05/27/2011 09:16 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2011

Penciled-In Generation

When I tell people I'm graduating from college with what amounts to a degree in creative writing, they ask, "So what's your backup plan?"

I can't answer because I don't have one. Ever since I wrote an ill-conceived pumpkin fairy tale in second grade, I've wanted to be a writer. But when they ask, most people don't want abstractions. They want to hear about the job, the future husband, when I'll settle down. So I compromise. I add the qualification on the end. "Well I want to write," I say, "but I've set myself up for a job in publishing, so for now, I'll do something in that vein."

Am I crazy? To want this version of myself?

About a month ago, I started having stress dreams: my airplane is taking off from JFK in 45 minutes and I'm still sitting, unpacked and indecisive, in my Harlem apartment; I accidentally send a silly email to the wrong person; I leave the book I need on the subway; I can't find my keys.

It's an odd world we graduates face. The economy is still sputtering. The industry I want to become a part of has been weathering "Death of the novel" rumors. There are some entry-level jobs, but not many. Graduate school sounds easier than the uncertainty of finding something that'll pay, but even that will leave me with mounds of debt.

Recently, I've been emailing with a friend from back home in Washington State. He's also on the cusp of graduation and most of our correspondence has been about he future, figuring out how to slowly begin to build the individual lives we want.

"Job stability is for parents," he wrote. "And perhaps debtors."

I don't think he's wrong.

Our indecision is the stuff of sitcoms and bewildered op-eds. "Why are twenty-somethings taking so long to grow up?" adults wonder, citing the milestones many of us are faltering over: graduating, moving out of a parent's home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. Instead, we are hopscotching from job to job, apartment to apartment, significant other to significant other.

But the question doesn't get it quite right. What my generation has most allowed itself is trial and error. If something doesn't work, we don't have to settle. We can find another apartment, another job, another city. Decisions are written in pencil. This is how it should be. It's something like dating, perhaps. You go on plenty of bad dates before you go on a good one, and by the time you go on that good date, you'll know. Sometimes, the first date does it. Mostly, though, it doesn't.

So far, I've passed two milestones -- I moved into an apartment in Harlem last year, and am about to graduate. Hopefully within the year I'll become financially independent, which means I'll be three-fifths of an adult, according to the common definition. But I have no interest in those final milestones, and won't for a long time. I want to create my own checkpoints.

I'm not different from most my age. We face the prospect of adulthood differently, but that doesn't mean we're arrested in our development. There is value to risk, value to taking the long way home.