I feel as if am one of the lucky ones.
It took me over 3 years before I stopped seeing university as something more than an extension of school. Three years of frustration, staving off loneliness, and taking a half-hearted stab at part-time dream chasing. But I am also one of the people who can crow from the rooftops that they finally got on the right track, discovered their passion, and found fulfillment. I am an active participant in one of the meta-narratives of success.
(Today. Here. Now. In my economic subgroup. Such distinctions matter.)
Some people might call me an inspiration. Others might remark that 3 years is a lot of time to find your passion, although if it saved me from a quarter-life crisis, one might say it paid for itself. This blogpost is about neither of these things, but it exists within their context.
(And context, reminds us Ana Mardoll, matters too.)
I should point out here that fulfillment to me might be something completely different from what it means to you. It also meant different things to me at different ages. Back when I was a child, for example, fulfillment was getting praise for my art portfolio, and I was very fulfilled for a few years. Then, I moved to a regular school where we did not have art every day, we did not have special tutorials on clay work, we did not illustrate books of fairy tales, and my passion made me into a ‘teacher’s pet’ rather than ‘good at art’. Fulfillment started to mean ‘to survive the day without much taunting’.
Before I came to Uni, I had a very specific idea about what I wanted and did not like that I wasn’t able to pursue it directly. I did the work grudgingly, on the side, and spent a lot of time resenting the people who were much further ahead than me, and not enough time looking around at the people who were actually around me. A read-through my old Goodreads reviews yields the repeat usage of a certain phrase, or variations thereof:
“How could this [insert expletive here] have gotten published?”
The implication being, of course, that I could have done a much better job at it.
Sad to say, my ability to empathize with others hadn’t really developed back then. (Some might say it still hasn’t.) I’d grown up on the Internet, graduating from fan forums and fanfiction sites to book reviewing and blogging, riding whatever wave I caught and finding a supportive community everywhere. I loved it, and it made me feel validated. What I did not do is turn my critical eye onto myself, and look at the way I used these networks. I didn’t think about my place in the wider context of things.
The truth is, I had been feeding my own ego without necessarily having the chops to back it up. I had found communities where I fit in, and my behaviour was according to norm, but I hadn’t necessarily found friends. I didn’t have anyone who challenged me to get better (while dispensing some much needed encouragement) or who asked some very important questions. Questions such as: Are you ready to stop talking about writing and actually put your money where your mouth is?
A few years of modest fanfiction success does not a writer make. Not the way I did it, anyway. I had no concept of revision and editing, and I had no qualms about sending early drafts to my friends to “review” (read: fawn over) even though I understood on a basic level that there was much work to be done. I had read author’s blogs and followed a book from draft to publication, but I had no experience of actually doing the work, and when it came down to doing that work, I faltered because, of course, it was harder than I ever thought it would be.
Meanwhile, I did pretty well on most of my courses, made one friend, and attended a couple of events, which only exacerbated my dissatisfaction. How is it that I struggle so much with something I am passionate about, and excel at something I seriously don’t care for? It felt like a cruel joke.
Because now I have the Power of Hindsight (TM) I can say that mine was a case where I “lacked perspective” (yep, another meta-narrative). Perspective, however, is a fickle power. It’s not so much a genie in a bottle as it is a fruit-selling goblin, constantly misleading you and trying to get you into a poor bargain. Sitting here in the comfort of my present, I can tell my old self what she could have done better, how she could have changed her life, how she should have grabbed the bull by the horns earlier…
But perspective makes you view the past as a string of events, as if your old self was merely a character whose fate was mapped out for them. It doesn’t remember what it felt like to be there. It doesn’t taste the bitterness and frustration, or choke back the angry words that threatened to spill (and sometimes spilled out nonetheless). It doesn’t have ink stains and aching fingers from writing angry journal entries, and no less angry blogposts. It might read back on what was written, but it would be detached, cold, clinical, unable to process how this person was you once upon a time. It doesn’t remember the fear – that cold, visceral feeling that settled in my guts, kept me up until late at night, turned me into an anxious, perfectionist robot.
We look back to the past, but we do not live it. We may say we did X, Y, Z and felt U, Q, W, but we do not draw the link between the two. Sometimes, this is a very hard epiphany to make.
Harder still is to forgive ourselves. But we have to. Otherwise, how do we move forward?