On the last day of “Add/Drop” period, I woke up at 9am to prepare for my final day of shopping classes. By noon, I had been turned away from two. I found myself at one of the wooden tables on the first floor of Frost scrolling through the Course Scheduler a final time. There was exactly one course that I was both interested in and could still shop: American Extravaganzas. I emailed the professor and he welcomed me to class. It has only been four weeks into the semester, but this class has become one of my favorite classes. We will read Zora Neale Hurston before spring break, but more on Hurston later.
My experience this past semester picking out classes is not unusual. Most of my friends make fun of me for how often I change my mind. I did change my major four times, and it was me who proposed two different interdisciplinary majors. This process of making decisions, going back and forth until I absolutely have to choose, has always caused me a great deal of stress. In fact, my friends won’t even go to CVS with me anymore because I have a habit of researching brands before purchasing, even if I already know what I’m going to get.
While I don’t mind going to CVS alone anymore – I actually quite enjoy it – my indecision, or my excessive thoughtfulness, has been particularly taxing on my job search. Before I got into the heart of last semester, I sat at my desk and filled up eight green sticky notes. On those sticky notes, I wrote fields of interest and the big name companies within those fields. I also wrote on sticky notes what I consider my strengths as an employee, and the type of work culture in which I want to work. I then taped all of those notes to the top drawer of my desk (because the adhesive at the top is never enough). Instead of choosing a field and committing to it, I decided to focus on opportunities in three different ones.
A lot of inspirational speakers and self-proclaimed gurus talk a lot about playing it safe versus taking risks, and how the latter is what life is all about. I know this because, as a kid, I was a sucker for motivational speakers. I would listen to whatever speeches I could find on YouTube of Eric Thomas, the “Hip-Hop Preacher,” on my way to and from tennis practice, school, and church. My first attempt to not play it safe was in high school, when I told my family that I was not attending college. That didn’t work out. My second attempt was to become a professional tennis player (that one didn’t work out, either). My third attempt — which has so far been more of a thought than an attempt — was to become a writer, the same aspiration my mother had for herself.
Working to become a writer is the definition of risky. As one of my best friends who graduated two years ago recently told me over FaceTime audio, every egotistical person wants to become a writer. A lot of them have interesting stories to write about, and a lot more don’t. It is no secret that not everyone can make a living this way. My awareness of this perhaps daunting truth has led me to focus on three fields, only one of which is somewhat related to the kind of writing I really dream to do. Moreover, I have spent the least amount of time looking for jobs in the writing field. In the other two fields I am considering, I’ve found many glowing job opportunities (competitive salaries, benefits, and best of all, familiarity). However, I cannot say in good faith that I smile to the brim thinking about actually doing these jobs.
While I have repeatedly climbed up the stairs to the Loeb Career Center thinking about the plethora of Amherst alumni in the literary world, I have opted out of looking for those writing opportunities. Even though I have a portfolio of twenty-eight articles, from college alone, I do not feel qualified to pursue a career in writing. I have been absolutely terrified to search for jobs that may lead to a writing career: trade publishing, magazine publishing, journalism, etc. Self-doubt at its finest? To some this is just practicality. I am not sure I agree.
To explain, some background is necessary. I grew up with an American Black mother and a Jamaican father figure in the part of the South with which affiliation is denied by many: Florida. We did not speak standard English at home, but often some mix of Jamaican patois and Southern dialect. I failed almost all of my grammar quizzes in middle school, challenged by English in a way that still shows in both my writing and speaking (I can’t figure out prepositions, for one). But all of this is to say that one source of my aversion to pursuing writing stems from self-doubt about my command, or lack thereof, of the standard English language. Of course, when I think about this, and write it out, this lack of confidence in my English skills is kind of an empty reason to forgo writing. I think about the Toni Morrison I’ve read, and how her prose wasn’t written simply in standard English. If anything, my bad grammar could add to my writing personality. In fact, maybe it isn’t as bad as I think it is.
It would be unlike me to extinguish one source of self-doubt without pointing toward another: my history of failing when I take risks. I mentioned offhandedly that I wanted to become a professional tennis player as a child. Wanted is an understatement. The first time I arrived to tennis camp at Twin Oaks, an hour early, I was mesmerized by the older women pulling an endless supply of balls from their white Nike skorts and sliding gracefully across the gray-green clay. I was even more mesmerized an hour later when I discovered the magic of ball shorts, and learned how to slide for that out-wide forehand on my own. The night after my first clinic was the first time I had an eventually recurring dream of collapsing on court after winning a three set match on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Oh, the joy!
The thing is, most Wimbledon champs don’t start playing tennis at twelve and can afford tennis rackets. I babysat a six year old tennis prodigy, which was only a little hard on my ego, and cleaned a woman’s house for forty dollars to afford tournament entry fees. I applied to grants from the United States Tennis Association in the hopes that I’d be lying euphorically in my sweat on that London grass someday. The crowd just won’t stop cheering! While I made it to the bench of collegiate tennis, this is definitely as far as I am going.
While I am okay with not becoming a professional tennis player, except for when I watch Wimbledon, I was devastated at first. I stopped believing that I could do whatever I set my mind to and that I should take risks. I grappled with the realization that outside factors like economics might have played a role in what I was able to do. These types of thoughts were drastically different from the orientation toward life I was raised with. My family, who is fairly conservative, generally believes that anyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps. They have always told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and I grew up believing that. For a long time after failing at becoming the next Serena Williams, I started thinking of myself as someone who was being carried along by outside forces. As in, given my socioeconomic background and identity, I would become this particular person because it was my destiny.
Of course, there is something very dangerous about this type of thinking. It reduces a person to a puppet handled by some unknown and untraceable puppeteer. I’ve thought about this a lot in showers, or on walks, or between classes, and I personally do not like the idea of living a life that is not actually my own. I think most people feel the same. Even so, I am lucky to have generally more choice over how I live my life than most. Yet, I still act as if I don’t have any control. I remember how sometimes when shopping with my mother, her debit card would get declined so we’d have to put groceries back. Even now, no matter how certain I am that I have money on my account after having just checked the Bank of America app seconds ago, I still get anxious while the machine is processing that my card will get declined. Some thought patterns and habits are just hard to undo.
I recently had a conversation with my Cool Aunt – the one who has travelled the world, lives and teaches film at Tisch, and has the most adorable daughter. She mentioned to me over the phone that she can tell I am most excited about writing, and thinks that I should learn more about the trajectory of some of my favorite writers so that I know potential paths and am less fearful of following them. I have not done enough of this, and I know that I should explore the possibilities that exist before I write off a writing career.
Enter Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Because I planned to shop the course Bad Black Women, the professor emailed me the pre-class assignments which included Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South.” I fell in love with it, and decided to order the book it comes from, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, from Amherst Books. Reading Walker, and Walker’s work on Hurston, has taught me that there’s more to writing than just publishing novels and winning awards, and maybe even supporting oneself financially. There’s an element of recordkeeping. Walker writes, “I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after.” Walker also writes elsewhere: “The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short Story Writers, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.” I am privileged in that I am free to publicly express myself creatively through writing, unlike my mother, who never was able to write for the public. What I have to say is necessary for the whole story.
I’m not a complete idealist when it comes to writing. I recognize that it is hard to determine where society’s influence ends, and where my freedom reigns. However, I do worry about automatically turning away from goals, and I don’t think automatically counting myself in would mean embracing naïve optimism. I think counting myself in means that despite the odds, I’d try anyway. Of course, the thought that failure is possible, maybe probable, is scary. Failure could mean homelessness and starvation, I imagine. But a scarier thought is living my life not on my own accord, especially when women before me, who were not unlike me, did not have the opportunity to do so. I once read that people like me are science fiction. Perhaps I am what my ancestors dreamt up. Or maybe they couldn’t have possibly dreamt me up—I’m that unfathomable. But even if my dreams are grand, it would be a mistake to not even at least attempt to exercise the freedom I have, a freedom that the black women before me directly and indirectly made possible. Maybe I will look into trade publishing, magazine publishing, and journalism. And maybe pursuing those opportunities is enough.