Two weeks of class remain until The End for me—after a slew of final papers and the stupid swimming test, which I’ve been pushing off until the last possible moment, I will be done. Graduated. Equipped for the imminent future with a shiny diploma in hand and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in the City of New York. Several underclassmen friends have begun asking me for advice re: their own futures—most of them have asked me how to properly soul-search in the nebulous mass that is the future and create a sense of immediacy and certainty. They want the what-where-how-when-whys, the “who am I?”s, and most importantly, the “who will I be?”s. I’ve been asking myself the exact same questions in the past couple of weeks. The truth is that I don’t have answers for them. I don’t know what or where I am going to be in two months, two years; I don’t have an idea of home or away—how can I even begin to deliver any bits of certainty to anyone else?
In fact, the question of “who am I?” (and possession, identity, selfhood, whatever) has always been a difficult concept for me to reckon with. In sixth grade, I gave my electric guitar to a girl because she asked for it. In thirteenth grade, I walked into Carman Hall and announced under my breath to nobody in particular that here, at Columbia University in the City of New York, I was finally going to be (Amy Gong Liu) and do (Amy Gong Liu) and that by the time I walked the stage at Commencement, I, too would have answers.
Instead, I went through 3 ½ years of whiplash-inducing change. I declared a human rights major, switched to political science, then to sociology, back to human rights, center-right to business management, then veered far-radical-left to ethnicity and race studies. I remembered one thing about my childhood, then I remembered three thousand things about my childhood, so I went back to therapy. In my search for home and family, I flew back West and went so far West that I was East, then arrived right back where I started. I began writing. In the middle of working on pieces, I often jerked up out of my chair, as if possessed by puppet strings. I drifted to the mirror and looked at my reflection, sometimes smiling, other times taking a couple of seconds to remember that all of it front of me was still me, that the fingers that arpeggiated errant hairs out of my vision were still mine, too.
In an essay called “Defamiliarization,” Charles Baxter claims that good writing exists not on a path of linear existence and conclusion (from A to B), but rather in the muddied, doubtful middle. In another plane or dimension or shape, it takes form in something he and his intellectual predecessor, Shklovsky, call the “defamiliar.” The absolute worst thing a writer can do, he claims, is think that they know the ending of their story. To operate in blind lines, to grasp for the “stoney” before they hold stones, to conform their texts to fit an ending that hasn’t happened. Good things will come along the way and disrupt the text, “misfit,” shock the reader out of every expectation they held. They lie right in the moment just before recognizing that the reflection in the mirror is yours.
I really should be better at this advice-giving thing—punchy, universal moral-of-the-stories should be falling out of my mouth by this point. But after summarizing Baxter, I really only have two more things to say. One: The “beginnings” and “endings” of a Columbia experience are kind of bullshit. Two: Had I read Baxter more carefully the first time around, I would have already embraced One and saved myself (as a writer and as a person) four years of heart-pain trying to scramble around and determine how the story of (Amy Gong Liu) would end. When I think of myself from freshman year to now and the stark “defamiliarization” that came to light, I realize that the amount of control I thought I could execute towards my own conclusion is far less than I ever thought I possessed. At the end of it all, I feel less like (Amy Gong Liu) and more like ( ).
Maybe this is where all of our answers lie, our own “who am I?”s. Perhaps our Columbia experiences and the identities we adopt throughout dwell in the lonely, awkward, fleeting middle rather than as linear points at Convocation and Commencement. (Whoever We Are) in our years here lies in the moments that pass by without delivering any hint of permanence or becoming: in the decision to say hello to semi-acquaintances on the way to class instead of looking nervously away; in the decision to read slower, to let our hearts linger, to let our hearts learn; in the decision to forgive ourselves for all of our questions and uncertainty.
Only then can we, on graduation day, look at ourselves in the mirror—the same self from four years back, and the same self four years from now—smile back, and smile forward. No matter what the what-where-when-how-whys are, and no matter what the “who am I” of the future will be, we can always reflect, and our parentheses can always remain (deliciously and opportunistically and triumphantly) open.
Amy Gong Liu would like to thank everyone who has gotten her through the past couple of years (you know who you are). You can send job offers, seasoned life advice, and tissues to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Lyricism of Marginality runs alternate Tuesdays.