A dear friend has been de-cluttering–a foreign concept to those of us with
pack-rat archivist tendencies. She wrote to find out if I’d like back the letters I’ve written her over the years. I didn’t figure they contained much of interest, just everyday meanderings and updates, but they go back a pretty long way and I’m already sorry that I haven’t done well keeping track of letters people have sent me (my grandmother, for instance, was a great letter writer, but I have very few letters of hers, though I don’t remember ever deciding not to keep them)–so I said sure, send them along.
I received them last week and have been poking through them with a mixture of disbelief, amusement, and nostalgia. Was I ever that young? Did I really think those were topics of interest, or books or movies worth commenting on? Wow, I was earnest about school for a while–and I was sure excited when my first article was published–but I had forgotten how early in my time at Cornell I started muttering about whether academia was really right for me. I used a purple pen sometimes? That’s embarrassing! On the other hand, my handwriting was much better back then. I wrote a whole letter while sitting in a seminar? I thought that in the olden days, before smart phones and the internet, students always gave professors their full, undivided, respectful attention!
Then there’s the odd experience of reviewing my own life. The earliest letters are from the summer of 1989, before my final year at UBC. That summer I started work on my Honours essay, wrote my GRE, and started seriously planning my grad school applications (“I’m almost as nervous about getting accepted to grad school as I am about not getting accepted!”). Say Anything was just out (“I don’t like watching perfect romances too much these days ….”). For some reason I had resolved to read more American literature and was finding The Scarlet Letter dull, but I was thrilled by Carlyle’s “Characteristics.” There’s a whole long paragraph about my soon-to-be advisor’s book Shaw’s Sense of History and how excited I was that “it is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind for my own paper.” To my dismay, it had a major printing error in it (“pages 53-84 are MISSING and pages 21-52 are reprinted in their place!”)–but I took heart: “if Oxford UP can make mistakes, why should we be so paranoid about doing things right?” (That’s still a good question!) In general, that was a buoyant time for me. Looking back on it in 1993, I wrote “In my last two years at UBC I felt sure of my direction and I was clearly on the right path.” That’s not a feeling that had lasted: “now … I’m worried both about my performance and about my stamina, not to mention my future prospects.”
The letters tell the story of that shift from certainty to confusion and, sort of, back again, as they carry on with reasonable steadiness through my Ph.D. years and my first couple of years in Halifax. What a lot of changes she and I went through in that period! Her story would be hers to tell, of course. As for me, I endured my emotionally and intellectually traumatic first year at Cornell, struggling not just with the academic work but with being myself, or even figuring out who I was, so far from everyone who knew me. I was lonely and homesick and perpetually intimidated.
By the middle of my second year, I was somewhat more confident academically (though unhappily dependent on external validation), and much more settled personally: I met my husband-to-be in the summer of 1991, and we got engaged in December. In my third year, I was married. I also taught my first independent class, a writing seminar of 17 students: it’s “very writing intensive,” I reported, “and that means a lot of grading … e.g. 16 or 17 [papers] a week.” Ha–those were the days. I enjoyed the teaching right from the start: “I like it better than going to graduate seminars: so much less pretentious!” Perhaps I was thinking of the student who interjected into every discussion, “Oh, but that’s so Godwinian!”
Actually, it’s the continuities that surprise me the most as I leaf through these pages from my past. There I am in 1990 complaining that Blue Velvet immerses us too much in the dark side of life, and here I am today making the same objection to Madame Bovary and the Patrick Melrose novels. There I am, again and again, waiting for someone else to tell me whether my writing is any good. There I am, year after year, wondering if I’m cut out for the academic life but loving enough about it to persist. “If someone offered me a job in publishing right now, I’d probably take it,” I say, but of course nobody did (because nobody does!) and so I stayed on the path I could see most clearly, and through a combination of inertia and luck (and, of course, some pretty hard work) I ended up, well, here.
When I first looked at these letters last week, I kept thinking, “Oh, if only I could somehow have told myself what I know now. The things I would do differently!” But it doesn’t take much hard thought to realize that wishing to apply one’s hindsight in this way is not only futile but also illogical. It’s not as if I could make a different decision at one point and yet keep everything else the same, after all, and life is such a complicated tangle of interconnected things. The possible world in which I leave Cornell to pursue a job in publishing, for instance, is also one in which, among other things, I don’t have my children–not that I wouldn’t have had any children, but I wouldn’t have had the ones I actually do have. And how can I wish them unmade?
I’m not one to believe that everything happens for a reason. I think we just do the best we can, and make the best sense of things we can, as we go along, and time passes, and things change one way or another. Though by and large their details are mundane, my letters are a part of this process, a sorting and filtering of experience. “I have been reading ‘The Prelude,'” I wrote to my friend,
and it seems only fair that if every detail of Wordsworth’s life is considered interesting enough to suffer through in hundreds of lines of understated iambic pentameter, my own humdrum existence deserves at least a few lines of commonplace prose!
Self-reflection doesn’t necessarily lead to self-knowledge, or to anything of wider import, but I’m glad to have had this chance to look back and rediscover what I had to say about my life. And, more than anything, I’m glad to have had such a true and loyal friend to say it all to. Knowing that someone is out there who cares enough to read all the “gory details”–well, that’s about the best thing there is.
I finished college a year before you. I went from the east coast to the west for grad school, the reverse of your journey. I fell for my husband the very first week (he could almost have been your TA at UBC) but we waited a few years to get engaged. There are differences between us, to be sure.
But there is so, so much with which I identify in this post. Including the feeling, brought on by reading old journals or letters, that I have come an immeasurable distance since “back then” but also no way at all.
For a while I wrote almost exclusively in purple or green ink. Preferably fountain pen. I was so cool. I would like to believe that I never wrote a purple or green exam, but I fear very much that I did.
I love this story, Rohan. Thanks for sharing it.
Whenever I’ve had a chance to read old writing of mine, of whatever kind, I find it a painful experience, but I also am surprised at how like my current self I sound. I tend to think that I’ve grown and changed SO much, but that’s an illusion. Yes, I’ve changed, but not as much as I think.
I loved this, Rohan.
Liz, if we were in a novel, one of us would surely be the other’s evil doppelganger. But which one would be which?!
Rebecca , I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to recognize ourselves. I have been thinking, since I posted this, that I am perhaps more deliberate about some of the things I do or the ways I am than I used to be.
Sarah and Zani–thank you. I know that each of you could tell a story about the path you have chosen and what it has been like so far. I am so impressed by you both!
I used to be a great letter writer, but it vanished when I decided to study part time as well as teaching full time. I’ve never thought about the possibility that the people to whom I wrote might have kept my letters. Your purple and my green would really make an eye catching display. Thanks for sharing this.
Oh, I’m the evil one (evil laugh).
@Liz: But your online persona is so friendly! 🙂 You know, I was thinking about your comment about your husband almost having been my TA at UBC, and it’s striking that I never in fact worked with a single TA in either of my major subjects: it was profs all the way, and often quite senior ones. I wonder if that’s a function of my being in the Honours program in both English and History–though there was nary a TA for any of my 1st or 2nd year classes either. I think there may have been one in my calculus class, and maybe in economics, but if so, they clearly weren’t very involved in the teaching side. Just an observation.
What a treasure you friend has given you! Do you have any of her letters to match with the ones you sent her? I’m not a great saver but I have always saved letters, there is something special about them that I could never bring myself to toss them out.
I have some of them, Stefanie, but I can’t seem to find more than a small stash of my old correspondence. I moved a lot, for a while, and perhaps it seemed more efficient to de-clutter as I went along. I’ve been thinking a lot (as we all should, these days) about my email archives. Though it is sometimes hard to imagine it’s worth keeping track of that kind of old output, once it’s gone, it’s gone for ever, and looking at these letters made me think that it’s worth hanging on to our histories, even if only for our own edification and amusement.