Oh god. I could talk on and on about this. And I’m going to. So bear with me.
On one hand, you’re getting in on the UC system at a time when budget cuts have added ungodly sums to your outgoing receipt slip at the Calbears cash register. On the other, chin up. You’re getting started at the number one public research university on the mothereffin’ planet. It’s going to be good.
I think the English B.A. at Cal will award you with what you put into it. As for your career, you have a couple of tried and true paths open to you (journalist, professor, high school/middle school teacher, book publishing, law school). What are your strengths? Are you good at hitting up a crowd, talking to people, getting them to tell you their stories? Do you like to teach? If you want to get into book publishing, will you be able to look past the drudgery of shuffling papers/doing business (the editing of jacket copy, the blurb seeking, the slush pile slog, the fielding of emails, the uncertain economic climes) in order to retain your love for the art? Do you like literary theory? Does logging on to read articles on MUSE in Doe Library make your hands shake with barely concealed excitement?
Ultimately, I discovered that I wasn’t cut out for academia — its obfuscations, its pretentions, its focus on minutiae, and its impactless effect, relative to a doctor saving lives, or a judge sentencing a criminal to prison. The most futile and exasperating moment of my short-lived academic career came in the last semester of my fourth year, when I spent hours on JSTOR poring over dozens of articles debating, to the last insignificant detail, whether Gulliver had truly been transfigured into a horse by the end of Gulliver’s Travels, and how this related to the book’s deeper underlying meaning. It was like watching a hundred intelligent minds down on their knees, worrying something to shreds with their teeth.
This is not to devalue the mind-expanding opportunities of lecture, section, and seminar. People ask me nowadays what I did as an English major, and I reply, “I wrote papers about books.” And then they eyeball me askance and/or look distinctly discomforted by such a notion — she read books?, I can imagine them repeating incredulously to each other after I take leave of the room. But how do I say, I read books, but books are about everything, and then I thought and wrote about the portrayals of race and class and ethics and aesthetics and politics in them, debated these things with my classmates, transcribed by hand the parts of articles or novels that made me suck in my breath, was astonished and moved to tears by the artistry of speakers at a university poetry slam, missed talks given by Malala Joya and Bill Clinton and David Simon and the Dalai Lama but not Ang Lee, volunteered at a courthouse clinic for underserved populations, researched such interesting topics, acquired political beliefs, worked, found love, was alive? How can I talk about the transformative power of ideas, the restorative power of beauty, the thing that makes you get up every morning and bound about aping Elvis Presley into your toothbrush-cum-microphone, excited to start the day?
And I realize this is big and brazen and naive for me to say all of this, and that it’s immensely uncool and definitely unhipsterlike to come right out and proclaim my wonder at the world of ideas and my belief in the goodness of people, but damnit, I am not a disaffected twentysomething who smokes cigarettes because it’s cool and whose every statement is armored in frigid irony. I care.
Take as many seminars as you can. Talk to your professors. Take classes with Namwali Serpell and Nadia Ellis, two of my favorite young instructors at Cal. Steven Goldsmith and Joanna Picciotto and Kent Puckett are also likely to appeal. At all costs, avoid Donna Jones and Alan Nelson, even though the former teaches a class on scifi. If it interests you, I’d say the creative writing classes were an incredibly positive experience — Vikram Chandra and Melanie Abrams were nothing but incredibly encouraging, I met some fantastic people in workshop, and their passion for their craft still spurs me on today. I’m still working at writing now; fiction, the reading and writing of it, is one of the best things about my life.
In a more general sense, I can’t overestimate the effect that Cal has had on my development as a person. It opened my eyes! It made me see privilege! I lived in a wild-haired party house in my third year that threw raves every month and regularly drew police and ambulances to its doors! (In the spring of 2010 one guy was hospitalized for a cocaine (or was it heroin?) overdose; an article in the SF Chron, published shortly afterward, called Cloyne a “hell hole” and leveled a grim finger at the negligence of co-op administators.) It made me understand that construing meaning in a world that bombards you with a million brainless signals/adverts/images/videos/twitters is so important, and one of the most important things you can do is to salvage yourself from this mess of things. I self-categorize as a feminist, a raging lefty, a bleeding heart, environmentally conscious wannabe vegan. If I were a less reticent person I would’ve gone from door to door in 2008 with a little clippy-board and obnoxious buttons pinned all over my front trying to get people to elect Obama to the Presidency. Hell, maybe I can still do that in 2012.
So — it comes down to the usual things, really. Pursue what excites you. Do your readings; those dead people do have something worthwhile to say. Speak up in class. Instead of fiddling on your smart phone, listen to your classmates. Take up with five different extracurriculars, and whittle as necessary. Strike up conversations with strangers. Think of something that you just can’t see yourself doing, that is completely against your character — and then do it. As Sheryl Sandberg said in her Barnard commencement speech, I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try.
As of now, I’m working a marketing position for a nice company — good pay, a relaxed work schedule, optimal commute times. In some ways, it’s ideal, but in others, it’s not. It’s too easy. I’m not learning new things. And it leaves me with little time to actualize any of the above listed labels.
But on the upside, I’ve been writing a lot every day, and reading, and cooking, and planning and going on adventures with friends, and stockpiling for law school. Life is good.
I know this is advice from a stranger on the Internet, but best of luck! Berkeley really remade me into a better person.
On a concluding note, David Mitchell is a pretty cool guy. I’m glad you liked Cloud Atlas.