What you think you know about fiction
What you think you know about fiction no longer matters. You are in your first graduate workshop. You are intimidated. You are scared. You are intimidated and scared because your professor is intimidating and scary. He knows more about everything than you do. Both of you understand this. He knows what he is doing, and you do not. He is your advisor. You wonder if you should apologize for this. You are convinced that you have been admitted to graduate school through some sort of clerical error—and that may well be the truth—but the paperwork is official and you have been properly immunized. It is too late now. The ball is already rolling down the hill and the rocks are unavoidable.
Your scary, intimidating advisor draws something on the chalk board. You are surprised chalkboards still exist in graduate school. The guy sitting next to you—another first-year—looks like a better writer than you. He looks like a 130lb version of James Dean. He has an Irish first name that no one can pronounce. He smokes Pall Malls and wears Chuck Taylors. You are wearing a sweatshirt with stains on it. You are terrible at smoking. You are probably terrible at writing. You remember the look on your friend’s face nine months ago when you read him a story from your application. He didn’t laugh at any of the funny parts. “It’s good,” he had said.
Your scary, intimidating, advisor turns to the cool-looking guy next to you and says, “Tell me what your biggest writing problem is.” You think, what kind of question is that? And before you can answer yourself, it is your turn. You are next. You must answer here in front of your advisor, the cool-looking guy next to you, this rapidly shrinking room full of beautiful, cool-looking geniuses, and a god that you don’t actually believe in but who is surely laughing at you. You answer something you think might be right, but you don’t know. Your advisor seems to think about it for not very long at all before saying something so obvious and true that you feel both thankful and ashamed. Your professor is like the Dhali Lamma of fiction, you think.
You go home. You get over your fear and intimidation because you have to. You have signed up, stupidly, to go second in workshop. You do not have time to be timid or shy or embarrassed or stupid or lazy or modest or polite or overwhelmed or stressed out. You have class tomorrow, and that professor will probably be the smartest person in the world—and that may well again be the truth. And so you feign intelligence and willpower and competency from the first day until the last day, until the words grow roots into your arms and legs and mouth and tongue. You will be the world’s best clerical error, you decide. It is the only way you know. You do not have time for anything else.