This past week, I devoured Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Inoculation in three quick sittings. The book was a welcome distraction from MFA notification season; but it was also a painful wakeup call, at once inspiring and deeply humbling.
“This is the kind of thing I want to create,” I found myself thinking, again and again. Something at once ruthlessly smart and lyrically stunning, navigating the space between fact and subjective experience, between motherhood and vampires and modern medicine and the nation at large, with a deftness that took my breath away. Biss’ words remind me why I wanted to write creative nonfiction in the first place. But they also remind me how long it’s been since I last flew through a book like this; of how lazy I’ve become as a deep reader, as an active researcher, in the nearly eight years since my undergraduate career. They remind me that I aspire to write sharp, intricate, resounding work—and yet have not come anywhere close to doing what it takes to get there. The stark reality of the situation lay bare before me, smiling up from the blank space at the bottom of the “Acknowledgements” page.
This is not the kind of realization one wants to make while waiting to find out whether or not she will get into graduate school.
Then again, perhaps the timing is ideal.
I applied for an MFA in creative nonfiction at ten different schools—all highly regarded, all fully (or nearly fully) funded, all fiercely competitive. So far, I’ve heard from five of the ten, and received three rejections and two wait lists. Each morning, and approximately 3-4 times per hour thereafter until bedtime, I refresh my email inbox, check my “Recent Calls” list, and scan GradCafe in search of an answer to the five remaining question marks blinking away incessantly inside my brain. I rock too and fro on a sea of patience and doubt: willing myself to let go, to be Zen, to release the desire for control one moment…and then tearing myself up with an onslaught of “what if’s” and “if only’s” the next.
So far, I’ve found that long walks, road trips, and copious amounts of budget wine from Trader Joe’s are highly effective at combating what I like to call “Draft Insanity.” But I’ve also found a strange comfort when I stop running and face the facts: that maybe it won’t happen. That maybe it won’t happen—and with good reason. That maybe I need to spend less time putting pen to paper for awhile and more time reading, reading, digging, searching—finding the facts to anchor my stories, latching my realizations and memories to stronger stuff…and then, try again.
I keep forgetting, in the heat of the Draft, that the end goal is the work—not the MFA program. As much as I’d like the experience of graduate school, and even as I’m considering a fourth go-around at the whole application process if this year’s doesn’t take, I know in my gut that the work is what matters. That the book I’ve got bubbling around inside of me will get out, one way or another. That improving my approach to research and rigorous reading is vital, whether I ultimately decide to reapply next year or not. And therefore, that both patience and doubt are serving me well (at least in terms of writing, if not my liver).
I’m squeaking this blog entry in a couple of days late. By now, it is already March; and when you hear from me again, I’ll definitely know more—though probably not all, not by a (very) long shot. Still, there’s peace to be had in the realization that time moves on; that, patient or not, I’ll get answers in the end. For now, I’m planning on re-reading On Immunity, together with a handful of other long-deferred titles that have been burning a hole on my bedside table for far too long. My logic is this: if I’m unsuccessful, I’ll at least have new inspiration for the writing sample/manuscript that lies ahead. And if I make it in—well, I’ll be that much more prepared to meet my cohort in the fall.