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 Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor
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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