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Learning the Art of Losing: A Response To Taylor Cotter's Quarter-Life Crisis

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Taylor Cotter put her naiveté on display on The Huffington Post, and I admire her for it -- if she was sincere. In her essay, "A Struggle of Not Struggling," Cotter describes how she graduated directly from college to a good job and self-sufficiency in Somerville, Massachusetts. After detailing her good fortune, Cotter muses about whether she might in fact be missing something -- romance, glamor, (cliché), character-/(résumé-)building -- by not being a starving artist in New York. Gawker and the Village Voice gently criticized the essay with mock seriousness that matches Cotter's sincere (we hope!) but misplaced gravitas. Acquaintances of mine at NYU criticized the essay as an offense to those who are truly struggling.

Yet what bothered my classmates more than Cotter's opinion itself was that she chose to write an essay about it and publish it online. It's the kind of thing you might think once in a while or talk about with friends, they say, but you don't put it on the Internet. Though I agree that the essay was naïve, I see no reason not to publish it. Not talking about something doesn't make it go away. I'm glad she published her thoughts and got a response.

"Risk getting slapped," someone once said to me. "Risk it!" If you have something difficult to say to a person, say it to her face (within slapping distance from yours). More generally, if you have a contrary opinion, don't dance around it. Risk having someone shoot you down. Maybe writing and publishing an essay will solidify or even change your opinions in a way that leaving them as gut feelings or chatting about them with friends would not.

Taylor Cotter got slapped. "22-Year-Old Is Very Upset That She Didn't Get to Be Poor for a While," read Hamilton Nolan's Gawker headline. Nolan commented that this might be the kind of character-building real-world experience she was looking for. I think it is. So the world doesn't always welcome you with open arms. Imagine the contrast Cotter might have felt from thinking, "Wow, my essay is on HuffPost" to "everyone hates my piece." And that piece could follow her forever along the "irreversible path" she's chosen.

The fear of haunting by a past clip is one argument against publishing personal opinions online. Opinions change, and the Internet persona you create at 22 might misrepresent the person you are at 30. I wrote some personal essays when I was trying to be a writer in Somerville, Massachusetts (of Cotter fame). I failed to publish them. They weren't publishable. A few months ago, I looked at them again and realized that I couldn't publish them today even if I improved the writing because the moment had passed. I was not motivated to perfect the expression of how I felt two or three years ago. Some people might say that's why it's good that I didn't/couldn't publish the essays back then.

But I think the fact that one's opinions change is all the more reason to publish things quickly. You can always wait a little longer and be a little wiser, but that doesn't mean that you should never publish anything. Eventually, you might lose your memory. Eventually, you'll lose your life.

The fear of getting slapped extends all the way to the pitch, or story proposal. In journalism school, visiting editors are always telling us what a bad impression we'll make if we propose an idea that has been done recently, misspell the editor's name or have spelling errors. Journalists who've published little have better chances at freelancing than those who've published mediocre work, they say. Maybe we're better off not pitching at all?

No, one must risk getting slapped. Hopefully not slapped on the wrist for spelling errors, but slapped on the cheek for expressing an unpopular opinion? Fine.

Cotter does not deserve a slap on the wrist. Her essay is coherent with a nice beginning, middle and end. It doesn't have the tone of a ranting or drunken blog post -- the kinds of things people often regret publishing because they feel differently not ten years later but the next day.

As for the content of her piece: I imagine that many people wonder what their lives would be like if they'd done something else. But Cotter hasn't done that much yet. The most naïve part about Cotter's post, in addition to thinking she might be wiser and happier if she were poor, is that she thinks she's made permanent decisions about how her life will be when all she's done is start a new job that might not last and that she could quit if she chose.

I have experienced those self-important youthful moments, too. I thought deciding to take fewer ballet classes and practice violin more was setting the course of my life when I was in ninth grade. After college, I consulted various professors and weighed pros and cons before even applying to a job across the country. By the time I had decided to move to Utah forever, the position had been filled. I thought my first job after college would set the course of my life, too, but it didn't. I ended up moving from Somerville to New York, changing fields and returning to school.

As we age, these decisions seem less monumental. "The art of losing's not too hard to master; though it may seem like (Write it!) like disaster," wrote poet Elizabeth Bishop. "Practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster." The poem, "One Art," is inscribed in the bricks of the subway platform -- or is it the bus stop? -- at Davis Square, Somerville. So Ms. Cotter, read the writing on the platform: you do set the course of your life, if external forces don't do it for you, but setting a course doesn't mean staying on it forever. Your life and your opinions on it will change. If you want to write about it, I say go for it.

I wonder if Cotter knew what she was getting herself into. She probably wasn't bracing for a slap. She might have expected to be congratulated for her success and her deep thinking about how hardship could enrich her life. Less brave than naïve.

But was she saying how she felt, or was she posturing? Is this equivalent to answering the job-interview question, "What's your greatest weakness?" by saying, "I work too hard," when the answer is something like, "I can't handle stress"?

If a young professional were really having a quarter-life crisis, would she choose to describe it at HuffPost? Confessing sincere feelings of personal insecurity online -- and yearning for a different job -- is not something I think Taylor Cotter, with her cover-letter of a website, would do. I hope I'm wrong.

Now I've aired my thoughts on this harmless personal essay days after 12 people were killed by a gunman in a Colorado movie theater. A slap isn't so bad, anyway. The sting is quickly lost, the provocation, forgotten. Go read a poem.