The second year of the MFA is wrapping up and I generally feel good–about the program, about the progress of my writing, about potential prospects after the MFA (I have one more year left), and about the summer ahead of me. This semester, I’ve started writing a second novel about mysterious deaths and scientists and Los Alamos and time travel, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I’ve decided to work on my book of satirical short stories about Los Angeles for my thesis, and I’m contemplating applying to PhD programs around the Los Angeles area, where I plan to move after finishing the MFA, as well as other teaching/writing/nonprofit jobs.
I suppose what’s odd to me is that on one level, everything is going swimmingly. I’m on course to finish strong drafts of a novel and a collection of short stories at the end of three years of an MFA. I’m getting positive feedback and generative feedback and I’m secure in my abilities as a writer in addition to acknowledging the areas in which I can continue to grow.
That having been said, this academic year has also been one of nearly constant rejection when it has come to getting my writing into the outside world and applying for awards. I joke with my friends that I’m getting so good at being rejected, that my talent in that area just keeps growing. To give context, last academic year, I had 43 rejections, 5 acceptances, and 3 finalist nominations in contests. One of my short stories, “Beach Boys,” was featured on the Ploughshares blog under the column “Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” I successfully applied for a residency in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
This year, in contrast, I’ve had 40 rejections and 0 acceptances, and I haven’t won or been considered a finalist for any awards or contests. The only publications I’ve had or have forthcoming are book reviews, which, while I enjoy writing them, have all been solicited and are not necessarily the most competitive market. In addition, I was accepted into a conference in Iceland (NonfictioNOW), but given that I was admitted based on a hastily written 500-word CNF essay entitled “Theoretical Booty Call,” I wonder if the selection process likely wasn’t especially competitive.
On the one hand, there are logical reasons for my lower (a.k.a. 0%) acceptance rate into literary journals and contests this year. I’ve submitted less, and I seem to have stumbled onto the short story of mine that, thus far, has been my least popular short story among literary magazines–even with several rounds of revisions, the story has received a whopping 50 rejections and 2 non-responses, far more than any other story I’ve submitted before (even though there are other accepted stories of mine that I would have imagined as weaker/less interesting than this one). Furthermore, I’ve mostly been submitting nonfiction otherwise, not necessarily a genre in which I have as much practice, and while I had a nonfiction piece picked up by The Adroit Journal last year, my other CNF pieces haven’t fared as well. This summer, I plan to revise a handful of fiction and nonfiction pieces and hope that when they’re sent out, they’ll more readily find homes.
I suppose I bring this all up in part because I think it’s just as important to discuss rejections as it is to discuss acceptances. I think it’s a difficult subject to parse out because it’s far less glamorous to discuss one’s rejections than one’s acceptances, to acknowledge the fragility of public approval. And though if a piece has gotten, say, 50 rejections, chances are it does need some major revisions, that having been said, I also feel it’s important to acknowledge that luck and taste have a part to play in publication as well (and frankly, in how one is judged by one’s peers).
I’ve been present this semester during numerous conversations where friends of mine in the program have announced who they think is the best writer or the best writers at Alabama right now, and I’ve never particularly cared for this type of ranking. Sure, you’re allowed to have a favorite writer or writers. I have mine, although I generally keep such thoughts to myself. But to me, the idea of a “best” writer or “better” writer is akin to saying something is the best book ever written, especially in the context of a highly selective MFA program where everyone is likely an excellent writer. I can maybe choose ten or twenty favorite books but certainly not one. What is the point of declaring Toni Morrison the best writer, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Colson Whitehead, or Marilynne Robinson, or Junot Diaz, or Angela Carter? Each has or had different goals in mind.
This next year, I plan to revise. I plan to send out more pieces. I plan to submit more strategically, to put in the work to improve my odds of publication. But I know too that the best home for one person’s writing may not be the best home for my own.