No one could have accused me of being aimless during my college years. On the contrary: I had a strong sense of where I was going and what I wanted to achieve. I knew I wanted to be a journalist and writer, work for a magazine, maybe someday try to publish my fiction. I applied to a long list of journalism jobs, fellowships, and internships during my senior year, confident that I knew where I was going. When I got a mild brain injury, everything came crashing down. Suddenly, I couldn’t really read, write, or make plans for the future. Though I initially had a hard time accepting the chaos, I think it has done me a lot of good. (I insist on silver linings!)
Life gets chaotic for everyone when graduation creeps up. Suddenly, we’re expected to make things happen, to put our dreams and hopes into action. But practical concerns color our choices. Especially as women, we are constantly being told that there is a timeline that we have to stick to: marriage, babies, and all that by age 30 — while also somehow finding the time to figure out what we’re passionate about and then gain a foothold in that field.
But what if we let go of the roadmap? I haven’t stopped being a chronic over-worrier, but I know now that no matter how much I want something, life may just have different plans in store for me — and that’s OK. The books that have helped this lesson sink in center on the messy lives of complicated women:
In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe
Roiphe’s striking essay collection touches upon knotty subjects like divorce, being a single mother, women’s writing, and media depictions of Hillary Clinton. In examining the rigid limitations societal expectations impose on women’s lives, Roiphe shares her own quote unquote unconventional life choices. Strikingly observed and a real joy to read, In Praise of Messy Lives will make you honor, not berate, your own messes.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
It doesn’t get much heavier than a novel about a girl contemplating suicide. When Ruth, a novelist, finds Nao’s diary washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, she becomes enthralled by the 16-year-old’s life. Nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Ozeki’s novel examines the importance of being, of feeling alive in the present moment.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
At this point, I’m pretty convinced that there’s no one wiser than Cheryl Strayed. I’m unashamedly obsessed with her Dear Sugar column in both Tiny Beautiful Things and her new podcast featuring Steve Almond. Following her mother’s death, Strayed went off the rails, one bad decisions after another, a lost period. In Wild, Strayed writes about how her gritty, lonely Pacific Crest Trail hike helped her find her way back to who she wanted to be.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
This funnywoman will make you want to make all the wrong turns — if only to use them as fodder for a future memoir. Bosswoman Fey has certainly gotten what she’s wanted out of life, but it’s been an uphill struggle and she’s not afraid to write about her moments of doubt — with wit, elegance, and her trademark charming self-deprecation. The later chapters of her memoir describe Fey’s attempts to balance her family life and demanding work schedule and all the unglamorous maneuvers that make up this balancing act.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
This stunningly written YA novel features twin siblings Jude and Noah. Noah narrates their early teens, in which he, the sensitive brooding artist, is in awe of his outgoing and popular twin. The later chapters belong to Jude, depicting the striking role reversal the twins undergo following their mother’s tragic death: Noah becomes a popular star athlete while Jude crawls into herself. The twins finally resolve the tension festering in their lives when they find a way to be straight with each other and confront the trauma that clouds their past.
You Get So Alone At Times That it Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski
This frank, harrowing collection centers on the poet’s youth, his deeply felt regrets and pains. “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” Wise words from the famously disquieting writer.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This dazzling novel probes the deep psychological scars created by others’ nagging expectations. When golden child Lydia disappears, the Lee family is left grappling with what seem like unanswerable questions, mainly: could the popular A-student have taken her own life? As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear to the Lees how hard Lydia pretended to be something she wasn’t to make everyone else happy. While cloaked in grief, this revelation finally allows the family to be more honest with each other and themselves. A thoughtful, heartbreaking novel.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking about the year following her husband’s death. To be read in small doses, this sad, wise book underscores the importance of the present moment.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Georgie McCool’s career as a TV writer is on fire: she’s writing her own show and making a name for herself in the industry. However, when her husband Neal takes off with the kids to spend Christmas in Omaha with his family — and without Georgie — she starts to reexamine her life choices. With the help of a magical phone that allows her to speak to past Neal (it sounds like a clunky plot device, but Rowell makes it work), Georgie rediscovers why she fell in love with Neal — and why, sometimes, it’s OK to put your family and loved ones above what you once deemed your most important dreams.