Stop comparing yourself, or: The Ballad of Dave Eggers

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By Erik Fassnacht

 “Well, Erik, that was very pejorative of you.”♥

“Sorry, what?”

“Pejorative? You know what I’m talking about, right?”

It was the first semester of my MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, and I sat with my masters cohort in our late-night Publications class, slowly fathoming that the student across from me had actually used “pejorative” in a sentence. I was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer, and a former high school English teacher, and even I had no earthly idea what “pejorative” meant. It wasn’t the first time that a rare and seemingly archaic word had boomeranged over my head, each time making me duck down and question if I really belonged there.

It wasn’t only Thesaurus Factory who was the problem. To my right was another writer archetype — a studious wordsmith whose every sentence worked to build a glittering cathedral. Every turn of phrase, every crystalline metaphor, and every apt description sparkled across his pages like shards of stained glass. It almost hurt my eyes to read the passages — Stained Glass Guy was that good. And he was my competition, too.

After half a semester with Thesaurus Factory and Stained Glass Guy, my writing felt, in comparison, like a mangled, bloody mess — as if I was a farsighted butcher hacking away at meat and trying to call it dinner. What’s more, the truth finally felt evident: I didn’t belong there. My self-lauded talent had been exposed as pedestrian shtick! I was a fraud, a Cro-Magnon cartoon trying to haplessly pull a book from the inner workings of his thick skull, and this foolhardy experiment would end exactly the way I’d feared: with mildly disappointed professors pointing in unison toward the door.

And then, early in the second semester, Peter Ferry walked into our class. He was a retired English teacher promoting his debut novel, Travel Writing. After discussing his book, Ferry told us he’d actually had the privilege of teaching a teenage Dave Eggers at Lake Forest High School, located on Chicago’s North Shore. You know, Dave Eggers, the bestselling author of countless books, founder of McSweeny’s, co-founder of 826 Valencia, and all-around literary bad ass? Yeah, Peter Ferry taught that guy — a writer I seriously looked up to.

“And?” I said, raising my hand. “Was he like the biggest genius of all time, or what?”

“Actually, no,” Ferry said, smiling a little. “I didn’t know that he was a genius at all.”

I leaned forward. “Excuse me?”

“Well, for starters, Dave Eggers wasn’t even the best writer in his class.”

Suddenly I was stammering. “But, I mean, the guy is obviously amazing — he had to have been a rocket scientist or something to, you know, do all of that.”

“Not really. Dave Eggers was one of the most talented kids, sure, but we had three or four superior writers every year. What Dave Eggers had that the other students didn’t were two very simple things: he worked the hardest, and he believed in himself the most.”

“Seriously?”

Ferry nodded. “Those two things, and that’s it. When his father gave him the speech about finding another line of work and putting bread on the table, Dave didn’t listen. Just plowed ahead. Now look at him. He’s a rock star, and his books are being made into movies.”

It turned out that the word Thesaurus Factory had used in our Publications class — pejorative (which means “to express contempt or disapproval”) — was the word we’d secretly been using for ourselves, and our dream of writing. And when Peter Ferry’s talk was over, one thing became immediately clear: that contempt, along with its requisite expectation of failure, had to be euthanized. I went home that night and wrote for hours, a crazy confidence canoeing though my blood stream. Maybe I didn’t need the Scrabble dictionary vocabulary or the art gallery sentences. Maybe I just needed to be as confident as humanly possible, and work my ass off until my book was on a shelf. It couldn’t have been that simple, right?

Look, I know what you’re saying. Work hard? Believe in yourself? Do you want some cheese to go with that self-help nonsense? And trust me, I get it. But the key, at least for me, was to drop the cynical baggage that’s all too common with aspiring authors. Many of us had been expecting to fail as a kind of defensive mechanism, and I had to do the opposite: believe in Santa Claus in an age when everyone else was growing up. It felt strange at first — but not unpleasant. Yes, I thought, I am going to write a book, and get an agent, and get that book on the shelves.

From the moment Ferry’s class ended, I didn’t look back. I sought the best mentors, I worked the long hours, I researched and interviewed and emailed and queried. I canceled social plans to write, I skipped date nights to write, I told people I’d known forever that, “Sorry, I don’t have a choice.” I edited and reedited and edited some more. I developed a thick skin, accepted criticism, and went back to the grindstone until there wasn’t any grindstone left. And in the end, while it definitely wasn’t easy, it really was simple — just like Ferry said.

My debut novel, A Good Family, came out in hardcover last August, and the paperback came out on September 20th. I couldn’t be more excited, and sometimes it feels like an alternate reality — I get to walk into Barnes & Noble, go to the literary fiction section, and see my name on a book jacket — the completion of a dream that I had to convince myself was possible. And if I can do it by following two small bits of everyday advice, anybody else can do it, too.


Erik Fassnacht was born and raised in Chicago. He attended college at the University of Iowa before becoming a high school English and creative writing teacher. Spurred by a lifelong desire to write, he left teaching to get his MFA at Columbia College, where he wrote his debut novel, A Good Family.

us.macmillan.com/erikfassnacht

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