“It’s not an old-fashioned if you leave out the bitters.”
As a child, I was one of those irritating “why?” types – shadowing my parents, siblings, teachers, even strangers, asking, “Why? But why? But why though?” until I’d exhausted everyone’s patience without satisfying my need for new knowledge. In a bid to gain some peace, mum taught me to read, stoking the flames of my curiosity, and, in turn, providing answers to a lot of questions while initiating new ones.
So began my love of literature. There are thousands of ways to untangle a thought and I’m unfailingly amazed by the ways in which one can articulate the nuances of the human experience with a sequence of words on a page. How is it that a sentence – written by a stranger, in another country in another world – can perfectly express a feeling I had yesterday?
I applied to study English Lit at six of the top UK universities, accepting an offer from St. Andrews (A-Level results pending). It wasn’t to be. In spite of doing well in my intended subject, I failed to achieve the straight As they required and, rather than take a step back to consider my options, I charged straight through the first door that was opened – to study maths and chemistry instead. (They needed girls.)
I liked sciences enough to choose them once they ceased to be obligatory, but they never came naturally. I had to work hard and, being in my early twenties in a tiny town with my new favorite people, lab analysis came second to the myriad of distractions. I envied the arts students and, in spite of four years in a lab coat, I knew where my loyalties lay. I picked my friends’ literary brains, bought the books they discussed and attempted to study vicariously. I pursued editorial internships and eventually landed a job as digital beauty editor, but I still craved a literary outlet.
It wasn’t enough for me to understand a plot or feel a closeness to a character. I wanted to examine the mechanics of the books I raced through; pick apart their sentences and scrutinize their facets. I became less concerned with “what is it about?” and more preoccupied with “what does it mean?,” which is why – aged almost 27 – I signed up for a part-time, undergraduate degree in English Literature online.
It was like waking my brain from a self-induced coma, numbed by years of YouTube videos and trivia. I had to bend my whole being to a new – or rather, forgotten – set of rules: deadlines and much-resented early-morning weekend wake-ups for tutorials. I had to re-learn how to accept praise, act on instruction, enjoy success and deal with disappointment. I was taught to appraise literary appraisals, dissect the thoughts of others in a very ‘meta’ chain of criticism, distill my own opinion from a cocktail of contradictory theories, and take time to really think about what I think. I still have doubts, of course, but studying has reaffirmed my self-belief. I feel much braver and have courage to be “wrong,” in life, as well as in school, without as much fear of the consequences.
Education can teach us just as much about ourselves as it can any topic. It has become so much more than a series of tedious hoops to be jumped through or a means to an end. I’m learning that the more I have to do, the more I can achieve – it’s a matter of believing ‘I can do this’ from the outset, and pushing myself to accomplish the goals that seem daunting at first. I’m now starting my penultimate module – it’s taken four years and been tough at times, but I’ve made it and learned that the first step is often the hardest. I’ve also proven a long-held belief that I thrive under pressure. However noble my intentions, I seem incapable of completing an essay more than three minutes before it is due. It’s far from ideal, but it’s the way I operate. I think I need the heat to get the mental sparks flying.
More than anything, the act of studying gives me an excuse to be alone; an opportunity to zone out from the city chaos and allow myself to be absorbed by something other than the daily grind. Which is not to diminish the effort it takes to get essays completed. It’s a struggle to juggle both work and degree while maintaining some semblance of social life, but it’s remarkably fulfilling to do something so selfish in a time when “me time” is so rare.
So, to anybody hesitant about taking the plunge, I say ‘dive in’. It’s true that the busier you are, the more you achieve. You’ll make time for the things that matter and will very quickly realize that the things you do purely “for you” bring the most satisfaction.
Verity Douglas is a copywriter living in London, you can find her on Instagram @veritydouglas.