Last night I read this interview with Jennifer Egan, who's just won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I haven't actually read any of her books and I have honestly no idea how this interview ended up being something I was even aware of, let alone actually sat down and read, but anyway there I was, at the kitchen table, staring at my laptop, eating beans on toast and trying not to cry.
I don't know why I was so taken with it. I think it's because my initial reaction was, "oh my God, this is ME!". Which is a ridiculous reaction to have, and not just because I haven't won a Pulitzer. I mean, almost nothing about our stories is the same. For instance, I don't live in New York; I'm too neurotic even for New York. I would sit there all day and worry that I was not hip enough for the hipsters and get nothing done. I have actually thought about moving to New York. There are a lot of complicating factors (a lot, a lot) but really what it comes down to when I think about it with any seriousness is this: I can't imagine ever living anywhere in New York except Brooklyn and I am pretty sure that I am not cool enough (by which maybe I mean self-aware enough) to live in Brooklyn.
Seriously. I have actual, real, physical anxiety about that. And I am not moving to Brooklyn any time soon, so you could say that to worry about it is a total waste of energy, except if you said that you'd have to also say that most of the other things I spend time worrying about (whether my hair looks frizzy, whether my children, if I can even have children, if I'm lucky enough, will be beautiful and intelligent or not, whether I should have bought that pair of shoes last month, whether a stovetop kettle was really the right choice, etc etc) are a total waste of energy - and of course you'd be right, but you'd also be discounting a huge amount of my time. And I'm convinced that there has to be a productive reason for all that energy, that it can be converted into something useful or at least interesting. So I keep generating it.
And another thing: I did not have the foresight to go travelling before I went to college, or even to do things at college that would have been intellectually, experientally, worth doing. I don't mean that I regret what I did at college, but I do mean that I think I put myself at a distinct disadvantage, because I was totally practical: I planned ahead, for the future, or rather, for a specific future, that did not come in the end. I guess it's because I worry, and in this case I was worried, even if I didn't realise it at the time, about what would happen after college. I started worrying about this practically before my first day in Boston, which was funny, because I had spent all of high school, and I genuinely mean all of it, looking forward to the day I went to college and got out of this town and finally started my Life!
So of course the moment I started that Life, whatever it was, I totally forgot how much I had been looking forward to it and what I had thought it was going to be like and I started to do the same old boring sensible things I had done in high school, things which I had done purely to ensure that I would get into a good college so that I could start my Life. I guess now I was doing the same old boring sensible things in college so that I could be sure I could get into a good Life? For instance I got a boyfriend and even though I was still only 17 when I met him (yes, this is how much of a hurry I was in to get to college and then subsequently to get out, I was 17 when I started and 20 when I finished) and he was only 19, after a little while, in very vague terms, we sort of formed an imaginary future together.
We never said, "we're going to get married" but I think, if I'm not very much mistaken, that was the implication. I was the first girl he had ever kissed. I didn't know this until a few months after our first kiss, though. He'd made up a story about a girl in high school. He really had loved this girl, I think, but they had not had any sort of physical relationship. I found this out at a party one night, drinking bottles of Heineken, which was actually pretty classy for a freshman party, not a keg in sight! I think it must have been in Allston, all the parties were in Allston, in Tardis-like apartments that always seemed bigger on the inside than they appeared on the outside, apartments where inevitably you discovered that someone you sort of knew sort of lived.
At the time it seemed sweet. I think I liked the idea of being that important to someone, I liked the idea of such a terribly old-fashioned kind of relationship. But over time it started to seem to me that 17 was awfully young and that it was probably a shame if you didn't at least kiss a few different people in your life, and I didn't much fancy being cheated on, especially not when I was still in my fine youth and running several miles along the Charles River whilst nursing a hangover every morning before class. I mean, what a stupid time to commit! Let alone to be betrayed! So you see how even then I was looking forward: first to our imagined future (a house, an Audi, and a Job, whatever that meant), then to our imagined destruction. Always so awfully practical! Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, just a different thing, and maybe not the best thing for me, because I'm so prone to anxiety, and probably it would have been good for me to have been more irresponsible so that I could see how little control I really had over anything, especially my own self.
Incidentally I didn't even know I was anxious until my junior year in college, when I had been suffering panic attacks for literally years without having a clue what they were. At various points in high school I had considered the possibility that I had cancer, that I might die before the night was over, that I was allergic to caffeine, that this was just what being grown upish was like, that I had gotten too much sun the day before or else too little, that I'd worn the wrong pair of socks to school earlier and now I was being punished, and pretty much everything else you can possible imagine a precocious, obsessive, fundamentally happy but socially isolated teenager thinking.
It was actually my father who diagnosed me. I thought maybe I had eaten something bad because for a few days I had felt nauseous and dizzy at night, but the moment he suggested it might be anxiety and I went online and looked up the symptoms it was like the world had righted itself and I was hungry and fine. So I went to the doctor and presented my diagnosis and he confirmed it without even hesitating, without even really asking any questions. I don't know if the confidence was mine or his but anyway there we were. We had a label! And maybe it's coincidence but this also seemed to mark the start of the time I began to act a little more freely, a little more recklessly. I started to do things like giving up a perfectly good paid internship and deciding to go to Oxford for four months where I knew no one and where I met a man on my first night who I would, not very long after, move in with.
But then on the other hand I do see (a part of) myself in Egan's story, because, regardless of what successes I have or have not had and what choices I have (or have not) made, I recognise what it is like to be young and to want to be a writer.
There's a point in the interview where Egan is talking about her first apartment in New York: "It was on West 69th Street, right near the park," she says. "But who has time to go to the park? I was frantically trying to figure out how to pay the rent, which I think was $400."
And I thought: well, who does have time to go to the park, after all? I don't know! I live near parks, I live near some of the best parks I have ever seen in my life. On my first day in Oxford I walked around Christ Church Meadow and I thought I would cry from happiness. I remember seeing all these English-looking girls with messy hair and and blue-and-white striped dresses and beautiful pale legs sitting in the grass reading their books and thinking that if I lived here, I would spend all summer in this place. But here I am, living here. I'm not even frantically trying to pay the rent anymore. But whenever it's a sunny weekend and I think maybe we should go to the park I get stressed out about the idea of going to the park, about the idea of going somewhere purely to sit there. Who has time for that? So I don't go and I stay home and write a book instead.