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.


Chrissy H. said...

I obsessively read/occasionally comment on the MFA blog as well. Best of luck to you and to all of us!

Jim C. said...

Thank you Chrissy. You too.

Ben said...

Thanks for writing this. Came at just the right time for me.

His, and your, story is inspiring and I can sympathize.


Ink and Beans said...

Thanks for your kind words Ben. It means a lot to hear this. Best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Getting into a MFA...or not ...being accepted...isn't going to make much is either a writer or they are not...and writing is primarily an insular, isolative craft where instincts are key...writers can comment on other writers work...but truthfully...criticism...even when constructive...can be all over the map...and writers are typically selfish are really only concerned with their own work...its only in the last fifty years that workshops,mfa programs, etc have blossomed...that being said...those into fiction can benefit from workshops where, unlike poetry, storylines and character development are broad enough topics that feelings aren't hurt and suggestions can be implemented...