Let’s talk about college. There’s a lot of pressure in life to attend college, especially if you do well in school. People say that you don’t need to study creative writing to be an author, but most of the authors I interact with do have a degree in something, or are studying to get one. I’m always incredibly impressed when someone mentions that they have a degree in something. But I also always feel a bit guilty and uncomfortable. Everyone around me seems to be this accomplished graduate, and here I am, a college drop-out. Is there something wrong with me that I couldn’t finish university? Am I not very smart? Am I lazy, or pathetic? It’s taken me a long time to convince myself that those things aren’t true. There are a lot of factors that contributed to me not enjoying or completing college. It wasn’t for me, and at the end of the day, I have to allow myself to believe that that’s okay. That it doesn’t make me any less important or intelligent. But sometimes it can be hard.
I always expected I would go to college or university. It wasn’t really a question, just something that was in my future. I assume it’s this way for most kids who do fairly well in school. I was smart, I liked reading and writing, I wanted to be an author, but I’d been told from every angle that that wasn’t a valid career goal. I knew I liked writing though, so an English degree seemed like the next logical step for me after graduating.
I was offered a scholarship for the first year of university in my hometown, but I declined it against the wishes of my parents, in favour of moving to a different town and staying with an aunt and uncle while I attended college there. At the time I was closeted, and terrified that my family would find out that I was queer and punish me. I lived in a constant state of stress and terror. I still have anxiety talking about my queerness because I was so terrified that someone might find out. Moving away seemed like a way to relieve stress and escape. Unfortunately, living with my aunt and uncle was even worse, with my aunt becoming extremely controlling and manipulative. Eventually I had no choice but to get away. I rented a basement suite with my partner and got out of there.
Of course then I was suddenly thrust into trying to learn how to care for myself, and save up enough to pay for school, all while knowing that if I somehow ended up with not enough money, I would either be out on the street or have to go back to my family. The idea of having to do so still fills me with incredibly anxiety. So I started working 24-30 hours a week, while still attending school in the next town over, carpooling in every morning and spending 8 hours a day on campus.
If you went to university and had someone paying your tuition and/or living expenses during, I can’t really ask you to understand how incredibly physically and emotionally draining it can be trying to support yourself while also putting yourself through school. You work long hours for minimal pay, only to turn around and give all that money away again so that you can do even more work for free. Maybe some people who are stronger mentally than me might have been able to do it, but I don’t handle stress well. Even now, I have to very carefully limit how much I do, so that I don’t burn out and fall into a dark chasm of depression and exhaustion that is incredibly hard to drag myself out of.
University for me was just one long haze of dark, early mornings, constantly feeling sick to my stomach, trying to force myself to be enthusiastic about the subject matter when all I could think about was how cold and sick I felt, and how much I wanted to sleep forever. I didn’t eat enough, usually just heating up a frozen lunch halfway through the day and then falling into bed when I got home without bothering to cook anything. One of the things my abusive aunt had impressed into me was that it was bad to spend too much money on food, and that buying food from a restaurant, or basically eating anything besides what she chose to feed me was bad. It took me years to get over that and allow myself to spend enough money on food to keep myself properly functioning. Sometimes I had to take the greyhound home and would walk half an hour (in the dark and cold in winter) to the station and stand there in the cold outside the closed station waiting for the bus that was often extremely late. I also often worked late hours at work and had to walk about an hour to get home afterwards, again in the cold. (I know, I sound whiny, but my point isn’t really about how horrible it was so much as how physically exhausting it was, and physical exhaustion for me, is what makes me unable to fight depression.)
In the middle of all this, out of desperation and a need to escape our reality, my partner and I started telling each other stories. When we should have been working on our school work, we hid ourselves away in one of the few pitiful lounge areas at our small community-college-turned-university and told each other sexy, fun stories about magical people and worlds. One of those stories was what would become The Fairy Gift. I told it quickly over a couple of days, and liked it so much that I decided to write an outline of the plot. Then, on a whim, I started writing it. I hadn’t written anything in years, too busy with work, too stressed to imagine anything. But I was inspired. I wrote the Fairy Gift, and then I kept writing, more cute stories, with fairies and magic and sex. They kept me going.
Then, out of sheer dumb luck, I found myself redirected from deviantart to a yaoi website (yaoifix, I think?) and saw an advertisement for Less Than Three Press, and that they were accepting submissions. I clicked through and looked at a few of their books, and thought that The Fairy Gift seemed perfect for them. I decided why not and submitted a horribly edited draft, but they must have seen something they liked in it, because it was accepted for publication. So cool! I was damn excited and even more damn skeptical. I’d had a friend who submitted a piece of poetry for some kind of publication that turned out to be a scam, and I was terrified that this was something similar. I also at the time had this idea that publication was something that only happened to one author in a million and, as I said, I didn’t believe that it was a real career goal. I didn’t realise that I’d been lucky enough to stumble into the publishing revolution that is romance ebooks. So I was skeptical up until the moment I received my first paycheck. Then everything changed for me.
I realised that this was something that I could do and make money off of. It was a real career goal. Suddenly my priorities shifted away from school, away from the dream of a degree with which I would get some nebulous English-related job that I didn’t really want. I wanted to keep writing. I wanted to publish more books. I needed to make writing my priority. I was slowly drowning in schoolwork, losing weight and falling into a depression that it’s taken me years to crawl out of. I ended up dropping out of two of my classes, and barely passing the other two. That summer I came out to my family, over the safety of the internet, and felt a huge weight lifted off me. I was still writing, and I decided to take a “semester off” school.
I haven’t gone back yet.
And I’m better now. Better than I have been for years. School didn’t work for me. Certainly I had the triple handicap of being poor, queer and mentally ill. But also (and it’s incredibly hard for me to say this, because it’s usually such a source of pride for an intellectual) I’m just not in love with learning. I’m in love with creating, and often learning is an important part of that, but it’s not the end goal. I spent so many years as a pretentious asshole, thinking I was better than everyone because I loved to read and was “going places,” and there’s an incredibly strong culture of superiority amongst students and intellectuals that encourages this. But for me it’s really freeing to finally be able to say this: I’m happy working in customer service. I’m satisfied emotionally with a simple life and a non-prestigious job. I’m not strong enough emotionally to push myself to my limits like some people are. I just want to live and support myself, and write and create worlds. Probably I’ll never write a great, thought-provoking classic. But I want to write stories that make people happy, and maybe one day I’ll be able to do it full-time.
And I want to say this to other young people who might be struggling with school: It’s okay. It’s okay if it’s not for you. Everyone might be saying this is what you have to do, but that doesn’t mean it is. If you’re truly happy learning, then that’s wonderful. If you hate it, but you really want that degree and that job, then keep going. But if you can feel yourself dying inside with every essay you write, if you feel like this thing is sucking away your life, then you have permission to stop. If you need to stop to preserve yourself, and your mental well-being, then stop. You can always go back, if you want to. Maybe you’ll want to, and maybe you won’t. If you’re happiest with a simple, low-stress minimum wage job, then there’s no shame in that. If you’re a writer, and you’re doing this because you feel like you’ll never be a great author if you don’t, please know that that’s not true. College isn’t everything. You can still be an amazing, smart, happy person without a college degree. I know I am.
This is long and dense, and I don’t know if anyone will read it. But I do think it’s important, so I’m going to post it anyway. Love you all, and if you read this far, thank you for reading! In thanks, have an advertisement for my book, and then a picture of my cat.
Three years ago, Cohen Brandwein was “Ireland’s Favorite Daughter”, a popular teenage author and internet celebrity. But ever since he came out publicly as trans, the media’s treatment of him has been less than golden, and these days, Cohen is desperate for escape.
When he inherits an old house in the country, Cohen sees it as a perfect opportunity to escape the press and work on his new book. What he doesn’t count on is becoming embroiled in a small town murder mystery and falling for the primary suspect, a man whose reality makes Cohen’s fantasy books seem like child’s play…
Genre: Paranormal, Fantasy, Trans, M/M
6 thoughts on “Dropping Out”
I never went to college.
The reasons are complicated. I was a great student, but around 16 or 17 I started to lose focus. I had no direction on what I wanted to do with my life. Add to that financial woes and blackmail from my family (mom didn’t like my now-husband, and told me she would pay for college only if I broke up with him) plus depression, ostracization and severe bullying at school, and I was done at 18. I was so burned out when I left that it’s taken years to heal. Never applied for university/college, never went. Got straight into the job market, where I’ve stayed as an underpaid overachiever ever since.
There are days when I really resent not going, usually when I can’t seem to find a job that works out for me, or when the job is too physical/long hours for my body. Or when I have no money. But when I look at it realistically, college never would have worked out for me. Education is an incredibly social experience at that stage, and I’m not cut out for prolonged social interaction. I would have been isolated, possibly bullied, and eventually dropped out due to depression. With additional debt.
It is tough in our profession as authors. Some days it seems like they all have degrees and/or partners who can financially support them staying at home. Neither of those have happened for me. I work 40 hour weeks, sometimes longer, while fitting in writing work around everything else. I’m lucky that I have a patient spouse who puts up with a lot of crap. It does help. Being published by LT3 also helped my confidence a lot, and showed others with doubts that being an author is a Real Thing and not just a hobby.
People can judge me on that missing piece of paper if they want. There are many jobs I can never get because of it. But I know that I’m just as intelligent as any college graduate, and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it still impresses laymen at interviews when you say “I’m a published author”.
Thanks for sharing! Sounds like we’re very similar. Having a low-paying, physically demanding job is definitely one of the biggest cons to not getting a college degree. Unfortunately it’s just not possible for all of us. I still live in hope that I’ll one day write a best-seller and be able to retire early though. :3
Thanks for this post, J.K.!
I am currently in college. (Or university college, as it’s called here. Isn’t a proper university, but the English description says it’s a university college. School systems are so different from country to country I try not to think of it.) It’s a struggle, as I’m struggling with mental illness too. Just diagnosed with bipolar. I mostly have depression which makes everything hard, even the classes I like and am interested in. Even harder is the up-periods, the hypomania, when I can suddenly decide to switch to something else entirely. I haven’t ruined my degree yet though, so I guess that counts as a blessing. I only have one semester left of my BA degree, and I hope to make it. Though it’s a struggle and I doubt myself countlessly.
I’ve worked jobs that haven’t made me happy. Before I started studying English Language and Literature. First I was a hairdresser trainee, and I hated it. I worked in a video-rental shop. Hated that too. Though this last summer I was so irritable I hated everything. I worked in a supermarket (grocery shop?). Definitely hated that. Well, the work in itself is okay, it’s just the customers that get to me. And certain coworkers. I get irritable, angry, hate everything. Last year I worked as a waitress and bartender, and in my hypomania I decided it was awesome and perfect and that I was going to quit school to continue working there. Thankfully I came back down before I ruined everything, and looking back now, that job is a nightmare too.
I feel like I need a degree to get a job that I can stomach. I want an office-job, somewhere that is 8-4 or 9-5. I need routines, not shift-work. Somewhere where I don’t have to face customers every single day and be smiling and welcoming and “customer-friendly”. And as I’ve experienced so far, I can’t get an office-job without a degree. I want to work in publishing, as an editor or something. So I’m doing this, even though it’s hard and I freak out constantly about all the work and essays, and I hope that once I’ve finished the spring semester I can get a job more to my liking.
I’m so happy to hear you’ve found a job you like. Nothing’s more important than liking your job. It doesn’t matter how much it pays, as long as you can live from it and that you like it. After working all those jobs I’ve hated, all I want is something I like. Without that, work is impossible, at least for me.
I’ve considered dropping out. Just last week, for example, but I also don’t want to go back working in a shop. And I do only have one semester left, with less classes and less work than this semester has been. So I’m going to finish, the best that I can.
Oh wow, this turned long. Sorry for all the rambling. I just really got a lot of feels reading your blog post. ^_^
Hi TT! It’s really amazing that you’ve managed to get this far with so many difficulties thrown at you. I really hope you’ll be able to find a job that works for you. Hopefully your next semester goes well and you can put the stress of school behind you forever. 🙂 Good luck!
As for my job, it’s not so much something that I love as something that I can stand, haha. I’ve accepted that I’m not one of those people who find a job they love and “never work a day in your life” as the saying goes. As if that ever happens to anyone. But I’m happy just being able to go to work, put in the hours and then come home and do what I love. And I get paid for writing too, which is pretty awesome.
I went to university and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the learning process, and I enjoyed my peer’s thoughts and comments on our subject matter.
But a university education has done literally nothing for me in terms of getting a better job, or finding a job suited to me. I liked the people that I spent time with in university, and I loved reading and discussing the things we read. But it didn’t help me in my writing career at all.
In the end, my writing got better because I practiced writing, not because I went to university. It got better because I showed my writing to other writers and got feedback. And I kept writing, and revising, and editing, and somehow the end product ended up being publishable.
Not only that, but the jobs you can get with a uni education are not that much better paying for our generation, and are just as soul-sucking as the ones you can get as a non-grad.
So good on you for deciding not to do something that made you unhappy and depressed, not to mention stressed out. That’s why I quit my job as a marketer, even though it was giving me good work experience. Because it was just awful.
People too often stay in positions that make them miserable because they feel like it’s what they should be doing. I think it’s very admirable to tell society to bugger off and do what you like because it makes you happier in the long run.
Aw, thanks hun! I wish society would really bugger off some days, haha. Interestingly I do think that university did help me with my writing to an extent, but there was sort of a point of diminishing returns, especially when it came to the higher level courses,and in the end, it wasn’t worth the stress. I try to keep myself writing and reading and engaged anyway, but I don’t think the pressure of a classroom setting agreed with me. Maybe if I had the chance to go back to school while not working or having any other outside stress, it might work better but … eh, I still don’t know.
Anyway, I hope your next endeavor works out for you better than your last job. If worst comes to worst , you can always come crash on our couch!