Editor's Note: David Burr Gerrard's work has appeared in The Awl, The LA Review of Books, The Millions, Specter, Extract(s), and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College. His debut novel, Short Century, has just been published by Rare Bird Books. For Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them, David recalls his first summer out of college, when the U.S. stumbled into Iraq, and how his self-doubt and instincts battled within him for summers thereafter.
I graduated from college in May 2003 feeling very little trust in myself but a great deal of trust in American military power. My instincts had been to oppose the war that had, at least from the vantage point of the Columbia University lawn on which I sat in mortarboard and gown, been won. I had the ambition to be a writer, but I had neither confidence that I had anything worthwhile to say nor any compelling job prospects. When the speaker invoked the famous last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses -- "Yes yes I will yes" -- to add some prestige to some platitudes about saying yes to life, I had no real sense of what I was going to say yes to.
My flailing was such that I briefly considered, or told myself that I was considering, enlisting in the military. The prose that felt most vital to me was nonfiction, pro-war polemics, mostly by Baby Boomer writers who saw the war in Iraq as the fulfillment of their 1960s ideals rather than the repudiation of them -- freedom and all that -- and I was more or less convinced that the war was just, so serving seemed like my duty, or at least like something to do. (Also, as far as I knew the war was over, so serving seemed relatively safe.) I got as far with this idea as mentioning it to my mother, who laughed. She knew I was about as likely to join the military as were any of the pro-war pundits I was reading, which is to say, not at all.
So, like many unemployed college graduates my age and younger, I spent the summer feeling a rich variety of emotions that I secretly (and, at least in my case, correctly) suspected could all be characterized as moping: worries about my future, grief over the end of college (AKA The Most Fun I Would Ever Have), anger that college had not been even more fun, anger that my diploma in English and creative writing was turning out to be of little interest to employers, and, most prominent and mopiest of all, a deep, constant self-loathing. I think the weather was beautiful that summer, but I was much more interested in the terrible weather inside my own head.
Somewhere amid my busy schedule of rumination I managed to spend a lot of time on my laptop. I looked through job listings, I started writing a novel that went nowhere, I procrastinated. Procrastinating proved the most fruitful of these activities, as my procrastination consisted in large part of reading about the war. Day by day, it started to seem that the war was not only not over, but was going quite badly. I found a job as a paralegal temp -- hardly a dream job, but a job -- and moved into an apartment in Manhattan. I abandoned the half-baked novel I had started, but I kept reading about the war.
Slow to catch on, I was finally catching on. The war had been the terrible idea my instincts had told me it was from the start. I wondered how it ever could have made sense to me, even for a moment, that we could invade a country with bombs and tanks and expect the people in that country to be grateful. I wondered how so many of the writers I admired -- writers probably better and certainly older than I was -- had gotten the war so wrong.
In September, the paralegal temp job ended and I moved to New Hampshire to intern for the presidential campaign of the anti-war candidate Howard Dean. In my off-hours I started writing a new novel, a black comedy about a Baby Boomer journalist whose ‘60s ideals are transformed into support for American wars. More than ten years later, that novel, Short Century, has just been published.
There is a temptation in writing about oneself to draw the line between before and after too starkly. The summer of 2003 was not The Summer I Learned to Trust My Instincts. My novel took a decade to write, and that decade was filled with self-doubt, self-doubt that is still very much with me, not least when writing this essay. What took root that summer -- and has been lost and regained many times since, and will likely be lost and regained many times over the rest of my life -- is a commitment to doing the best I can to trust my instincts, while maintaining skepticism and distance from them. It’s a quest doomed to failure, but it’s a quest I will continue. Yes yes I will yes.
Inspired to share your own summer experience? Submit your story to Paste’s That Summer writing contest by July 23rd for a chance to win a book bundle and an Out-of-Print t-shirt.