A Tale of Two Cities (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Writing)

It was the worst of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was incontrovertibly, without a doubt, the absolute worst of times.  And yet my former student—we will call her Mary Sue—still had the presence of mind to ask me how I was before she broke down in tears.  She’d gotten rejected by 7 MFA programs for creative writing and zero acceptances.  This is not because she is not an excellent and talented story writer.  I’m not the only one who thinks she is a very good, very talented writer.  I worked with her through the process of submitting her stories to magazines, stories which eventually got published.  And she taught me as well in the way that every good student teaches his or her teacher.  Still, she hasn’t written a line since the first MFA rejection came in the mail.  I think she took a month to mourn each one before finally Skyping me a few days ago with the ultimate question: Why?

I get a lot of questions and comments about writing on this blog, most of which I respond to via email.  However, now and again, I’ll hear from a student I taught at a previous school or online at the Gotham Writers Workshop.  Sometimes these messages will be positive and cheerful.  But, more often, they will be full of bitterness and frustration.  Before you laugh—haha those silly little writers and their silly little angst—I suggest you try it.  If you have, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t and still want to make fun, I suggest you fuck right off.

Anyway, I did my best to respond to her in a reasonably useful manner.  But it is worth noting—as I did in our Skype conversation—that there is no real way for me to divine why she was so consistently rejected.  I was tempted to respond with something long the lines of: harden up.  If you want to last in this business, you’d better make friends with rejection.  But a comeback like that solves nothing and would only serve as a way for me to avoid sincerely answering her question, a tactic I encountered all too often as a student.

In truth, I have been there.  I have felt sad and kicked around by the writing world.  I’ve been scoffed at by fellow graduate students, had my stories panned in workshop.  I’ve felt like a fraud many times.  I’ve been told not to give up my day job (or to get a day job or, post-911, to put a fireman in my novel / write some urban fantasy because that’s where it’s at right now, Davis—an office hour conversation that put me into a week of depression because a professor who talks like that has never said an honest thing in his life).  In fact, there were long, long stretches of time where I got absolutely no encouragement from anyone other than my immediate family and sometimes not even that.  So I felt for Mary Sue.  Being a creative artist is hard—hard in many hidden, difficult, often deeply painful ways.  Brutal, elemental rejection, when a young writer first experiences it, is something that lasts, that must be dealt with and overcome.  If we’re serious, we ask why over and over.*

She wanted to tell me that she felt like this was it.  Her writing career was over before it could begin.  And I don’t think it would be unfair for me to add that there was a subtle degree of accusatory shading there, to wit, why did you encourage me when this proves that I am clearly a loser?  Her mother wants her to go into nursing.  Her father hasn’t spoken to her since she told him she’s always liked girls more than boys.  All of this fits together in the nasty, if stereotypical, jigsaw experience of young people trying to develop themselves in unique ways after college.  So, with her permission and (I’m relieved to say) amusement, I am writing this in the hope that it will inspire others who may be in similar circumstances.  I know a lot of writers visit this blog.

Most of my initial response to Mary Sue came from my experiences working closely with professors in creative writing programs—at two different MFAs and then a PhD.  Here, I’m not speaking about any of those programs in particular.  I’m offering a general picture of the graduate creative writing admissions process as I’ve come to understand it.  I know some readers will have a hard time with this, but I will neither whitewash nor condemn what I think goes on based on some very vivid firsthand observations.  Instead, I’ll try to be fair when answering the question: how, if I’m so great, could they possibly reject me?

Let’s start with who’s reading your application.  No, I don’t mean the drones at the graduate college who only look to see if all the components are in place and you’ve actually taken the GRE / Single Subject Exam.  I mean the actual professors who sit around a table reading applications.

There might be anywhere from 50 to 150 applications in manila folders, stacked in the middle of the table.  150?  Aren’t you exaggerating, Davis?  Really.  150.  I’ve never heard of that many applications for, say, 2-4 PhD or 8-10 MFA acceptances.  You must have mistyped.  No, actually, I did not mistype.  There will typically be 3 or 4 professors who—in addition to all their usual teaching, writing, conference attending, committee participating, student advising, recommendation writing, colleague slandering, cat brushing, and therapist meeting—will be expected to make thoughtful decisions about a lot of people they’ve never met in a very limited period of time.

Most of these professors, reasonably or unreasonably, will quietly resent having to read these applications year after year.  Again, I recommend that we do not criticize them too harshly for this.  Yes, it is part of the job.  But reading those application packets is not easy or fun.  In fact, I have seen professors get incredibly exhausted when all of the duties and expectations they normally have converge with the application deadline(s).

What are they looking for?  Oh, you mean the paragraph of meaningless rhetoric on the department website where it says they’re looking for talented hardworking individuals who show unique promise and dedication to the field?  Set that aside for a moment and consider the existential state of an English department.  You have a collection of more or less gifted individuals who have dedicated their lives to an aspect of their field.  They, like you, majored in English because there was something about it they came to love.  In fact, they loved it so much they kept on with it year after year, even when good judgment and the economy told them they’d be better off working in a nail salon.

Many of these people have spent their entire lives in academia, got their degrees from an R1 institution, and deeply, religiously believe in the mission of their discipline.  Given the way the humanities degrees are generally treated by society at large, English professors also tend to exist in a perpetual state of consternation—exasperated by having to justify the relevance of their field to those who cannot or will not stop questioning whether it’s cost effective to offer anything beyond “Communication for Business Majors.”

Moreover, most of the English professors I’ve met have been fundamentally decent people.  Unfortunately, a university is not built to encourage fundamental decency.  It is, at heart, a relic from the old world—a patchwork of highly distorted medieval, renaissance, and Enlightenment thought-styles and power dynamics.  Its circulatory system is patronage (funding, awards, other less mentionable bonbons).  Machiavellian feuding exists on all levels.  And the outer covering of any given thing is nearly always a façade.

When you live in a world like that for a few decades, when your emotional life distributes itself along those channels, you tend to see people in terms of career opportunities; you tend to see career opportunities in terms of survival and self-protection, tenure notwithstanding.

With this in mind, the people reading your writing program application tend to be interested in one or more of the following: (1) your existing connections / prestige—will your existing status make them / the department look good if they accept you (Iowa / A-list magazine publications / famous daddy / already have a book contract)?  (2) your staying power—will they be wasting their time on you because you’re going to leave for law school next year?  (3) your potential level of compliance—will you be a problem, will you show up at their house in your underwear at 2AM in the middle of a nervous breakdown sometime in spring semester?   (4) your work ethic—how much of their busywork do you seem like you might take on for free if they told you it would look good on your resume?  And (5) sadly, mostly for the young-ish female applicants who have made a visit ahead of time, do you seem datable?

But what about the writing sample?  What about the letters of recommendation?  What about them?  How long does it take to briefly skim the top page in a packet when there are 49 more to read by tomorrow night?

Davis, you’re so cynical.

No.  Back up.  Think for a moment.  Getting an advanced degree and a tenure-track professorship does not automatically confer a “Good Guy” badge.  It is a mark of professional and academic achievement.  It shows that you have rhetorical savvy, that you’re gifted, that you care about something besides just turning a buck.  And it strongly suggests that you have willpower, that you still have some idealism, and that you may also care about at least part of the world—the part that involves your field of study.  It does not make you ready for canonization.

If you want to believe that everyone reading your application is a perfect and impartial judge of quality, sitting in a clean room, saying a decade of the rosary to the Blessed Virgin between those piles of dismal prevarication and puffery known as MFA applications, go ahead.  I’d also like to interest you in some beachfront real estate.

Most professors reading MFA apps do their best, which is to say, they try hard to balance all the above considerations against what they think might be good for the department in terms of the funding and other resources at hand.  It’s very hard.  And I have been present during such a process on three separate occasions.  Unprofessional, you say?  Don’t start.

Goes like this:

Professor 1 and Professor 2 are sitting in a conference room.  The obscene pile of applications in manila folders is on the table between them.  It is late morning on a Friday.  Neither of them are smiling.

P1: “Who’s this now?  Okay.  Thomas Anderson . . . from . . . Upper Hoboken State College.  Hmm.”

P2, who has been given to understand in no uncertain terms by her cousin, Thomas Anderson’s mother, that if he doesn’t get accepted, there will be hell to pay: “Yes.  Yes, that is a very fine school, I hear.  Yes.  Really.  And look, he’s published in two journals.”

P1: “Is that so.”  He removes his glasses and massages the bridge of his nose.  “Lost Nose Quarterly and Foetid Goat.  Have you ever read anything in Foetid Goat?”  He glances at the top page of Thomas Anderson’s writing sample, then moves the entire application packet to the side with the blade of his hand.  “Now how about this other one.  Sarah Prim.  She went to NILU, I understand.”**

P2: “Sure.  NILU.  But did you read her writing sample?  She hasn’t published anything.  I mean, given the number of applications—”

P1: “But she went to NILU.”

P2, seeing her cousin’s face: “Sure.  Right.  But I really think it’s important to give extra weight to publication—”

P1 puts his glasses back on, peers across the pile of application packets at P2: “Did you read their writing samples?”

P2 hesitates, then: “Of course I did.”  She takes a long drink of coffee.

P3 enters the room, visibly, wretchedly hung over.  “Hello.  Everyone.”  He sits way down at the end of the table, realizes that he will have to come closer to the pile of application packets, and moves two seats away from P2.  He clears his throat, massages the back of his neck, sighs.

P1 and P2 wait in silence for P3 to read both applications.  P3 skims Thomas Anderson’s CV, then takes a deep breath and excuses himself.  He can be heard running toward the men’s room at the end of the hall.

The professors break for lunch.  Three hours later, they reconvene and P3 looks healthier after a massive infusion of coffee and five cigarettes.  They sit back down in their places, everything right where they’d left it.  There’s no question that they’re now ready to work.  They’re going to get the day’s application reading done.

P3 scans Anderson’s CV again.  He takes Sara Prim’s CV out and sets it down beside Anderson’s, murmurs to himself, “NILU.  How about that,” thinking about the two-story Victorian just off the NILU campus where visiting writers and other dignitaries live for a semester.  All that stained glass.  NILU is one of the places he’s wanted to teach for a semester.  Who’s the chair there?  Dr. Smith?  Look at this.  Dr. Smith wrote Sarah Prim a letter of rec.  Good for you, Sarah Prim.

I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad or to point my finger at the unfairness of the process.  I can’t.  I was selected by good programs where I was an exception to this sort of nonsense because there were professors who refused to behave like this.  Unfortunately, I have been present, physically present multiple times, while this sort of thing went on.  And I have not forgotten it.

This is not to say that P1, P2, and P3 are bad people.  It’s to say that they are people.  And that they are forced to make judgment calls in an unforgiving system where an enormous amount of stress stays hidden under the surface of daily work.  I think it’s important for us to stay aware of this.  And admissions decisions become inherently absurd when based on overheated letters of recommendation, CVs, dreadful cover letters, and careful writing samples that may or may not reveal actual talent.

So let’s take out our writer’s crystal ball and do some projecting.

A few months after the scene in the conference room, Sarah Prim receives her acceptance letter and a similarly worded yet somehow heartfelt boilerplate acceptance email from the department’s graduate advisor.  It begins, Dear Sarah, I am delighted to inform you . . . and ends, to welcome you to the department!  Sarah is overjoyed.  It was her first choice.  She takes a stroll in the park with her writing journal but is too overwhelmed to write anything today.  She just sits on a warm bench and watches kids play on the jungle gym.  She smiles at the world and says to herself, Maybe I do have some talent.  Dad was right.  I just have to work hard and apply myself.  I think I’ve learned something hopeful about the world.  I’m going to be a writer.  When I publish my first book, I’ll dedicate it to mom and dad.

At that same moment, somewhere in Jersey, Thomas Anderson takes a smoke break behind the coffee shop where he’s working a double shift because his dick of a manager, Trevor, can’t be bothered to get up off his ass and hire another barista.  When Anderson checks email on his phone, he drops his cigarette.  The email begins, Dear Mr. Anderson, I regret to inform you . . . and ends, that there have been many qualified applicants this year.  We wish you success in your future endeavors.  He feels crushed.  This was his first, and only, choice.  He says to himself, Dad was right.  I just don’t have what it takes.  What can you do with a fucking degree like this anyway?  I’m not going to even tell him.  I was crazy to think I could do this.  I never get picked.  Story of my life.

Thomas Anderson will apply again next year and will probably get in to a state college MFA program that’s less prestigious than the one that just rejected him.  He’ll go through his 2 or 3 years and produce a book-length manuscript of short stories, some of which he’ll publish in magazines with names like Burning Trout, Load, and Catscratch Fiction Review.  He’ll also secretly produce a novel fragment that won’t work and that he’ll abandon around page 70.  He’ll give a thesis reading, go to the AWP Conference a few times and walk around aimlessly, worrying about money.  Then he’ll get a job as a dispatcher for a garbage truck company.

At that point, all bets are off.  He could go back to academia and get another degree.  He could join the Foreign Service.  He could settle in and keep dispatching them garbage trucks.  Whether or not he continues to write and publish in foetid magazines is entirely up to him.  And that’s the purity of a situation like his.  His entire education, his entire preparation, what he’s acquired as an artist will resonate more with the concept of the “Invisible College” than with the cottage industry of creative writing.

Meanwhile, Sarah Prim begins her program.  While there, she makes a lot of friends from Brown, Vassar, Mills, Middlebury, and Bennington.  She produces very few short stories and takes the bare minimum of workshops.  This is because, she is told early on that novels are where it’s at.  And that is correct, from a career-advancement standpoint.  The year before she is set to graduate with her MFA, she will have completed the first draft of a novel.  It will be about a wealthy yet sensitive 20-something, with an advertising job in Manhattan, who comes to terms with her identity through a series of colorful romantic entanglements.

While skiing in Vail over Christmas break with a few friends, Sarah will meet an older, newly single art history professor from NYU.  He’ll invite her to the city.  Shortly thereafter, she’ll be living in two places.  She will also have an entire new circle of friends, one of whom is a well-known literary agent.  After her MFA, she will move to New York City and get a small job as a copy editor for a fashion magazine.  Her novel will come out as part of a 2-book deal and she will be featured in a Writer’s Chronicle piece alongside Wally Lamb, Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Eggers.

At this point, she will decide that teaching might be interesting.  She’ll be offered an assistant professorship at a small liberal arts college the same way she was accepted to her first choice MFA program.  (If Thomas Anderson ever met Sarah, he would somehow realize that Sarah has never dropped a cigarette due to shock and dismay.  She would find being in his presence extremely uncomfortable—maybe that look in his eyes.  Maybe he’s just an awkward, hostile person by nature?)

So who’s the success?  Who worked harder?  Who “made it”?  These are stupid questions.  Both of them are writers.  Both have something to say in their work.  Both will speak a completely different language, will live in completely different worlds, will think of themselves in completely different ways.  And both of them deserve the best future they can make for themselves as artists—as long as they don’t forget one essential thing: art is not about any of this.  Art is what creative writers do at home at their desks.  Art doesn’t care about your CV or how much you can stroke the world or how the world might stroke you back.  Your only obligation is to your art.

So.  The bottom line:  if you say you want to go to a graduate creative writing program, by all means go.  But remember: keep your head straight.  Understand that the university is, has, and always will be a patronage system at heart.  It’s misunderstood by society at large and generally loved and hated by everyone in equal parts—especially by those who spend their lives inside it.

We can argue that things should be otherwise, but that would be a waste of our precious energy and attention.  Instead, let’s go skiing in Vail.  Let’s dispatch the garbage trucks (if we don’t, who will—no job should be beneath us just because we went to grad school).  And let’s get all of it over with so tomorrow we can get up at dawn and sit at the desk and write a story.

* Incidentally, this is the reason every writer should make friends with a dog if possible—a dog will always have the most sublime optimism, the deepest solicitousness for our struggle.  I once knew a miniature German Shepherd, named Molly, who would growl at bad paragraphs in our story workshop.  She would never growl at the writer.  That dog understood things.

** Near Ivy League University.

About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

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