Last week was homecoming weekend at California Lutheran University where I got my BA in English back in 2008. Piggybacking onto the weekend festivities, the English department hosts an alumni tea where faculty and students, past and present, come together to relax and catch up.
I hadn’t gone to the alumni tea in a couple of years, partly because I was too busy and moving around, partly I couldn’t really afford the gas to make a trip as near as Ventura County. Part of it was really that I was too ashamed to see friends. As Lovecraft once wrote, “I shunned all human society, deeming myself too much of a failure in life to be seen socially by those who’d known me as a youth and foolishly expected great things of me.”
I’ve had this feeling on and off for the last couple of years that I must have done something wrong with my life along the way. When you feel like that, some of the last people you want to embarrass are your teachers, teachers who might have seen potential in you way back when.
But last weekend, I had to go back to CLU. Even though it’s only been a couple of years, it was one of those therapeutic and nostalgic “retrace your footsteps” kind of trips. The campus has changed quite a bit, but the English faculty is largely the same. I saw my linguistics professor Dr. Cefola, whom I still have a hard time calling by her first name. Jack Ledbetter was there too, a teacher of poetry from Nebraska whom you wouldn’t expect to speak fluent French.
Meeting with my old professors felt a little weird at first. I was happy to see them – no doubt about that – but I was a little uncomfortable because I knew they’d ask me what I’ve been up to lately. And when that question came up, I knew I couldn’t lie to them, so I admitted that I’m working at a gardening center while writing on the side and looking to go back to school for teaching credentials.
I waited for the looks of pity. Instead, one of my professors, Dr. Wines who hadn’t taken her eyes off of me as I explained my professional choices, said, “You’re doing what every writer does. There’s no shame in it.”
I’ve known for a long time that any shame I feel is really just a manifestation of my own pessimism. As long as I’m paying my bills, am on time repaying my loans, and still writing and submitting stories, that is the bare minimum I need to feel like a successful writer. The readings are few and far between, and Hollywood isn’t knocking on my door for film rights, but there’s also some perspective one has to take.
There are a lot of people with whom I went to school who are not writing. They’re not even teaching it. They’ve become insurance agents. They’ve become dentists. But even with those day jobs, the basic desire has decreased.
This isn’t me dissing those classmates. I have no right to judge them as they have no right to judge me. The point I’m trying to make is this: I walked away from that reunion with the realization of how easy it is to “fail” at writing simply through inactivity.