Recently, a couple of you have emailed me a question or two, and in the process dropped the fact that your background isn’t in literature or writing. This isn’t cause for insecurity–a different background can be a huge asset. It can enrich your writing, and make you attractive in the review committee’s eyes, too. “You have a few years of med school under your belt?” “You studied piano in college and spent the last few years teaching piano lessons to kids?” “You’ve been working in a paper mill?” “You studied art history and worked as an assistant for the NEA?” “You studied math and spent the last ten years tutoring in a big city?” “Your background is in geriatric medicine?” Well, you sound like an intriguing candidate to me. (These are real people, by the way.)
So why the concern? If you don’t have sufficient experience or training in literature, read. Read all summer into fall and spring. Read into the next summer. Read two or three or four books a month. Learn to read critically, thoughtfully, and to deconstruct. Learn literary terms if necessary–and practice writing short critical analyses on what you read, and on your own stories or poems. Think about what you’re saying about X, how you’re saying it, and why.
If you feel shaky about workshop, remember: there’s absolutely no shame in learning something new. Besides, you might not be the only one coming from a non-literary background. No one is going to scoff at you, unless that person is a jerk.
Plus, you can always completely dispel any doubts the faculty might hold by writing a fantastic story or set of poems, and an amazing personal statement. Show them that you can write.
But begin by changing your perception of yourself. Language is affected by attitude. Don’t act or write as if you’re making up for something, take pride in what you’ve accomplished so far, and mine that background and experience to make your writing complex. Then work really hard to draft, revise, and edit your portfolio.