Ten years ago, I was living in Pittsburgh and coming to the bumpy end of my graduate degree. In the summer of 2007, I forged ahead on my dissertation research, ahead of schedule, and traveled to Cambridge, England, to search the archives for evidence of the Bloomsbury Group’s fascination with friendship.
I was also 29 and feeling the first serious pangs of wanting a partner and child close in on my chest. And hard.
But Cambridge is a beautiful city and so in essence I had little to complain about for the six weeks that I spent doing archival research at King’s College Library and the Cambridge University Library. I lived there much as Virginia Woolf’s brothers Adrian and Julian might have, and letters between members of the Bloomsbury Group passed through my fingers like water. Letters between Woolf and E.M. Forster, her sister Vanessa, her husband Leonard, and good friend Leonard Strachey. All there!
I sat in Grantchester Meadows and watched young students in love paddle up the River Cam. I ate scones and clotted cream and too many full English breakfasts of sausage and bacon, cooked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast and eggs at Auntie’s Tea Shop.
I ate heavy meals at the pub, too. Anyone who complains about the food in England, has not lived in England. This was just before the iphone was released and wi-fi became ubiquitous. At the pub I only got spotty coverage on my laptop, so email communication with friends at home was scant. I couldn’t submerge myself in the internet, instead I had to talk to people.
It was also a great place to work. There the libraries are silent places of near worship and I found a packet of G.E. Moore’s essays on friendship, some of which had not been formally published. But the archives of the Cambridge University Library are also freezing, and sometimes it seemed that I was the only woman under fifty in the room.
What have I chosen to do with my life? I thought, sometimes aloud, shrouded in a huge wool scarf in the middle of July. What have I chosen to do with my life?
The magic of looking at Darwin’s ice-cold original manuscripts only went so far when I returned to my rented room and slept with my head under the covers alone. Some part of me was getting increasingly hungry and sticky toffee pudding does not cure all ills.
I bobbed my hair 1920s-style before returning to the states and the haircut kept me in character while I typed up my dissertation. But when my supervisor read my first draft only to declare, "you have been spending too much time with Virginia and Vanessa and you have lost the forest for the trees," I knew that he was right.
The summer that I was gone, time started to move quickly. As I was writing my dissertation, others were moving on with their lives: jobs landed, marriage proposals accepted, pregnancies thriving. But my life was suspended in amber. The long nights alone at the computer started to hurt more than illuminate.
It is easy, I think, for creative types to get lost in their work. To take up residency in their subjects so that they lose their very selves in them—after all we are studying, searching for, trying to make, something beautiful, something ideal. So of course we get lost in the details and are often disappointed with the results.
But lives are not art.
And living a life is often harder than writing about one.
Llana Carroll is a writer and teacher living in Albany, New York. She currently teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at the University at Albany, SUNY. In addition to her scholarship, she writes creative nonfiction.
Llana suggests you learn more about NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Visit nami.org.