Recently, I was talking to some students from Sarah Selecky Writing School about my MFA, and that reminded of how I’d failed to get in the first time I applied. Of all the many, many rejections I’ve had in my writing life, that one was the most devastating.
I think it hit so hard because I’d somehow decided that the MFA was the litmus test of whether or not I was really a writer. I can hardly be faulted for thinking this, because it seemed like everyone else thought the same thing.
After I got in, I remember a friend of mine, who’d heard me talk about writing for about five years or so, suddenly asking if she could read my work. Apparently, the fact that I wrote didn’t make her radar until an instition had annointed me as a writer. I said sure, and didn’t send her anything. Neither of us ever mentioned it again, but I know at least one person who won’t get a mention in my acknowledgements.
Likewise, it was only after I started the MFA that my parents suddenly had a lot of writing advice for me. “You need to learn about storytelling,” said my mom. “You should listen to the woman who does my head massage in India.”
I’m not sure their taking my writing seriously was a bonus.
Still, it was odd that they didn’t pick up on the idea that I might want to be a writer sooner. I read so much and so often as a kid that my mom would actually threaten to burn them if I didn’t stop reading to clean my room. I was Editor-in-Chief, twice, of my high school literary magazine. I did a concurrent undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and in Technical Writing. “Why are you bother with writing?” my dad asked. “Because I want to,” I would answer. Years later, I took finally took creative writing classes.
After I was rejected, I stopped writing. My rejection email contained a very kind note about applying again, and how rejection is simply a part of the writing life, but such good advice made no impression on me. I just stopped. It felt like the dream was dead.
I knew perfectly well that an MFA was not necessary to be a writer, but I had pinned so much on this one acceptance. I had told everyone that I was applying. I made a big deal to everyone about how I wasn’t sure if I was going to have time for things next year, because I was going to be doing my MFA. It was not only other people taking me seriously as a writer, but also me taking me seriously as a writer. And so the rejection became a giant “Haha!” (Cue Nelson from the Simpson’s.)
I don’t have a beautiful story about how I found it in me to try again. I made a last-minute decision to take a writing class. I wrote again. Some of what I wrote was fun to write, and I liked it. That was enough to flip the switch; I was determined to write a bunch of new stuff and apply again. “Reject me? I’ll show you!”
That year, I got in.