A Writer's Advice to College Students

I wonder how the parents of some of my students would react if their kids told them their writing professor's advice.
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Earlier this year, I found myself at dinner with a bunch of women I didn't know well. They were, for the most part, older than I, and mothers of high school and college kids. They were also a very particular subset: wealthy, privileged, living in Manhattan. The conversation swirled around private schools, tennis coaches (Maria Sharapova's!), Caribbean vacations (Anguilla is over, apparently), the best ice skating instructors (you have to get up at five in the morning but it's worth it). During the course of the evening, I was approached by a woman I don't know at all.
"Can I speak with you in private?" she asked. She looked shaky, seemed fragile.

Together we walked into a separate room, where she turned and faced me, tears in her eyes. She proceeded to tell me about her oldest daughter, who was attending a very good midwestern university, but was trying to transfer to an east coast Ivy League university. She went on to say that she had hired a coach for her daughter, to help her write the essay for her transfer application.

I was beginning to hear the distant chimes of warning bells, but I let her continue.

"I forced my daughter to email me her essay this morning," she went on. "And it's terrible. Just terrible. I don't know what this private coach has been doing." Then she leaned closer to me.

"Would you...I was wondering, I mean...if you'd consider...?" I didn't let her finish. I wasn't sure who I was protecting -- this stranger, or myself -- from the embarrassment of what she was asking.

"I'm a novelist," I said. "I don't do that sort of thing."

"But I'll pay anything," responded the woman. "I'll fly her in to work with you."

Obviously that woman is an example of a certain kind of hyper-parenting (and also of A world in which everyone has a price and that price can easily be met). But I've thought of her often since our encounter. Why was it so important to her that her daughter go to an Ivy League school (as opposed to the excellent school where she was already enrolled)? Why did it seem -- as it truly did -- that her daughter's very future success and happiness depended on it? Why were all these mothers so focused on their kids' every activity as if each tennis, violin, skating, you-name-it lesson was Mr. Wonka's golden ticket -- ensuring their children a life of good fortune? It seemed as if these women believed that there was a clear, well-lit path to success, a high-stakes connect-the-dots game that required all the right moves in exactly the right order.

I spent this past year teaching a fiction writing course at Wesleyan University -- the first time in long time I've taught undergraduates -- and I wonder how the parents of some of my students would react if their kids told them their writing professor's advice.

1. Don't worry -- you don't need to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. If you think you know, you're probably wrong and will have to change careers when you're thirty.
2. If you think you want to be a writer, don't get a job in publishing, for godsakes! Go tend bar. Or herd cattle. Gain some life experience.
3. Read Mary Catherine Bateson's Composing a Life. She's Margaret Mead's daughter, and wrote a brilliant book that no one seems to read any more, about women's lives and how the most successful, contented lives are not approached in a linear way.
4. Be awake and aware to the so-called accidents that happen around you. Something you didn't anticipate, some path you mistakenly take, may lead you completely in the right direction.
5. Don't go to law school just to have something to do. I know at least ten people with expensive law degrees they never used.
6. Follow your instincts. Almost every successful person I know followed their passion, one small step at a time.

If that woman had indeed flown her daughter to meet me so that I could write an essay for her worthy of publication in The Paris Review, she would have been deeply unhappy about the advice I would have dispensed. As for my Wesleyan students, honestly, I have no idea if I made a difference. I hope I did -- even just a little bit. I remember one young woman who sat across from me in my office, incredulous when I told her that if she wants to be a writer, the very last thing she should do is get a job in publishing. "I can't wait to tell my parents that my writing professor thinks I should tend bar!" she said with a small smile. Half-liberated, half-terrified. Standing on the precipice, with no road map -- exactly as she should be.

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