There was a time when I hated writing. Every Saturday when I was 10, my father would open National Geographic, flip to the cover story and make me read the first sentence. “Give me the subject, verb, and object,” he would bark. If I passed this test, the next step was identifying the dependent clause and defining all the vocabulary. He drilled me on every sentence. I don’t think I ever made it past the sixth or seventh paragraph before I was in tears.
In eighth grade, I started a journal. It was purely for recording my life. In my 80-page spiral-bound notebooks, I documented every trivial piece of my day. I’ve heard that writing — of any kind — improves your writing, but for me, that wasn’t true. By junior year of high school, when I had transitioned to Microsoft Word documents, my writing was still horrendous. Here’s the first sentence I wrote electronically, on July 28, 2005: “Nothing doing, hoep [sic] Tim is ok with his mom, and well, I had a great day again, I woke up at 7, went to eat, did all that, and mom gave me a foil wrapped lunch of some rice, and have to live with that as sustenance for today.” My entries were stream-of-consciousness AIM conversations with myself.
At Yale, I realized I was much better at taking tests than writing papers. I didn’t care about English. I took English 114 to fulfill a WR requirement, but never even bought the course book.
And so I majored in Psychology and Economics. I took tests. Crunched numbers. Avoided writing like the plague — until, of course, second semester of junior year, when I realized I needed another WR to gain senior standing. I decided to take English 120. I felt lukewarm about the class until the first essay — and then something clicked. I wrote about encountering an anaconda in Ecuador, but what I planned out as a five-hour assignment turned into 15 hours, then 20. While I was writing, I had my first wormhole experience: I walked into the Berkeley library at 8 p.m., and the next time I looked at the clock, it was 5 a.m. There was an unparalleled afterglow after I finished the essay, as I realized I’d created content entirely my own out of absolutely nothing.
Senior year, I applied to Anne Fadiman’s class with two English 120 essays in hand — and somehow got in. During the class, Anne did what any truly great teacher does: she motivated, encouraged, and most importantly, cared about me. After taking her class I dropped a major, enrolled in Michael Cunningham’s fiction seminar, worked at a local newspaper and started writing a News column. This spring break, I pulled my first real all-nighter — writing a short story that wasn’t part of any assignment. I was being swept up in the undercurrent of an unplanned aspiration.
At the end of freshman year, I remember walking through Old Campus underneath a soft red sky at 3 a.m., wondering if I would ever find my passions. My foray into writing has not only answered that question, but it’s taught me that it’s never too late to discover new ones. My first three years here, I carried out a plan to wall myself off with activities that I enjoyed, to construct a persona I could carry for the rest of my life. Come senior year, I didn’t think it was possible to redefine myself. Now I know it is.
If there’s one message I want to bequeath the underclassmen, it’s this: don’t be content to live out the rest of college complacent with what you already know how to do, in a niche where you think you fit in best. Don’t let habit trap you. Ignore the “shoulds,” like “I should be drinking on a Saturday night,” or “I should major in Economics,” or “I should not be wasting time watching this video of a baby singing ‘I’m Yours’ with a ukulele.” Allow yourself to catch fire.
Seven months ago, I was ready to graduate from Yale. Ready to “make bank,” find a wife, wait for my five-, 10-, 25-, 50-year reunions to reminisce about the opportunities I received at this peerless institution. But now I’m not done learning. I’m not sure how writing fits into my future; I’ll be in the Philippines for a year, and working at Bain for two more. But for now, and for the rest of my life, I’ll keep writing as much as possible. The world, after all, is wide, wide open.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College. This is his final staff column for the News.