Student emails to tell me she hasn’t gotten into any of the MFA programs to which she applied, so now she has a question: I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. Any suggestions?
I respond that I do have suggestions, I have many suggestions, I’ve been waiting years for someone to finally ask for my suggestions, that I have considered nailing a list of suggestions to neighbors’ doors, that sometimes I can convince myself I have it more figured out than others; it’s crucial to our sanity to think we’ve found some answers somehow, to think that our struggles have been worthwhile, all of which is to say, yes, here are fifteen suggestions for you:
1) Don’t be a poet: it’s not worth the heartache. Don’t trust men who tell you they can see you have poetry inside you because they’re just trying to put something else inside you.
2) Do not confuse academia with intelligence or even academic pursuits. It’s just another job, and usually nobody can tell if you’re any good at it.
3) Learn how to patch holes in drywall. It’s a useful skill, and sometimes you’ll get a free case of beer from a friend who doesn’t know how to do it himself and is afraid to lose his security deposit. Buy good tools and learn how to use them; even if you’re otherwise a bad friend, people will keep you around because you are useful to them, and usefulness is the best you can achieve with most people, who don’t have the time or interest in loving or admiring you the way you wish they would.
4) Buying ironic vests and ill-fitting thrift store clothes can only get you so far. There’s no shame in dressing like an adult; it doesn’t make you a sellout or a corporate drone, it simply shows that you understand what it sometimes takes to get by.
5) Drink a lot of water. Almost exclusively water, except when you need to get drunk, which sometimes you will need to do, if only to shut off your brain for a while and hopefully kill the cells that generate self-loathing and doubt, although be aware that, as with chemotherapy, there is usually some collateral damage when you drink to kill the bad cells. It’s good for you, water, a message sometimes people don’t understand, one of those simple things we shouldn’t have to explain but our culture has reached the point where we have insulated ourselves from all of our basic survival instincts and we need to check our cell phones to see if it’s raining outside rather than just looking out the window. You could argue the gravest failure of our culture is that, through saturation in carbonated sodas and caffeinated polar bears and mummified pop stars, we have reached a point where, contrary to all biological impulses, the kinds of impulses embraced by even the least sophisticated organisms in the world, people now actually need to be convinced to drink water, the basic building block of life. Don’t be one of those people who cringe when forced to drink a glass of tap water, who need to add flavored dust to your water to make it palatable, who act like a drink isn’t a drink unless it’s more purple, because this all makes you less human and it is literally killing you.
6) There is nothing to be gained by pretending to laugh at bad jokes. It’s not polite, it’s dishonest, and it only encourages them.
7) Get a regrettable tattoo. You need regrets to motivate you and to bring you down when you’re feeling too good about yourself. Don’t listen to people who ask you what it will look like when you’re seventy because, truth is, you probably won’t make it to seventy anyway, and even if you do, who gives a fuck what your skin will look like?
8) Sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike is like waiting for your dinner to stand up and walk into your mouth. Eventually you need to exercise personal agency, because very few people in the world actually care whether you’re fulfilled or happy; they just want you to smile and listen to their problems and then move out of the way.
9) Remember this: the only differences between you and your pet are that you know more words than she does, have opposable thumbs, and are tall enough to reach the doorknob. Do not be smug about these advantages—you didn’t earn them—it’s a fluke that you turned out to be a fully-formed human rather than a gerbil. You know what your pet has over you? She has never cheated on a lover, ruined a friendship via passive aggressive text messages, shoplifted cigarettes from a corner store, driven home while blackout-drunk, or bullied the chubby Honduran sixth-grader to the point that he had to transfer schools. Just because these things happened in your past, it does not mean they don’t count anymore.
10) You’re going to look ridiculous when you dance and you’re going to have to accept that.
11) Occasionally hold a long conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in the things you believe in, if only to remind yourself why you don’t normally talk to them. Never resort to broadcasting your disagreement via a bumper sticker, because the moment you do so you have lost the argument.
12) Getting high before work doesn’t make you deep, it just makes you a cliché. Parking your car illegally isn’t a protest against the man; it’s just laziness. It’s okay if you don’t own a TV; just stop fucking talking about it. Realize that a piece of advice can sometimes be several unrelated pieces of advice—you’re going to have to pay more attention.
13) Don’t call yourself a writer unless you’re actually writing. That is, unless you’re writing with a purpose, which isn’t to say you need to focus on publication or sales or touching hearts, but you do need to worry about getting better and investing yourself in creating something, and you should be writing in such a way that you occasionally feel terrible about yourself and the writing hates you as much as you hate the writing, and it should make you want to hurt yourself because that’s what love does. Nothing is more insufferable than someone who pretends to be a writer, as if there is some remnant cultural glory in literature, someone who puts on the costume of a writer and handrolls cigarettes and ostentatiously carries a Moleskine to the bar and refers to themselves as a storyteller but never actually produces any written words. Those people want to be viewed as artists because they think it gives license to their neuroses. Writing is not an excuse to be a drunk or a flake. Fake-writing is even less of an excuse. Just write the god damn thing already and get on with your life.
14) Understand that when you’re not around, your friends are saying as many terrible things about you as you’re saying about them, and if you hear something they say it’s best to let it slide because that’s all in the social contract, and it’s the sacrifice you make for people tolerating your presence in the same way you tolerate theirs. Sometimes loneliness is good—it’s therapeutic, reaffirming and challenging, but usually it’s the worst feeling in the world. Stop romanticizing it.
15) When the walls seem to be closing in on you, they probably are, and there’s nothing you can do about it but hold your breath and cross your fingers and hope they don’t crush you.About the author:
Tom McAllister’s first book, “Bury Me in My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, and Philly,” was published by Villard in 2010. He is the Non-fiction Editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight podcast. His shorter work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, elimae, The Daily Beast, Hobart, and some other places. His website is http://tom.mcallister.ws and you can follow him on Twitter @t_mcallister