I spent the better part of last semester pulling my hair out over grad school applications. I spent countless hours with my head bent over teeny scraps of paper, paper that had once been 8 pages of my writing sample but had been subjected to the old-school cut-and-paste method. I anguished over my personal statement for weeks. I triple-checked each application before it was sent out. I was confident that I’d be accepted into at least a couple of MFA programs.
I just got my third rejection letter this morning.
I’m probably not as upset as I should be. I imagined myself crying over each and every rejection letter that came in, or using those letters as an excuse to consume disgusting quantities of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. But really, I’m good. I will admit that the anxiety of waiting for two more schools to give me an answer is slowly killing me though. I mean, if you’re going to rip the band-aid off, might as well do it quickly, right?
I haven’t come to a point yet in my writing career where I’m getting this many rejections in such a short span of time, but I know that kind of life is on the horizon for me. In the next few months I’ll be submitting at least five different pieces to various magazines, and I’m not naive enough to believe that all of them will be chosen for publication. I’m going to be more of a reject than a winner, at least for awhile, and I don’t mind belonging to the rejects corner. I have a lot to learn still, and not everyone is going to be okay with the kind of things I write. Besides, I think that finally being accepted somewhere will feel ten times sweeter after a wave of “nos” right?
I went to work Tuesday morning and made it about as far as the office door before I broke down sobbing. I think I was about as shocked as my coworkers were. My Dad has been dead for almost six years already, so why would his birthday set me off now when it never did before? My friend and coworker Bryanna, my writing buddy, allowed me to lock myself her office until I could gain my composure again.
When I emerged, puffy-eyed and slightly horrified that I pulled this stunt at work, I sat down with Bry and told her about my confusion. “Why is this bothering me all of a sudden?” I asked. There are certainly potential triggers in my life. With college graduation and an engagement proposal looming on the horizon, I figured I was subconsciously thinking about all of the milestones my father was going to miss. But I’ve hit a ton of important milestones without him.
Bry had a very different idea of what the problem was. “You’ve been writing about him a lot lately. You said yourself that you weren’t allowed to grieve properly. All that writing is letting the grief bubble up.”
I’m going with her theory. Dad died when I was 16, but it’s only now at 22 that I’m able to write about him. I recently wrote a memoir piece about the day he died and how I felt seeing his lifeless body. I cried quite a bit throughout the writing and revision process, but that seemed normal. It was a depressing topic to begin with. I wrote a few poems about him recently too. For whatever reason, I was just compelled to keep writing about him.
Bry is right though; I never had the chance to really grieve. I had to be the emotional support for my mother and sister. I threw myself into work and school and my future, and I pushed down all of the emotions that might break me. Writing about those raw emotions that I suppressed opened the floodgates, and now I’m being forced to cope with all of the things I’ve been putting off for a more convenient time.
Just a few months ago I went to listen to Christa Parravani read from her memoir, Her, which is about coping with her sister’s death. During her Q&A session she said something that will probably forever stick with me: “Writing shouldn’t be therapeutic.” I agree. Good writing pulls up all of your demons. Those emotions translate into more memorable and poetic sentences, the kinds that stick with your reader and toy with their empathy. The act of finishing a piece like this might bring some relief, but the writing process itself feels like an extremely emotional long-distance run. This run has left me exhausted and mentally drained, but tomorrow’s a new day and I’m gearing up for more.
During last semester, I was given an assignment in my Intro to Creative Writing class that involved writing a dramatic monologue. I scratched my head. A dramatic monologue? Isn’t that a theater thing? I admit that poetry is not my strong suit. Other than the angst-ridden poetry that I wrote during my Goth days in high school, I haven’t spent much time with it. Which is hilarious, by the way, because I hated writing short stories in high school, and that seems to be all I do these days. Anyway, this is why these complicated poetry assignments were freaking me out.
Needless to say, even after my prof lectured on the elements of a dramatic monologue and how I should pretend to be someone else, I spent quite a bit of time searching Google for further help. This was a portfolio piece after all, and I wanted to make sure that I only submitted my best work. I started by writing a poem as a homeless teenager. I could write a decent amount about that topic, no? It was a big issue in my hometown.
I let my boyfriend read what I had written so far. “I don’t like it,” he said, honest as always. I asked why. “Because you’re clearly not passionate about this. There’s no feeling behind it.” He had a point. I could definitely do better. More head scratching. What the hell was I going to write about?
And then it hit me. I searched frantically through folders upon folders of pictures saved on my laptop for the ones that I took in Kentucky while on a road trip. There it was: a photo of an old gravestone. You’re probably asking me how the fuck any of this makes sense. I should probably tell you that I love traipsing through old cemeteries and value the amount of history that can be found in them. As I was walking through this particular cemetery in Bardstown, KY, something about this stone smacked me on the back of the head. The stone, which belonged to a stranger named Eliza Lambeth, seemed to be calling to me, and it prompted me to take a picture of it for use in a later piece of my writing. I found that piece in my dramatic monologue.
The writing happened so seamlessly then. I wasn’t stumbling around in the dark looking for my next verse. The words kept pouring out naturally, with only a little effort on my behalf. At that moment, I was Eliza. I showed my boyfriend this new version. “Now this sounds more like something you’d write,” he said. Thanks, Eliza.
I have this pact with my friend and fellow writer Bry that we will have at least one serious writing session a month. We look forward to these sessions, because most of the time they are the only way that we can get some serious writing done. We sneak away to a local Starbucks or Panera with our laptops and just have at it. For the most part we don’t speak, except to ask an occasional question or look for a snippet of advice. We just sit and write, stopping only to take a sip of coffee or to stare out the window into nothingness with the hopes of finding inspiration on the street. We do this for three hours or so before we pack up and head back to the car, our conversation picking up from where it was left when we initially sat down to write.
I value these sessions more than anything else that pertains to writing. Sure, I stop every once in awhile to check Facebook, but I do more writing in those three hours together than I do for weeks at a time on my own. Today was our first outing of 2014, and I managed to do a significant amount of work on the memoir piece that I’m prepping for submission. In fact, I think that all I need to worry about now is a couple of small copy edits. I haven’t worked on this piece since early December, and I really needed a push to get moving on it again. I blame the “Holiday Hangover” for my sluggishness in joining reality and getting back to work.
Not every writer will make for a good writing buddy. Some people just want to sit and talk rather than write. But Bry and I have the perfect writing relationship in that we bond even over the silence. The best part is that we motivate each other to make the most of our few precious hours together, hours that may have very well been wasted on things that don’t really matter.
People underestimate the draining powers of the grad school application. I’ve known for years that I wanted to get my MFA in fiction. I started preparing for this process way back in June 2013, with the intention of spending my entire summer working on perfecting the stories I would use for my writing sample. I would create the perfect personal statement within that time as well, the one that would blow away each and every person reading it.
But we know that none of that actually happened. I was scrambling to complete a shoddy 500 word personal statement this past Sunday and submitting writing samples that are nowhere near done (at least by my standards). I’m not lazy, I promise. I don’t wait until the very last minute to do anything important either. But honestly, even if I finished everything three months ago, would I still have been happy with it? Probably not.
I dragged my feet for so long because I was so worried about pleasing complete strangers. While I was doing these applications, I lost focus on the real reason why I was going through this process and spending a crap-ton of money on applications in the first place. I wanted 24 perfect pages, pages that could be immediately submitted to literary magazines around the country for publication. But I wasn’t writing for myself, and you can only come up with the good stuff when you’re doing it for you. So instead of writing, I sat there worrying about having the perfect plot, the perfect sentence, the perfect imagery, and all of the other stuff that doesn’t matter anyway, because my heart wasn’t in what I was doing the way it should have been. I put too much pressure on myself, which might hurt me in the end.
Either way, I gave it my best shot, and I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time doing this. I have one more application to submit and then I can breathe easy. Then maybe I’ll go back and rip those stories to shreds, without concerning myself with page limits or the use of excessive expletives.