Over at Chosen Chaos, Jamie has been running a series called “If I Could Turn Back Time,” in which writers are asked what they would tell their eighteen-year-old selves.  I posted this piece on her site a while ago, and now she’s doing a wrap-up week, inviting the entire year’s worth of writers to re-post their letters on their own blogs.  It’s hard to  re-post without tinkering and tweaking (or hiding information), but I’m going to sit on my hands and let this one go, just as it is.

Plus you get the picture of me at eighteen. Ah, the hair of youth:

 Dear Eigh­teen

You’re almost ready to go to col­lege and although you’re not really talk­ing to your par­ents these days, I’m hop­ing you’ll lis­ten to me.  After all, I’ve got sort of a vested inter­est in hav­ing you come through col­lege alive. The last two years of high school have been tumultuous, to say the least, and your par­ents are ter­ri­fied about leav­ing you alone at school half-​​way across the coun­try.  You keep insist­ing that once you get the hell out of the Mid­west, you’re going to be FINE, but I know that under all that hair and bravado, you’re also scared about embark­ing on this new stage of your life.

So do your­self a favor and before you go stomp­ing off to lis­ten to the Grate­ful Dead on your super-​​cool eight-​​track cas­sette player, just lis­ten to me for a few min­utes? If you lis­ten to me, maybe the next four years (and, er, three decades) will be smoother.  It’s true that some of this advice might echo what your mother has been say­ing to you all these years, but here’s my first piece of advice: your mother is a hell of a lot smarter than you think she is.  Try lis­ten­ing to what she has to say. 

Sec­ond piece of advice? Don’t bother bring­ing that eight-​​track player to col­lege. Trust me on that one.  

Now, a few other things:

I know you’re going to this single-​​sex col­lege under extreme protest and that you have every inten­tion of trans­fer­ring at the win­ter break, but please don’t do it.  Being in class with­out boys will feel like a huge rock has been lifted off your head: you have bet­ter things to think about than whether some boy has noticed you notic­ing him.

Now that you’re in col­lege, it’s time to bury “Dizzy Deb­bie,” the per­sona you adopted to sur­vive in high school. Remem­ber? Try­ing to hide that you were in 4th year Latin and AP every­thing else, pre­tend­ing you didn’t know how to work the com­bi­na­tion on your locker, never talk­ing about any of the things that mat­tered to you?  In col­lege, let your­self enjoy being smart. It’s a lot more fun than being ditzy.

In addi­tion to what you’re learn­ing in class, do your­self a favor and learn to say no. To drugs, to drink­ing, to stu­pid men, to “friends” who try to help you by point­ing out all your flaws and none of your strong points. And while you’re learn­ing about “no,” take a minute to learn this phrase “when she says no, it’s rape.” Remem­ber that night in high school, when you said NO and STOP but he laughed and kept going?  Yeah. That was rape. It shouldn’t have hap­pened and it wasn’t your fault. Take that guilt you’ve been car­ry­ing around for three years and turn it into anger that some football-​​playing jack­ass could do that to you and get away with it—brag about it, in fact, to his friends.

Once you find that anger, though, you’re going to have to let it go. If you don’t, you’re going to get stuck think­ing that sex is a power tool and not an expres­sion of inti­macy.  Men are not like ram­shackle old houses. Do not get your­self a “fixer-​​upper.” Please fig­ure that out now, and save your­self thou­sands of dol­lars in ther­apy, years of mis­er­able rela­tion­ships, and one bro­ken engage­ment (a nec­es­sary break-​​up, true, but bru­tal nonethe­less).  Yes, rela­tion­ships are work but being in a grown-​​up rela­tion­ship doesn’t mean end­less fights. Learn the dif­fer­ence between com­pro­mise and com­pro­mised; live with the for­mer but not the latter.

Don’t shake your head at me, Eigh­teen. Am I harsh­ing your mel­low? Bum­mer. Stop flip­ping your hair at me and lis­ten for a few more min­utes. Then you can get back to per­fect­ing your Farrah.

Actu­ally, let’s talk hair, shall we?  In a few years, when you’re study­ing in Eng­land, you’re going to be tempted to be a hair model at the Sas­soon school. Here’s where I want you to prac­tice that “no” we talked about ear­lier. You’re going to think “a model! How cool!” RESIST! They’re going to cut your hair really short and you will look like a brunette broc­coli.  The hairdo they’re going to give you requires scimitar-​​like cheek­bones, not a jaw­line that Churchill would envy.

Writ­ing kept you (mostly) sane dur­ing high school and it will con­tinue to be your great­est joy dur­ing col­lege, but then you’ll start studying for your doc­tor­ate and start hear­ing voices in your head. They’ll say things like “maudlin,” and “deriv­a­tive,” and “juve­nile,” and “under-​​theorized.” Tell those voices to shut the hell up. Keep writ­ing your own stuff, in addi­tion to your aca­d­e­mic stuff, so that you don’t have to wait until the inven­tion of some­thing called “blogs” to find an out­let for your ideas. 

It’s hard to imag­ine right now but you’re going to be both a wife and a mother.  And, fur­ther­more, you’re going to have boy chil­dren, not girls, which I know you think is totally nutty.  I mean tomato plants don’t sud­denly sprout beans, so how a girl body can give birth to boys is anyone’s guess.  But it’s going to be okay—you’re going to love your boys despite, and some­times even because of, their boy-​​ness.  In fact, you’re going to love your hus­band in much the same way—he can’t help that he’s a man, but you’re going to love him anyway.

That’s about it for now, I think.  Let’s review:  Be nice to your mother, stay in col­lege, say no to stu­pid men and bad hair­cuts, keep writing, have babies, have a mar­riage, have a career (but not nec­es­sar­ily in that order).

That about cov­ers it, I think.  In the long run, just as you sus­pected all those long years ago, you’re going to be FINE.  It’s just going to take you a lit­tle while to get there.