I learned the art of bullshitting at university. Up until I had to write an essay about Plato for my first year Arts One class at the University of British Columbia, I'd been an honest person. I was the kind of student who would discover I'd been given credit for an incorrect answer and alert the teacher. If I found money on the ground I'd try to return it. If someone tried to cheat off me during an exam I'd give them the evil eye and cover up my test paper. When I spotted plagiarism I reported it. Yes, you would have hated me if we were classmates.
Part of the reason why I thought that lying was so terrible was that one of my elementary school friends was a compulsive liar. When we were eleven she'd say things like, "Oh, my boyfriend is fifteen and he gave me this necklace." None of us ever met this guy because he didn't exist. In high school she escalated to telling everyone she had a baby daddy who was about to get out of prison and he was so totally going to kill her boyfriend. She never had a child and I think she was a virgin. Once in biology class she showed off her scars from having an abortion--they were drawn on with a red pen. I still feel sad for her because even though the curriculum included sex ed she had no idea that an abortion and a caesarian section were completely different surgical procedures.
At university I just could not keep up with the reading for Arts One. Plato and Hobbes bored me. What did I care about these dead dudes? Just thinking about them made me feel tired. I took a lot of naps that year. The only woman on our reading list for the two semesters was Jane Austen; my seminar class was 75 percent female. Was I depressed? It didn't matter. I was fast becoming a mediocre student and there was no one to blame for it but myself and my study habits. Something had to change.
My carpool consisted of three other people who were also in Arts One so on the ride in I'd ask them about the books. I'd say, "So I didn't read the books, what should I know?" Frank, Nora, and Simon were better students, so they had a lot to tell me. I suppose this was my attempt at practising the Socratic method. When it came time for the Plato essay I skimmed through The Republic for quotes and wrote a load of garbage. I was rewarded with my first C+. When I received the grade, I was pretty sure my life was over. My scholarship was in jeopardy. I was positive that I was going to end up living on the streets because who wants to hire someone who can't write a paper about Plato? (Now that I live in the real world I know that no one cares if I know anything about philosophy.) The only thing that saved me was my creative writing workshop, where I got an astronomically high grade for making shit up. There was the answer to all my problems: fiction.
I was an amateur then. By fourth year of university I mastered the art of bullshitting by employing the close read. (Thanks, F. R. Leavis!) There was no need to read the entire book, unless I really wanted to, if I just chose a paragraph and really focussed on how those sentences functioned as literature. I didn't have to know anything about history or the author. I could blather on for paragraphs about the use of a hyphen. At this point, I also understood the magic of taking a course on poetry over one on prose. (Good luck if you've made the rookie mistake of taking a Victorian novel class at the same time as other courses with a heavy reading load.) I befriended all the students who said smart things in class and asked them questions during lunch and at beer gardens. I maintained an A average and decided to go to grad school for an MFA in writing. What did university teach me? Bullshit and best friends will get you pretty far in life.
[This essay first appeared in The Elective.]