Recently, I started a 100 Day Project, and I decided to go way out of my comfort zone and write short poems every day. While I don’t think I’m winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, it’s been fun to stretch myself, and it encouraged me to break out my old poetry textbooks from college (and they say an English degree isn’t useful).
As I was flipped through one of my anthologies, I started to take a closer look at the notes college me had scribbled in the margins, and I have to tell you, I was…a little impressed? I read her notes as she interpreted, questioned, and identified with poetry spanning a century. I was amazed that she had these opinions and insights, and that she shared them so freely – aloud and in writing – and without worry that they were right or wrong. Even now, I can close my eyes and remember sitting in a seminar in Angell Hall, telling my fellow students what I thought of Wordsworth and Plath and Eliot, and asking questions about poetic form and word choice, entirely unembarrassed by my curiosity and excitement about our reading for the day.
That brief time travel was both heartening and a little sad. This young woman was really cool (even if she didn’t think so at the time), and I wondered where she had gone, or if, maybe, she was still hanging around somewhere. And then I started thinking about all of the things I admired about the me of yesteryear, and what I wish I could tell her.
From the ages of eight to at least 13, I constantly told people that I was going to be a Diva when I grew up (VH1 Divas Live was huge at the time). I had gigantic glasses, terrible teeth, frizzy bangs, and didn’t hit puberty until I was a sophomore in high school, but damn, if I wasn’t confident in the fact that I would be a singer. But then in high school, when I put myself out there and my peers and teachers recognized that I actually could sing, I started to shy away from taking myself as seriously. I scoffed at a girl in my class for trying out for American Idol (I was jealous, let’s be honest), and rolled my eyes when other kids in choir would show off, singing down the halls. As I had earned a reputation as the smart kid by this point, I told everyone I was going to be a doctor when I grew up, laughing at suggestions of attempting music as a career or even a course of study. Even in college, when I sang in an a cappella group, and a few of the musical theater kids in my dorm asked if I was studying music too, I laughed, said no, and secretly told myself I wasn’t special or talented enough to even think about something like that. I wish I could tell the earlier version of me that I admired her gumption and her confidence, and that if she really loved something, there was no harm in trying.
For 20 year-old me, writing was (and still is) the passion. As I’ve mentioned before, I really loved holing up in a coffee shop every weeknight in college and digging into all of the reading I had to do for class. I loved taking notes, absorbing information, and scribbling down my interpretations of theories and essays and poems. I lived for it, and I felt so alive as my head was overflowing with ideas. And when I got to write, especially creative essays, I felt like I was doing what I was always meant to do. One of my professors told me that she thought I should seriously consider a career in writing, and I remember glowing for the rest of the week. But then I got scared, and I didn’t even apply to write for the college newspaper, didn’t show anyone but my classmates my work, and didn’t seek out any internships except for a local alternative newspaper in my hometown, where there wasn’t a ton of competition for the summer arts writer job. I made (and sometimes still make) excuses that I couldn’t pursue writing in and immediately after college because I couldn’t afford to do unpaid internships in big cities or didn’t have the connections many of my classmates did. While privilege is a very real factor in getting started in certain industries, today’s me knows that 2007 me was just really, really scared to try.
I wish I could tell college me, and 20s me, (and sometimes early 30s me) that my insights and opinions and whatever amount of talent I had were worth sharing, that being scared of trying (and I mean really trying, not starting two blogs and abandoning them just when I was starting to gain a following) was never going to get me anywhere. I want to tell younger me that avoiding rejection was not protecting me, but setting me up for future disappointment. That opportunities were meant to be seized, even when it seemed a little scary to take them. That while doing what you love seems hard now, it’s a lot harder when you have responsibilities and other people who rely on you.
The point here isn’t to tell you (or past me) how talented I was and how much potential I squandered (I’m doing fine), but to tell us both that fear can really do a number on you. And that I wish I hadn’t let it hold me back the way I did. I guess I just really want to tell younger me that she needs to be scared but still try. Not just try at the things she knows she’ll be good at, but at the things she could fail at, but that she genuinely loves. I’m not a big proponent of the “your career must be your passion” philosophy, but I do think that having something you’re excited about – at work or in your free time – makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning. And I want to tell her to hang onto that, even when things seem like they’re not going anywhere or there’s no point, or it’s not what’s paying the bills. I want to tell her to hang onto those things that make her HER.
Reading my old notes and journals is sometimes incredibly cringey, but sometimes it also feels like a perfect distillation of me. Things I still believe, along with things I know better about now. While I wouldn’t change where I am now (I have a great life with a wonderful partner and really cute kid in a city I love), part of me would love for younger me, in another universe, to go off and do the things I never did, to see where it landed her. To give things a go that I was too nervous to. To say yes to unlikely opportunities earlier than I started to. To just…try and see what happens. At 16, at 22, at 35.