…Now what? You’re probably asking yourself:
What is the value of my life if I can’t even get into a single MFA program?
Why did I spend all that money on a hopeless dream?
How will I transform the world and influence future generations if my words can’t even connect with admissions committees?
How relevant is my work if I don’t have an MFA to back up what I’m saying?
How will I continue facing my boss and coworkers past April 15?
No matter how delusional these questions sound, they are all valid. Only we know how much we want this degree, this opportunity, this sense of validation. We believe our work will flourish in this Midwestern city. Or that the faculty from this low-res program are the reason I exist. Or that my characters live in New York; I should, therefore, live in New York. Whatever your reasons for applying to MFA programs—and let’s hope most of them revolve around your desire to grow as a writer—it’s never good to feel like your work isn’t necessary or that somehow your work is missing something you’ve yet to tease out. After all, that’s probably a major reason you want to enroll in an MFA program, to enhance your strengths and produce work that fascinates you. I enjoy it when my work fascinates and scares me. It often means I’m writing literature I want to read.
The first year I applied to MFA programs I didn’t get in anywhere. Perhaps the poems I included in my poetry manuscript weren’t working well together. Perhaps there was no cohesive thread or theme among them. Perhaps there wasn’t enough variety. Maybe my metaphors needed more commitment. I used a statement of purpose that was tailored more for PhD programs, bringing in critical theory instead of why I write in the first place. I applied only to 3 of the top MFA programs, though MFAs are no longer officially ranked. My odds were unfamiliar to me. When each rejection notification hit my E-mail, my self-esteem wanted to plummet. I would read each rejection letter several times and question the language in the letter, knowing the content didn’t do justice to what I thought was my writing potential. What a rejection can do to one’s heart is often Biblical.
At the time these rejections came in, I already had an MA and was teaching several classes per semester as an adjunct instructor. I was living in Florida, struggling to find the time to write and revise. Though I was teaching poetry, I questioned every poem I wrote. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t feel disappointed about having been rejected by your dream program(s). It’s perfectly normal. Did you cry? That’s fine. I cried. I was confused. I felt vulnerable. Some of us have been rejected even by our “safety schools”—though nothing’s “safe” about an experience that will constantly challenge your core values, challenge why you write in the first place, and question your employability prospects. Trust me: we are all in this together.
For many of us, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, we face rejection—a handful of rejections, a dozen rejections. An island of rejections on which we’re The Little Princes and Princesses, all alone. If you have had previous experience submitting work to literary journals, you should know how stinging a rejection can be. “Your work is not for us.” “Thank you for submitting, but your work does not meet our needs at this time.” “I hope you can place your work elsewhere.” You hear similar echoes when you get rejected from one or all of the schools you applied to. The doubts never go away. Even after you get accepted to a program, the doubts never fully disappear. You enroll in an MFA program and the doubts still linger. Do I belong here? Is my work good enough? Will I ever be able to publish anything that matters? Am I half-assing my life?
What I am trying to say is that getting rejected by all your programs, or getting accepted to your dream program, doesn’t guarantee anything. Everything goes back to your work. What are you doing for your work that is allowing it to exist? How many times are you getting over your destructive mantra: “My life just isn’t interesting enough to write about”? Then you’ll come across those people who got accepted the first time around. They’re going think you’re speaking in a foreign language when you tell them you didn’t get in anywhere your first, second, or third time. They’re going to give you this look that will almost question why you’re a writer and how dare you invade their privileged space. Even if you don’t ultimately end up pursuing this path, disappoint your unbelievers with the power and integrity of your work. As I write this, I want to point out that dozens of people pursue MFA degrees for the wrong reasons. Let them. They’re going to write, and they’re going to publish, and they’re going to graduate before you. Let them. This is your journey. This is about your work. Think about every single writer who has died to get his or her words heard. Yes, these silenced writers also exist within the U.S. Think about that woman with two, three, or four children who wakes up early every morning without needing anyone’s permission to write the next best thing. Writers are everywhere, always writing, always doubting, always reimagining. You will survive this.
“To be a poet,” Robert Frost once said, “is a condition, not a profession.” The same goes for having an MFA: it’s an experience, not what makes you a writer, not what gets you inspired every morning to write, and not what defines your future success. So pick yourself up again. Write those life-altering stories and poems. Remind yourself again and again and again and again why you write. And why your words matter.