That one time I graduated from college

Ten years ago I put on a black cap and gown and marched across a stage at Pauley Pavilion to commemorate my graduation from college and departure from the world of academics. I did not know at the time that it was a departure. I thought that I Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 6.03.40 PMwould take a year off before returning to school to obtain my graduate degree—a PhD in English literature, to be precise.

It isn’t that I wanted to be broke and unemployed for the rest of my life. I just really happened to like school. Right up until the final day, I relished the potential of class, the wonder of watching the pieces of a much bigger puzzle slide into place as I connected authors and information that were previously just dark places cluttered with uncertainties and nonsense and television theme songs.

I loved school. And there’s some part of me—a fairly large part of me, actually—that feels that my lack of graduate education was a significant failure to maximize my potential. Not earning potential. I don’t think anyone gets a degree in English thinking it’s going to come in handy financially. But my potential to connect even more dots on an even larger scale, my potential to challenge myself with new authors and new ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot that I’m proud of; I haven’t completely and utterly squandered my time.

I have seen 10 countries.

I have jumped out of an airplane.

I have run a newsroom.

I have published a book (and written one and two-thirds more).

I have adopted animals that I adore and cherish.

I have moved across more than 1,000 miles and two states.

I have performed marriage ceremonies.

I have mushed dogs through sub-zero temperatures.

But I am beginning to wonder now—10 years to the day since I walked across that stage—whether it’s enough. Financially, I don’t think I could have achieved a PhD without sinking myself horifically into debt, and I am enormously proud that regardless of my circumstances I have never taken on any debt. If education makes the world bigger, wilder, more hopeful, I think that debt accomplishes the opposite. It limits the number of avenues available to you.

I find myself wondering, as well, if I had obtained that degree studying other people’s books, whether I ever would have written any of my own. It seems unlikely. Perhaps younger me was on to something when I envisioned graduate school in my future, but I’m beginning to suspect a degree in creative writing would better serve my present interests and goals. The obvious questions, of course, are when am I supposed to accomplish this and, especially, how am I supposed to pay for this?

I do believe I’ll come to some satisfactory answer. After all, it took me several years to work up the courage to finally leave SLO and the newsroom I had known all of my adult life.

But I have to ask myself what are the goals of obtaining a degree in creative writing (and, insist that I am honest with myself when answering such a question).

Do I want to make more money? Absolutely. (Who doesn’t?) But a degree in creative writing is not going to accomplish that.

Do I want the validity of someone who actually knows good writing telling me whether I am, in fact, a good writer? Absolutely. But only if the answer is yes.

Do I want to improve my craft? Of course. Everyone knows that practice makes perfect but if you’re primarily “practicing” in isolation, never receiving any substantial critique or feedback, well, there’s a good chance there’s some spinning of wheels taking place. Not to mention the fact that it’s damn difficult to judge your own work so the question of whether my writing has improved over the years remains (for me, at least) unanswered.

I also find myself reflecting on my expectations on that day 10 years ago. I left Los Angeles the night that I graduated from UCLA and never looked back. College never really felt all that real, despite the fact that I enjoyed my classes and professors. That was the very first day of my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do next.

At the time, I thought this lack of planning was a failure. But I don’t see how I possibly could have planned for journalism; it simply wasn’t on my radar until the very moment I applied for a job with a newspaper in San Luis Obispo County. And I couldn’t really have planned for travel because first I didn’t have the money, then I didn’t have anyone to travel with, but eventually it all fell perfectly into place, and somehow right when I needed it the most.

This isn’t me arguing that the universe provides or anything quite so New Age-y. This is me realizing that maybe I should have a little more faith in my instincts. Had I spent my entire life in academia, I probably would have been happy and I would have read a lot of truly first-rate books (and probably a few crappy ones, too). But I think I also would have been locked so tightly into an antisocial shell that the odds of ever escaping would have been slim. And journalism helped prevent that. It also helped me meet these incredible, creative people who inspire me to work harder on my personal projects. And that’s not a PhD, but it’s not nothing either.

So maybe, ten years to the day that I graduated from UCLA with a degree in English, I’m going to try to cut myself some slack for the things I haven’t yet accomplished, the degrees I haven’t yet earned. Because the things that I never expected—the night in the desert outside Marrakech, the afternoon at the hamam in Istanbul, certainly the day mushing a team of dogs through a stretch of wilderness on the outskirts of Fairbanks, realizing that I’m a damn fine art director for photo shoots—so often eclipse anything I ever could have planned for. I’ll never stop reaching and planning and writing, of course. I don’t think I could. But there’s always going to be something left undone, some corner of the world I never got to, some accolade that gets sacrificed to a goal that took greater priority. It may take another 10 years to genuinely feel okay about the things I have not done, but I’ll get there. After all, I found my way to Alaska.

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