5 Essays I've Re-Read Countless Times Throughout My 20s For Career And Creative Advice
If you've read any of my posts here on Bustle Books in the past couple of months, you'll know that I'm turning 30 next year. Though I'm past the stages of the quarter-life crisis, it would be a little weird not to have the milestone on my mind as I adventure through these last few months of my 20s. And with that has come a lot of introspection, a little writing, and some serious rehashing of things both good and bad that have taken place over the last 9+ years — including the art I've consumed that has helped build who I have been and who I will become as I great the next decade. Of course, it's no surprise that the books I have read have been the most formative media in my life. But the pieces I have found myself looking back on the most when it comes to the lessons and inspiration I have cultivated over the last decade, I have found myself focusing in almost entirely on essay collections.
These books, all written by women, have been so many things to me over the last few years. They have been a balm for dreams deferred and broken hearts. They have been laughing out loud on a quiet train after a long day at work. They have been motivation for my career, inspiration for my creativity, lessons about humanity and love and life that I will carry with me, probably for the rest of my life. The five essays below are particular favorites that have helped me immensely in my career, with my work and in living a generally creative life, all from collections I have returned to, and loved, the most throughout this tumultuous and glorious decade. Some have made me laugh, almost all have made me cry, and I hope that they'll become beacons for you, too.
"The Future Has An Ancient Heart" from 'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed
I could make an entire list of essays from Tiny Beautiful Things that have impacted me beyond words. Cheryl Strayed's collection of Dear Sugar columns has been a constant salve for me since I first read it, its meaning always shifting depending on what I'm going through at the time. But one essay that has continually offered me support in my post-college years as I navigate working in an unconventional job sector, often in unconventional roles and with an unconventional schedule — basically anytime the "What am I doing with my life, anyway?" question has rears its ugly head — is "The Future Has An Ancient Heart." In it, Strayed responds to a creative writing teacher hoping for some advice for her students about to enter "the real world."
In one of my favorite passages, Strayed writes:
"You don't have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don't have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don't have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don't have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that's all."
"I Don't Care If You Like It" from 'Bossypants' by Tina Fey
When I first read Tina Fey's Bossypants in 2013 I was fresh out of college and women's issues were becoming ever more important to me. Fey speaks a lot about women's careers and creativity, and fighting to infiltrate the boys' clubs. Let's just say, the concept of the "cool girl" who lets men get away with antiquated patriarchal thoughts and actions under the guise of not being "high maintenance" was a new one, and it was this short essay that first introduced it to me — and changed my view of myself forever. In it, Fey relates a story about Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon, in which Poehler made some sort of gross joke to which Fallon replied "Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it!" Poehler wheeled around on him and said, "I don't f*cking care if you like it."
"With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn't there to be cute. She wasn't there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys' scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not f*cking care if you like it ... I think of this whenever someone says to me, 'Jerry Lewis says women aren't funny,' or 'Christopher Hitchens says women aren't funny,' 'Rick Fenderman says women aren't funny ... Do you have anything to say to that?' Yes. We don't f*cking care if you like it."
"Perfectionism" from 'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott
I have been known to self-identify as a perfectionist (I am a Capricorn after all) but it wasn't until I was well into my 20s that I realized just how limiting — and anxiety enducing — living and creating by that moniker can be. And although I had read Anne Lamott's beloved Bird by Bird years before, it was a reread of one of my favorite chapters from the book, "Perfectionism," that truly drove the message home to me recently. Though Bird by Bird is, for the most part, a writer's manual of sorts, Lamott does not shy away from offering advice that is pertinent to both writing and life. Anytime I need to remind myself that life — and experiencing all of the wonders that come with it — is supposed to be gloriously messy, I head back to this quote, in which Lamott writes:
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
"Motives" from 'Big Magic' by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you have ever created anything, you have probably fallen into the trap that this passage in Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic keeps reminding me to get out of: Your art doesn't have to be world-changing, life-affirming or any combination of the two. It just, simply, has to make you happy and creatively fulfilled. This simple bit of invaluable advice has followed me ever since I read Gilbert's creative manifesto (along with, well, pretty much every page of it) and I think about it every time I falter in my writing or any other project — turning even the hardest creative days into romps through whatever words and work makes me feel most alive that day.
"Oh, and here's another thing: You are not required to save the world with your creativity. Your art not only doesn't have to be original, in other words; it also doesn't have to be important ... Your own reasons to create are reason enough. Merely by pursuing what you love, you may inadvertently end up helping us plenty. Do whatever brings you life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself."
"I Hate My Purse" from 'The Most of Nora Ephron' by Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron is, without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite writers. Her work, from her films to her essay collections, have been an inspiring constant in my adult life and her essay "I Hate My Purse" is no different. On the surface, this essay is all about purses and how much Ephron abhors having to carry one. But underneath all of the hilarious (and relatable, even if you, like me, admit to loving a good handbag) purse-talk is the universal truth that we all wish we could live up to the societal ideal of "having it all together" — though in truth, no woman could ever measure up to the ideal. The message here is that we need to find what makes us feel put-together, what makes us feel powerful, and what makes us feel happy, no matter what someone else is doing — and that most definitely includes everything from our careers to our relationships to, yes, our purses.
"I came back to New York an bought myself a purse. Well it's not a purse exactly; it's a bag. It's definitely the best bag I've ever owned. On it is the image of a New York City Metrocard ... so it matches nothing at all and therefore, on a deep level, matches everything. It's equally unattractive in all seasons of the year. It cost next to nothing , and I will never have to replace it because it seems to be completely indestructible. What's more, never having been in style, it can never go out of style ... And everywhere I go people say to me, I love that bag. Where did you get that bag? ... For all I know they've all gone off and bought one. Or else they haven't. It doesn't matter. I'm very happy."