An unexpected challenge of calling myself a writer

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I'd been accepted to graduate school.

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I’d been accepted to graduate school.

When I was younger, writing was easy. I was always naturally talented when it came to putting words on paper (or typing them onto a screen). I didn’t learn how to revise until graduate school, and even then, it was only my creative writing; the critical papers I turned in were always first drafts. It might take me half an hour to write a paragraph, but when I had it, I had it—though it was more usual that I’d write much more quickly.

But before then, before I began my work toward a graduate degree in writing, before I switched to studying a writing-related field in undergrad, writing was just a hobby. One of the reasons I did switch to professional writing in my third year of college was because I spent more time writing then I did studying for my engineering classes. There were no stakes when it came to telling stories like there were when I completed a problem set of studied for an exam, and in the fall of my junior year, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Despite feeling increasingly lost in my major (I switched from engineering to microbiology, something I’ll never understand since I’d hated the one bio class I’d taken), writing felt increasingly safe and wonderful.

It stayed that way even after I became a professional writing major. I took classes on grammar and editing, on visual rhetoric and web design. I turned in first-draft papers and received 4.0s, even when I wrote them in their entirety the same day they were due. (This is the point where I hope none of my students are reading this….) My creative work was still kept separate. Even when I began applying for MFA programs (and yes, the “revising” I did on my writing sample before sending it off amounted to changing a few words and fixing a few commas), writing remained a place of glorious refuge.

And then I got to graduate school, and suddenly things weren’t so easy. Some of my classmates were so very talented, and for the first time I wondered about my ability to live up to that level of skill. My first short story, one I was really pleased with, was politely but poorly received—I didn’t realize just how poorly until we workshopped my second story and everyone exclaimed how much better it was.

I started sending out work to be published, and like an idiot, I sent my first piece to Tin House. I told myself I wasn’t surprised when I was rejected, but in some ways I was (I was still learning the crazy level of competitiveness at literary journals, especially the ones in the upper tier). I began to wonder why I’d given up my highly lucrative future as an engineer to do something I was only okay at, and because I didn’t know how to revise (that lesson didn’t come until I started working one-on-one with my thesis advisor), I started to lose my nerve. I only wrote when I had to. The rest of the time I was too scared to open up a Word document and see what type of crap I’d spew onto the page. Instead I threw myself into editing—both critiquing my classmates’ work and through my work with Willow Springs. I began to wonder if it had all been some big mistake, if I was a better editor than a writer, and if my professors had been wrong to let me into graduate school. I worried so much about this, in fact, that I called my mother crying a few weeks before my thesis defense and told her I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough to get the degree. That I passed my defense easily and enjoyably—it’s one of the times I had the most fun in all of my MFA program—only temporarily stilled my worries.

Since then, I’ve had ups and downs with writing. I had my first short story accepted at PANK, one of the journals on my list of dream-journals, and I wrote a handful of book reviews for The Collagist. But I’ve also had frustratingly long droughts during which there weren’t any nibbles, let alone bites. And in these times of rejection rejection rejection, I find myself wondering again: am I good enough? do I have what it takes?

I’m in one of those droughts right now. Aside from a few spurts in December when I was laid out with a broken foot, I haven’t written, revised, or submitted any fiction. I haven’t even opened the files to look at my work. I’m so afraid. So very afraid of what I’ll find. I know I can write stories that are good, but being a good writer isn’t enough for me anymore, and while I know that only practice can take me from good to great, I haven’t yet figured out how to handle all the disappointment that comes with getting better, because you can’t get better without failing. And I don’t know how to fail.

Sometimes I still miss those days when the writing I did came without consequences, when I could write and write and write and still think highly of myself—highly enough that I thought, yeah, I can do this for the rest of my life. There was no risk then, but no reward, either, and I crave that reward more than almost anything else in the world. At some point, I’ll have to decide if my risking my pride and facing my fears is worth having a shot at getting what I want.

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