In August, I drove down Route I-83 toward Towson, Maryland to attend my first two-week residency for the Master’s of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. After months of applications, waiting, and planning, it was time to dive into the graduate level writing program I had craved for over a decade. I was terrified.
At the residency, I was surrounded by real writers. Published authors and columnists, writing professors, Pulitzer Prize winners… and me? Most of my classmates work in the writing industry in some way, many of them as journalists. I was one of only a handful of high school teachers, and I spent over a week of the residency feeling like a wanna-be. Another first-year student, one who would grow to be a trusted friend, called it impostor syndrome. She felt it, too.
Several first-year students mistook me for a second-year, which baffled me. They said that I was confident and looked like I knew what I was doing. Ha! I was astonished; the absolute opposite was true.
I am more self-conscious than anyone will ever truly appreciate, and during the residency I escaped to my dorm room often, was outgoing and bubbly to hide my desire to run away, and participated in discussions simply to prove I belonged there. A confident second-year who knew what she was doing? Nothing could be further from the truth. I may be a fledgling writer, but clearly my ability to mask my true feelings and insecurities is spot on.
Even though I was a wanna-be and an impostor, and even though I hid in my room, cried to my husband on the phone, and lost my appetite entirely, each day I got to sit and listen to writers (and some editors) talk about their craft and read their own writing. It was surreal and spoke to a part of me that had long been asleep.
And yes, I’m talking about my classmates, too, not just the faculty. They read about running and feral cats, first loves and failed loves, pacemaker batteries and mid-make-up meltdowns. They read letters to ex-coaches and snide restaurant reviews. They exposed their souls in little ways.
It was these readings that helped me relax and finally let me dive into the program. At first, only faculty, graduates, and second-year students braved the podium at Alumni Hall. But then a first-year signed up and read her work, shaming the rest of us first-years. And after verbally agreeing to read, and silently vowing not to, I found myself signed up for an informal reading at the dorm lounge during the second week of the residency (thanks, AM).
My old writing didn’t seem sophisticated enough compared to the work of my more accomplished classmates, so I wrote something new and committed myself to just getting up there and doing it. I agonized all day. I revised and revised my piece. I gave it to my amazing roommate, who offered spot on feedback and then let me read to her the “final” first draft – the one I eventually read in front of my classmates.
I was one of the first to arrive in the lounge for the reading, and I hoped that it would be ill-attended, since it was in the dorm, not Alumni Hall. Then, people began to trickle in, the couches filled up, and people began perching on wide windowsills and dragging over more chairs. The faculty was busy in a meeting elsewhere, but my classmates were there in full force, ready to hear more than a dozen of us bare our souls. I tried not to vomit.
Luckily, the readings prior to mine pulled me in and time flew by, so before I could puke or run away, my name was called, and I rose to face the crowd for the first time.
I’m not going to share what I read. It turns out it didn’t matter what I read. It didn’t matter how my classmates reacted. The only thing that mattered was this: As I pushed myself out of the modular bucket seat, grabbed my Mac, and approached the piano that served as a podium, the program washed over me.
Until this point, the Goucher CNF program had been an idea, a thing for which I hoped, prayed, and prepared, and in which I desperately sought a writing community, though I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant yet. Through the lectures and readings and late nights up writing, the program rushed by me, remote, a river I was watching from the shore with a fake smile pasted on my face. There seemed to be no landing, no entry point in sight.
But when I rose that Tuesday night to read, to offer a little bit of my own soul instead of sitting back to observe, I was at once absorbed into the river. With each step toward the piano, I waded deeper and deeper until I could feel the pull of the current through the whole of my body. I was awash with the feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. The program was here, and I was suddenly in it. I belonged.
I floated through my just-over-four-minute reading. When I stopped and my classmates applauded, as I knew they would, as we do for everyone brave enough to read, I sailed back to my seat and collapsed, unmasked and new baptized 1.
The rest of the residency flew by, and I joyously paddled along feeling like I’d found my people. I stopped trying to look like I knew what I was doing and ended up making friends and “study hall” buddies.
I watched drunk writers argue about Nabokov in study hall and then listened to them continue their argument through the concrete walls of my dorm room. I laughed. I read. I wrote. People told me about their lives in minute detail. Multiple people exclaimed, “Oh, I DO like you!” Yeah, okay, that was off-putting, but I had masked myself so well, how could I expect people to know or like me?
On the last day, after getting people to planes, saying goodbye, and promising to keep in touch, I packed my car and headed back up Route I-83, home bound. It had been a long and exhausting two weeks, and I was happy and ready to return to my husband, my kids, my friends, and my life.
But I am changed. Though my writing sometimes feels rudderless, it is nonetheless moving forward with a force larger than myself. My fellow Goucher Gophers and I stay in touch via email, Facebook, and Twitter. We exchange writing, commiserate, and encourage each other, finding the current again and again.
And on days when my Muse is being stubborn or, worse, singing to me when I cannot listen, I feel the river still, and it buoys me up and carries me along.
1. A nod to Romeo in the balcony scene in Shakepeare’s “The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet.”