Over at Chosen Chaos, Jamie has been running a series called “If I Could Turn Back Time,” in which writers are asked what they would tell their eighteen-year-old selves. I posted this piece on her site a while ago, and now she’s doing a wrap-up week, inviting the entire year’s worth of writers to re-post their letters on their own blogs. It’s hard to re-post without tinkering and tweaking (or hiding information), but I’m going to sit on my hands and let this one go, just as it is.
Plus you get the picture of me at eighteen. Ah, the hair of youth:
You’re almost ready to go to college and although you’re not really talking to your parents these days, I’m hoping you’ll listen to me. After all, I’ve got sort of a vested interest in having you come through college alive. The last two years of high school have been tumultuous, to say the least, and your parents are terrified about leaving you alone at school half-way across the country. You keep insisting that once you get the hell out of the Midwest, you’re going to be FINE, but I know that under all that hair and bravado, you’re also scared about embarking on this new stage of your life.
So do yourself a favor and before you go stomping off to listen to the Grateful Dead on your super-cool eight-track cassette player, just listen to me for a few minutes? If you listen to me, maybe the next four years (and, er, three decades) will be smoother. It’s true that some of this advice might echo what your mother has been saying to you all these years, but here’s my first piece of advice: your mother is a hell of a lot smarter than you think she is. Try listening to what she has to say.
Second piece of advice? Don’t bother bringing that eight-track player to college. Trust me on that one.
Now, a few other things:
I know you’re going to this single-sex college under extreme protest and that you have every intention of transferring at the winter break, but please don’t do it. Being in class without boys will feel like a huge rock has been lifted off your head: you have better things to think about than whether some boy has noticed you noticing him.
Now that you’re in college, it’s time to bury “Dizzy Debbie,” the persona you adopted to survive in high school. Remember? Trying to hide that you were in 4th year Latin and AP everything else, pretending you didn’t know how to work the combination on your locker, never talking about any of the things that mattered to you? In college, let yourself enjoy being smart. It’s a lot more fun than being ditzy.
In addition to what you’re learning in class, do yourself a favor and learn to say no. To drugs, to drinking, to stupid men, to “friends” who try to help you by pointing out all your flaws and none of your strong points. And while you’re learning about “no,” take a minute to learn this phrase “when she says no, it’s rape.” Remember that night in high school, when you said NO and STOP but he laughed and kept going? Yeah. That was rape. It shouldn’t have happened and it wasn’t your fault. Take that guilt you’ve been carrying around for three years and turn it into anger that some football-playing jackass could do that to you and get away with it—brag about it, in fact, to his friends.
Once you find that anger, though, you’re going to have to let it go. If you don’t, you’re going to get stuck thinking that sex is a power tool and not an expression of intimacy. Men are not like ramshackle old houses. Do not get yourself a “fixer-upper.” Please figure that out now, and save yourself thousands of dollars in therapy, years of miserable relationships, and one broken engagement (a necessary break-up, true, but brutal nonetheless). Yes, relationships are work but being in a grown-up relationship doesn’t mean endless fights. Learn the difference between compromise and compromised; live with the former but not the latter.
Don’t shake your head at me, Eighteen. Am I harshing your mellow? Bummer. Stop flipping your hair at me and listen for a few more minutes. Then you can get back to perfecting your Farrah.
Actually, let’s talk hair, shall we? In a few years, when you’re studying in England, you’re going to be tempted to be a hair model at the Sassoon school. Here’s where I want you to practice that “no” we talked about earlier. You’re going to think “a model! How cool!” RESIST! They’re going to cut your hair really short and you will look like a brunette broccoli. The hairdo they’re going to give you requires scimitar-like cheekbones, not a jawline that Churchill would envy.
Writing kept you (mostly) sane during high school and it will continue to be your greatest joy during college, but then you’ll start studying for your doctorate and start hearing voices in your head. They’ll say things like “maudlin,” and “derivative,” and “juvenile,” and “under-theorized.” Tell those voices to shut the hell up. Keep writing your own stuff, in addition to your academic stuff, so that you don’t have to wait until the invention of something called “blogs” to find an outlet for your ideas.
It’s hard to imagine right now but you’re going to be both a wife and a mother. And, furthermore, you’re going to have boy children, not girls, which I know you think is totally nutty. I mean tomato plants don’t suddenly sprout beans, so how a girl body can give birth to boys is anyone’s guess. But it’s going to be okay—you’re going to love your boys despite, and sometimes even because of, their boy-ness. In fact, you’re going to love your husband in much the same way—he can’t help that he’s a man, but you’re going to love him anyway.
That’s about it for now, I think. Let’s review: Be nice to your mother, stay in college, say no to stupid men and bad haircuts, keep writing, have babies, have a marriage, have a career (but not necessarily in that order).
That about covers it, I think. In the long run, just as you suspected all those long years ago, you’re going to be FINE. It’s just going to take you a little while to get there.