The Common Application is out; school has begun; everyone I know has a first draft already. So this week, a break from the obsession to consider (gasp) life without college (even without a startup or cash from Peter Thiel):
Meg Howrey’s first novel, Blind Sight (Vintage, 2011), debuted to loving acclaim—a “warm and surprising debut,” said the New York Times, and “a wonderfully intriguing examination of what makes, and might break, a family” (Kirkus). It is the story of boy meets father (with some boy meets girl thrown in), set during the summer of the boy’s senior year in high school, when he is writing his college essays. The book bears none of the angst of the admissions process, since Luke, frankly, has bigger things to worry about: who his father is and was, and what it will mean to come to know him. But the essay writing is a fun and lively motif throughout the book, giving Luke a chance to reveal himself when nobody else is looking.
One wonders if Meg had the most fun writing these bits since she herself never went to college. She was the Midwestern girl who had a dream—to dance—and followed that dream to New York City, where she made a career, first in ballet and later as an Ovation Award-winning featured performer in the Broadway show Contact. She toured with the show for a while, decided she’d like to try her hand at writing, and a year later, had a book. College was never in the mix.
Meg’s second novel Crane’s Dance is out with Vintage now (2012), and when she’s not writing literary fiction, she teams up with screenwriter Chris Lynch to form bestselling thriller author Magnus Flyte (see City of Dark Magic and the forthcoming City of Lost Dreams). What she doesn’t do is field donations requests from her alma maters development office, or consider whether or not to hit her twentieth reunion.
The American dream has always had a particular fondness for children with wild talent who forgo the usual path to adulthood and head straight for the stage—we want them to be fabulous, to do things differently. So of course college doesn’t matter. But there’s some solace for everyone, I think, in being reminded that there are a million ways to make a life, and college may, or may not, be a part of that.
I asked Meg some questions about writing, dancing, college and life, and here are her answers.
When you were growing up, was there an expectation that you would attend college? Did this exist at your high school or among your peers?
I probably would have burst into tears if anyone told me that I should really consider going to college! I would have taken it as an insult – that the person thought I didn’t have enough talent to dance professionally.
I went to three different high schools. The first two were boarding schools for the arts. The third was Professional Children’s School in NYC, which is exactly what it sounds like. Although many of my peers did go to colleges, I can’t remember having one conversation about the SAT, or the college essay. People talked about their auditions! The currency was talent, not academic achievement.
When did you begin to dance, and how soon did you know that you wanted to pursue dance professionally?
I started when I was three. My mother noticed that whenever she turned on music I would dance around by myself, and conscientious parent that she was, she thought I might enjoy ballet class. My parents had no idea what they were unleashing! Later on they were bewildered, but generally supportive. They never tried to talk me out of anything or made noises about “having something to fall back on.” Perhaps they realized that if they had, I simply would have stopped speaking to them.
There wasn’t any decision about dancing. Many dancers feel this way – that dance chose them rather than the other way around. It becomes the central fact of your existence very early on. But I lived in a very small town, and so I had to leave it to pursue professional training. I skipped the 8th grade so I could start high school early.
How did you think about college in relation to dance? Was there ever a thought of dancing in college?
A ballet dancer’s career is short and those college age years are crucial – it’s when you’re auditioning for companies, becoming an apprentice, starting your career. Things are a bit more forgiving for modern or contemporary dancers, many of whom do attend college. And lots of ballet dancers end up going later on.
I had already left home, was living in dorms, etc, by the time I was twelve. So college didn’t seem like some grand adventure in that sense. I had very little notion of what an academic trajectory was like. I didn’t have one friend that wasn’t wildly ambitious to be a professional artist of some kind. I found novels that took place in college very exotic. I still do.
As you turned 18, 19, 20, 21, did you wonder about the alternate path, or what lay ahead? Did you miss school? Were you ever afraid of the choices you’d made?
I had absolutely no regrets even though I did, eventually, begin to have doubts about this thing I had devoted my life to. Why was I sometimes so bored with it? Why wasn’t I happier? All the dancers I knew seemed to be so perfectly driven, and I was surprised by how restless I felt. It wasn’t a frightening time, and everything I had done up till then served as a way to handle it. I wasn’t afraid to take risks and I wasn’t about to settle. I knew I was on to something, and I just had to figure it out. In the end, I forged a dancing career that wasn’t quite what I had anticipated. I had only thought of being a ballet dancer in a classical ballet company. I did that, but I also ended up dancing in theatrical pieces, which suited my temperament better. I liked talking and thinking! I still didn’t think of college as an option, really. That would have felt like going backward instead of forward.
What was the transition from dance to writing?
Very simple! I started to write. That’s really it. I had saved some money from my last performance job – a long Broadway tour – so I took about a year off and taught myself how to write a book by writing a book. When that book was finished, I wrote another. It seemed like natural progression. I had been an interpreter, and now I wanted to write the story.
Did you consider that there were aspects of an education you had to provide for yourself, since you weren’t seeking a college degree? Particularly with regard to writing: did you feel more (or less) of a need to read, study, revise?
I started reading at the same age I started dancing. I read constantly, obsessively, and eccentrically.
I do think it took me longer to learn how to read critically than it might have if I had gone to college. On the other hand, nobody forged my taste for me. I’m not insecure about my lack of formal education. The only time I think about it is when I have to fill out a survey or form that asks what was the last year of education I completed. That’s always sort of a funny moment.
Your first novel, BLIND SIGHT, features a young man who is working on his college applications over the summer he first comes to know his father. Why a character facing this passage, which you chose to sidestep?
I had a friend whose son was going through the process of applying to college and that was the first I learned of the big essay! It sounded like a good framing device for Blind Sight, which I was just starting to work on. It gave me a chance to bring Luke’s voice out, having him answer essay prompts. The novel has a lot to do with identity, with separating truth from belief. Luke tries to sort out some of this in essays, none of which he will ever send. Although I think a college admission board might be amused by a few of them.
Do you think college is overrated—not for its educational value within the academy, perhaps, but as a means to deliver young adults into independent lives?
It seems to me that the responsibility of a college is to deliver knowledge in a safe environment. Everything else is up to the individual. College doesn’t owe you a good job. Nothing can make you independent but your own desire to be independent.
In the course of life as a literary writer—with excellent critical reviews and a top editor at a major publishing house—do you ever encounter assumptions or expectations around college or education that surprise you?
It’s a bit unusual for a writer to not have been to college, so I think everyone assumes I went! I am surprised by how many people rush to reassure me that I’m better off for not having been through a creative writing program. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they think it would have been more helpful to them if they had studied science, or history, or really anything other than English or creative writing.
How would you advise your own child on approaching college applications—to go or not to go, how to choose a school, how to consider getting in?
First, I would hand them your novel!
I got lucky. My parents gave me everything I needed and then stood back and let me work it out on my own. They were not worldly. When they said, “whatever makes you happy”, they meant it. That they created a situation in which I never sought their approval was one of their greatest and most unselfish acts of generosity. I could thank them every day for that.
I have chosen not to be a parent, which means I have lots of ideas on what good parenting should be, most of them very draconian! If a kid asked me for advice I would say that the best things involve working very hard at something that is difficult that you find fascinating. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Don’t miss Meg’s beautiful essay in the November 2013 issue of Vogue.