Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: How Harvard Failures Made Me Thick-Skinned, Super-Stubborn, and Ready for a Writing Life
(As I explained at the beginning of the May issue of The Practicing Writer, where a version of this essay also appears, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my years in the Boston area. The Massachusetts phase of my life began when I arrived in Cambridge as a Harvard freshman more than 25 years ago. Little did I realize then how much – and how unexpectedly – Harvard would help me become a practicing writer. This essay describes some of those hard-won understandings. Thanks for reading.)
My undergraduate college – Harvard – was a perfect place to prepare for a writing life. But not for the reasons you think.
Not for the dizzying array of creative-writing classes (the college offered few; you had to submit a polished writing sample to compete for a spot in even introductory workshops). Not for benefits conferred by an on-campus MFA program (there wasn’t one). Not even for the vaunted connections (I was a first-generation Ivy Leaguer and only minimally “cooler” at Harvard than I’d been in high school). But even before I started seeing my classmates’ names (and seemingly just as quickly, those of younger alums) on book covers and within the pages of THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, I endured numerous experiences that could have encouraged me to give up.
At Harvard, it’s said, you don’t decide to write for the school newspaper. You try out. Admissions officers say that they could easily fill a freshman class with valedictorians. The same is likely true for high-school newspaper editors. (Yes, I was one.) My roommate and I couldn’t even squeeze in to the introductory meeting that the main campus newspaper hosted for potential staffers a couple of days into Freshman Week. So we left. Only later did I understand what my classmate Sheryl Sandberg is now telling everyone else: If you’re going to accomplish something, you can’t leave the room. In fact, it’s not enough to simply stay there. You have to “lean in.”
Next, I tried to join the staff of the most storied literary magazine on campus. This time, I actually managed to complete the entire application process, known as the “comp” (which is short for “competition”). Alas, that sense of accomplishment was short-lived, because I was soon told that I’d failed. Not that I was especially surprised, since every task I’d been assigned consisted of analyzing and explicating poetry, something that I cannot manage all that well even today; my skills were that much weaker when I was 18 and only a few weeks into Helen Vendler’s memorable British literature survey course.
My list of writing-related failures grew after freshman year. Take my attempt to become a contributor for the famous LET’S GO travel guides published by Harvard Student Agencies. That quest came to a screeching halt minutes into the interview (yes, students compete for LET’S GO jobs, too), when my interviewers, a group of friendly fellow students, asked me to give directions from one point of the campus to the subway station. Sadly, I have no sense of direction – something that would very likely hinder any travel writer, yes, but a challenge that I’d hoped to overcome as an official LET’S GO contributor. As I burbled a nonsensical reply, I knew that I’d lost any chance of securing the job. But I took vicarious pride and pleasure in the assignments made to some of my closest friends. In fact, their travels in Italy, Greece, Mexico, Egypt and elsewhere may have informed yours if you utilized LET’S GO guides for those destinations during the administration of George H.W. Bush.
I could detail many more writing-focused failures, rejections, and losses. But there’s a word count to consider, and a larger point to be made: Harvard helped me apprentice as a writer in ways that no admissions website or brochure will advertise. I was forced to confront a potentially immobilizing fear of failure. I was compelled to manage my relationship with the green-eyed monster early on. And, over time, I developed a healthy immunity to the rejections that more often than not characterize the writer’s life; I began that essential process of thickening my skin.
Harvard gave me other gifts. Before the Internet, Harvard’s libraries provided unsurpassed riches. Whatever wasn’t there could be gained, easily, by a highly resourced Inter-Library Loan section.
Before Amazon.com or Netflix, Harvard was located in a city bursting with bookstores and movie theaters. Not to mention the authors and other public figures who dropped by, seemingly daily, to lecture or read. It was a lively, creative place to be a thinking person – an essential precondition for good writing.
And then, of course, there were the people: the professors and teaching fellows who told me that my words mattered and pushed me to write better; the Famous Professor Emeritus who invited me to his home to discuss my senior honors thesis, which he discovered only because I’d dared to “lean in” and asked my eminent advisor to nominate it for an all-college prize (which it didn’t win); and the patient and generous friends who, at our most recent reunion, praised my book of short stories to our other classmates (including the Hollywood screenwriter who did so from his spot on stage for a panel on “alumni in the arts” – while I smiled from my place many rows back in the audience).
Sometimes, as an undergraduate, it seemed as though I was majoring in failure. Only now do I appreciate how much those failures – and how being the epitome of a small fish in a big pond early on – helped me. And my writing.