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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Proficiency Isn't Enough

When it comes to writing, we have to do better than "proficiency."

May 16, 2017




I recently experienced a very embarrassing, but blessedly private, moment.

After not looking at it for twenty years, I ran across my MFA thesis and started to read it.


I don’t know what I expected, but I thought the eleven stories in the thesis would be, I don’t know…better? I put a tremendous amount of time and effort into those stories, and while I’ve always been frustrated that my intentions for my own work exceed my abilities, my memory says that the person who submitted that thesis was good enough to be “in the game,” sending his work into the world with no worse odds of success than any other Joe or Jane.

Twenty years of hindsight reveal that I was deluded. Speaking as objectively as possible, the stories are not necessarily horrible, but I nonetheless find them horrifying. It is like being confronted with the worst picture of your pubescent years, just as your acne-dotted features are midway between their journey from child to adult and in the captured moment you look more like something out of Picasso’s cubism period than an actual human person.

Except it’s worse, because during puberty I had sufficient self-awareness to know I should lay low, avoid capture on film if at all possible because I was in the grips of something powerful and monstrous, while at the time of my MFA thesis, I was pretty sure I was on the cusp of arrival into the world of publishing writers.

I was certain the thesis would reflect the butterfly I’d become, but nope, I know now that I was still very much cocooned.

Without looking, I would’ve said that out of the eleven stories in the thesis, three or four of them wound up in the collection of stories that was ultimately published

Nope. Only one story, in significantly revised form made it into that book. Many of the stories I could not even remember writing. Even the titles failed to jog my memory.

Cringeworthy stuff. It had me wondering if I could break into the McNeese St. library and destroy what may be the only other extant copy at this point just to erase the evidence.

But like those horrible class photos from 8th grade that I can now chuckle over without feeling too much residual pain, perhaps the thesis is a good and necessary reminder of something I tell my students: writing is very hard, and with work, you will get better at it, but there is also no finish line. As soon as you think you’ve got something figured out, the world will show you otherwise.

Or to put a more positive spin on it, with practice, you will be capable of something better each year, which means when you look at something you did twenty years ago, you might be a little embarrassed for yourself.

Reading my MFA thesis – or rather, glancing at it through parted fingers for as long as I could stand – reminded me of a couple things: 1. Proficiency is something of an illusion, and 2. Proficiency is entirely uninspiring.

Put together, I suppose I could say that when it comes to learning to write, “proficiency” is meaningless.

Sure, proficiency is meaningful when it comes to writing in school-related contexts, but I’m wondering if we cling to these proficiency checks simply because they’re convenient, because to acknowledge the truth about writing – it’s complicated, it’s a life-long pursuit – is simply too difficult to handle in those school contexts.

No doubt, my thesis was judged “proficient” enough to merit graduation, and I suppose this is true. They are certainly competent short stories. They resemble the kind of thing one might read in a literary journal, but it is also clear they lack the thing that takes something from competent to genuinely meaningful.

I think I probably knew this at the time, but I didn’t want to outright admit it to myself. After three years of dedicated study it’s a hard thing to admit to oneself that perhaps it hasn’t paid off.

Post graduation I didn’t write for six months, though. At the time, I said I was letting the creative fields lie fallow. In reality, I think I was hoping the compulsion to write would pass because I sensed I could never be satisfied with it, that I’d never surpass competence.

But at the end of that six month period, inspired by an odd occurrence on my way home from work I wrote a story called “The Circus Elephants Look Sad Because They Are,” which became the first story I would ever publish.[1]

What happened? I wonder. What changed?

A little time passed, which for sure helps writers. Maturity is an asset. But it wasn’t that much time and I wasn’t doing any writing. (Though I was reading a ton.)

I believe in the end, what changed were the stakes. I was in the world, no more school, no more workshop with its built in audience.

No more colleagues whose work was genuinely accomplished, which allowed me the illusion of believing my work may also be of similar quality.

“Proficient” no longer held any meaning. I had to learn the difference between “good enough” and “can’t be better,” and the first step to bridging that gap was learning that the gap is very real and very hard to bridge.

School obscures this, and not only graduate school in creative writing. All of those B’s I hand out in a first-year writing course are me declaring “proficiency” of a kind, but the students exit without an experience that truly introduces them to that gap between “good enough” and “can’t be better” because school just doesn’t work that way. And even the "good enough" of school likely makes students ill-prepared for the reality of good enough beyond school, and without a framework for recognizing this reality to boot.

But can we help students understand the difference between "good enough" and "can't be better?" I think so.

Next time, my experiment in inducing “failure” in order to introduce students to that gap and move beyond proficiency as a goal.





[1] Googling my own title revealed a link to me I’d never seen, an analysis of the story in the context of the journal in which it was published (McSweeney’s Quarterly). I don’t fully understand what the scholar is getting on here, but at least it’s proof of the story’s existence.


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