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. 🙂 Have a great Fall learning, or teaching, or writing, or living, whatever it might be that you begin this season.