Monday, March 15, 2010

Blood Sacrifice: Captain O-Neg Doubles Down

Weathering rejections from MFA programs has compelled me to find frequent and creative ways to feel empowered. Giving blood was a no-brainer, and today I did it in style.

As I covered in a post a while back, I'm a proud carrier of Type O negative blood, which makes me a martyr of sorts since I can give to anybody but can only take my own type. Moreover, my blood is chock full of caffeine, antidepressants and acne preventative antibiotics, so we're talking premium octane blood here, with a nitrous boost. If patients requiring transfusions were able to make a consumer decision regarding what kind of blood they received, my blood would be the luxury brand: "Treat your body to JRC SuperPlus. Look better. Feel better. Have more energy for your day."

"JRC SuperPlus. Don't just survive.  Live."

Because I'm a giver by nature, and have such a valuable commodity to lend, I was delighted to learn that medical advances have made it possible for the Fountain of Life that is me to be effectively tapped twice in one visit -- a collection method known as the "double red" donation.

The Red Cross attendant hooked me up to a white box that from a distance looked like a lie detector, with buttons and dials and spinning wheels. She warned me that the needle was slightly bigger for a double-red donation but I waved her off, declaring that no amount of pain was too great a price to pay for saving more lives (it did fucking hurt though).

The machine proceeded to draw out a pint of my blood, which traveled through a long clear tube before disappearing into the side of the white box. It reemerged as two substances, collected in separate bags. The first bag contained a dense mass of my red blood cells. The second contained my plasma which looked, I kid not, exactly like beer -- amber colored with a thick foamy head.

Seeing my blood rendered thus was cool enough on its own, but the best was yet to come. The machine proceeded then to pump the plasma, along with some saline solution, back into my body. It's fitting that my plasma was so lager-like because this part of the procedure definitely induced a funny, head-inflating sensation.

The full cycle -- draw, separate, inflate -- was repeated a second time, resulting in a bag full of red blood cells that is comprable to that found in two pints of whole blood.

The donation called to my mind a particular zombie dream -- yes I have many zombie dreams -- called to mind a particular zombie dream that ended more horrifically (and awesomely) than most. These zombies zombified their prey not by biting them, but through blood transfusion. I was forced to watch as a team of zombies strapped my last surviving friend to a table, stuck him with a couple of tubes and proceeded to draw his blood out while simultaneously replacing it with zombie blood. Transformation complete, my now undead friend moaned and staggered off, and I awoke just as the zombies were pinning me down to the table to perform the same procedure on me. Hell yeah.

Incidentally, this is the first video I'm posting that I've shot with my new, exquisite iPhone, the God of all mobile devices.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Coping with MFA Rejection (Part 2): Support and Perspective

Read "Coping with MFA Rejection, Part 1: Reality Check"

The dimming prospects for getting into an MFA program this year have compelled me to develop an acceptable contingency plan. This includes possibly taking leave from work this summer to volunteer overseas, enrolling in a writers workshop in the Fall, and reapplying to programs for 2011. At the very least, outlining a backup plan offers me some psychological armor as I prepare to endure the final outcome. I am confident that no matter what happens I'll continue to write and that "things," whatever they be, will work out fine.

Ultimate faith in myself notwithstanding though, I feel pretty gloomy. I whine to myself about all the hours and money I invested applying to nine schools, lament how underappreciated my talent and efforts are, etc. This process has been nothing short of a burgeoning humble pie and I doubt if I'm done eating it.

The MFA Blog, as I've often mentioned, was an indispensable source of information for me while I was applying. Recently it's become much more than that. The comments section has exploded into a lively forum (about 10,000 posts in a month) teeming with dozens of eager, anxious, disappointed -- and occasionally joyous -- MFA hopefuls.

If the mere fact of my rejections is not enough to sufficiently ground me, then I should think the resilience, generosity and undaunted hope I've encountered in my fellow applicants should finish the work. Truly, I am inspired.

Had I not discovered these writers sharing their fears, disappointments and joys, I think I'd be in big trouble right now, emotionally speaking. At times like these I lose perspective fast and repeatedly, and can only cope so well on my own.

If I feel moved to self-pity, I need only recall the circumstances of my peers -- which are often far more frustrating than mine -- and the grace with which they handle it.  One writer, for example, whose prospects for this year also look bleak, is a single mother with two jobs who works 80+ hours per week.  She still makes time to write every night and vows she will continue to do so, regardless of this year's outcome.

And a few days ago, one particular commenter really blew me away.  Like me, he has been out of school 8 years. He has several publications and awards, has participated extensively in workshops, and applied to 24 (holy crap) schools.

At the time of his posting he'd been rejected by fifteen schools. As of this writing, he's been waitlisted at Indiana, and has two answers left pending.

I can't comment directly on the quality of his writing, but given his efforts and accomplishments it staggers me that 21 schools could turn him down. Certainly this is a very subjective process involving extremely selective programs, and of course no one is entitled to a MFA slot.  Yet his situation seems most unjust. The tone of his initial post was admirably restrained, I thought, and his follow up even more gracious.

I thanked him for inadvertently lending me valuable perspective, and with his permission I'm reprinting his two posts here, in the hopes that other applicants might get out of it what I did.

phillywriter said...

@Seth (and others who are curious)

I'm finally posting my list of 24 (yes, 24) schools to which I've applied in fiction, and from which I've heard no good news so far:

Brown - rejected
Texas - rejected
WUSTL - rejected
Wisconsin - rejected
Syracuse - rejected
Alabama - presumed rejection
Michigan - presumed rejection
Minnesota - presumed rejection
Indiana - presumed rejection
Cornell - presumed rejection
Ohio State - presumed rejection
Virginia Tech - presumed rejection
Vanderbilt - presumed rejection
Purdue - presumed rejection
Iowa - trying not to presume a rejection, but hope is fading fast
University of Florida
University of Virginia
Johns Hopkins
Columbia (even though I don't know how I could afford it)
University of Oregon

I know I applied to very competitive programs, but I thought that by applying to 24 I'd come out OK in this subjective process. I did lots of research into my programs, read the MFA Handbook, planned the application process out for a long period of time, and worked hard for months on all my application materials. Most of the writing in my sample has been published, all of it has been workshopped extensively, and I truly felt it was my strongest work. I've been out of school for 8 years, always with the intention of getting my MFA, and I've been in writing workshops and working with mentors this entire time. I have a nice list of publication credits in halfway-decent lit mags and a couple fairly prestigious awards. I majored in English with a Creative Writing concentration at a very good school, with a high GPA, and I did very well on the GREs.

Yet here I am with not a single positive word from any of my 24 schools.

I say this just to let you all know how crazy this selection process is. I know my writing doesn't suck; I've had plenty of external validation. I excel in the objective criteria (GPA, GRE), and I spent months working on my SOPs.

Sorry for this really long post, which has been boiling up inside me for weeks now. I've waited 8 years to apply to MFA programs because I wanted my writing to get stronger, to gain life experience, to get more feedback on my work, and even have a few publication credits as evidence that I'm on the right track. I've done all that. I decided that the timing is finally right, and I only wanted to do this application process once, so I put everything into it and applied to 24 schools. And it's increasingly looking like I'll be doing this all over again next year.

The one thing I'd do differently, besides adding a few less competitive programs to the list, is have ALC/DH look at my sample and SOP. That's the only thing I can think of that I didn't do, even though I had plenty of people (including someone who's a professor in an MFA program) review it all and provide valuable feedback. But perhaps ALC/DH could give me that extra insight that I'm somehow missing. I don't know.

This is devastating. But no matter what, I'm going to keep on writing and I'll just keep applying until I get in.

Sorry again for the long post; it's clearly been festering for a while. As tends to happen with dreams deferred.

March 5, 2010 7:36 AM

phillywriter said...

Thanks, all. And no, I haven't given up hope yet. Initially I was just posting my list of 24 schools for Seth's information - and the rant just spilled forth....

No matter what, I'll keep writing. And I know the MFA isn't necessary to do that, but I long for the sense of community and the opportunity to focus exclusively on my writing for a while. I'm an academic at heart, and the idea of discussing writing at length from a writing craft perspective (as opposed to the deconstructive literary analysis of my undergrad English major days) makes me positively giddy. I hope someday to teach writing, and an MFA would help with that.

But I'm not giving up. I know this is what I want to do, so I just have to keep at it. So, yes, Ink and Beans - it's a deal! We'll both keep writing and keep trying.

And I truly am happy for all those who've had acceptances. I'm in favor of anything that helps generate great literature, and I hope that all of us keep working and writing and that those of us who go through MFA programs will emerge on the other end with even stronger writing. To me, it's not a competition. It's about creating something powerful and lasting. And I'm almost as happy reading an amazing story written by someone else as I am writing one of my own.

March 5, 2010 8:26 AM

*Addendum: Talk about the eleventh hour!  Phillywriter was eventually waitlisted at Indiana and LSU, but it was weeks before either school made their final decision.  Indiana informed him on signing day (April 15) that he didn't make it.  Then at 9 pm that night, LSU notified him that he was accepted.

Doubtless the man now has two ass cracks from sitting on the razor edge of his seat so long.  Congratulations phillywriter!  You are an inspiration.  April 15, 2010.

Coping with MFA Rejection (Part 1): Reality Check

The MFA situation is looking increasingly bleak for me.

I’ve received five definitive rejections (3 by standard mail and 2 by e-mail). Of the remaining four, two are finished or nearly finished notifying the accepted and waitlisted—I know this because my fellow applicants are prompt in reporting their news, good and bad, in the comments section of the MFA blog.

For me, that leaves two schools, which are no less selective than the other seven—all of these programs accept 1-3% of applicants.

UT-Austin – rejected
Wisconsin – rejected
Michigan – rejected
Brown – rejected
UMass-Amherst - rejected
Indiana – presumed rejection
Florida – presumed rejection
UVA – ?
UC-Irvine – ?

Some programs notify acceptances by e-mail but most do it by phone. Yesterday around lunch time I received a call from an unknown number (gasp!). It was an automated message, asking if I was interested in a professional carpet cleaning service.

I’m pissing on the next carpet I see.

Getting turned down by my top choice in Austin was a big reality check.  Since then I've had more reality than I care to acknowledge. Here's a difficult confession: I thought my getting into at least one of these programs was a virtual guarantee. I was that confident. But sharing the experience of the past three weeks online with other applicants reminds me how long I’ve not been part of a writing community, how vital feedback is, and how many other talented writers exist out there.

A range of negative feelings accompany these rejections. There’s disappointment, obviously. Also anger, that my work has now been rejected by forty-plus journals and seven grad schools. Jealousy, over the success of some of my fellow applicants—a few rock stars received offers from multiple top programs, most of which were on my list. Anxiety, and self-pity, as I watch my chances slowly dwindle.

And shame. I’m ashamed at feeling jealousy and self-pity, even if it is only natural. And I'm ashamed I may not get in when I’ve spoken about little else since September. Whenever conversation demanded personal news, mine was always grad school: my reasons for applying, my top choice and why, etc. That’s a lot of anticipation-building to arrive at such a disappointing verdict. Can we all just pretend I was playing indoor soccer or learning to knit for the past six months?

If things don’t work out, I’m confident I’ll be able to cope and move on to Plan B. In fact, I’m already proud of myself for how quickly I’ve been able to process these feelings and emerge resolute.

The problem is that each lull between rejections is enough to get my hopes up again, and each new denial enough to sink me anew. It’s bringing out the worst in me—I’m mopey and asocial with my friends, I'm irritable and spacey at work. I’m unmotivated to have fun, to be productive, and especially to write (fiction at least). I want this process to be finished so I can deal with it and move on, for the full disappointment to sting me as swiftly as the proverbial Band-Aid. Instead I feel like a strip of duct tape has been applied and torn off my inner thigh seven times with a long pause between each, and two rips to left to go.

Incidentally, my avoiding workshops for the last six years was a conscious decision, and in light of current events I have to be careful not to regret that choice. On my best week I could only muster about 8-10 hours to work on the book. If I were in a workshop I’d have spent much of that time reading and critiquing the work of others. Moreover, I knew that much of what I wrote was weak, but I pushed through for the sake of finishing, knowing I'd come back to it later and with better perspective. Until I get a passage worked out to my satisfaction, I’m my own best editor. It’s when the work appears near-perfect that I need others to see what I can’t. In short, feedback on such an early draft would have been largely wasted, and possibly overwhelming.

I’d always intended to get back into workshops, hence the MFA applications. But maybe I need to clock some workshop hours before I can go full time. So be it.

Read "Coping with MFA Rejection, Part 2: Support and Perspective"