What am I doing here?

I got into the hot creative writing MFA program I dreamed of, but now I feel I don't belong.

Published February 1, 2007 11:34AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Since I started being serious about fiction writing, say about four or five years ago, I realized there was only one thing that I wanted. I wanted a shot at being a writer, and the way I defined that (knowing there were many ways I could have defined it) was to be accepted to a certain rather prestigious MFA program.

Some time after I finished college, I applied to that program and a whole bunch of others and I didn't get into a damn one. So I ran away from home and went abroad for a while and did some other seemingly frivolous but actually kind of important things. When I returned to the States, I realized I still wanted this thing. So I gave it another shot. And you know what? I got in. I got into this place that I'd always wanted to go; I got this reward I always longed for and never dreamed of.

Then something really kind of poetic happened, the kind of thing that if somebody wrote it into a story of theirs for workshop, the class would totally not believe. Several months before I left my home to go off into the middle of nowhere and pursue my dream, I fell head over heels in love. (I know, I know, you totally saw it coming.)

So I moved, but I flew back a lot and he flew here a lot. Meanwhile, I found out that my dream locale wasn't so dreamy. I'm not sure that I deserve to be here. I can't see that my work is getting any better. I feel like my classmates are all better writers than I am and it doesn't help that most of them have odious personalities. I have continued to write, which in my mind is better than giving up, but I find myself constantly thinking I'm crap and wondering if I should give up this ghost.

Also, my significant other has made the decision to move and be with me. This is a big sacrifice on his part, but I am very happy about it and think it's going to be very good. We talk a lot about getting married and I know we will. Our relationship makes me happier than I've ever been in my life, happier than I ever thought I could be. In fact, it's one of those things that makes me rethink writing even more. I love this person way more than I could ever love writing, or be good at it. And ultimately my life-love relationship should and will trump any of my personal professional goals.

So what am I doing here? I'm going to stay and finish my degree, but I've been thinking a lot lately about never writing a word afterward. Does that make me a terrible person? Sometimes I am haunted by my adolescent obsession with being a writer and I feel like I am giving up on a part of me I might some day regret. On the other hand, I look at the sentences I string together, and by God, they suck! And yet I still send stories out to magazines, hoping they will think they're good and want to publish them.

I really want you to publish this letter, but part of me knows that if anybody here reads it, they'll know exactly who wrote it. And the last thing I want them to know is that I think they're all better than me. Especially because I got a special fellowship that they probably think I didn't deserve.

Maybe I'm just coming to terms with the agony of being a writer, an agony that may be too much for me to handle. Or maybe I never was a writer in the first place.

Confused Student Writing Pathetic Fiction

Dear Confused Student,

Thank you for writing. I am glad you are going to finish the program. No matter what you decide to do later, it is good to finish the program and get your degree.

I went to graduate school in creative writing as an egotistical person. I was concerned with whether people thought I was brilliant.

This brilliance was a brittle thing, a bright, cold shell I had made in junior high to wear to school and around town like a gown of dazzling and invisible power to keep predators at bay; it was a fast-thinking thing, a mean, clever thing, a way to stay aloft and aloof. I took it with me when I left home. I used it to not learn anything.

But you get older and defeat forces you to learn things you didn't think you needed to know, or didn't want to learn or didn't think were important, or thought were beneath you.

Here is the big main thing I learned: My writing is not here to support me. I am here to support my writing.

How it came about was I endured some failure as a writer trying to make money as a writer, and had to work at other things for five years. During that time I wrote but not for money. I wrote on the subway, alone, in a notebook, sitting by myself in the crowd. I wrote to save myself.

It turned out that writing to save myself was the best way to write. Here is why, I think: Our writing is the voice of a person who is innocent, powerless and in need of protection; our writing is the voice of a person who needs to be heard as he or she really is. It is deep stuff is what I mean. And shocking as it is to say, the person who is writing this -- the person I am today -- is the kind of person toward whom I once would have leveled pitiless scorn.

So here is me now: I never finished that program. I left some minor details unfinished. I began to drink and take drugs and lost my writer's community and lost my discipline and my aesthetic. I went down, way down. I disappeared. There were reasons, technical reasons, as there are technical reasons when a bridge collapses: Certain struts weakened and certain bolts were sheared, certain winds arose, certain loads were exceeded. But as in the collapse of a bridge, the technical cause is only part of the story: The effect is a story, too -- the people who were hurt, the millions in damage, the loss.

The loss is what I am talking about: loss as teacher.

So what I learned in my trek from brilliant insufferable little grad school shit to person with enough humility to sit quietly in a room with dogs -- and patiently let them nose my hands as I try to work the keyboard -- is that writing is not about face. It is about soul. It is a tool for becoming who you are.

This is not something easily taught or easily learned, because it is not much fun to believe and act on, and it does not promise to bring sparkly fame. It is just something that has become true for me. Along the way, two things have happened. My old school has reached out to me and I am in the process of redoing the paperwork in order to be awarded the master's degree I started nearly 30 years ago. And I have bumbled into this creative form that was not taught in graduate school but seems congenial to my spirit, an epistolary form not entirely new -- I learned of its possibility by watching Garrison Keillor do it -- but new enough not to be taught in grad school.

This perhaps will change.

So finish your degree and take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult's job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.

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