I don’t think anyone really knows if someone is talented before they’ve learned enough of the craft for it to show up in their writing. When I submitted my writing samples for admission into my program, I imagine the Hopkins folks looked for clues like one of my old sleuths.
Maybe that translates into “promise,” or whatever that means to the school admissions people. If I was already an accomplished writer, I wouldn’t have bothered enrolling in a Graduate Writing Program. I suppose that experienced writers might want to get the degree so they could teach but that’s not who I was, at least not until much later. It doesn’t matter what the school’s criteria is.
If you’ve been accepted into a writing program, I’m going to suggest that you take it for granted that you have the talent to write engaging fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. There’s a lot of negative competition in writing circles. I’ve never really understood why people need to tear someone’s work down to build themselves up but I’d seen it happen quite a few times. I don’t believe that anybody can tell you how successful you’ll be or how far you can go. For me, that’s one of the reasons I like writing so much. It’s such a personal journey. My own efforts will determine if I become a good writer, not some random managers at work, or whether or not I’m in the right place at the right time.
I suppose the ideal situation is to have a special mentor or you have writing friends who seem to give you good comments, except that doesn’t seem to happen very often. And if it does happen, over-confidence can keep you from fully developing. Your writing teachers will only be able to give so much time to each student, even if you’re one of the lucky ones with a connection to a special teacher. You have to motivate yourself.
Before I graduated, I went to a talk that Stephen Dixon (a former teacher from the full-time Hopkins Writing Seminars) gave to a thesis class in our program. Writers usually are pretty introverted and dead silence had filled our little classroom. I wasn’t in the mood for talking myself after working a full-time job that often took every last brain cell that I had, but I did come up with one question, “How do you know when you’re done?”
His first reaction was that quizzical look that teachers often give beginning writers. He only said, “That will come in time.”
Eventually, he got around to my real concerns about workshopping my writing and finally, to the crux of it all, at least for me. “Your opinion is the one that counts in the end. If you don’t like what you’ve written, rewrite it. If you do like it, if you’ve written what you have to say, guess what? You’re done.” He was telling us to rely on ourselves.