Last month I returned to my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, to give a reading in the same writers series I always looked forward to attending as an undergraduate. It was surreal (in the best of ways) to walk around SLU's beautiful campus awash in fall colors, recalling my own arrival there twelve years ago when the prospect of becoming a published author felt so murky and unknowable.
Among the many joys of being back on campus was having the opportunity to interact with SLU students, who were thoughtful, funny, grateful, curious, and kind. They asked astute questions about writing craft and publishing, but the question that really stuck with me has nothing to do with either of those. A senior English major approached me after the reading. We talked about grad school for a little bit, and then she asked, "And has your life after college been good? Are you happy?"
She looked anxious. I remember that anxiety well. All the stress and uncertainy of my final year at SLU can be encapsulated in a single question that haunts all college seniors: What comes next? You feel as if you have to have a good answer, and that lacking one amounts to failure. You are beset with fears that the old adage you've always heard about college being the best time of your life will in fact prove to be correct—that it's all downhill from here. The truth is that my twenties felt like a mad sprint toward a sense of professional accomplishment I could scarcely envision, let alone describe. College and then grad school and then my first full-time teaching gig in Indiana and then moving back to New York for a tenure-track job, where I enjoyed a single, blissfully normal semester before the pandemic sent shockwaves through higher education and around the whole world and I had to learn how to teach all over again, learn how to live with a dull constant fear and in solitude broken only by trips to Hannaford and Zoom hangouts with friends. Amid all that, I never paused to think about the ways my life has improved since college.
I'm thinking about it now: the odd combination of feeling more confident in myself and more uncertain about the world; how ten years ago, impostor syndrome forbade me from calling myself a "writer"; how being a residential college student comes with a certain simplicity I miss but a whole lot of headaches I'm thrilled to leave behind.
I didn't get into all this with the student. I told her, simply, "Yes. It has been good. Life gets better after college." She nodded. I signed her book and she left—maybe comforted, or maybe not. There were, after all, plenty of adults offering me reassurance and encouragement when I was nearing the end of my time at SLU, and I didn't believe any of them.
But I did know what I wanted. Some small piece of it, anyway. I felt the desire clattering against my sternum each time I went to the writers series events in Sykes Lounge and saw a stranger standing behind the podium with its red-and-white SLU crest. Pico Iyer was one of those strangers. Pam Houston. Rebecca Solnit. Lorrie Moore. I am not—will never be—any of those people, but what an honor to stand where they stood, facing a crowd full of my former professors and the next generation of SLU students and the memory of my eighteen-year-old self, sitting in the fourth or fifth row (too intimidated to get any closer to these extraterrestrial beings known as Authors) and thinking with mixed awe and envy: How do I get up there? How do I become one of you?