One of my favourite writers is American Michael Schulman. In his recent article for The New Yorker, he quotes Joan Didion’s wry wisdom on the topic of living through your twenties.
“That was the year, my twenty-eighth,” she wrote, “the urtext of twenties self-reflection, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable, and that it had counted after all – every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
Mmm, I thought. It is a rather irresistible trap to fall into, isn’t it? You know, believing your twenties don’t matter.
I’ve always viewed them as a warm up lap, a quick nap, a pregnant pause before life really begins and pregnancy becomes literal. A time to be consistently drunk on mid-range champagne, and to make the most of wearing short-shorts whilst you still can.
It’s a practice run.
But this can also be a dangerous mentality, because for that decade-long slide from teenagehood to adulthood, we convince ourselves that nothing we are doing is actually significant.
We dodge hurtling meteors of Big Life Events and slide through with a nihilistic cackle; mostly unscathed, sometimes with a small scratch.
But for the most part, we brush it off and clock it up as a fluke. Because life hasn't really begun yet, right?
In his article, 'Meryl Streep's Twenties, and My Own' for The New Yorker, Michael Schulman reflects on this attitude. He's writing a book on Meryl Streep, you see, and was searching for a sign in the narrative of her early life that could indicate the greatness that was to come.
"The question I asked myself at the outset was this: Who was Meryl Streep before she was the unsinkable queen of acting?" he asks.
"Was she ever just an aimless twentysomething, trying to make her way in the world?"
Schulman swings between answering yes and no. No, because there was a self-assurance from the start with Streep; yes, because he could recognise in her the same markers of raw youth he recognised in himself. The worry of not being good enough, the persevering identity crisis - yet the calm understanding that life was 'yet to begin'.
To my understanding, growing up equalled a neat succession of events, chapter one to chapter two to chapter three, a step-by-step education. An IKEA instruction sheet; me, the allen key of whom will put it all together.
We learn a trade. We learn to date. We learn a job. We learn to love. We learn to provide. We learn to procreate. Life, in my eyes, was but a pre-arranged game of Tetris - all I had to do was guide the blocks to their correct place.
What no one warned me of, however, was the tumble-dryer era called Your Twenties.
They are like an awkward growth spurt where your limbs are too long for your body, and you're not quite sure what to do with your hands. You are learning hard and fast the life skills that, by the time you reach 30, are smooth as silk: holding down a job, sharpening your career, maintaining a relationship. Successfully cooking for a dinner party of 10 or more guests. Paying tax. Recycling.
But when you are in it, when you are living the learning curve, nothing seems to be happening correctly. Those tetris blocks are flying around left, right and center; and you're just doing all you can to avoid being knocked out.
"When I look back at my twenties now, I can see that they were all leading somewhere. As a story, they make sense," writes Schulman. "But at the time, as [Girls character] Hannah Horvath says, it didn’t feel like very much was happening. Most things felt haphazard, random, peripheral."