By Lily Zheng
I still think, sometimes, about that first small grant application. It would have been for an exploratory, ethnographic study looking into kink communities in the Bay Area in the hopes of documenting important and novel information about a stigmatized and invisible community. “Promising project,” noted a reviewer. “We would be more than happy to meet with you personally to talk about the areas in which your proposal could be strengthened.” The email was a gentle dose of reality meant to bring an excited frosh back down to earth, so that the project, when undertaken, would succeed.
I thanked my faculty advisor for their time before withdrawing my IRB protocol for the study. “I look forward to working with you again in the future when I pick this project back up!” I wrote in an email.
I never emailed her back. The proposal still sits in a Google Drive folder awaiting edits, marked up in red font that shows its last edit from July 4, 2014. That ethnography will likely never happen, and I know that as the months pass, it becomes less and less relevant and less and less needed. But I can’t work up the courage to delete the file.
Sophomore summer felt promising. Chappell Lougee Scholarship in hand, I set out to write the novel that I had always wanted to write about my experience growing up as an Asian-American transgender youth. I wandered Chinatown and tapped out pages on the Caltrain, laptop balanced precariously on one crossed leg; during the evenings, I posted snippets to Facebook and read memoirs late into the night. That fall quarter, I enrolled in an independent study to hammer out another chapter, and that winter, I continued the trend. Then, exhausted by the weight of the world, by the trauma I had dug up from my own story and from the looming threat of not graduating on time (creative writing was neither my major nor minor), I stopped.
One hundred forty-two pages, 59,418 words. The working draft sits in my Dropbox folder, and as I open it, the Microsoft Word cursor blinks innocently up at me from the start of a new chapter. I’m tempted, briefly, to stop writing this column mid-sentence and dive back into that novel. But no, the urge passes; maybe another time, I think.
I wonder why every project I have left unfinished at Stanford feels so much like failure — every dropped proposal a sign of weakness, every abandoned collaboration a failure of commitment, every half-hearted “let’s get coffee!” a failure to recognize that not every door stays open forever. Some part of me wants to offer a reframing: “not a failure; just a potential-in-progress.” But my ambitious plans for teaching a student-initiated course during sophomore year drew on a wellspring of excitement that no longer exists. My plans to informally collect the experiences of graduating activists after junior year demanded a time and coordination among students that never materialized. I’ve lost track of the number of papers professors have told me to pursue further that have fallen by the wayside, pulled away by the riptides of a quarter system that promises novelty and creation more than continuity and sustenance.
I wonder, as I like yet another Facebook status celebrating a successful thesis submission, how many of my friends’ unfinished projects rest in email chains, Word documents and dusty storage boxes. It’s refreshing to think about the time, love and passion that we put into these potentials-in-progress and closed doors: not enough for them to happen nor enough for them to fail, but enough to convince us that someday, if the stars align just right, we might pick them back up again.
I’m writing this now because it’s around that time of the year where many of us start to reflect. We think about how we’ve changed, the people we’ve met and the things we’ve done — the successes and failures of another year as students, staff or faculty. This, I think, is all important. But in addition to these successes and failures, I think we ought to leave a little more room for the almosts, the should’ves, could’ves and would’ves, the if-onlys, maybe-laters and eventuallys. Not because these are marks of failure, but because these are parts of our stories too.
At least today, try to make some space to acknowledge the unfinished in your life. Or if not today, well, eventually.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilzy8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.