Since May a surprisingly large piece of paper has been hanging on the wall, which tells any one who dares enter my office that I have a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I’m proud of this achievement, but having earned it I am now entering a more frustrating and sometimes down right terrifying part of my career. It has been a larger adjustment than I expected.
When I first entered grad school, I always felt like imposter. In those first few workshops, I would sit half convinced that some one was going to stand up in middle of the class, point a finger at me and scream “fake!” I would than be run out of the institution, as people set fire to pages of my poetry and threw them at me. Apparently this feeling is normal, and most people experience it upon entering grad school. I learned to ignore it, and there were occasions when I even felt like an actual writer.
Now that I have degree and few publications to my name, the feeling of being an imposter has returned. I’ll read over the pages that I’ve written and wonder, have I’ve been fooling myself the whole time, am I doomed to be nothing more than a hack. I sense that this writerly existential crisis comes from losing some of the structure of being in school. After all I earned my BA in creative writing as well. Over the past ten years I’ve taken ten writing workshops, as well as a ton of literature courses. For the first time in years I don’t have to write essays analyzing poems and novels, I don’t have to meet workshop deadlines, I don’t have to read other young writers’ work and provide them with thoughtful criticism, and I don’t get feed back on my poems or receive grades for them. Now the only person that I have to judge and criticize my own work is me. All the deadlines I have are set by me. I worry that I may be too easy on myself.
One of the things that is scaring me is that I’m writing poems faster. Most of the poems I’ve published or that I’m submitting for publication took me years to write. One poem, “Cain Cries Out,” took five years and thirty drafts to finish. Yet I feel ready to submit the poem, “Tithonus Goes to the Movie Theater,” after four months and ten drafts. I can’t help but wonder if I’m too close to the poem, if I’m failing to see the flaws and it just needs a dozen more revisions. However, it is also possible that I’ve grown in skill and practice, so I need less time for composition. Unfortunately, the only thing I can do is let time pass and revisit the poem from time to time.
If I was still in grad school, I would workshop this poem. Someone would say that it was ready to go, someone would say I need to change parts A and B but C and D are perfect, someone else would say that parts C and D are perfect but that A and B needed work, and that one pretentious dick-head would insinuate that I have no business writing in the first place. I would end up ignoring the majority of feedback, listening to one or two people I trust. I don’t have any feed back now (other than my husband when I corner him after I just finished a draft of a poem). I still show poems to friends from time to time, but when you graduate you become busy with working and paying off those student loans. In the end, I just want someone to tell me that the poem is done and to just submit the damn thing, but unfortunately that person is me and will always be me from here on out. I’m not sure I’m up to the responsibility.
Add to all that the stress of actually submitting a full manuscript. As I push the end result of the last five years of work into a manila envelope, those years suddenly seem so insignificant—only 61 pages in all. How many hundreds of pages have been trashed or still sit in the drawer hoping I will return and finish them.
One thing that especially sucks about first book contests is that you don’t get a rejection letter, no you receive an email announcing the winner and finalists. I remember the elation of being a semi-finalist followed by the disappointment when I received the email showing me the smiling picture of the woman who won. Self-doubt is damn near impossible.
Yet the only thing I can do is keep writing, keep submitting, and to trust my own judgments. The latter is by far the hardest part. I can’t guarantee that I will succeed, but I never will if I stop writing. In some ways, the only reason I keep going is that I have such a wealth of self-doubt. When I think “I should just give up,” another little voice asks “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not just a writer but a good one? Could I risk giving that up?”