior thesis I’d already presented at several events. (If you want solid evidence of how much my confidence level has shifted, just skim that entry I’ve linked under “several” [which, by the way, is a different entry than is linked under “events”]) And I was a finalist for a prestigious one-year grad fellowship. I seemed to do brilliantly at everything I touched. I was a success! I was a natural! I was happy all the time.
One of the most crushing realizations of grad school is that just by getting in, you lose your exalted status. As an outstanding undergrad, you get a lot of attention, from professors, from grad programs, from parents. Acceptance into grad school seems to confirm this. But then you arrive at the program and suddenly you’re surrounded by other people who were just as outstanding as you in their undergrad programs – maybe even more so – and all that specialness you felt in college is no longer relevant. No one cares how good you were before, if you can’t prove yourself in the here and now. Well, proving myself aside, I’ll just admit right now that I’ve never been good at coping with being ordinary. I’m not saying this to brag; I had never been treated as if I were ordinary, at least in terms of academic ability, until I got to grad school. But once I got to grad school I suddenly wasn’t special anymore. My confidence, predicated as it was on my being good and special and outstanding, vanished instantly as soon as I discovered I wasn’t.
I think now that I spent the first two years of grad school just fumbling with this realization, losing ever more confidence, until I reached the point where I was last year, which is a lot more depressed than I let show to anyone but Erik. It’s nothing I’m proud of, but it is surprisingly hard to let go of being special once you’ve enjoyed that delusion. It surprised me, anyway. Most of you know how much soul-searching I’ve done in the meantime. When I finally decided, sometime last year, that it would be better for all involved if I just left school after getting my MA, I felt so much lighter right away. Since then, I’ve only gotten happier. But this decision, freeing as it has been, hasn’t solved my problem of confidence. I still think I’m a lousy grad student, but I’m also afraid I’ll be lousy at everything else too. How could I not be? I’ve never done anything else but go to school! Even in my happier state of mind these days, I still often fall into fear and despair. What can I possibly do with myself? Is there anything? Will there ever be?
I had a dream last night.* I had sent an email to the head editor of Glamour, and she had accepted me as an editor for the magazine** — just on the basis of that email, because she knew how good I was. But I procrastinated on getting back to her, and now it was too late; the job was gone. But at that moment, a well-dressed young woman showed up at my door, asking for my help. She was another Glamour editor, and she had come to fetch me to start work and give them my valuable input on a problem they were having. But she wanted me to be able to leave in ten minutes, and I was still in my pajamas, so I told her I wouldn’t be able, and she left. But about ten minutes later, yet another well-dressed young woman arrived, another editor, who had heard about me from the other two editors. She said they still needed my input on the problem and there was still time for me to get ready. She said she would wait with me until I was dressed. I knew then that I had to go, but I refused to start my new job without the perfect outfit. My new dress would be great, but I wasn’t sure it was chic enough, so I kept trying on outfit after outfit, but they all looked terrible. Each time I had something on, the editor said, “Great, let’s go,” but when I pressed her to tell me how I looked, she admitted the outfit was bad. Then I would go back to the closet to start over. I woke up before I found out whether I ever made it to the Glamour offices.
The symbolism of this dream is obvious. In the dream, I was so talented that I landed a really fabulous job with no effort at all. They even chased after me, giving me chance after second chance, forgiving all my mistakes, because they knew I was the perfect person for the job. But I sabotaged myself again and again, first through inaction, then because of my intense insecurity, even though it couldn’t have been clearer that they wanted me. In fact, the more overt their advances, the more reluctant and self-conscious I became. I was offered the best career welcome a person could possibly want, but I didn’t know how to accept it.
I can tell from this dream that I really listened to the conversation I had earlier with Erik – not just what he said, but what I said, the whole interaction. He was telling me that I could do great things, but I kept denying it without even having justification for the denials. He showed me open doors and I acted as though they were closed and locked. Even though this was all only hypothetical, my attitude could carry over into actual life. I could be sabotaging myself, just like in the dream, if I keep on always thinking I’ll never be capable of anything worthwhile.
The really sticky thing about all this, and probably the reason I’ve been so unwilling to confront it, is that this suggests that my feelings of negativity and inability in grad school have also been largely in my head. This is true and not true… or, perhaps more accurately, it is true but the consequences are not necessarily bad. During my first two years at UCLA, I felt constantly in fear that someone was going to pull away my trappings of intellectual ability and expose me for a fraud, someone who was not as smart as people thought, someone who didn’t really belong in grad school after all. It was really terrifying. I have since learned that these feelings are extremely common among graduate students, in fact almost universal; one very well-known professor even told me that “the only people who don’t feel that way, are the ones who should.” I sensed this, but I couldn’t stop myself being scared and unsure, even in the face of evidence that I wasn’t as miserable a student as I thought. My classmates praised me. My advisor commended me. After I delivered a lecture in one of our seminars, taught by this same aforementioned well-known professor, I stood anxiously waiting her feedback.
“That was brilliant!” she enthused.
I blurted out, “Really?” Only when my cohort seconded her did I think it could be true.
You’d think this kind of reinforcement would be enough, but as anyone knows who’s suffered with insecurity, it only takes one negative comment to wipe out many compliments. The bad stuff always rises to the top.
After three years of grad school, now that I have decided to leave and feel quite removed from the path the rest of my cohort are on, I can finally recognize that I might not have been as doomed to failure as I used to think, that I probably am pretty smart and articulate, just like everyone says. I might even have vision, like I used to think I did when I was at Berkeley. But does that mean I should stay in school? I could be wrong, but I don’t think it does. When I first started filling out those grad school applications, I did so because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, and because I thought the path to academic greatness would be a light and carefree journey for a natural like myself. Now, if I do someday decide to stay in or go back to school, it will have to be a conscious decision, made only after accounting for all the hard work and difficulty I know I am still likely to encounter. It will have to be because I have decided there is nothing else I would rather do with my life than write history books and teach history in college. But I’m not there right now. I’ve only ever gone to school, so I don’t know what else is out there. I want to find out. Now that the option of doing something different has been brought out into the open, there’s no going back.
If there is one thing that hating grad school has taught me, it is this: I want my future to be one of my own choosing and making, whatever that means. If it takes me a long time to find my calling, just like Ida Tarbell, then that’s fine. If it means I have to try things I’ve never done before, some of which I might fail at, then I am prepared to face that as well. I’m luckier than most, because I have this opportunity to explore and experiment without having to worry about feeding and housing myself. I don’t intend to squander it. I realize that by turning my back on the “secure” academic route, I am likely to encounter even more uncertainty, more despair, and possibly even less money, before (and if) I ever reach a happy place.*** I understand that I am young and probably naïve about the opportunities available to me, and the possible negative consequences. To all that I say OH WELL. If I can just stop running away from my own potential, like I ran away from the conversation with Erik, if I can just let myself believe that I am capable of greatness, then I’m willing to take on whatever hard and stressful tasks might lie ahead.
Whatever my future holds, it’s got to be better than sitting in seminar thinking I’m the dumbest person in the school.
*Well, okay, I had two. The first was that Voldemort had taken over Hogwarts, Disarmed Harry, and now Harry had to find a way to both escape from and defeat Voldemort before Voldemort Avada Kedavra-ed him. It was pretty scary.
**This isn’t a job I want, though if I were able to get it under such pain-free circumstances I would certainly take it!
***I don’t know why everyone thinks it would be better to get a PhD, really, except that it sounds better. Starting salaries for professors are pitiful in most cases, and you’re also stuck teaching at whatever school will have you, even if it’s the City College of Nowhere Town, counting yourself lucky because you got a professorial job at all. “It’s worse than the Army,” Kerwin Klein once told me.
[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]