Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Number Fifteen

Judith Arnold

When I was a senior in college, I came up with four reasons to get an MFA in creative writing:

1. I had thousands of dollars in college loans that would come due unless I remained a full-time student. If I went to graduate school, they would be deferred, interest-free.

2. With my undergraduate degree (music theory major, theater minor), I was more or less unemployable. A master’s degree might help me to secure a job more easily.

3. An MFA program would allow me to indulge in my favorite activity—playing with words—for a couple of years.

4. I might learn something about writing.

So off I went to Brown University to earn a master’s degree in creative writing, with those four objectives in mind. Did I achieve them? Well, three out of four ain’t bad.

Attending grad school did allow me to forget about my loans for a couple of years. My MFA landed me a job as an assistant professor in the California State University system. And best of all, I immersed myself in the writer’s life for those two years at Brown. I hung out with other writers. We talked writing day and night. We attended one another’s poetry readings, acted in one another’s plays, critiqued one another’s novels, and partied whenever the opportunity arose.

But did I learn anything about writing?

Not about craft. Not about the thin line separating gorgeous writing from purple prose. Not about how to create a character arc, how to pace a plot, how to grab a reader’s attention and hold it tight until the final page.

I did learn one thing: that to succeed as a writer, I’d have to work very, very hard.

My cohort at Brown included fifteen students, and before I arrived, I found out by accident that I was ranked number fifteen—the last applicant to squeak into the program. Ego demolished, I phoned my mother to whine that I was apparently the least talented writer Brown had accepted that year. My mother noted that I could have been number sixteen and not gotten into the program at all.

She had a point. I stopped whining.

But I never lost my awareness that the creative writing faculty had considered me the weakest of the students they’d accepted that year. Being young and insecure, I assumed that they were infallible judges. Every class, seminar and workshop I participated in, I gazed around me at all the other students and thought, they’re more talented than I am.

The only way I could compete with those obviously more talented writers was to work harder, so I did. I wrote constantly. I edited my work ruthlessly. I paid attention to every word I typed, every phrasing, the cadence of every sentence. I evaluated every comma and conjunction. They’re more talented than I am, the insecure voice inside me whispered...but damn it, I was going to write circles around them.

After two years, I received my master’s degree and headed off to California to teach. The play I wrote as my thesis wound up receiving several professional productions. I won a writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed me to quit teaching and write full-time for a year. During that year, I wrote my first novel (never published, but it got me an agent.) I resumed teaching until I sold my first novel, and I’ve earned a good living as a novelist ever since.

The other fourteen students in my class? The ones more talented than I? As far as I know, none of them became a full-time, self-supporting writer. Some of them went into teaching, some found other work. Some have had their poetry published in small presses.

I’ve sold 87 novels, with my 88th scheduled for publication next March. Was I less talented than the rest? Possibly. But I learned to work. To sit down and get the writing done. To refuse to quit. To slave and sweat over every single word. To care more than any other writer.

It seems I did learn something about writing in graduate school, after all. I learned that while talent is important—and I was number fifteen, after all, not number sixteen, so I guess I had some talent—committing oneself to the ferociously demanding work of being a writer is far more important. I did the work. I made the commitment.

And thanks to the money I’ve earned as a novelist, I paid off all my college loans, too.


  1. I LOVE this story. You should have been number one.

  2. Sounds like 15 worked out pretty good. Thank you for sharing your journey. I loved the line "I learned to work. To sit down and get the writing done." Oh, I need to quit lurking and do the same.

  3. Totally agree with Karin! Love this.

    And EIGHTY-EIGHT books. PhD right there.

  4. Thanks for the comments! I'm glad I wasn't #1. My muse is much more productive when she's feeling insecure.

  5. This was beautifully written, Judith. I loved it! Thank you, and may there be 88+ novels ahead.

  6. Your mother was right. That was a great post. I can't believe how much you've written.