When I was 19, I thought I had nothing left. I was lying on a bed, stricken with mono, wearing sunglasses. I was behind on a Greek history term paper that I would never write. It felt monumental: 10 pages, footnotes, indices; now I routinely write its equivalent every weekday. My 19 year-old self might have had a heart attack back then if he had known that a decade later he would be flinging words around by the millions in Google Docs – if not from horror, then from jealousy, at the ability to churn out drivel, poetry, and everything in between on-demand.
Although writing is relatively easy for me for now, the looming panic that amplified my mono days in 2005 has not died off yet. It’s there when I fear a wave of edit-laden email replies, whenever I recall the awful device about “writing like someone is watching over your shoulder,” when I’m pressed up against deadlines. Every paper still seems like life and death. I can’t not care, and I hate it. I want to dash everything off and head home. I still care what readers think and yet sometimes I wish they would just despise me outright so that I could admit defeat and stop trying so hard.
The past lives on in my 19 year-old’s endlessly reimagined nightmare of paper writing. Sometimes it’s an ebook about circuit boards that I strain to finish, at other moments it’s a stupid blog post that’s due by the end of the day. The current me would never just not do a paper and run away, but too often I wish I could just fling caution to the wind like I did in the last months of teenaged life and say “I can’t do it, so what?”
Maybe it’s “professionally” stupid. But my entire time in the working world has been a disappointment anyway. I wasted the second half of 2009, after graduation, trying to network and apply for as many jobs as I could, everything from a magazine editor to an office assistant. Thousands of resumes later and 10s of pounds gained, I got an adjunct teaching position and felt overjoyed not because it was great (it was $1,700 a semester!) but because I didn’t know what I should feel after reversing a seemingly un-reversible process of rejection. It was the Ides of March 2010, and I was in a hot studio apartment, crying reflexively.
2010 was a little better than 2009. I was working, I was out of the house, as George Constanza would say. I spent hours writing lectures and earmarking books that I was teaching. By January 2011, though, I was back in the wilderness, all those dark late afternoons with the Blue Line trains rattling by outside and me gaining more weight and feeling embarrassed that I had even gone to college to come to this. It’s been 5 years since perhaps the low point of my post college life, my dazed time at my sister’s graduation when I was still looking for my first full-time job and barely able to afford to keep that same bedbug-infested studio apartment.
Perhaps my odd feelings toward the hypothetical liberation of “giving up” is the result of memories of what it felt like to try harder than ever, to write every cover letter with fervor, customize every resume, write all the assiduous follow-up notes and thank-you letters…and get absolutely nothing in return. I lucked into a software job through circumstances that I cannot reproduce. I had basically given up at that point and someone helped me in December 2011. Effort had failed, so why not try apathy?
If I ever think about quitting now, it’s exciting and terrifying. At some junctures, it feels like I would never get another job, ever, if I quit what I have currently. This seems absurd but somehow I can see how it would play out. My pooled resentment and burnt out demeanor would just leave me unable to do anything.
These feelings about college and the work world are well-worn topics on this blog. I can’t let them go though, because whenever I feel unhappy the sequence of unfortunate events always leads back to that stretch from 2009 to 2011 when it was like I was rewriting that 2005 term paper episode, only this time I WAS finishing the assignment, turning it in, and finding that the reviewer was interested in doing nothing but berating me for a lack of skills or a substandard answer to Part 23 of a multi-part application.
I can be pushed to tears thinking about what if I had just majored in something else, or ditched the ridiculous grad school debt to instead just try my hand in some faraway city out west. Still, my life has turned out alright in spite of my years-long rage at being unable to do almost anything other than last resort gigs. I have a house, am married, etc. So I don’t know why I can’t shake the disappointment label I always give myself. Maybe because trying hard always seems to accomplish nothing, and yet I always feel like I have to write that paper, grind out that assignment, whatever, and it’s so draining.