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.)
Baccalaureate Service 2010
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 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.

14 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: How Harvard Failures Made Me Thick-Skinned, Super-Stubborn, and Ready for a Writing Life

  1. Sarah Lamstein says:

    So excellent, Erika. What a gift to all of us!

  2. Sarah says:

    So true. And a good reminder to keep working and keep trying.

  3. Stephanie Turner says:

    This is exactly what our current coddling parents need to hear: let kids fail in school, so they will be ready for failure in life. The parents who call me (I’m a teacher) to complain about the grade I “gave” the kid (no, the kid EARNED that grade) are the ones setting the kid up for failure later — not me.

  4. R Klempner says:

    Wow. Today’s post is just so excellent, and I’m amazed at your persistence. And it goes to show that it’s when we’re pushed to our limits that we can grow.

  5. aDCwriter says:

    Great article and great advice. Thanks for the “never give up” reminder!

  6. Drew says:

    My husband, who attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, recounts similar stories of being brutally humbled, and in turn strengthened, by the depth and breadth of skill that surrounded him.

    For some, challenge brings out the best. Glad to see it did for you, Erika. Thanks for sharing your background.

  7. Erika, lots I recognize here. I got diverted trying to comp the Crimson editorial by the business editor, who told me I could switch to editorial once I’d spent time selling ads. (!) I didn’t switch, of course, I just faded away. And there were dozens more situations like these…everywhere I turned, Harvard refused to open its clamshell to me, until I finally started doing theatre and found a level of confidence I’d lacked before. Acting is a lot like writing fiction, which I’m only now attempting in my 40s after thinking, “If not now, when?” Seeing Sheryl in the news and under the lights doesn’t hurt, either…it’s like the ghost of Harvard past saying, Well, this is what classmates are doing, what are You doing, Sheila?

    Keep writing, Erika.

  8. Erika Dreifus says:

    Wow–I don’t know what to say in response to all of these great comments. Other than: THANK YOU!

  9. Hope Coulter says:

    Well-said, Erika. This was much like my experience at Harvard (class of ’82). The exclusivity of “Option 3” within the English Dept.; applying and not getting into the few writing classes that were offered; and having stories rejected by the Advocate, which had awed me ever since I’d pored over bios of favorite writers back in my high school days…all of that turned me away from pursuing writing in an academic setting. I continued to write on my own, published some, and went for my MFA almost thirty years after graduating from college. As it turns out, I teach writing now at a liberal arts college where I go out of my way to encourage students in their writing. And I publish now and then.

    As you said, the cold shoulder of the Harvard literary community did prepare me for hard knocks later and for the disinterest displayed by the publishing world to writers attempting to enter. Meanwhile, I took other great English courses, religion, history, biology (from E.O. Wilson), geology (from Stephen Jay Gould), and social sciences (from Robert Coles); one of my few regrets is not taking poetry from Helen Vendler, which you at least were wise enough to do.

    Thanks for posting this piece. Good luck in your writing life and otherwise.

  10. Hope Coulter says:

    After writing my previous post I read your bio. I see that we went to not only the same college but the same low-res MFA program. I graduated from Queens eight years after you did. I found it to be an excellent program, and the best teaching there was as good as anything I experienced at Harvard.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Hello, Hope, and thanks very much for commenting.

  11. Enchanting; I was the daughter of a Harvard grad who entered the university at 16. He then took a year off to support his parents because of the depression. Nevertheless, his children felt like trolls. But I started writing in 1980 when I went back to UC Irvine, and I teach writing. I’d love to share this with my writers! Delightful; wonderful; glad you are on the planet!

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Oh, my. Thank you, Esther!

  12. I’m reading this for the first time now (2015), Erika, thanks to your Facebook repost while we all struggle with even figuring out how to begin to try to apply for competing our way into writing our bios for the 25th reunion Red Book.

    As a Bostonian (well, a small-town-nearby native) I want to correct the historical record, though, in defense of Amazon is only the latest big fish to swallow the colorful little ones. Long before Amazon came the big national chains, chomping and gorging, leaving dead zones in their wakes. It was Borders and Barnes & Noble that put Boston’s independent bookstores out of business.

    Look at the corner of School & Washington Streets, for instance. Used to be the site of the Old Corner Bookstore, founded 1828, the oldest bookstore in America. Then B&N entered a massive, glass-and-concrete superstructure across the street, the most soulless literary environment you would ever have the misfortune of visiting.

    Except you need not suffer that sad experience, because today that B&N is a Walgreens. The Old Corner Bookstore is—I shit you not—a Chipotle chain restaurant.

    Amazon, of course, famously came along and ate Borders, and took a chunk out of B&N too. Now, we can only hope that indies might make a brave resurgence in Boston.

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