The summer of 2009, I remember sitting at home, in the overly chaotic bedroom of a teenage girl, eating a brand of potato chips that have since been taken off the shelves. I sat with an outdated computer open to a blank Word page and the newest YA book in my lap.
To be honest, I truly thought in that moment that I was destined to work tirelessly and brilliantly in the creative industry. Maybe I would write books. I figured I could pump new novels out at the speed of a T shirt cannon. I also went through options like music producer (which I laugh at now), fashion designer and traveling photographer (not knowing just how popular the job would be to my future hipster high school friends). All in all, I just wanted something creative.
Thirteen-year-old me thought staying up late to finish the third book in a series was an identity trait. The same goes for writing bullet journals and getting, admittedly unnecessary, study groups together for high school finals.. Most everything I did was out of excitement and curiosity.
And then I went to college.
As someone who is obsessed with pop culture, I prepared for college with episodes of Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl. As cheesy as those later seasons might have been, as a first-generation student, they were what I had to base my college assumptions on.
My college expectations were clouded with illusions of daily coffee house trips, elite internships, oversized sweaters and perfectly timed rainfall, and writing assignments that almost always led to work I would publish later on.
Unfortunately for me, and a lot of college students who were creatives, academia drained me so much so, that I began to work robotically and without motivation.
Prompts and deadlines made me accountable, but not to myself.
Deadlines are, unfortunately and sometimes thankfully, just an inherent part of my adulthood at this point. But while I was in college, these markers in time sparked the beginning of my imposter syndrome.
I felt like I didn’t belong, as I rushed at the last minute to finish writing and pull all-nighters to produce work I never wanted to look at again. I was a writer who feared writing. I needed to know that I wasn’t just churning out work to meet an abstract goal. I needed to know that I wasn’t phoning it in.
So, I got Laura Dave’s book Hello Sunshine to both incite my creativity, but also combat my feelings of not belonging and simply writing for a prompt. I had to reclaim the concept of deadlines for my own personal work. As I created, I learned to change my definitions. Deadlines were now goals, and they were just for me.
Seasonal depression is definitely real, and living in a small college town isn’t glamorous.
When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, one of our few small towns in the mountains, I imagined crisp and romantic autumns filled with study dates and chai teas. I envisioned how I would watch the snow fall from my dorm room window and write stories that others would feel a warmth from.
But in reality, I got severe seasonal depression. The feeling is reminiscent to a sense of falling and also entrapment. I struggled to leave my room, create anything original, and I didn’t feel as though my mood was deserving of something special or exciting. And in order to change, I needed to create a space that felt, not like home, but like my new creative hideaway.
I know, thanks to Marie Kondo, not to just have stuff, but I needed to surround myself with things I loved and things that inspired me. I then set goals for myself. Whether it was through the Calm app to meditate for small moments of happiness, or plan to study and write in a different coffee shop every week, I needed to not just create a space of joy, but also force myself out of it, too.
The concept of actively living in joyful spaces might seem impossible or overwhelming to us, especially in college. Because there are some many instances in which we are asked (or demanded) to “grow where we are planted,” but I had to learn how to bring growth to me and me to it.
When competition did nothing but cause overthinking, I had to walk away.
One thing college does very well, is making each person feel as though the person to their right, left, front, back, those that came before and those who will come after, are all vying for your one spot. And it hurts.
Sometimes I felt expendable. I worried that I was learning the exact same material as thousands of others and after four years, I would come out with little value to offer. I once had a professor go so far as to call out my preferred genre of writing as a cop out, and encourage the class to write only elite, inaccessible writing. And for that, I had to walk away. I needed to find the right mentor, the ideal workshop, and experiment with my ability to leave.
I had to be honest with myself, and college sometimes didn’t foster the ability to do so. When I genuinely succeeded, sometimes those accomplishments were looked at as simply satisfactory. When I failed, I wanted to crawl back into my overpriced apartment and never go back. And there were few times people noticed.
But despite the fear of blending into oblivion and losing my creative spark, I had to view college as an extension of my identity, but not the whole of it. When we allow ourselves to get consumed by our environments, especially education, we subconsciously mold and adapt to rules that don’t always work for our best selves.
Being less of myself was not the answer to succeed in college. And I had to be willing to feel rejection, in order to hold onto the creative parts of me that had once thrived.
I know for many creatives, college just isn’t the right path for them. For me, I truly worried that may have been the case, but I feared I would disappoint myself and so many others if I chose to leave. So, I continued to persevere in an environment that felt more conflicting than welcoming.
And, honestly, I am so thankful I stayed.
Because here is what I took for granted: College tested the limits of my creativity in ways I never could independently. For those of you out there struggling with emanating your strong, joyful, and creative spirit, know that you are not alone in your doubts. Sometimes, we have to discipline ourselves in the art of writing for other audiences, adhering the prompts that feel foreign, and ultimately force us to constantly produce.
Without college, the books I have planned out in my head would always stay as late-night thoughts. My writing would remain private and my ability to collaborate with other creatives wouldn’t really exist.
So, I encourage the artists, musicians, writers, and designers out there to push through. As long as you mentally and physically can, I urge you to find your joy, invent your new creative spaces, and learn from failure, just like me.