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"But Am I A Real Writer?" The Number One Most Self-Defeating Question a Writer Can Ask

I don't know where she is or what's happened to her, but I'll never forget my first fiction writing professor, Mary Milgram. It was the last semester of my senior year, and I was anxiously waiting to hear back from the creative writing programs I'd applied to. I'd taken Ms. Milgram's fiction class sort of as an afterthought--at that point, I wanted to be a playwright, and was hoping to get an MFA in Theatre. But I'd always had an interest in writing fiction, and in some ways felt it was my first calling, so I enrolled in Ms. Milgram's class. About halfway though the semester, I started hearing back from the programs to which I'd applied, most of which did not have good news. Then came the heartbreaker, a glowing letter from Ohio University, saying I was one of two students they were admitting into their playwriting program that year, but that, because of budget restrictions, there would be little financial aid available.

I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but Ms. Milgram somehow bumped into me on my way to class, when I was holding the letter and bawling my eyes out, realizing there was no way I could afford to go. The tuition alone was $15000 a year, paltry by today's standards, but back then, there was no way I was in a position to afford that, even with student loans. Ms. Milgram asked me what was wrong and I showed her the letter.

"But Kathryn, this is great news!" She said, and I explained the situation. I can't remember all of what she said then, but the one thing I do remember is that she told me I was a "real writer," and that she had every faith that if I went to school that it would be worth the investment. And somehow, after class that day, she took me into her office, and made a couple of phone calls, and I ended up on the phone with the director of the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. Playwriting was located within the English Department there, Ms. Milgram had said, so it would be possible for me to do both fiction and playwriting. Then she reiterated to the director her assessment that I was a "real writer," and I ended up being offered the chance to apply--well after the deadline. I did apply, and to my astonishment, was offered a full ride, and, at the ripe old age of 21, a teaching assistantship!

I didn't know then how very rare that was. I know it now, and I will be eternally grateful to Ms. Milgram for what she did. She did not have to put herself out there like that, but she did. And most importantly, her belief in me and my talent bolstered me through many years of study. But somewhere along the way, all the negative and mean-spirited criticism in workshop eroded that belief, eroded that vote of confidence--probably because it was her vote of confidence, and I'd never really had time to develop confidence in myself. I began to be obsessed with the question of whether I really was a "real writer," since I could never get my plays produced or my short stories published. Never mind that people like Edward Albee and Francine Prose liked my work--in my mind, none of that counted, because all I got was rejection letters from places like Story Magazine, Zoetrope, and The Missouri Review. (Yeah, I realize the problem now).

Then I got into the PhD program at UH, and that naggy little voice of doubt started screaming. "Look at your PhD cohort and where they've published, and you haven't had a single publication!" "Look at how smart they are and where they've been to school--they're all Ivy league and they're so much better than you." "Listen to that girl who says you shouldn't have gotten into the program, that you don't know how to create character and that your plots are 'bizarre' and 'convoluted.'" "How can you possibly call yourself a writer, when there are all these people out there smarter, faster, more accomplished, and harder working?"

This was the point, that, despite being at one of the most prestigious writing programs in the world, I stopped writing. Complete stop, for well over a year. Part of that was that I was in the middle of PhD comprehensives, but more of it was the fact that I just didn't believe anymore in the vote of confidence Mary Milgram had in me. I didn't believe anymore that my professors at Cincinnati were right, or, at best, I thought "well, I'm one of those people who had a white hot talent that burned out before it developed. I'm one of those people whose talent has fizzled."

I was barely 30, and I thought my talent had fizzled! I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't yet have a Pulitzer Prize! How ridiculous is that, in retrospect! How ridiculous, but yet how pervasive the attitude among students in competitive programs, who will list five writers they like and then immediately proceed to rank them in terms of various technical attributes (no kidding--I watched this happen at AWP). And how stifling the aesthetic that says that no genre beyond literary fiction can matter. But, even more stifling, is that question itself, that question that hangs there, somewhere near but just out of focus, in the corners of our eyes.

"Am I a real writer?" It taunts us. "Am I a real writer?" It chatters in our dreams. It kept at me and at me until finally, one day when I was walking through my neighborhood and looking at the shadows of the trees, I just stopped right in the middle of the street and said "Screw you! I may not be a real writer, but I'm still going to write, damn it! And if you have a problem with that then get out of my head!" Actually, I said it with a lot more cursing, and a lot more anger, and it probably scared the crap out of my neighbors.

Flash forward a year or so later, to when I taught my first "real" (there's that word again) graduate level playwriting class. One of the students came into my office, a middle-aged, wisecracking individualist with purple hair. She worked for Boeing in a male-dominated environment and wanted to write a play about the Space program. She walked in, sat down spread eagled in front of me, and fingered her skinny, purple braid.

"What's up?" I said, detecting a little attitude.
"Be honest with me." She said. "Do I have talent?" And then she popped her gum.

I thought about what to say, rifled through all the possibilities, until finally, I said what I wish someone had said to me long ago. The thing I wish Mary Milgram had told me along with her assessment that I was a "real writer."

"Yes, you have talent. But talent is not what matters. What really matters is what you do with that talent, where you go with it, how you use it, and that you keep working. That you keep growing. The question of whether or not you have talent is really a pernicious question. It's like trying to get a leg up on the opposition because of some inherent characteristic. It's like you want to know that so that you can somehow take a shortcut to writing success. But the reality is that there's no guarantee of writing success, either to the talented or the untalented. And all of us have to make our way. It's like Noel Coward said. 'Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is, do you have staying power?'"

I don't know if the student was satisfied. I don't know if, at 21, I would have been. But what I do know is that I wasted so much time looking towards external assessments of my own abilities rather than working to develop my talents myself.

Are you a real writer? Are you? No, don't ask it. Be it.


Suzan Harden said…
Damn, girl. My crit group is having a chocolate martini night next week. Wanna come? And yes, we are all REAL writers.
Anyone who doubts whether you're a "real writer," or whether you have talent, or if you have worked hard on your talent, has only to read this blog post. Good God, I just sat down to read a quick post about writing, and I ended up with a lump in my throat, not wanting it to end. And this is only a BLOG POST.

I know how to write, but no amount of teaching would enable me to write as well as you do, Kathryn. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
I'm loaning you my favorite cat o'nine tails to flog that self-doubt harpy every time she dares to raise her head. Someone told me a long time ago that real writers write. End of story. So as far as I'm concerned, anyone who consistently puts in the time and concentrated effort is worthy of the designation.
Awwwww, thanks, Gina. Now I have a lump in my throat! But really, I'm starting to care so much less about all that now! Now it's more about these stories that I have inside me that just have to be told, and I am willing to work very, very hard to birth them. And one of the key moments in my "turning pro" (which I will write about soon, because it's really been a string of moments that have led there) was when I was working very hard on the novel before my defense and I realized the other people in the cafe where I was weren't literary fiction writers, but paid professional writers in other genres. It was a big wake-up call, realizing that those people actually wrote more than some of the people I most admired, and I had to ask myself which group I wanted to join. The people who talk about writing, or the people who do the writing. For me, that was a no-brainer, so yes, Colleen, I agree completely with your comment.

Ha, and Suzan? Not so much into martinis, but if there were red wine there . . .
Joni Rodgers said…
"Staying power." Seriously. That is what it's all about. And like the staying power it takes to stay in a marriage, it has to be born out of love.

Great post, Dr. KatPat.
Ronlyn Domingue said…
What she did for you is so, so very rare! What a gift. Teachers like that are pure gold.

I didn't dare call myself a writer until I had a publishing contract for my first novel, no matter that I had an MFA. The first time I said "I'm a writer" aloud to someone who asked what I did (about a month after the verbal deal was made), I felt like I'd gotten away with something. My personal requirement was tangible proof. It wasn't real until I saw the book in print.
Joy said…
God, I miss that woman. Ms. Milgrim (and Dr. Tabakow) were such special people and wonderful teachers. And she was so right about you and so supportive. Self Doubt is such a menace...thank God for people who aren't afraid to reassure you and to impart some wisdome while they're at it. I appreciate your tenacity, your excellent advice...but most of all your writing. You're the "Ms. Milgrim" for YOUR students. Write On!
Mira said…
I have struggled myself with how to define my writing ability. I think it all centers around your definition of the word "real." This reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit. If I recall correctly, it was love that made the Velveteen Rabbit "real." When writing is your lover, what other choice do you have than to believe you are a "real" writer? I have found writing to be a jealous lover. This sometimes makes me unhappy, but doesn't change the hold writing has on me. When I am connected to an audience however, writing becomes a transcendent experience.
I love that you brought up "The Velveteen Rabbit." I was thinking the same thing, only more along the lines of loving it enough *makes* the writing real. :)

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