Photo credit: Caro Wallis
You did your research (or didn’t). You perfected your sample (or didn’t). You sought out recommenders that knew your work well (or didn’t). Okay, you get the idea. Whether you feel like you gave this MFA application season your all or felt like you shortchanged yourself, if you didn’t end up getting into a program you wanted (or a program at all), you may be feeling pretty down right now. For those of you who may have a fuzzy, nonexistent back-up plan, I crowd-sourced a few of our favorite MFA Years bloggers for their own advice re: moving on during the gap year(s). The following is what I call The Five Stages of Post-Application Season Grief, a combination of my own and others’ thoughts on this dark, dark period. I’m sure many of you have more or fewer stages than I list here, completely different stages altogether, or no stages at all (cue meme with little cartoon dog on fire). TL:DR? You’re going to be okay.
Stage One: “I suck and everyone hates me.”
First of all, calm down (I know, worst advice ever, right?). Reader, I’m not going to tell you that you’re amazing, because I don’t know you. What’s amazing is that you put yourself out there. You tried. But unless you’re a narcissistic James Franco type (sorry, Jimmy, maybe you’re a nice guy deep down), you know your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You know that you actually do suck sometimes. We all do. What’s hard is confronting the suckiness. But hey! You have a whole year (or more) to figure it out. You also know when you don’t suck. What do you think you did well in your applications? How can you make sure you hold onto that strength?
But really, here’s how I see it: If you feel the need to have constant validation, that getting into that one program was the only thing that would finally make you feel like a Real Writer, maybe it’s time to consider why you applied to MFA programs in the first place.
Stage Two: “I wasn’t ready.”
Sometimes, getting rejected is a good thing simply because the rejection tells you, whether by pure bad luck of the draw or by very real evidence in your application, that you weren’t ready for graduate school. “It took me three tries to get in,” J.R. Dawson said. “It turned out for the best. I got into the school I should have gotten into. Not getting in immediately makes you grow up and re-examine what you’re looking for.”
I agree, and can speak to that personally: the first year I applied (2013), I applied for too many schools that I wasn’t actually all that excited about. During my second round last year, I applied to only the schools I loved (which happened to be only two). Not only that, but I realized that I wanted to study and write creative nonfiction more than I wanted to study and write fiction—and I’m not alone in this changeling game. “I’m exploring more CNF,” poet applicant Porscha Felicity Coleman said. “I’m finding that an MFA falling through is a perfect time to explore other genres.”
Stage Three: “But I was so close!”
No matter where you end up, you’re more than likely going to wonder at least once, “What if?” We all deal with imposter syndrome at one point or another, even if we end up at the most amazing program ever (unless we’re James Franco).
“I got into several great and incredibly exclusive programs during a year when I was not actually prepared to apply, then spent the next several months hating myself for not having gotten into Cornell/Iowa/Michigan,” said Cady Vishniac. “I have spoken to Cornell/Iowa/Michigan grads and most of them are haunted by some equally imaginary failure.”
Here are your options: take what you got (but not before reading Stage Four), try again, or try something else.
Stage Four: “I got in, but I didn’t get funding. Now what?”
How important is funding to you? For most applicants, funding is a requirement for attendance. Some of us are blessed to be independent wealthy enough to pay for our degrees, but I’m 100% in agreement with those that advise “Do not go into debt for graduate school” (just Google that phrase verbatim and see what happens). MFA programs are no exception—in fact, I would say they fall into the quintessential “DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT DEBT” graduate program category.
Now, when I say “paying,” there are of course different tiers of what that means. For some people (myself included), funding means you get full tuition remission (you don’t pay tuition at all) and a stipend livable for the city you’d be living in. For others, maybe partial funding would be “enough,” or maybe a low-res program with low tuition rates would be just fine.
In any case, there are situations in which you have to decide if it’s better to pay to attend the school you love, accept the funding you need from the school you love a bit less, or reject all schools in lieu of trying again in the future. I’ve already explained my feelings on paying for an MFA above (don’t!). Bailey Boyd explained that if funding is a major factor for you, it’s really important to consider “the situation that you’ve gotten into a program but didn’t get the funding package you need so that you really have to start looking at the other programs you may not be so pumped about. It’s all part of the process.”
“I think a lot of people want to get into certain ‘top’ programs because of their reputations or the reputations of their faculty,” Michelle Meyers said, “but sometimes the programs they’re less pumped about would actually be a better fit for them and/or make them happier, put them in a situation where they’ll be generating better work, etc.”
Generally, I would advise that if you don’t think you’ll get what you need out of the program that’s giving you funding—you feel in your gut that it just isn’t right—that you should wait. But give those other schools that Michelle and Bailey are alluding to a long, hard look. One of them might be just the program you needed; you just didn’t realize it right away.
Stage Five: “What do I do now?”
Just because you may not be starting an MFA program this year does not mean that you will stop writing—that is, unless this application process has told you something very important: that you do not actually want to be a writer at all. It happens, and that’s perfectly okay. But for those whose passion for writing only intensifies after application rejections, now is the time to really see how you can manage being a working writer. Most writers do not survive on writing gigs alone. Most (with the exception of the independently wealthy or other very extraordinary circumstances) have to keep full-time or part-time gigs to make ends meet. Make a plan for yourself. How will you negotiate your time between making money and making art? Will you need to stay in your current job, or find a new one with more flexibility? Will you dedicate yourself to making the time to write, or will you let your writing fall through the cracks?
For some writers, something as simple as making a commitment to write so many hours or words per week is just enough to keep the creation train moving. For others, structure in the form of local or Internet writing workshops and meet-ups is the way to go. Finally, if you can take off time from work, save the money and/or score an awesome scholarship to a writing retreat, do it.
“I’ve applied and am still applying to summer workshops. Cave canem, VONA etc. I’m working a chapbook,” said Porscha Felicity Coleman.
Martina Clark said, “I didn’t get in the first time I applied (a few years back) and it pushed me to go to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and a few other things, and I think those were invaluable and prepared me for the MFA in terms of rigorous workshopping and such, so it turned out well.”
Michelle Meyers mentioned an opportunity she took that was available only to writers who aren’t and never have been in an MFA program. “I’m actually really glad I didn’t get into any programs the first year I applied because then I ended up doing the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship (which I wouldn’t have qualified for during or after an MFA program) and it was an amazing experience.”
Want to know more about opportunities like these? Keep up to date on artist residencies, retreats, conferences, and scholarships to them from organizations like the Alliance of Artists Communities, Poets and Writers, Association of Writers and Writing Programs (and its affiliated magazine, The Writers’ Chronicle), and New Pages.