An ill-timed comment and my rebuttal

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Most ill-timed comment, ever: I ran into a professor from my MFA program on the eve of my departure to a writing residency at Hedgebrook several years ago.

We were both browsing through shoes at REI–I needed “needed” a pair of shoes for Hedgebrook (hey, any reason to buy a pair of shoes, right?)…and she ironically, was also headed to Whidbey Island, where Hedgebrook is located, and needed a pair of shoes for her trip as well. Not that Whidbey Island is a volcanic island with special footwear needs or anything, it was just coincidence that brought us there. (And again, any reason to buy a pair of shoes…)

I had never taken her writing class, but I recognized her from my program and so I said hello. I told her where I was headed in a few days. She mentioned that she knew she’d recognized me from somewhere (i.e., the halls of the English building on campus).

“Ah, Hedgebrook!” she smiled her space-cadet smile, her eyes focused at infinity, even though her face was pointed at me, standing a mere three feet away, that weird polite zone of space, not too far, not too close. “It’s where I went and learned I wasn’t cut out to be a fiction writer.”

What? A nightmare started forming in my head.

“Oh yes, I was writing a novel, and I had a tough time writing while there. I really struggled. I ended up throwing the novel away, and realizing that I should be a journalist!” She was still smiling. Why was she smiling?

“Didn’t that devastate you?” I asked, thinking…I would be FUCKING DEVASTATED. Nightmare definitely forming in my head.

“At the time, yes!” She waved her hands, as if to emphasize the point that it was in the painless, anesthetized, past.

Oh, I said. Oh.

“But have a great time!” she said, pointing at a pair of Keene shoes. “Did you like the pair you just tried on?”

The Keenes were comfortable, but I felt like they looked like Smurf shoes. “I love them,” I lied.

“Oh well then great! I’m going to try a pair!”

And off she went ambling towards a salesperson. Leaving me with a thundercloud over my head.

At Hedgebrook, I struggled with loneliness (a good thing in the long run), until I met a friend for life while there that then blushed the whole experience pink and golden so that now my memories of Hedgebrook are mostly blissful (like birthing a baby, maybe?).

But mostly, I struggled with my writing. My struggle could have been like any other day writing, just staring at the laptop screen, waiting for the Muse to arrive, keeping vigil. But her statement made every one of my struggles with writing larger than they were: Was I a fiction writer? Should I throw this novel away? Should I just…blog? I must just totally suck. Should I just totally give up writing?

She cursed my residency, in some ways, with that extra pound of self-doubt, a pound I did not need to bear. And I still question myself as a fiction writer to this day. Even today, her words resound in my head on my worst writing days, or when I open the mailbox to find another rejection. To be truthful, I find myself wondering if I should still write the day after I’ve received an acceptance letter.

There are many hardships in life that do enlighten us, lead us to self-improvement. But I think self-doubt planted by others…is something we can do without. And for that reason, when people are off to a residency or an MFA program, I only give my blessing.

So…Good luck to all of you beginning your Fall semesters everywhere. πŸ™‚ Have a great Fall learning, or teaching, or writing, or living, whatever it might be that you begin this season.

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11 Comments

Filed under Inspiring, Life, Memories, Writing

11 responses to “An ill-timed comment and my rebuttal

  1. You’ll figure out what works for you eventually. I ended up as a short story author, but through writing short stories I have grown enough to write a novel. It’s still a learning process, and it’s painful compared to writing shorts, but it is a fun journey nevertheless.

    Stop worrying. You’ll do fine. ^^

  2. Yikes! Ill-timed indeed … Hedgebrook, though, looks like a lovely place.

    • Uninvoked: Worrying is my vital sign. πŸ™‚ Easier said than done, but thank you for the positive thoughts.

      Contemporary Troubadour: Hedgebrook is beautiful and heavenly!

  3. Violeta

    What a thing to say! But yet, I know how comments like that feel impossible to shrug off.

    That said, please don’t doubt yourself and whether you should keep writing. I still wonder about your characters (from Masha’s workshop we were in together) and remember one image/description in particular because it was so gorgeous. Finish the novel! πŸ™‚

    I’m applying for a low-res MFA that I really hope to get into (for fiction! in which I am riddled with self-doubt). So your encouragement is useful right now.

    • Violeta! Congratulations on your decision to apply for an MFA! I have a friend who went to a low-res MFA program (Warren Wilson) and she enjoyed it very much. In many ways, a l0w-res program brings advantages…one of which includes the fact that faculty from other (very prestigious) programs often make time to be guest faculty at low-res programs.

  4. You’d think that someone who’s a teacher would think about what she’s saying before she opens her mouth! I like what you take away from this experience: that what we need to do for each other when we’re not being asked to do anything at all is simply to give good wishes and blessings. Anything else is unnecessary.

    • Eve

      I think that this woman isn’t a teacher; she merely occupies a teaching position. “I went and learned I wasn’t […] a [writer].” As a student, this is the lesson she learned. Perhaps no writer gave her a blessing; perhaps she never was a writer, but merely wanted to become one.

      You’re a writer. You have a writer’s blessing and a good heart, which is why (I think) you are willing and able to give a writer’s blessing. This is what touched me most about this: you said you’d give a blessing instead, and I know you would. You can give a blessing because you have one to give. This lady doesn’t have one and so could only give what she had. I’m sorry for her.

  5. She’s lame. . .

    The timing was terrible, and her commentary was possibly passive-aggressive (but definitely self-vindicating), but the reality is: being a writer is a huge mind-fuck because there are so many ways to fail + only a couple of ways to make it, and really, so few people want to help you until you’re already well on your way. And then, to add insult, the people who don’t write won’t really understand how hard it is to become a successful literary writer, and many of the writers who will understand, will also resent your success + silently celebrate the ceiling you crash into, not because they’re bad people but because it will confirm their own failures + create parity among artists. So, we have to fight against all of that everyday. The way I look at it, one less aspiring literary writer is good thing because there’s already too many of us. But for the real writers like you and me, it’s not a choice. We have to write + when a lot of time goes by w/o writing, we freak out. It’s like TC Boyle told me once, it’s not a problem if you don’t write for a year, only if it doesn’t bother you not to write for a year. The jouralist didn’t have the right stuff. You, however, do, whether you like it or not. + I imagine there will be plenty of times when you won’t. . .

    • I’m glad you have my back. I agree, there is a small pie, and writers have to share it with many others, so there is an ensuing lack of support (and a lot of weird passive aggressive behavior associated with jealousy/lack of resources/support/rewards), but I am REALLY BLESSED with GREAT writer friends who truly support me. So, thank you, Jackson.

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