As I get ready to leave Chicago to move back home to New Orleans, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams: about how they fluctuate, and change, and sometimes even leave us.
And how that’s nothing to feel badly about.
I came up to Chicago with a Master’s degree in Spanish literature to get my doctorate and become a professor. I was good at research. I felt comfortable in academia. And I figured that even though teaching made me uncomfortable, it was something I could get used to.
The strange thing is, looking back, how well things were going for me. I was building a great CV for a professorial job after graduation.
- My grades were great, and my teaching evaluations were far from horrible.
- I helped plan a conference for my department.
- I presented research at numerous conferences.
- I got an article published in a peer-reviewed journal.
- I had a good relationship with the professors and with my colleagues.
But I wasn’t happy. I lost all sense of purpose in my research (which I had never liked that much anyway). I felt fake as an academic, even though I was good at it. I was faking interest, faking that I believed that what I was saying mattered. Would make the slightest bit of difference in the real world.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with pursuing a career in academic research in the humanities. I’m just saying I discovered that wasn’t my dream after all: I knew it was no longer my dream to be a professor, because I was wearing a mask each day.
That mask was getting heavier by the month.
Eventually I took a leave of absence. The day I officially withdrew, after five years of investment in graduate school, was terrifying as well as liberating.
I felt free and powerless at the same time. Like I had thrown off a weight but was a failure for doing so. Even when I convinced myself I hadn’t failed–I had simply decided to pursue a difference course–I felt I was leaving a huge part of me behind.
LETTING A DREAM GO
And I was. I was leaving behind all ambition to be a public and professional scholar. But I realized that was okay.
I hadn’t wanted to be a professor to impress people with a series of letters after my name. I didn’t crave the letters for ego inflation. I had, at one point, loved Spanish literature. And I had loved learning about it.
I guess I had learned enough to make me happy, and my passion for it wasn’t as deeply rooted as my passion for writing fiction.
I had been pursuing that since I was a child.
No, I didn’t want to lose my Spanish, but I could still talk in Spanish and read Spanish without being a professor.
Yes, I enjoyed intellectual discussions, but I had tons of awesome friends who were in my field, with whom I could still discuss philosophy and literary criticism (to the extent I wanted to).
I didn’t leave because grad school was hard. It had always been hard. The thing is, it used to be hard, and stimulating, and fun. It used to feel fulfilling.
Now it was hard, made me miserable, and felt purposeless.
Walking away wasn’t easy, and I agonized over letting that dream go, but I made the right choice.
THE COURAGE TO CHANGE A DREAM
I’ve learned that dreams aren’t made of stone. They evolve. We alter and sometimes even discard them as we grow and mature as individuals.
And that’s no reason to feel like a failure, or inadequate, or cowardly.
As I sat to write this post, I realized that I’d addressed this very issue in my first, unpublished novel. The book is awful, but has a scene where a character named Jacob is struggling to move past an unrequited love. His friend, a seamstress named Danni advises him to forget the woman.
“Forget her?” Jacob rose to his feet. “Couldn’t I misinterpret what I’ve seen? I think of the future and I know—somehow I’m convinced of it, I can’t bring myself to doubt—that I will be with her.”
“I used to imagine things like that, but I was naïve, Jacob, and so are you. Life doesn’t work that way.”
“I can’t give up,” he said, “I can’t. I don’t believe I have the strength. I am not as brave as you think me.”
“What do I know of bravery? I sew clothing. Bravery’s not the issue. You can do this if you want to. It takes—my God, it really does—it takes as much faith to push hope away as to hang from it by nothing but your fingers, and sometimes, letting go is for the best. You’re the only one who can tell you where you stand. It’s up to you.”
I think it’s uncanny now that I wrote this (admittedly horribly sappy) exchange years before I ever enrolled in my master’s program, let alone my doctoral program.
Because Danni was right. It takes COURAGE to change a dream. To let an old desire, an old and familiar part of you, flit away.
It makes you feel exposed in an awful way.
It takes courage to walk away from a situation where you’re more or less secure, even if you loathe the work you’re doing and can barely stand it any longer.
It takes courage, perhaps, to put that dream of seeking an agent on hold to self-publish quality work, when you’ve dreamed all your life about the Big 5.
It takes courage to follow a new and unfamiliar path, whether in life or in the fake lives you’re writing about as an author. When you think you know what your characters are doing and then they change their minds….
But characters’ lives, like ours, are all about change. Life means constant change. Why should our dreams be exempt from that process?