What I’d Tell My 20-Year Old Self

Not an original question, but an interesting game nonetheless.

I CELEBRATED MY 22ND birthday in Paris, having fled there after college graduation with no clue what was next, and a desire to do something, anything, as long as it was, um, spectacular. OK, fine. I wasn’t the first person to flee to Paris. But it sure felt new to me, which is all that matters.

road 2 elsewhere blog

The same feeling of newness, that never-been-done-before quality, seized the world-weary Joan Didion, who I have a hard time believing was ever 21, despite all the evidence she presents in her famous essay Goodbye to All That. Go ahead. Give it another read. It’s better than anything I’ll ever write. Including her brilliant observation that “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty or twenty-one or even twenty-two is the conviction, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that nothing like this has ever happened to anyone ever before.”

When I was her age, bashing around Paris, the U.K., Ireland, and the Continent, I was somehow possessed with the notion that I was special, and would lead an uncommon life. Where does that stuff come from? Oh, right: It’s a hallmark of white privilege. But white folks like me were still several decades from having that pointed out to us. So I wrote this in a blank book my brother had given me as a college graduation present:

7 June 1978

What to do about my present situation? What is my present situation? I have just graduated from college and I am currently using my great potential for absolutely nothing. There, it’s in a nutshell now. Compounding the problem is the feeling that I am sponging off my parents at a time when I ought to be done sponging. My life seems, for the first time in a long time, totally without direction. I am uninvolved, unsure of the next step, and wary of stepping at all for fear of becoming committed to something I am not excited about doing. Can it be that I fear freedom the way I swore I never would? No, but I do wish to channel my potential now, succeed in something, and, by all means, leave my parents’ home and establish myself somewhere, anywhere.

Decided: Something’s wrong.

Resolved: Act to correct it.

I “corrected” it by moving to Paris, and scribbling even more in my blank books.

For some irretrievable reason, on October 11th, 1978, I wrote this on a blank page: It occurs to me tonight that I ought to be keeping a more regular journal, and the empty pages that follow must bear the evidence of the success or failure in that resolve. Tomorrow (I hate writing that word; “tomorrow” has too often meant “never” in my plans) I will start my daily journal, in which I will record my travels and observations, so that I might avoid the depressing feeling that I don’t write enough. I can transcribe my daily thoughts to good purpose, for it will make me live deliberately and think purposefully as the days unfold. On October 12 the daily record begins. I wait anxiously to see it stretch into an unending lifetime of writing.

And, amazingly enough, it did.

My string of journal entries, begun on a random Thursday in Paris, has continued for 15,000 odd days (some odder than others), and counting. I have recorded each day in pen and ink, and have continued to do so even after the advent of the personal computer. So I can’t simply press a button to total up numbers. But assuming an average of 400 words a day, I’ve written approximately six million words in seventy formerly blank books, word upon word, experience upon experience — pain and gain and confusion in succession.

Though I have been paid to write/research/edit all sorts of things, my journal has been my life’s work. My lack of self-consciousness in the act, especially in the beginning, is precisely what allowed it to become a graphological function of my autonomic nervous system. From the evidence of the early pages, clotted as they are with self-seriousness, I would have strangled the journal in its crib had I known how important it would become to me. But because I began in ignorance, and was motivated by an uncomplicated desire to recollect in tranquility (thanks William Wordsworth), I have continued to write just one day at a time, for four decades.

This newsletter will tell the story of how it unfolded. But, beyond that endless line of ink stretching from the past to today, it is the story of how I began to notice, to feel, to interpret, and to build a life. My journal entries contain my birth pangs of adulthood, my yearnings toward purposeful action, my attempts to love and seek it in return.

Everything I would do or become was captured in embryonic form on those pages. In each sentence, I was quickening, giving a kick at the womb that had, until the moment I stepped onto a plane to Paris, enclosed me. Air France was my birth canal. I was a mess, but I arrived.

Now what?

I answered the only way I could: By responding to each day as it came, and gathering the moments to build into a self that would torment and delight me for the decades ahead. I was on the road to elsewhere, and I only dimly realized that there would be no final destination, only a continuing passage worth noting, and cherishing.

So, what would I tell myself, at age 21? Keep going! And according to this article from Inc., Jeff Bezos and a bunch of artists agree with me, that a “bias toward action” is one of the best life answers. (As long as you don’t fuck up, royally.) Do you agree?

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