When I was 19 and applying to graduate schools, I thought I knew everything. While I’d always loved writing, law school seemed the most appealing thing to do with the next three years of my life, armed with a political science degree and what I thought were rock-solid convictions. Nevermind that I knew very little about the law.
At the ripe age of 20 I arrived in Greenwich Village to attend NYU Law School, and promptly found out that even though I’d done pretty well in college, save for a very up and down pass-fail astronomy class, law school was, well, hard. Impossible, even. It was unlike any other kind of education I’d had before and when faced with that challenge, I reacted by running away. Not literally, but I was just discovering the heady freedom of living alone in a big city, not one attached to a big city whose public transportation stopped running at midnight. I could walk to Brownies (RIP) to see Elliott Smith (RIP). I could wear my Meow Mix (RIP) t-shirt proclaiming “Don’t Fuck With the Ladies.” I could do all sorts of things that had nothing to do with going to law school or the difficulty facing me there.
I started to slide by, not going to classes when I hadn’t read the reading assignments, telling myself I’d “make up for it later.” Except later was always filled with concerts or other reading that felt more urgent. I was discovering who I was in a way I hadn’t been able to do within the confines of my admittedly big college town (Berkeley, California), and New York City had so many more exciting things to do than labor over information that seemed to go in one ear and out the other.
I wound up falling into credit card debt because I was buying so many CDs, familiarizing myself with the entire Kill Rock Stars and other indie band catalogs. But that is not the part I regret; making friends with and becoming fans of musicians like Mary Lou Lord and Elizabeth Elmore of Sarge and The Reputation, and thus becoming friends of their fans, was extremely important to me. I was shirking my studying but I was also building the foundation for the life I would later want to live; I named my 2010 erotica anthology Fast Girls after the Sarge song of the same name, and was granted the right to use the song in the book trailer (you can watch it here).
But the part I do regret, and think about every time I log in to Sallie Mae’s website, is that I never paused long enough to allow myself the room to truly grasp that I could exit gracefully, and to the tune of much less than the eventual $150,000 (approximately) tuition and board, plus interest, that I will wind up paying, or just get through it. I chose to leave after having what I’d consider a nervous breakdown after three years with most of my credits, but no degree. I have until 2033 to pay off those loans, and by my estimations will have racked up between $250,000 and $300,000 for a degree I do not have. Or I should have toughed it out, bucked up, even if I knew I didn’t want to take the bar, even if I got Cs, even if the only class I really liked was intellectual property, where we learned about things like negotiating how many seconds’ worth of credit a screenwriter gets on film.
Now every single time I meet a lawyer, or pick up a book by a former lawyer or law school graduate (they are omnipresent), I feel like a failure. I also can’t help but think that by leaving and never returning, I have set a poor precedent (legal term!) for myself of quitting being the easy way out. It’s not, and it never truly is. That’s not to say I wish I were a lawyer; as much as I envy my lawyer friends’ salaries, I love the fact that I don’t have to wear a suit, don’t have to watch what I say, and can openly express my thoughts and feelings. I’ve had to carve out a career and learn things like how to run a reading series by doing them. There is no grad school for becoming an adult magazine editor/sex and erotica writer/cupcake blogger or whatever it is that I currently do. Still, though, not having that degree will always haunt me. I can’t shake the notion that anyone with a graduate degree is somehow smarter or better equipped to take on the world.
So if you learn anything from my story, it’s that: a) if you want to go to law school, make sure you know what you’re signing up for and b) if you’re in graduate school or on a career path that is clearly not a good fit, get out while you can. And you always can, even if it doesn’t feel like you have any other options. You always have options; sometimes you just have to make them.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and reading series host. She has edited over 38 anthologies, including Surrender, Gotta Have It, Fast Girls and Orgasmic, and offers up daily food porn at Cupcakes Take the Cake.