Sunday, September 28, 2008

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?*

My first winter in Fairbanks I felt completely lost. Moving here, going to grad school, seemed to have been a huge mistake. Damien hated Fairbanks and neither one of us had made any friends. It was cold and dark and there were gigantic ravens everywhere and the pipes in our cabin (ah, our cabin, which we paid twice as much rent on as most people but we had ourselves convinced it was worth it because it had running water) kept freezing up and going out of commission for a week at a time. I hated teaching, I was terrible at it, and I had just barely survived a semester of very painful workshop.
Something had to give.

I was a terrible writer, I saw that now. I was terrible at teaching, too. And my academic essays, which had always had undergrad teachers falling over them and praising my writing skills, left the professors in the graduate level thoroughly unimpressed. As far as I could see, I had two options. I could drop out, cut my losses and find a job somewhere, and Damien and I could start saving up and try to get the hell out of Fairbanks. Or I could use it all as motivation and work harder, improve, become better.

I chose option B and during the winter break of my first year in grad school I set some major goals to get my life back on track. Instead of being hurt at first and then passing into a state of accepting depression (you’re right, I should just give up . . .) when what I was doing was exposed as imperfect, I would learn from these mistakes and become a better writer, learn how to be a good teacher, and become a better student, too, a deeper thinker and a better academic writer.

I spent most of my time off that winter writing new stuff and revising the old stuff that I believed had potential and I vowed to myself that I would get my first publication acceptance in 2007. (I have since learned that it’s a basic rule of goal setting that it’s not useful to set goals that are out of your control. For example, it’s okay to set a goal to, say, write 1,000 words a day for the entire year. It’s not okay to set a goal that you’ll get a story accepted, that’s out of your control and depends on too many outside variables. But I didn’t know that back then. . . .)

To meet this goal, I had to start submitting again (something I hadn’t been doing at all that entire first semester) and I would have to make the commitment to take writing more seriously, not just assume that everything I produce is gold after one or two polishes and not feel upset but glad to get the feedback when someone doesn’t like what I’ve been doing. And I stuck to it.

I did get my first acceptance in 2007, and shortly after that I got my second, and most of my rejections, these days, come with some sort of written comments on them. But even more important, I finally stopped wanting to be a writer and I feel like I actually became a writer. I’m still getting better, each new story is the best thing I’ve ever written, and, best of all, I plan to just keep getting better and better and better (and I also think I’ve become a damn good teacher and a better student, too). And I owe it all to that miserable first semester in grad school and how it made me face that I was nobody special at all.

*Title comes from Emily Dickinson.

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