Last night was the first of my final classes in semester one of my master in creative writing degree. I turned in my final paper for my Professional Editing class, wrote a sample back cover blurb for the manuscript we’d done a structural edit on, and then most of us went to the pub to celebrate with a drink and some potato wedges. Woo-hoo!
Now I need to do it again tonight. And tomorrow night. I finished tomorrow’s final paper only this morning. Talk about cutting it close! Last Sunday I woke up and did the math – I had four projects to complete in eight days. (They’d all been started.) That’s two days per project. Eek! I finished the first two projects in four days – totally on time according to my self-inflicted schedule. Then the third project took the next four days. Yikes! So I had only a few hours over the next two mornings to finish the last project – thankfully, the one for the last class.
By last week, I was already questioning my expectations about what I wanted to do – finish four A-quality projects in the time I had – versus what I thought I might have to do – finish as best I can. I even asked a few friends what they thought because I was seriously stressing out – tight shoulders, headache, sleeplessness. One friend told me I needed to lower my expectations to what I could really do at this point. Another friend said I shouldn’t try for anything less than an A, no matter what it took. (After all, it was only one week.) Well, kind of them to try to help but… I still had to try to decide what *I* was going to do.
In the end, it’s no surprise that I decided to put everything I had into it to get the closest I could to an A on every project. It’ll be a month or more before I know my grades, but at this point I’ll have no regrets. My expectations of myself were fairly high throughout the semester, and I’m pretty content with my work. But last night, I started asking my friends and fellow students if my expectations of the graduate program were off.
I’ve been more than a little irritated some days when I’m in class listening to an instructor cover an incredibly basic point – like properly formatting a manuscript. I’ve been writing and publishing since 1997 and started grad school to bring my skills to the next level, the novel-publishing level. But some of my fellow students have said in class that this is the first time they have ever written any fiction of any kind! It makes me want to scream!
Hence my question after class last night – are my expectations off?
I am so glad I asked. Turns out there are three writing programs – the master of arts that I’m in, a diploma program, and a certificate program. And many of us are taking the same classes. That’s why there is such a wide range of writers in each class – a few people like me who have had books get to the “almost” stage at a publisher, a few people at the other end who have never written anything, and everyone else in the middle.
Now I know my expectations were off. I need to think of my classes as more like high-level critique groups filled with all levels of writers. Then I can be willing to be helpful to others without feeling like some people are holding me back. Because I’ve chosen to change my expectations, I’m finding myself already calming down, de-stressing, and thinking about how I can just focus on improving my writing. Period.
Stress comes from expectations not meeting reality. When reality is less than what you expected, you experience distress and dissatisfaction. When reality is better than you expected, you experience eustress and satisfaction. It’s not always about raising or lowering your standards, but changing them as needed to accommodate changes in the situation or the available information. (Remember last week when I was trying to decide if my expectations of my work habits were off?) I’m not going to lower my expectations of myself, but I am going to modify my expectations of my classmates and my future classes. I’ll keep the pressure on myself to do what *I* need to do while allowing my teachers and fellow students to do what they need to do.
In the end, I think it will be more satisfying for all of us.
Kitty Bucholtz is the co-founder of Routines for Writers, a web site dedicated to helping writers write more. She writes romance novels, light urban fantasy novels for adults and young adults, and magazine articles. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Creative Writing program at University of Technology, Sydney.