It was my first time facing a group of millennials and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was serving as a panelist at the Indiana University Media School Career Day. As an alumna with a journalism degree from IU, I was there to talk about writing careers.
How would I relate to a generation steeped in technology and global influences when my college memories included snail mail, interviews conducted on landlines, an electric typewriter, and learning to “burn” and “dodge” photos in a darkroom?
I did my best to hide my dinosaur scales as the students wowed me with their intelligence, accomplishments, and vision. They asked questions about securing internships and shared their worries over not having a job seven months before graduation.
No matter what I answered, what I hoped to convey was: Relax. It will be okay. Really.
I wanted to tell them this story: I took a class in college called magazine feature writing. The instructor’s first name was Barth; he had a prestigious list of national bylines and was flamboyant, arrogant, brilliant, and brutal. In this class there was no collegial sharing of clever ideas and well-turned phrases, only us students cowering before the demigod from New York City who was willing to slum with us for a semester. One assignment was to write a feature on a local personality or celebrity. I don’t remember what descriptions I used, but I’ll never forget the slash of purple marker across the page and, in the margin, the words UGH! PURPLE PROSE. THIS MAKES ME SICK!
Needless to say, I was scared to death of him and wanted more than anything to make him like me. So, on the famous night in 1987 when Bobby Knight led the Hoosiers to their fifth NCAA Championship, I was on the second floor of the journalism building, hunched over my typewriter, working on an article that was due the following day while, outside the window, throngs of joyous students filled the streets and splashed naked in the fountain.
I was so caught up in what I “should” be doing that I missed a moment in history. I have never lived that down and will likely be teased about it for the next 30 years.
But I didn’t share that story during career day because I didn’t think of it until later. I was too busy engaging with and being dazzled by the students. Which sort of makes my point:
Live first. Then write.
In my upcoming memoir, I share a scene with my therapist, who said to me, “You like to have a sort of cognitive map in order to analyze and find answers. That’s a good tool for a writer. But you move into labeling so quickly that you don’t feel the emotion. As soon as you label an experience, you stop having it.”
These are wise words that don’t apply just to writers. We can all learn to relax into the moment, to trust the process, to choose experiences that don’t just look good to others but actually make us happy.
So the next time I’m talking to Millennials, I want to remember to tell them—and you—that the jobs, the learning, the celebrations all come in time.
Be here now and your stories will reveal themselves. Maybe even in purple prose, which is ok, too. (No matter what Barth thinks.)