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Practicing to be a Real Writer

The knife, angled just so, can cut to the bone. Mocking me on the ALA Council list, a councilor wrote, “Don’t you know that she is *practicing* to be a Real Writer?”

That’s how most of us feel, most of the time, while writing. Nobody needs to say that out loud; it’s the backbeat to my efforts. I’m a fraud. Incompetent. Incapable. Self-deluded. Selfishly sucking up time that could have been spent on work or family or church or life, all to feed the silly notion that I can improve my writing. Send in a piece, and they will sit around the office, cawing at my work and saying, “Look at her pretending to be a Real Writer!”

This week, I had to work on imitations of great writers. I struggled to imitate James Baldwin from Notes of a Native Son. I winced at my abortive output. I suck. I know I suck. I triple-suck. I blow-big-honking-chunks-to-Pluto suck.

In the past, I reminded myself what I have told other students in the program: we’re always at least one step ahead of our ability. If we weren’t, we could never improve. It’s that critical glance over the shoulder that matters.

But this Wednesday, McGonagall, as I call my crusty lit instructor, tacked the same topic. First he quoted Richard Hugo: “Hope hard always to fall short of success.” Then, far more memorably, at least for me, he put it in his own words: “This feeling that you know you can do better next time is key to becoming a better writer.”

To “essai”–the word that became “essay”– is to attempt, to try. I’ll hitch up my britches and try to imitate Mary McCarthy, or E.B. White, or Joan Didion, and if I feel I can do better next time, I will try harder to take it as a sign of success.

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