I am in the middle of my first year in a graduate writing program. The program was my top choice, and I was also offered a nice fellowship as part of the admission package. Needless to say, I was on top of the world when accepted.
However, a semester later, I’m having a crisis. I came into the program feeling pretty good about my work, but my confidence has plummeted. The other writers in the program all have top-tier publications, get asked to read all the time, and two of them already have well-received books. They are obviously more talented than I am and I feel like I don’t quite know what I’m doing here: they seem to know all the right people and seem to have read EVERYTHING. I just feel like I can’t compete. The one thing I have going for me is that I’m socially astute, so everyone is nice to me. In fact, my peers are quite fun and friendly despite being apparent wunderkinds.
I’ve heard all the crotchety complaints that there are too many MFAs and too many writers, blah blah blah. But maybe there’s something to that? Is this the universe’s way of weeding me out of the field?
Should I stay in this program and just continue to be the underdog? How do I not feel like a total fraud?
Lost in MFA-land
The universe’s way of weeding you out? Oh, love, you must be a writer. Take it from someone who also has delusions of grandeur. We traffic in this. Right off the bat I will tell you that it’s very unlikely that the forces of the universe are conspiring to send you this message. What you’re telling yourself is another story.
I’ve been thinking about your question all week—it strikes me that this idea of being “a fraud” is a common anxiety among writers and artists (and especially women). It’s been written about extensively, here, here, here, and here. But I don’t necessarily see this as the root of your problem.
I have two stories to share with you—bear with me—and then a little tough love.
A good friend of mine—we’ll call her Gwen—spent her graduate school years obsessed with getting her first book published. It consumed her every thought. She cultivated friendships because she thought they’d be good professional connections. She talked to anyone who would listen about the struggle to find the right publisher. She refused to call herself a poet because until that book was published, she wasn’t, after all, a “real poet.” She was just an aspiring writer without a book. And then, one day, it happened. A great publisher accepted Gwen’s manuscript and released her first book. And everything changed and Gwen relaxed and finally felt like she was the writer she had aspired to be! Right?
Wrong. When Gwen published her book, she expected some kind of external recognition that would lift her to an elite next level of writerdom. What’s more, she expected an internal switch to flip, a switch that would erase self-doubt and anxiety. Neither of these things happened, and what Gwen felt was an immense letdown, a staggering sense of disappointment… and then fear. She had spent so long focusing on the first book and its significance that she had no idea what to do next. She felt paralyzed. I wish I could tell you that’s all different now, years later. Her obsessions have turned to amassing publications in the “best” journals, vying for the “top-tier” residencies. Well, so what? you might ask. We all do this, right? Of course. The problem here isn’t the aspiration. It’s that the external recognition—that dangling carrot that when obtained says, “Now you’re the real thing”—is always just out of reach, no matter her success. Because that internal switch never flipped. Gwen, 10 years later, is still that young writer in graduate school, fixated on “getting to the next level.” And over those 10 years, I’ve watched a bitterness set in. About her friends’ job appointments, about editors’ decisions, and even her own writing practice. She feels miserable and told me she’s thinking of giving up writing altogether.
I think I’ll wait to tell you the second story.
The reason I wanted to tell you about Gwen—well, there are many, but first, what strikes me is how little Gwen was thinking about the work. It became secondary to the prize, and therefore, getting the prize became the work. I bring this up, dear Lost, because not once in your letter to me do you mention writing. I get that your peers have books, give readings, and have pedigrees. Okay. But what is happening in your workshops? What kind of feedback are you getting from your professors? What are you reading that is changing your life?
What about the work??
I relayed Gwen’s specific story because, right now, I think those success signifiers are hitting you hard, shifting your focus from the reason you went to school to begin with to some kind of careerist race where you’re currently last place. I promise you this: your “me vs. them” mentality will self-perpetuate. You will make it real. It will haunt you. It will become your work.
If my assumption is incorrect and it’s your peers’ writing that makes you sing their praises, if they actually are all extremely talented and your work just isn’t quite there yet, then guess what? You are lucky. Seriously. If this is your peer group, learn from them! You have a group of people you respect (and like!) engaging with your work on a weekly basis and that’s more than most of us can say once we graduate. Be thankful that the bar is set high—that’s how any of us grow.
I don’t think you’re lost. I think you’ve lost focus. We all do at some point, so this is your challenge: get back on your course. And while you deepen your commitment to your work, deepen your engagement with your newfound community! You’re socially graceful and well-liked? Great—start a reading series. Start an informal writing group or book club. Your experience is really completely up to you to create. So listen, read, and keep writing.
The other story I wanted to tell you is about another good friend of mine, “Dave.” Dave’s heart was rooted in being an actor. And he was constantly knocked down in the process. He tried for the pedigree—but his acting program jury decided he shouldn’t continue. He auditioned for the parts of his dreams and was told he had the wrong body type, the wrong height, was overacting—you name it, he was criticized for it. And yet, he persisted. He listened to the feedback and took every acting class he could. He spent nights and weekends rehearsing monologues and re-assessing what types of roles might work for him. He auditioned for and got cast in smaller roles and he watched the leading actors and learned from their technique. In short, he showed up. A lot of people would say that all the rejection was a sign that Dave wasn’t cut out to make a life out of acting, that he would never “make it,” so to speak. And yet here I am typing this to you, years later, and Dave is still acting. He’s even done some national tours and overseas work. He’s never been the leading man, but he’s made audiences laugh and cry, has traveled all over the world, and gets to live the life he loves. I’ll never forget something he once said to me over the phone, “There will always be someone more talented,” he laughed. “But what’s that got to do with me?”
And yes, there are some curmudgeons out there who complain of too many MFAs, too many writers, too many books. To them I say, don’t worry, old coots, the sieve of history will surely funnel out those meaningless grains while whatever tomes you deem timeless stay safely netted. YAWN. The point is, you love what you do and somebody else recognized this. You are in a place surrounded by those who ostensibly love it too, and a few of those people will want to help you and see you thrive. This is a time for you to be grateful. To find the art that means something to you, and to get closer to your life. Stop being so easy on yourself. Don’t let competition and comparisons to others consume you. Resist the urge to reduce something sacred to a cache of material worth and prizes. And for eff’s sake, go to work.
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