I cringed the first time I heard the phrase "quarter-life crisis". Well, probably not a cringe so much as a stand-up comedian's ubiquitous are you serious? sort of look. Whatever face I made, I directed it at my editor, who had just informed me that my novel was basically a story of one man's "quarter-life crisis".
Naturally, I began to contest the allegation. How could I have written an entire book about what sounded like a Dr. Phil-ism, some trend I reflexively decided was spurious? I squirmed in my seat for a moment. I split hairs about fractions and life expectancy in relation to the characters' ages. I gave examples of true crises ("when you're 19 and your girlfriend throws up one morning") and then waited for laughter like an old person sitting at an abandoned bus shelter. The marketing director and the editor exchanged worried glances. Finally, the editor massaged the language for my sake.
"We-ell, your book's not about a full-blown crisis-crisis. It's a humorous take on the whole finishing-school-but-then-the-recession-and-loans-and-not-really-knowing-what-to-do-with-your-life thing," she trailed off. "It's all there in the book."
I had to concede that my book Blowin' It follows the ups and downs of Billy George, a recently-graduated ne'er-do-well who impetuously embarks for the city and, once there, quickly decides that he deserves better than everything he's signed up for. Admittedly, the book details many of the anxieties and hassles facing today's young American: having a job well-short of a career, struggling to find a special someone, living in a place with 4+ roommates and furnishings with origins as mysterious as Stonehenge, etc... But hadn't I drawn on many of my own experiences while chronicling what twenty something city-living in Obama's America looks like? Wouldn't that mean I must've had a "quarter-life crisis" at some point?
I gave the topic some thought and paid attention to NPR and its solemn-voiced correspondents whenever they reported on the trials facing my contemporaries. My ears perked up whenever the phrase "in this economy" came up in my peers' discussions. An observable trend? I wondered. It wasn't as dire as a line snaking out from a soup kitchen, but there were a lot of grim looks at the coffee shop where the stylishly adrift sipped iced chai, laptops open, applying for jobs they either knew they'd never get or didn't actually want. After weeks of deep observational research, something clicked. A dim memory of personal crossroads came to light. The Rubicon had indeed been crossed, just without much deliberation or fanfare.
I don't think I'm alone when I describe my college experience thusly: I picked a small, Liberal Arts state college pretty close to where I grew up and people were supportive. All the classes I took were a.) of interest to me and b.) started no earlier than 10 AM. Courses were as academically rigorous as I wanted them to be. (It's not like we had grades!) And three-to-five days after the beginning of each quarter I would go to the bursar's office and receive a check for my financial aid award minus tuition. I repeated this cycle a dozen or so times until I graduated. I have not met another bursar since.
The real world is a cold, cold place to walk into after four straight years of salad days. Some spend months looking for work - a few unfortunate souls find it (for the dispirited Bachelor of Arts, a mundane work week will feel like spending seventy-seven straight days with Sisyphus). After receiving my degree, I was fortunate enough to parlay my work-study job at the college bookstore into temporary full-time employment while the search was on for a new bookstore buyer. It wasn't an ideal situation, but. A holding pattern beats a tailspin. Besides, the work was easy and I had beaucoup experience at the position: I had been ordering pens and notebooks and paintbrushes and such for about ten months. I memorized handy shortcuts in the Point-Of-Sale system and was on first-name basis with stationary reps. Shortly before interviews were to begin, the bookstore manager took me aside and encouraged me to apply for the position.
"It's a state job, you know."
I lied, said I knew that.
"You can be promoted to a Class IIa Buyer after a year."
I nodded slowly, like I was thinking really hard about it.
"The stock market went down, like, 300 points again," he said before heading into his office. "Think about it."
I could have blown a great big raspberry at that. Like I owned stocks! Because as nice as $35,000-per plus the untroubled sleep of a state worker sounded, it was really the last thing I wanted. I was 21: far too young to be settling for a life of spreadsheets and coffee breaks. And I had just finished writing a 200-page novel-cum-word-doc. as a sort of senior thesis. I'd need time to shop that around. So I worked at the bookstore another four months, trained my replacement, and then went off and welcomed life one pizzeria job at a time.
At the end of this anecdote I can only conclude that I completely dodged a crisis, though. Choosing steady, uninspiring work over the chance at realizing ambitions cannot result in anything but a lifetime of nagging self-doubt. That's not to say that the years that followed my decision were without trouble or uncertainty -- far from it! No literary agent even indicated that they received my manuscript, much less read and enjoyed it. There was the ill-advised long-distance move with a partner who left before anybody unpacked. I had a serious medical emergency with no real insurance and $500 total in checking and savings. I split rent and bills seven ways for a while and ate rice and beans for dinner most nights. And I'm not talking about opening up some bourgeois can of beans: no, I soaked. The important thing is that, through it all, I knew I was going to write.
So, like most 20-to-30-year-olds, I spent a lot of time doing things I didn't go to school for and didn't particularly want to do. I went to places I was not comfortable going to and made it back home safe. Along the way, I managed to figure out what actually mattered to me, what I was really about. I won't deny that I still find myself in a tedious and occasionally demoralizing grind just to make ends meet or that I take solace in knowing that nobody gets sent to debtor's prisons these days. From what I understand you can't have your degree repossessed. But on good days I tell myself that adversity met with gumption results in something finer and rarer than the smug satisfaction of steady work and timely loan payments.
In the end, it took me five-plus years of doing everything but writing a book before I was ready to sit down and live a little bit of the dream. Unsurprisingly, I ended up putting my protagonist in a lot of the same hapless situations I found myself in during that stretch. His reedy voice often parrots my vain gripes past. He demands just a little more time and money to do all of the cool, important things he was meant to do, just as I once did. So I decided to do something really mean-spirited and give him $50,000. And not to tie things up at end of the book, either: the check arrives right there in the middle of the story. I presented Billy George with the sort of opportunity that so many underpaid would-be's pray for (or at least dream of). Need I hint that crises ensue?