There is a scene in Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s 1995 directorial debut, that goes like this: one of the characters, a young man just out of college, finds a mess of broken glass on the floor of his kitchen. He nudges it into a pile with the toes of his shoes and places a sign on top that says BROKEN GLASS, and leaves it at that.
Kicking and Screaming came out in 1995, a full fifteen years before Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture took on the same themes and won Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest. I was eight months out of college myself, then, in 2010, attending the festival because I had friends with an Austin apartment to crash at, and because I didn’t particularly have anything better to be doing.
We went to see a 10 a.m. screening of Tiny Furniture at the Alamo Drafthouse, where I ordered myself a Manhattan I didn’t need and couldn’t particularly afford. All of these details—the drifting, the drinking, the carelessness with my self and my money—probably obviate me needing to say much about how deep a chord the film struck with me. It happens that Lena Dunham and I come from the same private school background on opposite coasts, that I had moved back in with my own parents in Los Angeles after graduation (which was how I could even nominally afford plane tickets to Austin and booze when I got there); I found her portrait of post-collegiate ennui painfully, wrenchingly accurate.
This is not a defense of Tiny Furniture, nor of that piece of my life: I understand why people find both offensive. Many people don’t have the luxury of indulging in ennui and the search for meaning in their post-graduate lives; many don’t have the luxury of higher education to begin with. But for people who grew up the way I did, these movies describe with terrifying veracity the precipice you emerge onto in the days after graduation, on which you confront for the first time that your parents’ money and your own education do not in fact guarantee you a job you love, something worthy of all of your talents.
(There is an underlying terror beneath that, of course, a fate these films can never quite articulate: if you cannot find and keep a job, and keep your finances in order, the comforts of middle class life will abandon you. But the presumption is that you will never fall below the class into which you were born; the question is only how and how much emotional energy you will need to claw your way from the uncertainty and drift of post-collegiate malaise into a structured and ordinary life.)
The truth, though, is that a job is a job, each outfitted with its own particular indignities; I’ve been lucky to be spared the worst of them, but I have yet to hold a position that makes use of the full range of my capabilities as a human. Even saying it I realize how stupid it sounds: the idea that work will fit seamlessly into the rest of your life is such an incredibly unlikely fantasy!
But it’s the one that gets you through prep school and college, this notion that if you’re smart and educated enough you’ll find a job that’s worthy of you and your time and your big expensive brain, and that will somehow provide a larger justification for your continued existence on the planet, and the money and time and attention that have been lavished on your so far.
When you are in school it is easier to sweep things into piles, to label and then ignore them: If you can keep from flunking out, a new academic year will sweep you up sooner or later, clean the slate and the kitchen floor, or at least move you into a new dorm room. I imagined, then, that adult life would be much the same, with work providing the mechanism for movement that school once had.
It didn’t; it doesn’t. My year of living lazily ended when I got a full-time job at my alma mater, a name-brand institution which, next to mine on a business card, should have made me feel like I was once again living the life for which I was destined. But instead I discovered that I felt increasingly like a fraud, a person who’d lucked into a structurally functional life she was never intended, personally, to inhabit. It kept me moving, but not in a direction I was, as it turned out, wild to pursue.
I left that job almost exactly a year ago, and moved back in with my parents again (again!), and tried to find something that would stick. It’s been a long year of embarrassing explanations in bars and at parties. I have had to face up very, very often to my own selfishness, my privilege, as well as the pride and vanity that made it unbearable to admit that I was, somehow, suddenly, long-term unemployed.
It took eight months before I found two part-time jobs that fit together to fill enough hours in the week, to make me enough money that I’ll be moving out, perhaps even for the last time, early next month. Neither of them are my dream positions, but they are fun and flexible, and they ask me to be present in the lives of others, the life of the city; they give me structure and content so that I can create a separate time and space for my writing, which is, actually, what I love most to do.
I always knew that, kind of, but it wasn’t until I gave up on progress, on piles, on the idea that my life needed to look or work a certain way in order to be worthwhile that I really understood. I had the extraordinary luck to have a year’s worth of empty days, on which I got to get up every morning and ask myself what I actually wanted to be doing. Now I know the answer. It would be a waste of all of that luck and privilege not to do something with it.
Neither Kicking and Screaming nor Tiny Furniture ever really gets to it, what the trick is to making a life for yourself after graduation. It’s different for everyone, of course. The best way I know how to explain it is to say that you have to learn how to be a person, which is not the same thing as a collection of accomplishments. “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23,” Lelaina Pierce says in the Gen-X version of this story, 1994’s Reality Bites. I thought that line had a lot of pathos, when I was her age; it’s only now that I’m starting to understand why it’s so funny.
Zan Romanoff lives in LA.