Writing Lessons: Chris McCormick

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In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Chris McCormick, a student in the University of Michigan’s MFA program. You can follow him on Twitter @chris_mccorm—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

chrisThere were four Daniels in my program when I first got to Ann Arbor, and so I started calling the town Dan Arbor. If I forgot someone’s name—as I often did that first month—I went with the odds and asked, “Dan, right?” Some people laughed, and I befriended them immediately. Some people didn’t, and I befriended them anyway. One or two, though, seemed uneasy with the fact that I had the audacity to joke at all at such a prestigious, serious program. These people I distrusted and ignored, and, after they’d finished up and moved, Dan Arbor became a happier and more productive place.

Maybe you’re among the group who didn’t laugh at the Dan Arbor bit. I’m hurt, but the point still stands: at any MFA program, you’re going to run into a few egos, and it’s important—fine, vital—to say to yourself on repeat the phrase: “Take your writing seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.” I suggest saying this to yourself four or five times a day, like a secular prayer. If you’re feeling up to it, go ahead and recite the mantra directly to an offending egoist’s face.

Of course this shouldn’t be news to anyone: big heads abound in life just as in competitive reality TV shows and writing programs. It’s tempting sometimes, though—even for the level-headed—when surrounded for two or three years by twenty or forty people doing sort of what you do (only with more originality, you fear, or more guts) to start looking for those around you who seem less original, less gutsy, and deriving your confidence in that way.

Please don’t. I’m here to tell you these kinds of comparisons have nothing to do with your work. They have to do with you, with your subjective and amorphous moods and tastes, with your issues of self-esteem and energy. And what’s our mantra? Take your writing seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

This is a long way of saying: confidence isn’t an epiphany. It’s not something you earn and show off, like a badge. Confidence—in our world, anyway—is for the reader to experience, not the writer. Your job is to be a person who takes writing so seriously that you, shrouded in doubt, rewrite and revise over and over again until a reader gets a look at it and says to herself about your story or your poem, “I trust this person.” And then you start again, and your old friend Doubt waits for you at the desk.

“Hey Dan,” you say to him, and he doesn’t laugh. Befriend him anyway.

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