I decided to keep a diary of my experiences in my writing program before I started my first class. Some writers I met had told me stories about their writing workshops or the more discrete ones had just said they didn’t like them but finished their degrees anyway. That’s not surprising when you consider that many writers have a more scholarly bent and want to teach after they graduate. Not a bad idea if you’re looking for a home while you take a few years to write a book. While I have drafted 50 to 60K words in a month since I graduated (of course, that’s a Nanowrimo scenario – National Novel Writing Month), I do end up spending a lot of time editing those stories. Like it or not, I imagine it takes most people at least two years to write a good book if they’re editing it themselves. I have a feeling that applies to all sorts of books too, not just literary novels. The jury is still out at least at my house on whether or not I will ever be able to do a book in less time even if I’m not working full time.
I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival two different years before I applied to Johns Hopkins. In the evenings, I went to quite a few readings at the Prairie Lights bookstore while I was in town. Many of the readers seemed cynical about their experiences in their Iowa City workshops but some of them also seemed to be part of a tightly knit group and talked about how teachers like Iowa’s Frank Conroy had inspired them.
I’d been in a few workshops before and participated in the festival workshops in Iowa City both summers. The ones I’d been in before didn’t seem that useful but I was beginning to understand how much I didn’t know, so it was probably just me, right? That’s what I thought at the time.
When I look back, I don’t know why I plunged ahead. To be fair, I had a great time in my graduate program. There’s nothing like spending time with people who have an interest in writing even when they’re critiquing your stories. I always had at least one person who would read my “experiments” and plenty who would tell me about what they were writing or an interesting book they’d just read.
I did worry about the value of my program’s workshops. There are at least half a dozen times in my diary where I wonder if I was picking up bad habits because of the comments I received which were by the way, rarely critiqued by my teachers. My writing did improve a great deal during my time in the program but that may have been because I was writing every day.
Survival in a writing program or even after you complete one, isn’t an easy thing. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that it was the most painful time in their life. If you’re thinking about attending a program, don’t fool yourself into thinking that you wouldn’t feel the same. All you have to do is look in the mirror and you know it’s true. We all doubt ourselves at least a little bit and we’re vulnerable.
There are probably an uncountable number of people who will never have a large enough ego to believe that they can write, or if they’ve thought they could write at some time, they ended up quitting altogether. I imagine that it’s quite a blow for someone who thinks they’re already a great writer to have so many people criticizing them. (More later!)