“The future presses hard upon a high school, and somehow qualifies and diminishes it. The students in a high school begin courtships; the next generation begins to assert its claims; people begin to think of what they will do when they get out.”
–Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising and gave to it neither power nor time.”
–Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures
This past May marked the ten-year anniversary of my high school graduation, and this Fall marks the tenth anniversary of my first semester of college. And while I don’t feel great about being a decade removed from high school, it has been fun to look back over all the ways I’ve seen God’s faithfulness in the last ten years. In fact, reminiscing about my college application process has made me realize that there are some things I need to change about how I’m living my adult life. It seems strange to say it, but my wake-up call was an essay that I wrote over a decade ago.
To tell this story right, you need to know that this summer I’ve been helping at my school’s “College Boot Camp,” teaching students how to write their college application essays. I still (ten years later) vividly remember how stressful that season of life was; listening to today’s entrance requirements has shown me that the pressure surrounding college admissions has only increased over the last ten years. In fact, it’s made me wonder if I would even get in to college if I had to apply tomorrow!
Jokes aside, all this discussion of college essays made me think about what I had written my own college essay about. I was sure it had something to do with teaching English, since that’s the only career choice I have ever truly considered (unless you count the seventh grade, when I knew I was going to be a fashion designer). Thanks to my packrat tendencies, I was able to scrounge around and find an old binder labeled “High School Writing.” The very last essay in the binder was the essay I wrote for my application to Vanderbilt. The first page listed my name, my teacher’s name, the date (October 1, 2008), and the essay prompt from the application:
Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
As soon as I read the prompt, vague memories of the essay began to come back to me, and as I turned the page, I felt like I was right back in my AP Literature class. By the time I finished reading the essay, I was surprised and a little confused. Here’s what I’d written:
I wish you could see the lists I made brainstorming for this essay. As I was trying to determine the literary character I identify most with, I sifted through all the books and stories stored in my head, the classic romances and epic battles that fill the pages of my brain. I listed my favorites—all the heroes like D’Artagnan or Robinson Crusoe. I sorted through heroines like Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jane Eyre. I compared Emma and Heathcliff, Friday and Captain Nemo. All multi-dimensional characters with intriguing stories. All of whom I could identify with, all of whom I sometimes cried with or laughed with or fought with. But after pondering the wonderful and frightening expanses of my bookshelves, I slowly realized that the essence of me is not in any one literary character—but the character I hope to create from the lessons my favorite heroes and heroines have taught me. To my surprise, I realized that the literary character I identify most with doesn’t exist yet. That character is still somewhere in the depths of my mind, waiting to be captured and brought to life by my pen.
Ever since I was little, I have been an avid reader. This love for literature soon evolved into a love for writing. I have always dreamed about writing my own books. I’ve even practiced signing my name the way I want to autograph my books. More than just a dream or a wish, I see my writing as an attainable goal. In the end, the ultimate goal is a story about a journey. Not a fantastic journey, a life journey. The characters are real people who lead real lives. The main character will use knowledge to help her solve her problems and enjoy the journey. Her likes, dislikes, faults, virtues, emotions, and ideas all spring from the stories I treasure.
Literary inspiration means many excellent role models and many examples of failure. The main character of my story takes the best and the worst from literature. She pulls from the successes and mistakes of literary figures to establish a strong sense of who she is. She possesses the graceful, gentle qualities of Beth March—quietly restoring calm and soothing others. She carries the imaginative tendencies of Anne Shirley, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s redheaded heroine. My character’s imagination occasionally runs away with her—a fault that only serves to sweeten reality. Like Scarlett O’Hara, my character learns through trials and tribulations that love is a treasure, and, as such, it must be valued highly and held tightly. But unlike Scarlett, my character recognizes the gift of love. I can see in my character’s future her own Mr. Darcy—the perfect gentleman, who is bold enough to speak of his devotion, and passionate enough to pursue her with all his heart. My character, like Jane Eyre or Mr. Rochester, ponders the questions of life and dives, unafraid, into their murky depths. She strives to protect innocence in the same way as Holden Caulfield, and she mourns missed opportunities in the same manner as Jay Gatsby. Friendship, to her, is one of life’s sweetest gifts. And, following Huck Finn’s example, she clings to the bonds that enrich and enhance life’s journey. She fights for her beliefs and her values with the same strength as D’Artagnan and his three companions. She struggles with her concept of reality, like Alice, and sometimes finds herself trapped in a wonderland where things and people are not as they seem. Like Nathaniel Bowditch, a historical navigator, she is an avid learner. She aspires to realize the reaches of the world around her and justify those reaches with reasons of her own.
But beyond these positive literary similarities, she is her own person. She infuses life into classic fictional characters. She is real; she is flawed. Though she learns from the mistakes of heroes and heroines, my character still makes mistakes of her own. These mistakes can be diagnosed by literature, but their solutions and repercussions are not works of fiction. My character understands life as a process of learning and growing—a process of developing the characteristics from literature that inspire greatness. She understands the value of error. More importantly, she understands the value of repair.
This character that I have created is full of literary comparison and fictional merit. But in reality, my life is my ultimate story. I am the main character. The same characteristics I attempt to display in my characters I attempt to display in my life. And although the character I just described may not exist yet—you can look for her in the future, between the covers of my first novel—on the shelf between who I was and who I am becoming.
Nothing in the essay is too surprising—I’m a huge book nerd and always have been—but I was startled by how easily and naturally my seventeen-year-old self stated that writing was something attainable. I was startled because I’d fully expected the essay to be about teaching, which I have always seen as my calling. I was startled because the essay exposed something that’s been weighing heavily on my heart for about a year.
For most of the ten years since I wrote that essay, I have been focused on teaching—from education courses to student teaching to five amazing years in the classroom, teaching has taken over my dreams, goals, and hopes in a way I never could have predicted. I wouldn’t trade my teaching career for anything, and in some ways this essay reminded me again why I love teaching high school English. High school students are just starting to discover their true selves. I watch the kids in my classes study, struggle, sing, dance, laugh, play baseball, play the viola, solve Rubik’s cubes, and fix computers, and I know that they are being molded by God into the men and women He has created them to be. They are full of enthusiasm; they are courageous. Even when, as Wendell Berry writes, “the future presses hard” or “the next generation begins to assert its claims” on them, they have big dreams, big goals, and big hopes.
It took ten years and dusty binder full of essays to remind me that I was like that once.
Somewhere along the way, I think I told myself that my dream of being a writer had to take a backseat to the more practical concerns of my vocation. Somehow writing became an avocation instead of a primary pursuit. And when stress and busyness began to eat up all of my free time and creative energy, I let it happen. It seems odd to say, but I began to sacrifice my dream for the sake of my calling. This led, inevitably, to writer’s block and creative apathy. It’s part of the reason why I haven’t posted here in a while. It’s part of the reason why I’ve struggled to read any books this year. It’s also part of the reason I’ve written mainly book reviews and not more personal, introspective pieces. I never would have realized how deep the problem was had I not uncovered that old college essay. It was good to see that the dream of writing has always been present in my life and that at one time I saw this dream as something completely within my reach.
All through scripture, God tells his people to remember all that He has done for them. I’d like to believe He also wants us to remember the dreams He’s given us, because He’s given them to us for a reason. So here’s my challenge to you: Remember who you were in high school—that younger, optimistic version of yourself who had an entire future stretched out in front of you. What dreams have you let fall by the wayside as victims of the everyday? How can we restructure our lives to reclaim space for the gifts and dreams God has given us?
I ask these questions to you, but I ask them mainly to myself. The new school year is starting soon, and I’m truly wondering how I’ll be able to maintain time for my writing life with all of the concerns of my job. As I sort through that over the next two weeks, I’m going to remember that giving myself space to dream might actually make me a better teacher—one who remembers that every good and perfect gift is given by God, and one who can demonstrate to her students that we can have callings, careers, and dreams that intertwine and overlap with each other to shape us into the best versions of ourselves.
So don’t be surprised if my blog posts become less about book reviews and more about my observations on life. In fact, don’t be surprised if the title “Book Fifty” goes away in the near future. It might have taken me ten years, but I think I’m finally ready to reclaim the dreams I so fearlessly stated as a senior in high school. I just hope that in 2029 I’ll be able to look back and see all the ways a new decade brought me closer to that same one, ever-present dream.