When I first started my masters program, I was fairly certain Hopkins had made a mistake. I'd even had my sister re-read the acceptance letter, because I thought I'd somehow forgotten all the definitions of every word in the English language and was misreading the "Congratulations! You've been accepted..." I sat in my first class that first semester--in Maryland Hall with its clanging heaters that I swear were always on, even in the summer months--scarlet-faced, with the sound of my pounding heart galloping in my ears. I was in way over my head and the moment I was forced to open my mouth and contribute something in class, everyone--my classmates, the instructor--would know what a fraud I was. I didn't belong there! I gripped the edge of the desk, convinced that at any moment, the program's director would materialize in the doorway, summon me into the hallway and, in an even, businesslike tone, inform me that the admissions committee had been hungover, or smoking crack (or something similar) when they read my application and once they'd sobered up they realized what a terrible mistake they'd made. He would then smooth his hair back, tug at the bottom of his sports jacket and, with a nod of his head, bit me good day ("I said good day to you!").
Of course that never happened. Nothing even close to that ever transpired. And I learned pretty quickly that I wasn't the weakest link. Was I the best student in the class? Uh, no. Was the the best writer? Most emphatically, no. The most experienced? Most well-read (well-readest?)? The most insightful or articulate? No. Nope. Nuh-uh. No. No. No.
But as one semester ended and another began, as I got deeper into the program, I worried about those things less and less. I actually feel kind of silly admitting to them here. The logic part of my brain (which is a very very small part that's buried very deeply in the center. It's also kind of dusty and probably smells like mothballs or my great-great Uncle Bill's attic) knows how pointless it is to go around comparing one's ability (or lack thereof) to another person's. Especially in something so subjective as creative writing. But I'd be lying if I said those anxieties about being good enough are gone forever . They still make themselves known; I don't think they'll ever truly disappear, but... I don't know. My attitude toward them has changed, I guess. Yeah, I'm insecure as hell (about a lot of things). That's a fact and it won't change. But I feel now, two years out from graduation, as if I might just know what I'm doing most of the time. Or at least I feel like I will eventually arrive at certain insights about my writing. Eventually. Oh, I still need the map, but I feel pretty confident that I can navigate most of the way with only desultory glances at it should I get myself really lost.
Take, for example, the critique I had last week. I'd turned in the first 6500 or so words from this novel I keep referring to. As you might recall from earlier posts, I've been working on the thing for, oh, I don't know, eleventy years (and that's dog years, BTW). And being neck-deep in it since Moses was in knee pants, I'd lost any kind of perspective drafts and drafts and drafts ago (I believe around the "paleolithic" draft). This I knew going into the critique. Despite my lack of orientation within my own damned novel, I suspected I knew, generally, what worked and what didn't. I had a feeling I knew which were the creaky steps in the staircase. I was only a little bit surprised at the feedback. My fellow writers were insightful, as always, and I found myself agreeing with nearly everything they had to say (not a terribly common occurrence).
Now, getting feedback that you knew you were going to get might seem--on the surface--like a small victory. Some might even think that kind of feedback is unhelpful, useless. But it's actually the opposite. It's actually huge and significant and useful in the way a lifeboat is handy to have around when your ship sinks. Because, if I know what they're going to say, it's because I know what my story needs. And that's really quite freakin awesome. I know what my story needs. No, I might not know at just that very moment how to fulfill those needs--that's really the insignificant part--I'll figure that part out eventually. But I know. And that's half the battle.