Pursuing an English Degree in Your Thirties

by Missy Silva

I work in risk management which means it’s my job to raise my hand if I can foresee any red flags where we would be liable for a lawsuit (aka trouble). I don’t need a degree for it, and I could do the job until I retire and make a good living.  I could’ve taken the sum of my student loans and put 20% down on a house, but instead I got my English degree last summer at the tender age of thirty-five.

People in the 35-40 age bracket have spouses, mortgages, children, pets, career accomplishments, and vacation homes--all things that fall under the umbrella of being a textbook responsible low-risk adult. I have none of those things, but I could not be happier.

I spend my days planning writing prompts and googling cheap plane tickets to NYC or Greece or Italy and strategizing how to use my vacation time. I research summer programs in publishing that would financially ruin me if I pursued them. I’m constantly deciding which life choice is worth the risk and which one is not, which, looking back, has been a theme in my life.

I have done a lot of things I have had to do and not much that I have actually wanted to do in my thirty-six years on this planet. I did not have the luxury of the naivety of youth. Words like rent, credit, bills…these were part of my vernacular in first grade. I have been very aware that lack of financial stability is a recipe for chaos. Because of that awareness, I dropped in and out of school multiple times because responsibilities took precedence over what I wanted. Being responsible makes you a functional, low-risk person, and really, who cares if all I want to do is read Hemingway and write papers when the light/cable/rent is due? I rarely dared speak my dreams out loud because a litany of responsibilities and otherwise better time/monetary investments would be recited and repeated at leisure.

But even in the fog of responsibility and mild agoraphobia of my young adulthood, the dream to have something of my own never eluded me. Finishing school was an independent endeavor from being a provider. School has always been an arena where my success was entirely up to what I was capable of and had nothing to do with who or what needed me to show up for them.  I approached this last attempt to finish school as a self-care project. I know I am capable of a lot more than a paycheck and fiduciary responsibilities, and my cap and gown walk to collect my diploma was physical evidence of that.

This English degree did not need me. It did not benefit from having me, and I’ve yet to contribute to the literary world in a capacity where it would matter. But I want to be part of this world in the same way you lust after someone you don’t even know. Writing is my way out of my head, my circumstances, my fears, my everything. It’s the something bigger than bills and responsibilities that makes me feel alive and part of the stars and the moon and the universe.  And a commitment to these things makes me part of something substantial and cosmic. It makes me part of something larger than my cubicle at work. It’s awareness of my blood coursing through my veins, and it brings color to an otherwise monotonous existence. Most adrenaline junkies chase the high of jumping out of planes. I chase the high of reading and writing and learning, and there is nothing that makes me feel more alive.

I’m plagued daily as to whether or not I am making the right choices. Will I wake up twenty years down the road and regret it? Will I ruin myself in the pursuit of a good writing community? Will I regret a move to NYC or should I stay put? Can I make it in the publishing world with my resume as is or should I financially ruin myself and pursue a summer publishing program? What will come first: my Medicare benefits or the $0 balance on my loans? Frankly, it’s exhausting. Some days I am paralyzed with anxiety which stops me from writing, which makes me feel like an impostor, which makes me want to pursue the boundaries of my cubicle and nothing else.  But then I get bored and I write about it, or I remember something that hurt and I turn it into a kick-ass blog post, or I read a piece that makes me feel seen. And down the risky rabbit hole I go.