Writing Lessons: Erin Somers

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Erin Somers, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. Erin is also the editor-in-chief of Barnstorm Literary Journal, and her other writing has appeared on The RumpusThe Millions, and elsewhere. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

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Here’s a potential title for a country song: “I Learned About Heartbreak at Writing School.” Maybe there’s a whole untapped genre of music out there with major hit potential among nearsighted editors’ assistants and those that actually use their library cards. “Iowa Said No And My Dog Ran Away.” “Freshman Comp Blues.” “50thForm-Email Rejection (Standing in Line at Rite Aid).”

I graduated this past spring from the fiction program at the University of New Hampshire. In my time at UNH, I learned things about writing, sure. For instance, “you’re not as funny as you think you are,” and “use more commas.” I learned about precision of language and rhyming action. I studied my betters for lessons in craft and structure. I read Chekhov.

All of this helped. I write better now. I won’t deny it.

But the most important lesson was still in heartbreak. I spent two years leaving every one of my workshops devastated, even when they went well. This reaction isn’t new: in middle school, I used to cry after basketball games even if we won. Thirteen-year-old me sobbing into a Gatorade Frost after mopping the floor with our cross-town rivals. Catharsis, I think, or a blood sugar situation. Or maybe it was the crushing knowledge that I could have done so much better. That I was, and forever will be, handicapped by my own limitations. So what if we won by twenty? I still can’t dunk.

An anecdote: last year, I experienced my life’s worst workshop for a pretty broad comic story. To paraphrase my workshop leader: “American clowns are fat and sloppy and fall all over themselves trying to get a laugh.” Pause for beard-stroke. “And Russian clowns do the same thing but on a high wire. You”—pause for drama—“are the American clown.” I bled out right there on the conference table. I am writing this from beyond the grave.

Here are some other things that happen in an MFA program: you are not always the teacher’s favorite; you will occasionally be passed over for things; you might not be invited, by accident or design, to dinner with the visiting author; you will face criticism, a lot of it, not always framed in kindness.

The amount of rejection and disappointment involved in trying to be a writer is staggering, even in the cloistered, touchy-feely world of an MFA program. But I have learned this: you can’t cry after every basketball game. You have to be able to take criticism and manage disappointment, because, in the absolute best-case scenario, you have a lot more ahead of you. You have to face the bad critiques and the condescension with all the grace you’ve got. You have to be able to let yourself off the hook and defuse your most insidious critic: yourself. That’s called backbone, and if you don’t have one yet, they’re handing them out at MFA programs everywhere.

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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares, and his work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others. His first novel, What Ends, was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel, and will be published in January 2014 by New Issues Press. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has since lived in Boston, Montreal, and London; currently he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and cat. Follow him on Twitter @agoodladd.
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4 Responses to Writing Lessons: Erin Somers

  1. Jay Bates says:

    The wisdom in this blog entry strikes me as elementary, but at the same time it offers me a clearer perspective of what grad school students (in their twenties?) expect from a program: being a teacher’s favorite, being invited to dinner by visiting authors, being the recipient of praise in a workshop. Is this what is writers desire from a grad program? To seek validation? To learn to place more merit on the dismissive words of a workshop critic than on the development of artistic conviction? To put it another way, I believe the clown comment in this blog entry is an insult if one is aiming to be Russian. In 1951, when he was 19, Updike wrote in a letter to his mother: “Whatever the many failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born.” Shouldn’t this be the effort of grad school programs? To teach writers how to do this?

    I enjoy reading the Plougshares blog (and especially the Plougshares journal), but encourage editors to publish entries that contain a wisdom more fully developed than the one posted here. Sorry.

    • Christopher Lowe says:

      We all seek validation in one way or another. We seek it from peers and readers and editors, from our family and friends. And yes, many grad students (of all ages…this isn’t exclusively the province of those in their 20′s) do seek it from others in workshop. They seek it from the programs that they enroll in. I don’t see what’s so terrible about that. The point of the post wasn’t that young writers seek validation. It was that not always getting that validation teaches you how to be tough, how to have backbone. That’s something that writers need, whether they get it from a writing program or not.

  2. Ryan says:

    If Bates enjoys reading the Ploughshares blog almost as much as the journal, he should read with some attention. Somers explicitly states her greatest disappointment: “That I was, and forever will be, handicapped by my own limitations.” She is a better writer for the MFA, and was driven by workshops that went well as those that did not. This hardly seems evidence of the self-absorption Bates attributes to all writers in their third decade.
    In the same NYTimes obit Bates quotes, it is noted Updike was booted from Harvard, as professors found his work, “uneven and uncontrolled.” It goes on to say how this first rejection strengthened his resolve to write. Somers is merely pointing out the same lesson as the great Updike, that of a woman in her twenties, who like men of any age, writes as much for validation as for art. Sorry?

  3. Jay Bates says:

    Christopher and Ryan:

    Despite Ryan’s willingness to offer insult in his post, allow me to say I think we are talking about different sides of the same concept. On one side, grad school workshops are a tool for us to be audience to validation and criticism—the former to build our confidence, and the latter to build our toleration (or backbone). This is the point Erin is making in her post; she says her “most important lesson was still in heartbreak” and she was “handicapped by [her] own limitations.” I do not dismiss her claim as untrue, only as introductory. I have spent enough time around grad programs to witness students compete for attention (both negative and positive) from the powers whose opinions matter above the participants. The conditions she writes about are true for any workshop experience, so it’s easy to agree with her point. I think too easy, and this is why I’m concerned the Plougshares blog chose to print it. It is a perspective of the workshop that I think is more debilitating for writers.

    Consider the remarks from the bearded workshop leader. His words are expressed with the confidence and brio of someone who appears not to know what it is like to be a Russian clown. But in the workshop environment, such statements are accepted as canonical law (hence Erin’s bleeding out). Contrast the workshop leader’s comment with Updike’s insistence that “Whatever the failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born.” Such failings or (to use Erin’s word) limitations in our work as writers should not be viewed as products of our disappointment, but as details that express the particular texture of our literary character; they are scars of our human history. Workshops often teach writers to iron out such failings and instead parrot work that represents the aesthetic of common thought—or the thought of someone whose perspective is said to matter—or at least “face the bad critiques and the condescension with all the grace [we’ve] got.” My point is there is a difference between tolerance for disappointing news and conviction for an artistic vision, and my primary concern is that too many grad school students allow too many MFA programs to emphasize too much of former and not nearly enough of the latter.

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