Dearest Sugar, Light of My Thursday Afternoons:
I teach a few creative writing courses at the University of Alabama where the majority of my students are seniors graduating in May. Most of them are English and Creative Writing majors/minors who are feeling a great deal of dread and anxiety about their expulsion from academia and their entry into “the real world.” Many of their friends in other disciplines have already lined up post-graduate jobs, and many of my students are tired of the “being an English major prepares you for law school” comments being made by friends and family alike, who are pressuring them towards a career in law despite having little or no interest in it.
I have been reading a handful of your columns to my students in an attempt to pep them up and let them know that everything is going to be all right. They have written like motherfuckers. They have pictured the kittens behind the sheetrock.
Our school has decided to forgo a graduation speaker for the last five years or so, and even when we did have a graduation speaker, often they were leaders in business or former athletes, and so their message was lost on the ears of the majority of 21 and 22-year-olds. So Sugar, I am cordially asking you to deliver a graduation speech for our little class of writers. While we might have difficulty obtaining you an honorary PhD, believe me when I say that among us are some extremely talented writers, bakers, musicians, editors, designers and video game players who will gladly write you a lyric essay, bake you a pie, write you a song, and perform countless other acts of kindness in exchange for your advice.
Cupcake & Team 408
Dear Cupcake &Team 408,
There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives. I think it’s a useful sentiment for you to reflect upon now, sweet peas, at this moment when the future likely feels the opposite of ancient, when instead it feels like a Lamborghini that’s pulled up to the curb while every voice around demands you get in and drive.
I’m here to tell you it’s okay to travel by foot. In fact, I recommend it. There is so much ahead that’s worth seeing; so much behind you can’t identify at top speed. Your teacher is correct: You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way.
I know. I fucked up some things. I was an English major too. As it happens, I lied for six years about having an English degree, though I didn’t exactly mean to lie. I had in truth gone to college and participated in a graduation ceremony. I’d walked across the stage and collected a paper baton. On that paper it said a bachelor’s degree would be mine once I finished one final class. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but it wasn’t. And so I didn’t do it and the years slipped past, each one making it seem more unlikely that I’d ever get my degree. I’d done all the coursework except that one class. I’d gotten good grades. To claim that I had an English degree was truer than not, I told myself. But that didn’t make it true.
You have to do what you have to do. You can’t go to law school if you don’t have any interest in being a lawyer. You can’t take a class if taking a class feels like it’s going to kill you. Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon. Or just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories and poems and plays and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be.
I was a waitress during most of the years that I didn’t have my English degree. My mother had been a waitress for many of the years that she was raising my siblings and me. She loved to read. She always wanted to go to college. One time she took a night class when I was very young and my father became enraged with her and cut her textbook into tiny pieces with a pair of scissors. She dropped the class. I think it was Biology.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.
But that’s all.
I got married when I was in college. I got divorced during the years that I was lying about having an English degree. When I met the man to whom I am now married he said, “You know, I really think you should finish your degree, not because I want you to, but I can tell that you want to.” I thought he was sort of being an asshole. We didn’t bring up the subject again for a year.
I understand what you’re afraid of, sweet peas. I understand what your parents fear. There are practical concerns. One needs money to live. And then there is a deep longing to feel legitimate in the world, to feel that others hold us in regard. I felt intermittently ashamed during my years as a waitress. I’m the only one of my siblings who went to college. I was supposed to be the one who “made it.” At times it seemed instead I had squandered my education and dishonored my dead mother by becoming a waitress like her. Sometimes I would think of this as I went from table to table with my tray and I’d have to think of something else so I wouldn’t cry.
Years after I no longer worked at the last restaurant where I waited tables, my first novel was published. The man who’d been my manager at the restaurant read about me in the newspaper and came to my reading. He’d been a pretty awful boss—in fact, at times I’d despised him—but I was touched to see him in the bookstore that night. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” he asked when we embraced.
“I would have,” I replied.
And it was true. I always would have guessed it, even all the time that I feared it would never happen. Being there that night was the meaning of my life. Getting there had been my every intention. When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself with some serious motherfuck-i-tude in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love.
It’s really condescending to tell you how young you are. It’s even inaccurate. Some of you who are graduating from college are not young. Some of you are older than me. But to those of you new college graduates who are indeed young, the old new college graduates will back me up on this: you are so god damned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.
My mother was young too, but not like those of you who are so god damned young. She was forty when she finally went to college. She spent the last years of her life as a college student, though she didn’t know they were her last years. She thought she was at the beginning of the next era of her life. She died a couple of months before we were both supposed to graduate from different schools. At her memorial service, my mother’s favorite professor stood up and granted her a PhD.
The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.
I have learned this over and over and over again.
There came a day when I decided to stop lying. I called the college from which I did not have an English degree and asked the woman who answered the phone what I needed to do to get one. She told me I had only to take one class. It could be any class. I chose Latin. I’d never studied Latin, but I wanted to know, at last, where so many of our words come from. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to study Latin—the Romance languages are, after all, descended from it—but it wasn’t romantic. It was a lot of confusion and memorization and attempting to decipher bizarre stories about soldiers marching around ancient lands. In spite of my best efforts, I got a B.
One thing I never forgot from my Latin class is that a language that is descended from another language is called a daughter language.
It was the beginning of the next era of my life, like this is of yours.
Years after I no longer lived in the state where my mother and I went to college , my first novel was published and I traveled to that state to give a reading. Just as my former awful boss had done in a different city mere weeks before, the professor who’d granted my mother a PhD at her memorial service read about me in the newspaper and came to the bookstore to hear me read. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” she asked when we embraced.
“Not me,” I replied. “Not me.”
And it was true. I meant it as sincerely as I’d meant that I always would’ve guessed it when I’d been speaking to my boss. That both things could be true at once—my disbelief as well as my certainty—was the unification of the ancient and the future parts of me. It was everything I intended and yet still I was surprised by what I got.
I hope you will be surprised and knowing at once. I hope you’ll always have love. I hope you’ll have days of ease and a good sense of humor. I hope one of you really will bake me a pie (banana cream, please). I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say oh.