The paper plate is translucent with grease. I can make out the faux wood grain of the plastic surface beneath. My book lies face flat and wedged open on the table beside me. I cannot read now. Red sauce coats and drips from my fingers as I manipulate the molten cheese and rip the crusts apart. Every bite is precious and I feed myself with both hands, fast and fluid.

Chewing is unnecessary.

Crying makes me hungry, and that's what I did today. The long swim I've been taking in the ocean of information here at Lesley finally wiped me out. It had taken a turn for the dangerous, the unhinged, and I was drowning.

Critique. It's why I'm here. I am paying for the time and opinions of qualified critics. My application included several non-fiction essays, mostly pulled from my blog, and that's what my large group took a stab at today. Taking part in critique is terribly important to a writer, especially an aspiring writer. Like everyone else here, I needed to know where my pieces were on their journey. I needed to know where the mark was, whether I'd hit it, whether I'd passed it, whether I'd lost it.

My writing is beautiful.

There is also too much of it. I overwrite every point, stepping on whatever subtle truths lie caked in the mud of the creek beds of my mind.

My narrator's tone is often arrogant, didactic, and, thus, alienating. I don't trust my readers to think. I hound them with hyperbole.

My vocabulary is elevated to a point where it becomes useless to my audience. Often, my writing lacks intent.

When I write about places, traveling to them and exploring them, I fail to make my readers feel as though they have been there, too.

My writing is beautiful.

I respect the critique of my classmates, many of whom are much further along in their study than I. In preparation for this residency, I read and critiqued work from all of them, too. I respect the critique of my mentor, Rachel Manley. So, as their words thumped across the desks and splashed into the aching pit of my stomach, I never once doubted them. It was all true. I commit the sins of arrogance and pride every day of my life, at work, at home, with family, and with friends. Why should I assume they won't infiltrate my writing?

The heat of shame crawled up my spine like a line of red ants and fanned out over my shoulders and reached for my cheeks, my nose, my forehead. I choked on the truth of it. I'd been found out. A fraud.

Not because I cannot write. I can. Not because I am not talented. I am. Not because I don't have potential. I have it.

But I entered this program with my head held high. I was plucky and perky and took notes and smiled knowingly as I recognized important concepts like old friends. When called upon for answers, I gave them. I shared my opinions about poetry and prose as if I had every right to voice them.

Where was my humility? I know I have the capacity to be humble, but it's an exercise, a truly great effort. I meant to pack it in my suitcase along with my papers and books, but I must have forgotten.

In that room today, that circle of trust and magnification, I unraveled. Though I fought against the tears, they won out after half an hour. I panicked as they escaped my downturned eyes and slid into my lap, darkening tiny, blatant patches on my cotton dress. When Rachel Manley acknowledged that I was becoming upset, I cried harder. The more I struggled, the faster I lost the fight.

But it wasn't the words that triggered the tears. Every observation made in that room was true. I do need to ground my writing and personalize it; I do need to humble my narrator so that her path to self discovery is palatable, reasonable, likeable, enviable, believable. There is beauty in my writing that falters under the layers of overkill I slather upon it. I am verbose; I am didactic. I occasionally preach.

No, it wasn't the words. It was that I hadn't been the first to see it. After ten thousand readings of my short essays, I didn't see the flaws, and so I entered the ring unaware. In the end, I was the MFA cliché, the first semester author who thinks she knows something and gets sideswiped by candor. I was caught as oblivious as a child. A foolish child.

It shamed me.

I pulled myself together, of course, and stayed on to critique my classmates' work for the next two hours. When it was over, I stumbled back to my dorm room and curled up and sobbed into my pillow.

When the tears stopped, I picked up the edited and critiqued copies of my work, and I read through the comments on every page, in seven different hands. Like lashings.

My writing is beautiful.

I can go back and make changes now. Well, maybe not now. The wounds are too fresh and I can't bear to cut poetry. Perhaps tomorrow. Tonight I'll digest pizza, mine Dillard for words of hope, and remind myself that no one said I wasn't a good writer. No one said, "Go home, Audrey. You don't belong here." This is part of the process. It just happens to be the painful part.