It was March of my junior year of college when I decided I needed some help being a person, as people sometimes do. I opened the notebook that I typically used for journaling prayers and wrote at the bottom of that day’s entry, “God, I think I need to talk to someone about life.” Then I outlined questions (What should I do with my life? Why is this stressful for me? Who should I talk to about it? What should I ask?) until the obvious was staring at me. I like to avoid rigid organization—too confining, too conventional. But this time I needed it. And yeah, I really needed to talk to someone.
Apparently, since my youth, I’ve spread my interests so wide that I can’t hone in on a single thing to do in the long-term sense of, you know, livelihood. I’ve been a violinist, singer, writer, soccer player (those beautiful middle school years), chemist, designer, photographer, videographer, and general dabbler in all things that strike my incredibly strike-able fancy. Anyway, once I knew I needed help, I figured it was time to ask for it. With my question-outlined journal on my lap, I did that thing where you’re shaking with nerves as you type up the email asking Hey Professor (Chris), would you be interested in helping me answer all my life questions? It’s no big deal really just whatever (I really need this). The subject line (“Putting the ‘storm’ in brainstorm since 1996”) came to me instantly, but the moment of sending I bemoaned my lack of professionalism and relentless need to be witty. Oh well, he’ll get over it.
At that point, I’d loved and lost several potential livelihoods. Choir, which I quit after high school, was one. Violin was another. Chemistry, too—though I think deciding not to study that was a good call on my part. In college, I stumbled into the English program with little more than some mean writing skills and a desire to learn.
I don’t remember why I made all these decisions to quit things, or how much I thought about them before going to talk to Chris. I guess I knew that I didn’t want to be a choir kid in college, because “college choir kid” meant an operatic singing, self-absorbed diva, aimed for Carnegie Hall or bust. I bet I got this idea from one or two people my siblings knew. It’s probably wrong, and I’ve loved singing my whole life, but still, I gave the vocal arts a wide berth.
Violin was also a no-go because there exist in the world child prodigies and the abnormally gifted, of which I was neither. I mean, I was pretty good. But not Mozart-composing-at-age-four level good. (“Good,” let me clarify, means “better than everyone else.” I wasn’t.) I also pulled the you aren’t taught art, you feel it thing and decided that art professors would destroy everything I held dear by forcing me to practice (so I could improve my technique), critiquing my craft (so I could learn from my mistakes), and teaching me theory (so I could incorporate new knowledge and sophistication into my compositions). What a waste of time and energy.
What eventually got me to the brink of ruin was how I would feel after a particularly gut-wrenching week of violin practicing. I would find myself on a waning afternoon, recognizing the terrible truth that I would either practice now or I would practice at 11:00pm, and I really wouldn’t want to then. Slowly, I’d trudge across the room until I was staring at my closed violin case. I would think about the ripe old wood smell that would permeate my nostrils as soon as I snapped open the latch and lifted the lid. I would hear the strings perform their opening remarks as I undid the Velcro strap holding the fingerboard in place. Then, the cold, smooth neck would be in my hand, and I would have to pull it out, slide on the chin rest, and place the abominable thing on my shoulder where metal and wood would leave a red mark for hours. At this point, I would probably cry and go lie on the couch for 20 minutes, not sure why life had to be so hard. Somewhere in this cycle of symphonic sobs, I got scared of the hate I felt for my instrument. A real violinist wouldn’t feel that way. I was disgusted with myself, so I quit.
But all was not lost! Fortunately, I didn’t hate English yet. In AP language we read “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion, and it started to change my understanding of how writing worked. My class’s general attitude about the essay was that it promoted subjective truth and was therefore a dangerous piece of literature. But I wasn’t with the crowd on this one. Didion’s premise was that note taking was more about preserving the writer of the notes than accurately preserving the subject of the notes, and this resonated with me in a way I hadn’t felt before. “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” I liked that. It seemed to crave an understanding of self almost as much as I did.
When the day of reckoning came—commonly referred to as “registration day’—I was reasonably sure English was the answer. In a stuffy basement room, I stared at my advisor with her high cheekbones, little black pixie cut, and dangly silver earrings. We were picking my major. She explained that English majors had to choose a “track” to follow, which would narrow their class choices. Writing majors had more freedom. Immediately, I said yes to writing and yes to less structure. I could do whatever I wanted! The career outcome was vague, which meant it shouldn’t require much decision making for a while—like, until graduation hit and the real world began to loom—and certainly shouldn’t limit me. I was able to avoid the “undecided” label without closing many doors. Register now, decide life later. Anything could happen.
And I guess I could say anything did happen. I could say I absorbed the knowledge of my professors and found my niche in the writing world. I could maybe say I wholly committed to writing well, that I was instantly successful, flooding the world with my witty and brilliant written wisdom. This was kind of what happened. I quickly became a writing tutor, which proved I was a fantastic writer and mentor as I had always suspected, and I discovered non-fiction writing.
I’d been acquainted with non-fiction before, but in these first months of college, we started a close friendship. Among the pieces I befriended was “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod, which was about Junod’s quest to uncover the mysterious identity of a man plummeting from the World Trade Center on 9/11. The funny thing is that I can barely remember what it said; I just remember what it did. At that point, journalism for me meant dry, inartistic communicating of facts, not literarily significant pieces of art investigating the deeply troubling facets of human nature. Then I read this:
But maybe he didn’t jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn’t jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.
Oh, no. You have to fall.
I stopped and let out a breath. What did Junod just do with a simple paragraph break? Is it possible to pack so much into an empty half-inch of page? Eventually, I kept reading and was awed the appropriate amount that we may have known who the Falling Man is all along. So that changed things for me. I realized that language itself could do powerful things.
This Junod-esque revelation happened in my first college class ever. It was an instant love. The kind where you tell everyone guys, this just totally changed my life. I wanted to use language as well as Junod did, so I tried and was sometimes really happy with my results. But I still was a little out of place. I started realizing that even writers could be prodigies, and this field was not without its Mozarts who existed solely to make me feel dumb. There would always be a pretentious and highly outspoken classmate would who spew some masterpiece about post-colonialism in a Shakespeare play or some other integral piece of literature. That was annoying. And intimidating. Sometimes it even felt a little pointless. I may have fallen in love with the written word, but I was inconsistent, and a pretty insecure lover. Always asking if I was cool enough, smart enough, and seriously, wouldn’t you like to be with one of those cooler, smarter people?
Then one day, during my freshman year, my writing professor said, “Hey, you should really go over to the J-school. I think you’d like it there.” Cool idea! Let me think about that. So, I thought about it for a little bit and fourteen months later, I sent an email. This particular email got me another advisor, a second major in digital media production, and, most importantly, a way to combat the “just writing?” question I got whenever I told people what I studied. All that happened in about five days.
In the Journalism school, I found a place devoid of Shakespearean analysis – or what I consider on my most cynical days, bullshit (on my less cynical days, I consider it reasonably intriguing). No one asked me to look for symbolism or call them “Professor” instead of “Chris” or “Sandy” and sign my emails “Sincerely, Autumn.” I sent an email to a professor once that just said, “dope, thanks.” No complaints yet. My first class in the J-school, my professor smashed an old iMac with a sledgehammer and that felt noteworthy, if not something like belonging.
Life got fast and busy after that. Digital media production was nice because it was so broad I got to do all the things—filming, photographing, reporting, editing, graphic designing, web designing, social media managing, digital marketing. And as a vicious multi-tasker, doing everything was preferable to doing one thing. Sometimes busyness is a welcome respite from the often-troubling introspection encouraged in the arts. I liked thinking less, moving faster, trying harder, pressing forward. Plus people liked me. I stood out. I could be loud and hilarious and in high demand. Making a name for myself. The technological train kept a rollin’, but baby, for a bit I was driving the damn thing.
But I wasn’t the only train driver. I have this friend named Kylee. She’s actually perfect. She’s got this Greek goddess vibe to her—I think I’ve heard strangers compliment her blue-green-golden eyes at least six (hundred) times. And people talk about her voluminous black curly hair being so striking (personally, I think it’s making too big of deal about itself). She’s a graphic designer with a dream job and the means to get there. Her voice is soft and melodic in the way where she would probably make a really good flight attendant or narrator of children’s books. And she’s got a gentle personality to match. She always wears cute little outfits, topped off with the perfect tasteful necklace, and though she does everything slowly and is always late, her work is conscientious, and it has a look that’s distinctly hers.
Kylee does a lot of the same things I do. We both study digital media production and run social media for the journalism school; we both make videos, design things, sing in the same worship band, lead the same Bible study. People like her, too, and she also stands out. Most of the time I look at her and I’m really happy she’s my friend—every once in a while I kind of wish that train would just crash into her a little bit.
So, I guess I can add “casual comparison problems” to the list of reasons I emailed my professor Chris a cry for help in figuring out my life. He said he’d be glad to help. The night before and morning of our meeting I was in low-key panic. Still kind of regretting the subject line, still kind of terrified about most of my decisions over the past years. This talk isn’t a big deal. He won’t think you’re stupid. You are stupid. You’re not stupid. Shut up, self. Calm down. In Chris Snider’s office I pulled out my journal with the question outline. The room was hot and I tried to weigh my words carefully, not just blurt out, “WHAT AM I AND WHAT THE HELL SHOULD I DO?” At one point another professor walked in and dropped off a top printed with a 3D printer. I watched Chris spin it on his desk as we talked. “Did you print that?” “Yeah, we did.” “Cool!” The cream-colored object blurred and fell, blurred and fell. We kept chatting while I slipped my serious questions into the conversation.
I was actively begging him to define me. I begged and begged, sometimes with actual words. Other times with the question bursting out of me so loudly I couldn’t believe there was no audible sound. I would cover up the question with a laugh (“Ha. How would you describe my strengths and weaknesses ha ha?”), or do that super annoying thing where you insert irrelevant facts about yourself into the conversation (someone else: “Snapchat has a new update.” Me: “I just updated my blog with a new post all about the artistic photography I took in the last month.”) It’s pathetic, but that’s where I was at.
If Chris thought I was as much of a hopeless piece of scum as I felt like I was, he didn’t show it. He was rational, reasonable, wise, all of those things I was struggling to be. I asked what he thought I should do for a job; he performed the classic and aggravating switcheroo and asked me: “If you had to apply for a job tomorrow anywhere, where would it be?” Normally I’m pretty good on my feet, but he asked, and I had nothing. The hot room got way hotter as I scraped the inner linings of my brain for some answer—even a mediocre one. I almost grasped ten different options swirling amidst the gray matter, but nothing would surrender itself to me, and slowly, phrases like fear of commitment and failure at adulthood pierced through my muddled mind.
Who picks a life? Who shuts that many doors? If saying yes to one thing means saying no to nine other things, how am I supposed to do that? I keep my options open so that I can wait and hope someone else will just tell me what to do.
I’ve taken a lot of personality tests. Often times I get the same answer; sometimes they’re different. It’s so fun to read the descriptions of the different personalities because you can say yup, that’s me, that’s me, I do that ALL the time. Until I come across one that’s totally off base, at which point I open my notebook and viciously pen a new labels-are-for-cans-not-people manifesto and call bullshit on the unreliable personality-finding algorithms.
In the real world, labels are for people. They’re on our LinkedIn profiles and Instagram bios – telling others (and us) who we are. Visual media creator, digital marketing strategist, professionally suffocated millennial. I’m not sure when we decide these labels, because I’m constantly changing. What if the label you picked four years ago keeps you from exploring the full depths of who you are?
One of the personality tests I took was for my pre-professional workshop course in journalism school. We’re taught to learn our personalities, so we can use them to our advantage in getting jobs. All the negatives we spin as positives – obsessive becomes passionate; flighty becomes spontaneous; hypercritical becomes detail-oriented; indecisive becomes eager to try new things; hopelessly lost becomes ready to develop my skills in whatever situation I encounter. Some of this is what Chris and I talked about. The key is to focus on the positives, don’t freak out, be realistic, get a job doing something semi-cool, and go from there. And you know, that makes a lot of sense.
It makes sense to not stress about little things like life. That seems nice to me. But there’s still Kylee. She’s still seems perfect, and I’m not. And my violin’s still sitting in its case, untouched for months. Books I said yes, I’ll read you to pile up on my shelf, unread, while ideas I said yes, I’ll write you to pile up in my mind and on random notebook pages, unwritten. Movie ideas stay jotted down in the notes app on my phone, unproduced. I’ll do these things eventually. Am I kidding myself a little bit here? It’s possible. I’ll have to wait and see.