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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, December 04, 2006


For some months now I've felt that the time has come for a change. Outer or inner -- I can't tell yet. To think differently, or to do differently, or both. I've lived in a paradise of sorts for five years -- writing, reading, not a care in the world about the roof about my head and the food on the table, enough money to buy books, enough time to examine my life and what I was trying to make out of it -- but also in a hell of sorts. I felt worthless for not having a job, stupid because I couldn't write like Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro, ashamed when I imagined what my parents saw when they looked at me. I applied myself to being patient, to learning how to be satisfied with small steps forward, to not minding that I am average, ordinary, nothing special. It's been harder than I thought. I don't know if this is just me, or if it's a feeling everyone has, this nebulous but intense conviction about your own specialness, about being destined for great things. They don't have to be, necessarily, outwardly great things, like fame or wealth. It's just this idea that you were born to do one specific thing, that you have a talent -- more in the biblical than the psychological sense -- that you need to use in the world, even if you do it in utter obscurity and poverty. That there is one path meant for you and once you find it and walk it you will be fulfilled, you will have done what you were meant to do.

This sounds beautiful and reassuring. And also vaguely spurious. And limiting. Someone said to me recently that I would do really well in graduate school, working towards a Ph.D. in English, and suggested that it was silly of me not to pursue such a degree. How can one justify refusing to do what one is good at? But I think -- I am, as a matter of fact, convinced of this -- that though I might be good for graduate school, graduate school would not be good for me. It would take my very soul from me and give me almost nothing in return. But my friend started me thinking about what it means to be good at something. Do you plunge into doing that thing you're good at? Do you do it because you know for sure that at the end of the road the rewards await you, because there's no doubt that you will do well? Or do you turn away to look for something that you enjoy doing, even though you might not be good at it? Can you be happy doing something you're not good at? Is it possible to be happy painting or plumbing when you can be nothing more than a mediocre painter or plumber?

I find the idea of usefulness enormously compelling. It troubles me how useless, how impractical it is to be an English professor or a writer, how removed from the real world these professions seem to be. I had the same feeling when I was working as a secretary in the law school dean's office after graduating from college. The artifice of the interactions I engaged in, the futility of each day's work, more than the work itself, wore me out. The question what it was all for haunted me every moment of the day. I was good at that kind of work; I'm organized and disciplined and hate being idle, so I completed the work I was given way ahead of when it was due, and then did things around the office without being asked to. My parents were proud of me, and I was dismayed by their pride; how could they be happy to see me suceed in a kind of work that seemed utterly pointless to me?

I quit that job to write. Writing didn't seem pointless to me. At least not until it occurred to me that I was no Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro. I earned every little bit of progress I made with painstaking work. I seldom felt inspired, seldom felt confident that my stories were interesting. Nobody who read what I had written expressed any kind of surprise or awe. Not bad, they said. Hm, they said. Interesting, they said. But that was about it. And I didn't have confidence in my own work that could compensate for the lack of encouragement from outside. There are some people who believe in themselves recklessly, who can sustain this kind of faith in what they can do when everything around them works to undermine it. I'm not one of those people. I started to yearn, desperately, for reassurance -- from myself more than other people. I wanted to make something with my mind and with my hands that I could judge as good or bad according to objective standards. If you're a plumber, a pipe either leaks or doesn't leak when you've finished working on it. If you're a chef, your food either tastes good or it doesn't. If you're a scientist, your experiment either suceeds or fails. It is this kind of clarity that I want in my life. I'm not sure if I can feel happy or fulfilled without it. It is to bring it in my life -- a little bit of it, I'm not aiming very high here -- that I feel change is necessary. Inevitable.

But I don't picture this change as a path I choose at a fork in the road, as new way of life that excludes the old, that cancels out everything I've done so far. It feels to me more like a decision to wear clothes that fit you better, that you feel at ease and more yourself in. That requires really looking at who you are, really seeing who you are right now. And that seems to me the hardest thing in the world to do.


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I am so sorry I even mentioned the words "graduate school." I fear that the only place for good readers is ideal, imaginary.

December 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the distinction you make - while you might be good for graduate school, graduate school may not be good for you.

There's graduate school, of course, then there's graduate school.

hmmmm - Lisa

December 05, 2006  

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