There was a day in September when I lost my bike keys and cried. It sounds juvenile, but at the time, the fact that I was ten minutes late to class, wearing jeans that pinched in places, and had begun to sweat, practically dissolved me. I walked through the law school so that no one I knew would see me sob. I was crying, of course, not for the lost bike keys; it was for something else entirely. But at the time I didn’t know what for.
I recently discovered that I have no imagination. Or, perhaps, since coming to Stanford, I’ve lost it, gradually, like a muscle shrinking with disuse. I’ve noticed this about myself, a disturbed senior, taking Reading and Writing Poetry for her English major. The artistic vision required to imagine my soul as a series of Nudes, like Anne Carson, or find fear in a handful of dust, like Eliot, felt beyond me in my freaked and confused state of job-hunting and finding creative ways to express my “leadership skills.”
When it came to poetry, I found myself staring at a blank page for weeks, leaving my poetry professor’s office in tears, twice. Doubting my creativity turned into doubting majoring in English. Why did I—why would anyone—choose to concentrate in Creative Writing? My mind relived the chronic questions humanities students struggle to answer over the years—the worst being, “What are you going to do with that?”—and again and again I heard the voice of Jack Donaghy calling my resume “cute.” A so-called writer at Stanford, I had begun to feel my desire to write as a fear. Like one who can’t doodle a page because they don’t know what to draw, I saw only my life’s uncertainty on the piece of paper that was supposed to fill with my poetry. It was more than writer’s block.
While professors advise us to constantly ask questions in class, not knowing the answers to questions about our lives—where will I go? What will I do?—feels tragic, disastrous, on a campus like ours. Looking around this place, one feels these uncertainties can’t exist under the relentless sunshine, which graces Stanford’s spotless campus, its tanned, life-hacked students and trim, identical palms. More commonly do we feign failure—assuring each other, ingratiatingly, that we’re super hungover or that we never study enough—than attempt to interpret our more visceral, more valuable mistakes.
A member of the tribe, I feel free to critique this kind of urbanity among Stanford students, which our flip-flops and fountain-hopping largely bely. Assured upon arrival to campus that we’ll “do big things” and that “anything is possible,” how could we ever be satisfied with the relief of our shortcomings? We rarely allow ourselves any sober, totem-less (i.e. sans fountain, sans fraternity) haphazardry. We rarely allow ourselves to be unproductive, slow. Given the pace of our quarter-system, we have little time for such liberties, but we don’t provide time for ourselves either. No one I know chooses to jump into the ocean—to see what it feels like—instead of jump-starting a p-set with one’s Sunday morning. No one chooses to go for a walk without headphones rather than watching Scandal as a study-break. Seeing that we watch things like Scandal, eat snacks or take naps, to work harder, faster, better, later, even these “study-breaks” are productive.
So I ask this version of an ancient question: On our campus, where most students look at a screen more often than into human eyes, how are we to foster artistic vision? At Stanford, where a job at a well-paid start-up right after graduating seems the campus-wide trend, served up à la mode, how are we to pursue our own taste? We know that creativity comes from a place of imperfection, rather than a transcript of straight-A’s. We know that creating something beautiful takes longer than the assigned three days, or even ten weeks. We know that imagination is insourced, not supplied by some dominant generality. It is not found on a cell phone, not provided by what this campus considers commendable or cool.
We know these things. Still, we’re duped into thinking that traveling the world with five dollars in our pockets post-graduation, or taking time just to read, is less serious than typing emails in a cubicle. The pressure to always and immediately work—and to constantly stress and talk and complain about our work—trickles through the culture of this campus by osmosis. It’s difficult to find words to explain such a confined and confining condition, but I think we all feel it. Please pardon my melodrama of “first-world problems”—I almost can’t. But sometimes living at this school can feel like (to borrow Lena Dunham’s metaphor) sitting in a kiddie pool of freezing mud.
Asking myself what I’m doing here sometimes comes as a fear, or worse, a guilt-complex. Where will I go? What will I do when I graduate? These questions—which I ask myself as much as any well-meaning uncle asks while wearing shoes in the living room and eating tiny, tiny shrimp—rip Stanford’s gift of security to shreds. They scab at that rich overcoat of money and opportunity protecting us at this school. They make me feel guilty. They make me feel about my Stanford education the same way a painter feels about an expensive canvas, unable to make that first brushstroke, hand shaking with self-doubt. With incredible gratitude for the canvas comes incredible guilt while painting it. Though I ultimately blame myself for such guilt, I nevertheless felt guilt-tripped as a senior soon to be leaving this school, which I feel only lucky (not deserving) to attend. I couldn’t write poetry. I wrote cover letters.
I felt this way because as an English major at a place like Stanford, I’m split at the root. I want art. I want to feel inspired, connected; I want to know myself, to always choose to jump into the ocean, to actually read the books on my nightstand when I’m thirty-three. (Thirty-three is my scary-age: my goalpost year for finally getting my life together, the year I imagine doing full pigeon-pose, having a permanent bookshelf, a Bassett hound, an apartment with a couple plants). Yet, I want to make money for myself too—I do. I want to do big things, to be successful, in the Stanford way, because Stanford breeds me to desire what it considers big and successful. That’s how I understand it—for right now, at least. I’d like to cease blaming “society” for my woes and eventually understand this part of my brain better, the part which thinks it knows what’s best for me. But who can say why people come to value things, like luxury and power, things that years and years of literature advise us not to want? I’m left bewildered, split at the root, some Stanford-bred compulsion to become impeccably wealthy challenging an ineffable urge to do something like “art.” The former, in its earliest and unhealthiest state, makes me feel like a copycat and a capitalist, the latter a wannabe. Pity, that combining the two into one emotionally sustainable, good-for-the-world “career” seems so rare and miraculous.
So again, I ask, can artists really exist here? Poke around this website and you’ll see that, of course, they do: poets, “beauty-junkies,” and ingenious drag. These students blow me away. First, because they’re remarkably talented. Second, because they’re exceptions to the rule. It is true that our art world is an underfunded minority, despite how much the university pushes it into the public eye as thriving. But “the rule” is something far more ingrained than the politics of our school, something deeper, something darker than that. It’s easier to feel than to narrate about this place, some portrayed perfection that infects us subconsciously, paralyzes the school surreptitiously, to the point where an English major couldn’t get herself to write and almost gave up trying.
As I began my senior year, I carried around these angsts within me, not necessarily noticing them there, like lymph. A classic condition on this campus, I was terribly stressed without noticing it, though it was gradually bringing me down. I only began to notice my anxiety when I discovered I had been drinking too much coffee, that my stress-induced TMJ had briefly returned, and for a day, I could no longer open my jaw beyond half an inch. I lost my bike keys and cried about it, as if losing my keys were some terrible disaster, when the real disaster came from my inability to reconcile the side of myself that wants to create and the other that wants to succeed as Stanford kids have, do, and will.
I see this struggle as proof that I’m not an “artist” at all. (Trust me that coming this close to calling myself one feels cringey). I blame my inability to be creative, imaginary on the culture of my school. I speak reductively about art as the opposite of computers and expensive college campuses (as if culture isn’t complicated). I tell myself that creative skills are something I either “have” or “don’t have,” as if they’re monetary rather than mercurial. These are all signs, I think, that I care too much about defining myself. That I don’t “have it” indeed, and probably wouldn’t be here if I did. In any case, whether “it” disappeared or whether I never had “it” in the first place, when I’m at school I can’t help but notice its absence. I said I’ve lost my imagination since coming to Stanford. But are my surroundings the problem? Or is it me—is it life?
Life (and its inevitable business) might be the problem, but I also like to think that life (and its inevitable imperfection) is the solution. Without implying that we can just Woolf our way out of this one, the only conclusion I can make here is to love the uncertainty, to love that twisted symbol at the end of a question that makes the rich writhe. To live messily and uncertainly and to trust that that’s okay to do at this school. That it’s okay to dislike this place, to be a bad student, to be desperate and selfish and stupid, to lose your bike keys and lose yourself for a moment, to lose an hour, lose a co-founder, lose a friend.
These are the things I keep telling myself, that it could never have been perfect here, anyway. Even as seniors we’re still poking obnoxiously at life (like the children we are) to see how it reacts. As perfect, hard-working students, we are both painfully aware of and gratefully inspired by the opposite of perfection and hard work: We note with precision all the Fridays we got too high, all the mornings we wandered out of a loud, flickering basement to see the sunrise lying out across the lake, and found outside only those gray, enormous mornings that made waking up before 9am so difficult. The times we were terrifically afraid of ourselves, sitting alone in our cluttered rooms with the sound of—somewhere—someone vacuuming, or worse, someone being incredibly productive. The times we never knew what to do with the afternoon, and decided it didn’t matter. Mornings we felt that too much didn’t matter. Moments when we realized we will not write the great American novel, but instead, will only ever live imperfectly and make imperfect art.
Sometimes I expect at the end of this year to feel more entitled graduating with these life-moments than what will be written on my expensive degree. Which is not to blame Stanford, nor suggest that I never loved my time here. Like any worthwhile relationship, my affection for this place is huge and complicated. I hold onto my Stanford moments dearly, of course, for these are the stories I’ll tell when I’m thirty-three. Moments like these, and their relative questions, both torture and enrich me. Part of being human might be feeling disenchantment, isolation, confusion, fear, frustration, guilt, but I believe those sensations can be fuel for creation. As “artists” we don’t find the answers, but as Professor Nemerov might say, we learn to pose the questions in our own ways.
No one wants to be called an artist, I’ve noticed. Great art doesn’t mean identifying as one anyway. As photographer Jean-Luc Moulène notes, the word “artist” is a socializing term, something to explain that thing that you do, be it lip-synching the German version of “My Heart Will Go On,” taking selfies in airplane bathrooms, talking to strangers, or watching the sunset. We often forget that being an artist is just part of being human. We’re all built with vision, that capacity to create something commensurate with how deeply we feel for our weird, complicated, often adorable world. It’s nothing solipsistic, nothing high-brow. It’s something more essential than that, something we all live for. “Art”—whatever I’m describing—is a collective experience. Maybe the most democratic thing we’ve got.
Much of what I’m saying might be corny to say. But George Saunders says somewhere that the corny things are often the things worth writing about. If they weren’t, then we wouldn’t have books like The Christmas Carol. And without our youthful college clichés— “But I was in love! But we had the music!”—then we wouldn’t have the nostalgia. As Benjamin Kunkel writes in Indecision, we have to go on experiencing our experience as if no one else has ever done it. What we create in return are sometimes our most useful truths.
I don’t write this to compare myself to Saunders or Dickens or any Great Important Artist. Nor am I writing this to demean the place we inhabit, nor to suggest that I’ve figured it all out. I say these things because, before graduating, I need the reminder that I’m not a computer, that my life doesn’t happen at hi-speed, that my greatest successes aren’t cashed or coded and never could be. I say these things to gift myself the freedom of knowing that the most gorgeous works of art come from the ugliest of places within us; that it’s okay to be lucky and dissatisfied; that confusion is a noble condition. I say these things with faith in my own vision, with the hope that when my life flashes before my eyes, I’ll see some beautiful things, and some sad ones, but I won’t just see a lot of webpages.
Photos courtesy of Flickr