man sitting on grass by the cliff

This Is What Age Must Learn About (Personal Essay)

This is what youth must figure out:
Girls, love, and living.
The having, the not having,
The spending and giving,
And the melancholy time of not knowing.

This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going,
The loving and leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.

E.B. White

I remember what it was like to be 18. 

That is very different from remembering “being 18,” which, for most people, is one part nostalgia – a luxury afforded by time – and two parts cringe. 

Generation gaps don’t come from some mysterious force that shapes each new cohort of 18-year-olds into a species completely alien to those old enough to be their parents. They expand as a result of the amnesia that somehow engulfs us somewhere between 18 and the threshold of actual adulthood. Somewhere after the point where we have embraced E.B. White’s “unbearable knowing and knowing” and started to come to terms with inevitability, with mortality, with years that fly by and bills that pile up, we forget — or pretend to forget — what it is like to be 18.

Somehow, this amnesiac force of nature missed me. It was another train I didn’t bother to run for, another obligation I thought pointless, another off-ramp that I ignored while distracted by the sun setting on the horizon.

I remember what it was like to be 18. If I did not, I don’t think I would be able to write, let alone help young writers figure out how to write. 

I can write that now because I know that I couldn’t when I was 18, despite the essays that piled up in notebooks; the love letters sent, received, and cherished; and the reams of objectively bad poetry: the pining and meandering of a young heart that ached to live a life that might be remembered.

This is not, as I said, nostalgia. I try to minimize whatever illusions I have about myself — in whatever vintage — to the ones that are necessary for survival. I am far kinder to my students’ writing than I am to mine. Although none of them want to be writers, the Common Application Personal Statement and college supplemental essays force them to become writers, at least for as long as it takes to get through the application cycle. Some of them resent it. Some of them hate reading; hate writing, but still spend hours reading and writing on Discord. As soon as they’re confronted with a blank page offering no immediate validation, however, they go blank… then reopen Discord, seeking the safety of camaraderie, familiarity, and warmth that other people’s words provide.

I remember how stuck I felt every time I was confronted with a 3-hole piece of ruled paper; how well the strict lines lent themselves to caricatures, to band names, to everything but what is most vital to a writer: words that form sentences, sentences that articulate ideas, or pining, or meanderings. I can feel amnesia graze me whenever my students say that they have no ideas, but then I remember what it was like to be 18: the melancholy time of not knowing that ceded to other certainties.

That, too, has become part of my adult life; my unbearable knowing and knowing. Any regrets have disappeared with the ignored off-ramps in the rearview mirror: a far more gentle amnesia that has afforded me the ability to write what I couldn’t at 18 because my experiences at that point had yet to crystallize into knowing.

People say that youth is wasted on the young, but behind that pithy cynical cliché, they are mourning the lives they didn’t live. I never had that problem. I remember what it was like to be 18 because I lived the life I wanted, rather than the one my teachers seemed to think I should live. Even if I didn’t know it at the time, I lived that life just like I live this one: on my own terms, watching new stars rising on the horizon, remembering, knowing and knowing.

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