In the ‘Writers Do It Best’ series, contributors reflect on how their education and experiences as writers have uniquely prepared them for their lives outside the writing world. Today, we hear from Robin McCarthy, an MFA student studying fiction at Northern Michigan University. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinMcCarthy28.
I have held a lot of jobs for which I have not been qualified, and the position I was perhaps least prepared for was as a cook aboard a small cruise ship taking middle-aged tourists on vacations in the arctic. When I explained to the ship’s captain in an interview that I had no professional experience as either a chef or a mariner, he shrugged. No problem. The job, he explained, was just a collection of skills, and skills could be learned.
I took the job and was immediately confronted by the depths of all I did not know. There was a catalog of knots and safety protocol, the persnickety temperature-setting of the oven, the art of cramming months of provisions into storage and the timing of a five-part meal for twenty delivered hot in a rolling sea. I was overwhelmed by the volume of tedious minutiae to be learned.
And I messed up. A lot. I served many cold meals. My crewmates spent too much time covering for my deficiencies on deck. I was constantly corrected and redirected by people who knew more than I did, which was both helpful and frustrating. There’s only so much failing a person can take in a day. I approached my limit swiftly and fell into my berth exhausted and demoralized at the end of most days. Each morning, my feet and ego were still sore from the previous day when I reported to the galley for another sixteen hours of screwing up.
For years before going to sea, I wrote a while in the morning then reported to my very conventional office job, and was thus familiar with butting against the limits of my own capabilities. Writing was practice in getting up every morning before I was ready and doing something I did not feel like doing. Undoubtedly, I attempted things on the page at which I would fail, and approached each failure repeatedly from new angles. I practiced resolve, guessed at when to be kind to myself and when to toughen up. I knew that most often the reward would be meeting the expectation competently; I could not rely on sporadic external validation of my effort.
Because of all those hours at the desk working hard to produce writing that was never as good as I wanted it to be, I understood craftsmanship, work ethic, and attitude. If I wanted to cook well at sea, I would need to approach it with the same tenacity I gave writing. I would have to be comfortable with how little I knew and embrace the humbling process of learning.
I did, and I got better. When the season ended I hung up my apron and was a writer again, but one with a deeper capacity for failure. Learning to labor through our inadequacies is essential to the writing life. I’d argue that it’s simply essential to life. But it’s also a skill like any other, something we can learn.