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It’s gonna be…oh wait, May’s over!

Photo Credit: Photos Public Domain

Well, clearly time got the better of me this year. And now I am met with the task of summing up months of the MFA experience in a single blog post. Here goes!

Compared to the fall, the spring semester was pretty calm from a personal standpoint – no houses were flooded, no childhood pets died on me, mid-term assignments did not coincide with working at a costume shop at Halloween time (though there was another move involved – we moved the store right before finals, so that was wonderful timing.) I managed to explore Orlando some more (well, really just the thrift stores between Sanford and Orlando and also spent a lot of time tracking down the Beyond Burger and my favorite Philly beer, Victory Kirsch Gose, at stores in Altamonte Springs.) Oh, and I saw my two favorite musicians/humans in the world, Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde (the Pretenders), play together at the Amway Center. One of my courses had us taking friend trips in the area and reporting back on them. My favorite trip involved people-watching at Fun Spot, an Orlando theme park with free admission (rides are individually ticketed) and stiff, super-salty margaritas that enhanced the people-watching experience. It was no Disney World, but from the looks of it, everyone was having a blast there. I wound up reading the piece for Parcels, UCF’s graduate reading series, which takes place one Sunday a month. I spend the entire day picking at my piece and was subsequently a nervous wreck for the entire time I stood onstage, but I felt totally proud of myself afterwards (and also everyone laughed at all the right points in it so yay.) It also helped  (helped me, at least) that it was Superbowl Sunday, so the turnout for the event wasn’t as large as most months. And I made it home to see the end of the game before I had to scramble to do the homework I’d put off while I fixated on the reading.

Those “field trip” assignments were for a Hybrid Forms course taught by Terry Thaxton, the MFA Program Director. We read a selection of books that blurred the lines between fiction, CNF, and poetry, while conducting an independent study of an aspect of hybridity that interested us, that became first an annotated bibliography and then a craft essay. Being a screenwriter, I examined the ways in which prose and poetry have intersected with film (works that either took the form of a screenplay or incorporated/emulated the cinematic experience.) The piece was grounded in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the different adaptations that have come out of it (Did you know that there’s even a graphic novel depicting Capote’s time in Kansas? It’s called…Capote in Kansas.) I wound up finding way too many good sources for the essay and had to scramble to both read them and squeeze them into my essay, but I was super successful in the end! Our other big project involved us creating a Hybrid work of our own. Mine revolved around the character of Sam (the piano player) in Casablanca and how he’s sort of dropped from the film’s narrative partway through. It’s still a work in progress, but it combines personal essay, cultural criticism, and fictive screenwriting (as I imagine where Sam wound up when everyone else left Morocco.)

That class entailed reading a book a week, and writing a reaction/imitation each week. My Contemporary Nonfiction course also entailed a book a week, as well as a reaction and an imitation. So I was balancing working 32 hours a week with two books and lots of lots of writing, which was super-fun. But the books we read in Contemporary Nonfiction were all great, and between the two classes, I got so much more actual writing done than I had the semester before. We had to pinpoint an element of craft that stood out to us in each nonfiction book for our annotations, and having that aspect of craft as a jumping-off point made it much easier to write successful imitations. My final project for that course revolved around Sister Rosetta Tharpe (an early influence on rock music and all around fascinating person,) and I’m really excited to see how the piece shapes up in the future! This piece and the Casablanca one were also very research intensive, but that’s always been my favorite part of nonfiction writing (at least once I pinpoint some good sources…it took me ages to find anything on Dooley Wilson, who portrayed Sam. The Schomburg Center in New York pretty much saved my project.)

Rounding out my semester, I returned to Journeys Academy up in Sanford (there was super-fun construction on the surface road up to the school, but it still beat paying astronomical tolls each week, and I got to find aforementioned thrift stores!) I led the students in lessons on topics such as travel writing, their relationship with technology, and how to write effective descriptions. My teaching partner was a poetry student, and since I probably hadn’t written a poem since I was in middle school, I was grateful to have her there to get the students interested in poetry. There was one day that I was almost at the school when I discovered that she was still by UCF, locked out of her car. Backtracking to pick her up would have meant missing out on first period at Journeys, so I continued up north to teach the lesson alone. It was a poetry lesson that she’d planned, that I felt totally unequipped to teach on my own, so the lesson took some improvisation, but I had the students jump in and name objects in the classroom and what they might symbolize in a poem before they wrote poems about school, and some great works came out of it. On the last day of class, a student remarked to us that she’d always hated writing until we’d come into her classroom, but now writing excited her. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the semester.

This summer, I’ll be working full-time, trying to flesh out a few screenplay Ideas I have, and trying to piece together an early version of my thesis before the fall semester starts. I’m currently finishing up a collection of Wayne Kostenbaum’s essays before I move on to the next book on my list (probably some Chuck Klosterman essays.) Hopefully I get to see more of the city, too (well, I’ve already found more thrift stores and record shops, much to my wallet’s chagrin.) And then, bring on the second year!

 

 

 

Finding My Discomfort Zone

Image: Trung Bui Viet

In my first class on creative nonfiction this past April, I sat down in the workshop, excited, a little nervous, but fundamentally reassured by one thought: I wasn’t going to be any good at the class anyway, so I didn’t have to worry too much about mastering the finer points of the memoir or essay. I was taking nonfiction because in my MA program, we are required to take one class outside of our genre. Since I’m a fiction writer, that meant choosing between poetry and nonfiction.

 When I was in undergrad, I took one fateful poetry workshop. It was actually my first workshop experience. I wasn’t much of a poet, or at least I didn’t consider myself to be one, but it was easier to get accepted into a poetry workshop than a fiction workshop, so I took the chance to be in it when it was offered, knowing that I wasn’t going to be the star of the class. I brought in my painful clichéd breakup poems every week and cringed whenever it was the class’s turn to discuss my poetry. I marveled at the ability of other students to conjure dazzling images that spoke to my soul. I received an A-, which in an undergrad workshop, usually conveys the sentiment of “good effort, but you don’t have what it takes to do this for a living.” Or at least, that’s how I interpreted the grade at the time. I decided I would never be that good at poetry, especially since I didn’t really “get” poetry at the end of the day, so it was better for me to quit while I was ahead.

In grad school, I was certain that I would be paralyzed by my own inadequacy in a grad school poetry workshop. So I opted for nonfiction.

Still, I didn’t go into nonfiction intending to become good at it. I took it thinking I might write some fun and interesting things, but I approached the course with the comforting knowledge that next term I would go back to my relatively safe bubble of fiction writing.

As someone who always approached academic achievement way too seriously, I never learned how to fail gracefully. It’s a common feeling among young adults, like me, who are extremely insecure. If we start something new, something difficult, something we won’t be good at immediately, we get discouraged. We view initial failure as a sign that we’re not talented at a particular thing, and we don’t remember that it takes a long time and lots of practice to show results.

The first day of my nonfiction class, our professor had us do a writing exercise using “glimmers” from our memories as launching points for narrative. My first reaction to this somewhat daunting exercise: Self-sabotage. I declared to everyone around me that I was no good at remembering details and used this as an excuse for why I couldn’t come up with interesting memories, instead of actually trying to do what the professor was asking.

Then, for the next class, she asked us to take the glimmers we had come up with and weave them together into an essay. Part of me wanted to rebel against the unfairness of the writing prompt. The three “glimmers” we had come up with in class had nothing to do with one another. How was I supposed to force them into a narrative? I struggled, and managed to cobble them together. It was an overbearing essay, one in which I showed too much of my own thought process on the page. Handing it in the next week, I felt embarrassed, while also vindicated. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at the class. Here was proof.

The second week, we were given another tricky assignment. At this point, I was panicking, wondering how I would get words down on a page when I couldn’t seem to censor my own thoughts as I wrote. I didn’t want to actually be bad at nonfiction; I just wanted the expectations to be set low for me. At this point, I had heard some samples of writing from classmates and read some essays assigned for class, so I knew what potential existed in nonfiction. Before this class, I had never really experienced the pleasure of reading nonfiction essays that flow from one idea to the next like water falling down a smooth stone, or the satisfaction of reading pieces that clash one violent idea against the next like a discordant symphony that merges to create something greater, something volatile and marvelous. I didn’t know how I would make something similar, but I knew I at least wanted to try.

I turned in the next two assignments, knowing they were not perfect, but excited to show them to my professors and classmates. One of them I loved so much that I read it aloud at a reading for creative writing grad students.

Once I started writing essays fiercely and joyfully, I couldn’t understand what I had been so afraid of that first week. Nonfiction overtook my writing life; it’s been over a month since I’ve entered into a fictional world in my writing. I almost don’t want to go back, but I can’t tell how much my newfound infatuation with the essay is genuine and how much stems from the relief of breaking out of my genre and stretching my arms for the first time in what feels like ages.

Now that my first year of grad school is coming to a close, and my creative nonfiction workshop is almost over, I’ve felt the anxiety of what-comes-next creeping up on me. In my second year I’ll be teaching an introductory creative writing course that I don’t yet feel prepared to teach. How can I teach a course on writing fiction, when I still know so little about it? And then I’ll also start writing my thesis. When I think about the challenges ahead, I waver back and forth between eagerness— let’s just get on with this already— and fear— am I setting myself up for failure?

This quarter, all of my classes have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Not only am I taking creative nonfiction, but I am also taking a literary seminar focusing on avant-garde poetry, a subject that I never thought I would remotely understand. I still don’t really “get” it, but at least now I can say I’ve tried to puzzle through language poetry and conceptualism, even if it left me feeling disoriented and frustrated. These courses, by challenging me to go outside of the boundaries of what I know, have  reminded me why I write in the first place: writing refuses to be confined to a straightforward hierarchy of GPA (apart from the grades you receive in workshop, but as everyone knows, grad school grades are mostly immaterial).

Writing does not conform to a binary; it’s not something I can just succeed at or fail at. In fact, it doesn’t even have a strict set of rules. Like the Pirate’s Code in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film, not its horrific spawn currently out in theaters, rules for writing are more like guidelines anyway. And because writing is tricky, because it’s hard to pin down, hard to improve at, I can keep working on it indefinitely and never feel like my work is done. Writing is a challenge worth taking on, in grad school and in life, a quantum game of buried treasure in which the X that marks the spot is constantly disappearing and reappearing in unlikely places so that you can never find it with complete certainty. After one year in grad school, I’ve finally started to get my bearings, to know which way is north and which way is east, but I’ve still got a long journey ahead of me in search of gold.

Unlike most of my peers, I still have a couple weeks ahead of me before the school year wraps up. The quarter system makes it so that my school year will end really late, in mid-June, and then only pick up again in late September. But I’ve got a full plate between now and the start of the next school year. I’m heading off to Europe on a personal and academic venture: I’ll be studying at the Prague Summer Program run through Western Michigan University for a month in July. Then when I come back, I’ll hopefully have a job teaching ESL courses through UC Davis extension for the month of August. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have a poetry paper and a nonfiction piece to write between now and summer.

Letter to Myself a Year Ago

Photo by Gray Malin. 

Do you remember the ancient summers of your childhood? Our fingers would search the dirt between tree roots for acorns. We found so many with their shells cracked open, waiting to unfurl itself deep into the dirt.

This is how it feels to be you.

You might find this hard to believe: the other night, I had a dream about our parents that was completely mundane. There was no chase, no violence, no public nudity. Our mother was looking for an apartment in Florida. Our father and I were building a new cage for small animals. We could not find the parts needed to complete it.

You are tired of the grey concrete, the spires of corporate towers, the achingly long commutes on red and blue trains. You are tired of the same lakes as big as seas. More than anything, you are tired of what you remember about this city, all the people you used to love it still holds.

I am tired of writing about how my street is filled with green light, the soft beige of beach sand, the steadiness of warm air wrapped around me. I search Netflix for John Hughes and blast Chance the Rapper in the car.

Last week, I swam in the Atlantic. It was dusk, and all the lifeguards were off-duty. Treading into the water, I looked Southeast: nothing between me and the infinite expanse of deep blue. The waves were taller than me. I tumbled beneath them again and again. They stung my eyes, flooded my ears. I would begin to laugh, and another wave would come pounding down my throat.

I think, now, of the undertow. How easy it could have been, to walk a few more steps and disappear forever.

Our first hurricane is named Matthew, which is also the name of a boy from your after school program. You will spend the summer saying goodbye to him, and Jackie, and Trenton, and all the others you’ve come to know through your years of teaching poetry at their school. This year, Matthew won a poetry slam and I was not there to see it.

And Desmond died. When I look at the ocean, when I look at the sky, I look for him. When I remember him, I feel my heart bang so hard in my chest it nearly climbs up my throat, and maybe that’s a sort of finding, too.

Hurricane Matthew destroys villages in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. With your hurricane shutters over the doors, the sliding glass of your porch partially boarded up, the thin grey palm trees in the parking lot bowing in the wind, and the impotent drizzle speckling the ground outside, you will feel the most still you ever have.

A friend in Chicago asks for videos of the destruction of your street. You keep your phone charged, the gas tank full. You’ve prepared with the naive and gratuitous fear of a midwesterner. But Matthew never makes landfall in Miami.

Your friends up north talk about the early autumn weather, the price drop in flights to the Caribbean.

Miami is in the corner of the continental United States, and on that day, you see exactly where the angular edges meet.

In May 2016, you are not thinking about hurricanes, or drowning, or all the ways “goodbyes” can be said. You are thinking about the poems, and how you want to stop writing about your past. You think you have told your story already, said all that needs to be said. Death to the self–you want to write about other things.

Here’s what will happen: you will write more and better than you ever have. The way you tell stories will change a lot, but its subject matter will widen and evolve, rather than change entirely. Despite spending so much time trying to convince yourself that you’ve said all you can, you will learn so quickly that you have not come close at all to confronting all of your worst and most buried memories.

You will make friends with the lyric essay. You will write contrapuntals again and again. You will invent new forms, by which I mean, new boxes to stuff your words inside. You will amaze yourself and feel embarrassed about the drafts that lined your suitcase on the journey here.

You are going to learn things you never even thought of yourself doing. You have electives to take; you will register for an interactive media course, and then another. You will learn about microcomputers, and analog distance sensors, and build a box with a screen that plays a poem when you are near. The poem is about Desmond.

Last night, I had another dream. I found a book in an antique bookshop, on its cover was the name of a demon I learned about in catechism. Its pages were made of mirrors. Every time I turned the page, I found myself looking back at myself.

In your first year as an Miamian, you will swim in the swimming pool of your apartment complex twice. You will pierce your nose and, a few weeks later, accidentally lose the ring in a tissue. Your arms will get very tan, your face will stay very pale, and you will somehow manage to never get sunburned.

You will learn the names of the lizards that shoot into the shadows of leaves when you walk by: constant anoles, occasional geckos. A quadrant of blue macaws will fly by your window, so close you feel the air pushing away from their wings like breath. Once, there were peacocks in the parking lot, next to the dumpsters.

You will learn how all of this is quickly descending into the Atlantic. Miami-Dade is another name for hubris. Thank the Biscayne Aquifer and a tectonic promise as old as the earth itself.

Some things will never change. For example, you still wear almost exclusively black.

It is May 2017. I counted the poems I wrote this year. There are fifty-two. They languish in the submission queues of a hundred different journals. A few weeks ago, we got our first acceptance. A few days ago, there were royalties deposited into our bank account.

Toward the end of this past semester, I got very sick. I missed my final week of classes, the year end celebrations, the cap and gown ceremony. I did not say goodbye to Savonna, and graduating poet who has become my friend. She has moved back to the Rustbelt, the homeland we share. In a text message, I promise to see her again.

And then there’s Marion, the phone client that was serendipitously assigned to you at the beginning of the year, who calls you from an apartment from New York to ask for your help with poems. Marion writes as if she has lived a hundred years, and from what you know, she might have. You’ve read half a dozen of her poems, spent weeks editing and re-editing the same prepositions, ranted against the advice of her peers in workshop, and learned her secrets.

When it comes time for your final session, you cannot bring yourself to say “goodbye,” even though you are leaving the writing center and will be teaching classes full of students next year. So you promise her you will call her again this summer, to speak again soon.

Today, I am waiting to hear from her again.

A New Beginning

If you’re reading this post on this blog, it’s because you have some level of investment (financial, emotional or both) in the MFA degree. When I applied to write for this site last year, I fully expected to recount a year chock full of nothing but reading & ‘riting, the first such year in my life.

However, that’s not what happened. Life (& death) reared its ugly head. Over the past year, my MFA was a mere background note. To be honest, I’m lucky it was even that. Not every MFA program would allow you to enroll in August after you turned them down months earlier. Not every program would let you attend classes part-time.

But Rutgers-Camden is not like every other MFA program. If you’re reading this while considering your own applications or while you are in the midst of your own MFA year(s), I urge you: please make sure your program cares about whatever issues might potentially affect your life while you pursue this degree. Nothing is more important, not even funding.

I say that as someone who needed his MFA degree to be funded. However, since I enrolled at Rutgers-Camden so late this year, I was only offered enough funding to cover one class per semester. In the fall, that class was a required teacher’s prep course so I could teach later on. So in my first semester, my MFA experience was limited to the monthly on-campus readings.

This spring, at long last, I finally got to be a “real” MFA student in a craft of poetry class with a poet I admire. I was the only student in a class of 8 who was not full-time. So I devoted myself to every assignment like it was the only assignment I had. Of course, (little did anyone else know) this was actually the truth.

I didn’t just focus on the classwork. I also made a real effort to talk to the professor about poetry beyond the constraints of the class assignments. This was hard for me because I am shy and I come from a working-class background. Talking to someone who makes their living through words is still a bit of a culture shock to me. I can get tongue-tied. But my professor was always willing to talk to me. I left the class with a slightly larger portfolio of decent poems and a much deeper understanding of the formal elements of poetry. These are exactly the things I hoped would be part of my MFA experience. I had hit a bit of a ceiling with my poems on my own. I needed a greater understanding of how to mold them into something different and I wasn’t getting there as a lay scholar. It was nice to see some progress this spring.

Like most of my cohort, I also had the opportunity to teach English Composition this spring. I didn’t want to be a boring teacher or worse, a lousy one. So I spent a lot of time making sure that everything was clear: my expectations and my assignments in particular. I also made it a point to bring my personality into the classroom. A friend in another MFA program gave me the great advice to ask my students questions about themselves (what’s your favorite food? favorite vacation spot? what tv show are you into?) and also answer them. For the first weeks of the semester (and intermittently after that), I started off each class with an index card and some questions, then had them partner up and “meet” someone else. This established a great rapport among the students and they got to know me a little bit, too.

Because composition is a required class for all Rutgers-Camden undergraduates, I focused most on trying to help my students improve their writing. I did this through extensive comments. I scribbled on in-class writing and did electronic comments on drafts and final papers. Sometimes these were short comments but I often spent 30 minutes or more on one draft, especially if I knew the student was reading my (many, many) comments. At the end of every single class, I would encourage students to e-mail me or come to office hours. Somewhat to my surprise, something like 16 out of my 24 students did one (or both) of these things consistently throughout the semester. All of this was only possible because I didn’t have other classes (as a teacher or student) to worry about.

As you likely know if you’re reading this, salaries for graduate students PTL’s are not very high. I don’t want to know what I made per hour this semester. I had to keep up my side hustle, an eBay business, another 10-15 hours/week just to pay my bills. But it was all worth it. Teaching was a great experience on its own.

Throughout the semester, I worked not knowing what my funding or teaching situation would be next year. Would I only have enough funding for one class per semester? Would I teach again? I was hoping for funding to cover two classes and to my surprise, I wanted to teach. I didn’t expect to enjoy teaching, but I did.

It was the last week of the semester. I was a few days removed from the flu and I was tired. After teaching, I wandered into my favorite administrator’s office for a few minutes of small talk before the long drive home. She & I have a shared love of thrift stores and pizza. Lifelong friendships have been built on less. Almost as an aside, I said to her, “Hey, have you heard anything about the teaching situation for next year?”, hoping to maybe get an idea of what I might know by mid-May.

She said, “Didn’t you get the e-mail?

I hadn’t. Of course I hadn’t. What e-mail? Probably went to spam or something. I always check spam, no idea what happened. Look here, you’re on my TA list for next year — wait, the TA list? Does that mean what I think it means? She spins the monitor around and shows me the e-mail…

Congratulations, Craig, we want to offer you a teaching assistantship for the 2017-18 academic year…

Then it’s a blur. I yell out, I babble incoherently, she jumps out from behind the desk and gives me a hug even as I protest, No, I was sick all weekend, I don’t want to get you sick. I float down the hallway to call my wife and as soon as I say TA-ship she shatters my eardrum.

I’m still a little deaf in my left ear weeks later, but I don’t care. Full tuition remission, a living stipend, health insurance: the dream of every MFA’er everywhere. I will teach two sections in the fall and one in the spring. I was selected for this. I am lucky. I realize that.

I don’t know how everything will work next year. I’ve only been a full-time student one or two semesters in ten years. I still want to be the best professor and as a student, turn in the best assignments. That’s much harder to do when you’re juggling multiple classes.

I also don’t know what my funding situation will be after next year. I don’t expect my TA-ship to get extended beyond a year and unlike most of my cohort, I won’t finish my MFA in two years. I won’t even be close to finishing because this year was so truncated.

All that aside, for the next year, I will get to really live the life of a writer and teacher. I’ve been doing that for years now. I see that now. But this will still be a new beginning in many ways, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

In Sickness and In Health

In a perfect world the MFA is straightforward: you go to class, you do your writing, and you teach or work on a literary magazine. When I started at Brooklyn, everything else in my life settled into place, whether it conformed to my busy life or went on temporary hold until I finished my degree. Grad school became my excuse for canceled plans, overdue emails, forgotten birthdays. It was easy to forget to take care of myself too. Aches and pains got pushed aside until the drafts were revised and the papers were graded. But then came the kind of symptoms that I couldn’t ignore. The pain was just discomfort at first. It wasn’t like the swift blow from a fist, but a gradual pulling and squeezing in my lower abdomen. When the pain intensified, I sat in front of my doctor and mapped across my body where it hurt. She patted my shoulder and told me the symptoms were likely stress. “Get yourself some glitter,” she said, “and relax until we get test results back.”

Relaxation and self-care became my mission. I even wrote a blog post about it. I splurged on Korean sheet masks and lotions, bought fancy soaps, listened to more podcasts. I tried to move through my days with a certain calculated mindfulness and calm. It was harder than I thought it’d be. I was tired all the time and the pain hurt so much I had to miss classes. My mood was low, my frustration high. I was writing a lot but wanted to spend most days curled up in bed with a heat pad.

At the same time, I’ve had to grapple with the fact my grandmother, whom I love more than anyone, is getting older. The bubble of zen I tried to create around myself would crack every time I spoke to her and thought she sounded sad, tired, or lonely. I was counting down the days until summer vacation, which I had planned to spend with her.

And then my test results came back. The specifics aren’t worth going into; this is not my first illness rodeo. I started new prescriptions and read countless Wikipedia and WebMD articles. I was overwhelmed by the amount of care I felt I needed and the timeline I was given, the recommendation that anyone with my symptoms and prognosis would feel sick for a few months. Not days, not weeks: months. I drafted an email to the director of my program and let it sit in a folder for two weeks. I spoke about it with a therapist. I cried to my mom. Then I made a decision, checked the email for typos one last time, and clicked send. At the end of this semester, I am taking a medical leave from grad school.

If you’re reading this piece, if you’re on this website, chances are you’re applying to an MFA or have applied to one in the past. You know the deal: it’s an extremely competitive degree and many prospectives apply two or three years before getting in somewhere they want to attend. If you’re currently in a program, It’s quite possible you’ll find yourselves in my shoes. Maybe you will get ill or have an ill family member. Or maybe illness isn’t an issue. Maybe you just find yourself miserable after your first semester, wondering whether you made the right decision, fantasizing about hopping on the nearest greyhound to wherever. I can’t give advice across the board; everyone’s situation is different. But what I do think is true for every writer is that the MFA, while incredibly helpful and wonderful, is not a requirement. And for those of us who do attend a program, it is not the beginning nor end of our paths. So if you’re in a program and something about this resonates with you―if you’re sick and have been pushing yourself because you’re dying to get to the finish line―take a deep breath. Pause. It’s okay to realize you need to take a step back for a moment to get yourself right.

You made a commitment to writing, even more so than to the MFA. And writing isn’t going anywhere.

On All the Rejections

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.

Grad School Offers: Making a Major Life Decision in Nine Hours

[Featured image: Uditha Wickramanayaka]

So you got into two (or more) awesome MFA programs… Congrats! Now, if your situation is anything like mine, you’re freaking out.

On the morning of April 15th, while I was getting dressed for work, I received a phone call from a Miami area code. My previous conversations with the director about being waitlisted gave me high hopes for the call, but I was too nervous to pick up. Instead, I watched my phone vibrating on the bed. After a minute, I had a voicemail. The director of Miami had called to say she was thrilled to offer me a spot in next year’s cohort. During the previous week, Indiana University had offered me a spot and told me that, for funding purposes, they needed a decision by the end of that day. In order to send my signed copy of the acceptance, I had to make a decision by 6 pm before I left my office.

I had no idea what to do with myself. Between 9 am and 6 pm, I had to make a decision on where I would spend the next three years of my life.

Had I had a tiny bit more foresight, I would have reflected more on the options before that day. I would have gone out of my way to speak with some students currently at Indiana and Miami, but I was reluctant to consider an option (Miami) that might never happen. In the end, I fell back on my go-to. Making a list of everything important to me. Here were my considerations when deciding to accept a program:

Location            

  • City
  • Population Diversity
  • Distractibility Factor
  • Weather
  • Travel Costs

Program            

  • Faculty
  • Student Diversity
  • “Reputation”
  • Year Established
  • # of Years

Money 

  • Cost of Living
  • Stipend Award
  • Tuition Award
  • Healthcare Coverage
  • Job Availability for Partner

Teaching            

  • Teaching Requirement
  • Training for Teaching

Other   

  • Conferences
  • Additional perks

Gut Reaction

  • What draws me in
  • Counterarguments

From there, I started filling in all the information I knew about each school. I was brutally honest with myself–about what I wanted, what kind of student I thought I was, what was important to me in a home and school. Afterward, I awarded “points” to each school for each factor it came out ahead. I showed my chart to a couple of family members and trusted friends who agonized with me.

To be honest, I wanted Miami real bad. I had already visited the campus, met some of the students, had several warm conversations with the director, and imagined myself laying out on the beach with a piña colada in one hand and my writing journal in the other. But, going through this listing process helped me see that what I wanted in the short term didn’t align with my long-term goals. In order to afford Miami, it was likely that I’d need to get another job. The closer to campus an apartment was, the more expensive it was. If I wanted to live off campus, I might have to buy a car. That meant even more work and less writing time. What’s more, I know I’m easily distracted by the opportunity to have new experiences. I’d almost always choose going to a museum, restaurant, club, beach, or music festival over sitting alone at my desk and writing. For these two major reasons, Indiana was clearly the choice if I wanted to take my writing seriously.

While I was making my grad school decision in nine hours, it felt very much like life or death. During that time, my dad reminded me that I was exactly where I wanted to be: choosing between two great schools where I was sure to do well either way.

Make your decision and then get on with writing.

[P.S. I’ve attached a couple of documents to this post. You can find the actual “IU vs Miami Pro and Con” list that I used to make my decision. The only information I withheld was the exact amount each school offered me, because this changes so widely from year to year that I don’t want to offer irrelevant information. Keep in mind that these programmatic requirements/ offerings were available in Spring of 2016. Each year changes are made so always do your own research. You’ll also find a Blank Pro and Con List here which you can use to make your own decision. Good luck. =D]