Photo credit: Eric Wong, Basketball Hoop
I’ve always been a highly competitive person.
At five years old, I started figure skating. Adorned with pink sequins and doing my best bunny hops and swizzles to the tune of Captain Kangeroo, my mom had to teach me that it was not okay to cheer when my competitors fell down. Actually, that was generally frowned upon.
A little older but still bloodthirsty, I played basketball in a youth league at my local YMCA. During the pre-game prayer, I spent more time sizing up the other team than asking Jesus for a safe game and flawless layups. Not gifted with any kind of decent dribbling skills, I relied on my height and strength to play. I gave defense my all… often to the point that I fouled out for throwing too many elbows. After the ref blew the whistle the fifth time, I gave my dad an enthusiastic thumbs up to celebrate my removal from the game while he looked at his brutish daughter with mild horror.
I’ve spent my entire adulthood showing horses. In the height of show season, I wouldn’t get home from work until 10pm at night, because I spent my after hours carefully trotting serpentines and practicing the art of finding the perfect distance to a single oxer from a forward canter.
And really, I’ve never been any good at these sports that I’ve been so competitive at. I have no natural talent for figure skating, basketball or riding horses. But when I set my mind to something, I want to be the best that I can. Writing is no different.
I am no prodigy. My tiny little bit of fleeting success with words has come with the expense of countless hours reading, writing bad short stories, and even blogging. I’m not naturally good at this, but I practice and I decided to go to school for it because I want to be the best. With that mentality, I walked into my first day of classes at UCR, looked around the room and told myself that I would work the hardest, write the most and be the best.
And that was so, so stupid.
It was stupid for a lot of reasons. The first is obvious – writing is subjective. My favorite book isn’t going to be your favorite book. I will never be an amazing writer when it comes to telling the stories of indigenous people or composing a well-researched essay on the struggles of the stock market. Maybe if there was another memoir writing, animal loving widow in her young thirties in my cohort… maybe I could try to be the best out of that sampling. But even then, we all have a different story to tell and a different way to tell it. Looking back, I can’t believe I even told myself that I needed to be the best… it’s a little hard to admit.
Perhaps the bigger reason it’s stupid to walk into an MFA program attempting literary world domination is that all the writers in a program share success. What is good for the school is good for you as a writer. When one of UCR’s alum gets a great book review, or someone in my genre has published more than me — it’s not a negative. Having successful peers means that you’re getting to work with amazing writers who have as much to teach you as the professors themselves. The more accolades we collect, the more prestigious our program grows within the literary community. That is good news for me as a writer, because I’m part of that program.
Writing alone in a silo might be an individual sport, but being in a MFA program means I’m on a team now. At workshop, I need to pass the ball more than I need to block rebounds. Fouling out doesn’t show I’m tough. It shows I’m unable to get the most out of this experience.
Slowly, I’m trying to quell my competitive nature. I still work hard at craft to make up from my lack of natural talent, but I’m not focused on beating anyone out anymore. When I see a contest I want to enter, I share it with my peers instead of keeping it to myself. When someone writes a piece I’m jealous I didn’t think of, I praise them instead of picking it apart to find flaws in an attempt to raise my self esteem.
Because I think inside of every flashy, successful writer, there might be someone who feels like they aren’t naturally talented and has worked very, very hard to make it. In an MFA program, if we lean on each other and work together on the journey, there’s no way to lose.