The happiest day of my life was the day I realized I would never have to live in my hometown again. With my belongings moved into an apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, my twin bed siphoned off from my two roommates' beds, and my nineteenth birthday party taking place in my new dining room with my new friends around a German chocolate cake purchased at the two-level grocery store on the corner, I knew that all of my hard adolescent work had paid off.
I now would be free. My greatest fear of withering away at home would not come to pass.
The saddest day of my life was the day I moved from Chicago back to my hometown.
There are a lot of reasons why this happened. For starters, money. For other starters, external pressure. Heartbreak was another reason. But soon I found myself back on familiar streets living an ordinary life in a place where the extraordinary refused to surface.
We have no oceans in my hometown. We have a river, and it's filthy.
Many people feel this hopeless giving up, although I doubt many of them feel it as early as twenty-three. I did good work here, and I continue to do good work, but something was missing. The glimmer that happened when I wrote far off worlds, the echo of my voice when I sang. "Why don't you sing anymore?" someone asked me ... no, a lot of people asked me.
There was no point, I could have answered. It will just remind me of what I could have been, would have been another good one. But usually I just answered, "Oh, I'm busy. And things. And life. And no one wants to hear it, anyway."
It had to stop.
Ray Bradbury writes in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, that in order to live, in order to "stay alive," we have to keep writing. We have to come up with those crazy worlds no one else can see. We must believe in magic, or "Buck Rogers," as he puts it.
So Alex, my fiance, found Mur Lafferty's podcast and in turn found Stonecoast. For months, the two of us schemed to get me into the MFA program. And then one day, Nancy Holder called and told me the good news.
As you know, I went to my first residency last week. And I am about to tell you why you should stop not singing, start staying alive, and find your own Stonecoast.
The night before, I was afraid. I told Alex that he needed me, that my dead friend needed me, that the dishes in the sink needed me. "It's too far away, I'm too scared, I can't make friends, everyone will hate me, I'm not good enough." But stalwart Alex lugged my 49.5 pound checked bag all the way to his car, and then all the way into the airport.
In my book, Abigail is a young girl who is trapped in Boston and damned to walk the earth after her airship is taken from her. There is a scene where she escapes, bursting into the sky and seeing the sun strike the white clouds from above. And when that plane pierced the rainstorm and breathed out into the air, I felt like something new was about to happen.
For the first time in a long time, I had a chance.
Maine is a different sort of place. I say different because it's not like anywhere I've lived. Even my hometown is loud with this incessant noise from the interstate and the planes from the airforce base. But Portland is silent. As soon as I got rid of the jet engines in my ears, I realized how quiet the airport was. And then I recognized silence in the parking lot, the road, the highway, and finally Bowdoin College Campus.
And for the first time in five years, I was welcomed by people who understood what I wanted to do with my life.
It was like coming home.
Stone House sits on a peninsula (which I loudly remarked in our coach bus upon seeing it: "WE ARE ON A PENINSULA!"), and it is beautiful. If you look through the trees in the front yard, you see sailboats and the ocean. Mist hangs in the trees, mud flats magically transform into roaring seas in a matter of hours. At night, I walked around the park with my friend as trails dissipated into the fog. This was the land of Stephen King, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and my own imagination.
"You are not an aspiring writer," the director of the program told us. "This is the point in which you become a writer. Virginia Woolf had a moment where she became Virginina Woolf. And this is yours."
I ran back to my temporary dorm room and I typed, typed, typed on my story. My teachers knew my heroes, my teachers were my heroes, and I'd read them all my life. This was a place where students published their work and won Campbell Awards.
Stonecoast was a place where people did the things other people talked about maybe someday doing. Stonecoast was a place full of people who said, "I understand. I hurt, too. It's okay. We'll write about it together." Stonecoast was where the Muggle borns came together for ten days every six months to build their armor, give out six months' worth of hugs, and write as fast as our hands could go.
I watched the graduation of the class of 2014, and I saw that this program did not just change my life, but had changed their lives.
I'm back home now, reading Bradbury and finishing up Verne. Tomorrow, I lock myself up in a hotel room and revise the beginning of my manuscript for my mentor. And although I know this year is going to be a long one, I know that I'm not alone. I know I have a goal.
I know Maine exists.
Please do not wrap yourself up in a blanket of malaise. Please go out and do what you love to do. Find people who also love to do that thing. And be happy for it.
It's not too late. Go be happy. Find your magic place where the fog comes in and the sailboats can get all the way out to the ocean.
Workshopping Others' Work
How nice should I be? How mean should I be? I'm editing my classmates' stuff, and I'm used to editing as an editor with a client I am working for. And yes, you as the editor must have a bit of teamwork in that kind of relationship with your client, but at the end of the day, you've either been given many moneys to help that client for your expertise, or you have been hired by a publisher because you know what you're doing. There's confidence in that role. Now I'm sitting not as an editor, but as a classmate, a peer. If I'm too mean, then maybe I'm being precocious. If I'm too nice, then maybe I'm not doing my assignment correctly. Without knowing the culture of the school or how MFA programs work, I might just dip into pro-mode and start giving notes on what must change before this can be published ... before I remember that's not my place in this case.
Getting torn apart in Workshop
So in this program, you submit your manuscript about three months before you actually go to workshop. I've completely revised the crappy manuscript I turned in, working with other editors and writer pals to get it to a better place. Now that I look at my old draft, I am so afraid of what is to come at this workshop. I want to give one of those taboo disclaimers, where I stand up and wave my arms in the air and shout, "I know it sucks! I just worked twelve weeks making it not suck! Please God don't think I suck!" But we all know I wouldn't ever do that ...
Being a Noob
I'm not gonna lie. I am hella awkward when I don't know anyone in a situation. And I know this is a stupid thing to worry about. I'm an adult! I am like three years away from being thirty, I have a full-time career, I have published a book and plays and have traversed some of the scariest American cities all by myself. I worked at a publishing company for three years. I freelance edit. I've started two writing groups. I teach Creative Writing. I have no bed time, damn it!
I am so scared of coming off like a faker, like a false writer, like an idiot who just finally learned what a chapbook looks like. I have this inexplicable fear of showing up and taking one look at everyone and realizing that while I know my stuff, they all got into a secret club long ago; a club to which I received no invite. I know this is stupid, but how as an adult, do I still worry about who I'm going to sit with at the lunch table?
Being Away from Home
Again, a stupid one for a grown woman. My fiance just moved up to this town. We haven't been separated since we ended our Long Distance Relationship three months ago. And now, a week, before I'm about to leave, our friend has died. I'm missing my friend's memorial game night to go to this residency, and I'm leaving behind a fiance who has just realized that mortality exists and we all are doomed to say goodbye to one another. I also will not lie: I slept in a blanket fort last night, because my friend made blanket forts, and when bad things happen, blanket forts sound like the best thing ever and you just want to sit in one and drink mounds of pop out of a Twizzler straw. The idea of leaving home right now is a tough one, but life has to carry on and we have to carry ourselves with it. Oh, happy day!
Not Packing the Right Stuff
So I'm flying to Maine. I have to fit everything I need into like a suitcase. I've never been to Maine, and I've never been to these dorms or this college. I've heard I need a fan. Other than that, I do not know. What if I forget an important book? What if I forget my toothbrush? What if I forget my homework?!
Honesty, again: I plan to glomp onto the nicest, most patient upperclassman I can find and just tail them for the entire ten days. In the unfortunate event I cannot find a willing upperclassman, what will become of me? I will miss a bus. I will miss a class. I will miss food. I will miss the really cool hangout where everyone gets to know each other. I will get lost in Portland and no one will ever find me again!
Not Realizing How Stupid It Was to Worry Until It's Too Late
I've heard that the Stonecoast residency is "like coming home." From the people I've met, they're so very nice.
I've been thinking a lot about my friend. I met them --- and yes, I am using them out of respect, not out of improper grammar --- on Facebook before I moved away to undergraduate. I was so nervous, not knowing what awaited me in Chicago and this university where fancy things happened and fancy strangers attended. So I reached out, to the people on Facebook who were also going to be freshmen in the fall. This was 2006, so there was actually a spot to write which dorm you were in, and so I searched people who would be living down the hall from me.
My friend was one of these people.
Looking back on our very first conversation via chat, because we live in the world of technological ghosts, I see that we were both very nervous about leaving home and going into the great perhaps. I barely knew the person who would become my friend. They were nothing but a stranger on Facebook, and I couldn't think of a scenario where college was an actual day-to-day, real-life thing I would excel at.
Now, eight years later, my friend and I had our last conversation a week ago, before they were taken. Our last conversation, funnily enough, was about that first year of college and who we'd roomed with. We reminisced on the hard parts, but also the good parts. We didn't know it would be our last conversation.
But that conversation was full of good memories. Although we'd been nervous about moving to the city and taking on the world, we'd done it. We both found happiness. We both grew into strong adults. We both had been brave enough to take that step into adventure and friendship.
Now I feel that anxiety again, starting a new chapter and a new program. I've met people on Facebook in preparation, and I feel as if I'm about to make a whole new bunch of friends. I can't imagine my day-to-day life being in a place far away that I've never seen in a program I've never experienced.
But eight years from now, I'll look back on this list of worries, and I'll laugh. Because new adventures are always frightening, but they're always worth it.
To all of you starting your MFA Programs, may the odds be in our favor.
I started writing one of my books in 1999. While other books have been completed, I am still revising this particular manuscript even today.
You have probably been in a similar position with something you’ve written or are still writing or will always be writing. You have your friends go from being excited about your magnum opus to being sad because they think you’re stuck like a crazy person in a padded room. “You think maybe you can send it off now? No? Okay.”
But hey, how long did it take to write Gone with the Wind? A long time; ten years to be exact. So maybe sometimes it takes a while to get something right.
But hey, how long can you wait until the earth has passed on and your book is no longer relevant? So maybe you need to just give up or get it out there.
The thing about writing is that there’s no one sitting there telling you when it’s ready. There’s no real deadline except for the one you set for yourself. So you can keep pushing it back. You keep learning, so your manuscript can keep growing, right?
When is it time to let go? That’s what we’re going to focus on today. In answering this question, maybe you should first answer these questions:
Why am I still writing this book?
Do you still get something out of writing this book? There is definitely a script or two that I just gave up on because it didn’t matter to me or the world anymore. One of these was a play that was a thinly-veiled metaphor for the 2008 Election (and also my pining after a young man who broke up with me a month prior to me writing said play). But a year ago, I went and looked back at this poor play and decided never to work on it again. Why? Well, because I can barely remember what that heartbreaker looks like, and the 2008 Election was in 2008. So I’m not really getting anything out of it, and neither would the world. It’s best to let it lie and let go.
However, the best manuscripts are timeless, to both ourselves and the world. Genres and hot-topics come and go, but we will always enjoy reading something like Lovely Bones or The Color Purple. Pieces about the universal human condition have a little longer shelf life. But don't ride on that one comforting fact; if the reason you're still writing this book is because you're scared, you need to let it flutter its wings and fly.
Is it worth it?
Do you love this book enough to keep going? If you’ve grown a lot as a writer over the years, you may have to start over from scratch. Are you willing to do that to make it the best it can be? Or is it best to just let it be what it is? I know this is an issue for a lot of graduate students who grow exponentially after starting their studies. Honestly, I have no answer. I've revised many an old manuscript if I love it enough, but that brings us back to the question at hand. Is it worth it?
Is the clock ticking?
Ah, the shelf life again. If you were writing a vampire novel, your ship has sailed by this point. Breaking Dawn II premiered two years ago, and how many successful vampire movies have there been since? Even the dystopian schooner is breaking off in the distance. We’re now looking at alternative historical novels. So are you running out of time? Is the pot boiling over and the chicken over cooking? Is the insert another colloquialism here? If so, then maybe it’s just time to let it breathe and have agents see it before the agents don’t want to see it anymore?
Why haven’t you sent it off yet?
Nothing is ever going to be perfect. Your manuscript is never going to be what you want it to be. Are you holding your manuscript hostage because it has holes and issues you need to fix … or are you just scared? If you’re just scared, get over it and just send it out!
If you still believe in a project, don’t give up on it. But make sure that you’re willing to put in those ten years to make it what it should be. And if you lose interest, it’s totally okay to let go. Sometimes we have projects that just need to die. Sometimes projects are nothing more than stepping stones to better projects.
What’s the longest time you’ve spent on a manuscript? When do you think it’s time to quit? When do you think it’s time to send?
So my good friend Mardra Sikora (check her out here) is asking us all to do a blog hop. I've never participated in a blog hop, but why not? I'll just make it writer-related.
The question that she poses is "What are you grateful for?" So here are ten things that I am grateful for.
Also. Here is a picture of Estes Park. Because it's pretty, and I am also grateful for Estes Park. Always be grateful for Estes Park.
10. Characters taking over.
I am grateful for this one time, when I had a character who just took over the story. I still remember sitting there, screaming at my computer going, "Why did you do that?! Why oh why did you do that?! Bad things can only come of this!" It was the opposite of what I thought the character was going to do. But I am so glad he went off track and did what he did, because it taught me that characters (when written correctly) will do what they do, and you lose control over what they do. I've met authors who scoff at this, but think about it: you're creating another living, breathing human. Of course that human is going to spiral out of your control and make his own decisions. Welcome to parenting.
9. Victor Frankenstein, Sirius Black, and Boxer the Horse
I am grateful for the characters who grabbed my attention in other books and got me interested in writing my own characters. We all have them. For me, it was a workhorse in third grade, a mad scientist in fifth grade, and Harry's godfather in sixth grade (and if I spoiled Harry Potter for you, I'm not sorry, because it's been out for twenty years now). There were others, but these are the guys who leaped out of the pages and throttled me by the neck and said, "Look at us! We're awesome! You can write awesome people, too!" And so I tried to.
8. Radical Face and my best friend's mix CD's.
I write to music. Who doesn't? But sometimes music means more than just pretty background noise. Sometimes music can teach you how to tell a story and use metaphors and emotions to manipulate the audience to your whim. Cry, audience, cry! Yes, the tears ...
Oh, don't pretend like you aren't excited when people cry at your stuff.
For those of you who don't know Radical Face, you need to. Here's a link. This music taught me how to write short stories just as much as my undergraduate workshops did. See, this guy is a genius and he says so much with so little. Another good one is Josh Ritter. And there's a chock-a-block of amazing storytellers in the weird, warped music my writing partner and best friend in college handed off to me throughout the years. Now when I hear the Decemberists or Avett Brothers or Mountain Goats, I get the itch to write. Honestly, I think the mixes my friend made for me and their inspiration had less to do with the music on the mixes themselves, but more to do with the fact that someone cared enough about me to push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
7. The people who push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
And there are a lot of them. First, there was Gramma and Mom, who taught me to read and write when I was two and then taught me how a story is written when I was three. I still remember Gramma and me reading through a Berenstain Bears book, and I asked, "How does the author know when to change paragraphs?"
"Well, he feels it," Gramma said. "I suppose when an author writes so much, he just knows."
"Do you think I could do that?" I asked, and of course my Gramma, who thought I could do anything, said, "Of course. You can do anything."
Mom held me to a high standard, even when I was a kid. At eleven, I was way deep into writing long speculative fiction. Every night, I would hand her a chapter and ask her, "Tell me if you got bored." In the morning, it was like opening up the New York Times to find a review. Actually, it was worse than the Times. My mom was brutal.
"It didn't really pique my attention," she'd say. "And didn't you steal that idea from something else?"
As I grew up, there were teachers that joined the mix. Tracy, who shut the lights off in the room and put the music on and made us open up our imaginations. Brian, who is the main reason why I went into playwriting and shoved myself into DePaul (and got into Stonecoast). David, who gave me an internship and my first published piece. Steinbruck and Jorgenson, who put on my little plays and made me try out for contests that I never won. Christine, who actually believed I could play with the big boys and was worth something. Martinez, John, Don, and now Nancy.
But there were also friends.
Upon arriving in Chicago, I met another playwriting major. She was working on a YA steampunk novel before anyone really knew what steampunk was. Actually, four years later when I first heard the term, I called her and said, "Oh! That's what you were doing!"
She has long moved away and began her next adventure, but those four years we spent in Chicago together were the most formative years of my writing existence. I showed up in the city as a little girl who thought I was weird because I wrote weird stuff, and I left the city with an armful of movies, books, and music to prove to me that I was not alone. She took my writing seriously; sometimes more seriously than me. We actually dropped out of a class together and sat at a coffee shop across the street and discussed different characters and archs and plots and symbols. We believed it all mattered. She believed it all mattered. And because of her, it did matter.
6. Nature and Wordsworth.
I am not a poet. I will never claim to be a poet. I have friends who are poets, and they are very good. I am not a poet.
That said, you can imagine how painful poetry classes could be for me. I did not get it, I did not want to get it, and I actually spent most of my time in poetry classes learning to be ambidextrous in my notebook as I sat in the back of the class (sorry, Professor, I never said it was a smart move).
But then came 19th Century British Literature. And thus followed Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."
I think "Tintern Abbey" completely revolutionized the content of my writing. It was like someone a hundred and fifty years ago totally got what I felt about the city and how much I missed my home. There's always been a definitive struggle inside of me as a person: to live in the hustle and bustle that will give me opportunity and make me successful, or try to be happy in the countryside that I was born into. Wordsworth didn't give me any closure on that conflict, but he did vocalize it beautifully. Shortly after, I started playing with this juxtaposition of nature versus industrial city, and most of my work since then has had some sort of semblance of that poem.
We all should read more poetry.
5. Laptops, pop, library stalls, writing desks, and Hershey bars.
I am grateful for all the little things that help me write. I started off with paper stapled together, and my hand could never keep up with my brain. The fact that laptops exist, they're portable, and they don't weigh as much as a brick now ... all good things for me. Also, chocolate. Because chocolate. And always chocolate.
4. Having a job that allows me to create stories all day long.
I'm lucky. I don't work behind a desk. I won't say much about my day job, but I get to create and I get to help others create and that makes me happy.
3. Getting into Stonecoast.
I always wanted an MFA in Creative Writing, and now I get to have one. But turns out that Stonecoast was the best option and I really lucked out. I know that I'd be miserable writing lit fic and having to quit my job and move across the country to an undisclosed location. It's just not for me right now. But Stonecoast fits in with my life and the people there are writing what I write. Someone's writing steampunk and another is writing adult spec and another is writing solarpunk and another is working on a space opera. How amazing is that?!
I think it's amazing.
Not only is Stonecoast awesome, but I got in. And I had the courage to try for an MFA and I had those recommenders who helped me through the process (Brian, John, Christine, and Jen ... notice they're the teachers who were mentioned earlier). I had support from them and my wonderful Alex, and I did it. I really did it.
2. The complication in my current book series.
I won't talk about it, because I don't want to spoil it. But my current project had this moment where it was being written, and something brilliant happened, and I had that moment where a writer thinks, "Oh. This is actually going to work. This is actually special."
I love that moment. And I am so grateful when it comes. Not all projects get that moment. A lot don't. But if you ever do feel that relief that you have that "spark" in your manuscript, you thank your lucky stars. You didn't just waste the last year of your life typing random words in random order on a random word doc.
So when it happened, I just sat back and smiled. And then I kept writing.
1. All of the many pages I've cut and never used.
For just the last book I wrote, I know that I have discarded over 1,000 pages of writing.
Since the age of nine, I've worked on about twenty full-length manuscripts and playscripts.
Out of those twenty, about five of them have been published or produced. And honestly, about three of them are stories I would consider awesome and worth anything.
I am always really sad when I write something in vain. I am always really sad when I work on something for a year and then I find out it's trash and I scrap it. But there's always this comfort in knowing that every word I write --- no matter how awful that word was --- propels me forward into growing and maturing as a writer.
I am grateful for all of the words that no one will read. I am grateful for all of the awful, teeth-grating scenes I wrote and slaved over, just to delete them or stick them in a "maybe" folder, just to have that "maybe" folder turn into a "never" folder or a "oh yeah, I forgot this was here" folder. I am grateful for all of the characters who lived so others could live more vibrantly. And I am grateful for all of the misspelled words and weak dialogue and funky chapter breaks that are lost to the times.
Because they made me who I am. They were just one more step in the right direction.
So what are you grateful for?
10 Things I Learned from Applying for an MFA in Creative Writing (or, now that I'm finally into an MFA program, what I wished I knew a year ago) (OR how you can learn from my stupidity)
So this story has a happy ending. I got into the school of my dreams, and I have purchased my plane ticket to whisk off to Maine this July so I can learn how to write about robots and dragons. Just keep that in mind. After three times of trying, I finally got to go to college.
A lot of people have stories that are similar, and other people, like my friend's girlfriend, only tried for one school once and landed a funded position. So sweet for her, and sucky for the rest of us.
My own personal story started in 2008, when I decided I was going to try for an MFA in the first place. In late 2010, I applied for real. I applied to Brown (ha, no), Cornell (wait, what?), Michigan (yeah right), and IWW (death knells). As you can possibly imagine, I was not old enough, experienced enough, good enough, nor ready enough to go to any of these programs. I turned in a personal statement talking about how the MFA was a glass box upon a shelf full of my dreams and aspirations, and I was scared to take it down off the shelf and get my fingerprints on it or some other random nonsense like that. I also spelled Sherman Alexie's name wrong.
The second year, I got into a program. But there was no funding, and instead there was a fat benign tumor in my guts, which meant I needed to put the MFA (and a lot of my writing projects) on the back-burner for one more year so I could make sure I was well enough to move away and do my thing.
This brings us to the third year.
And even while I count the days until that beautiful plane with the one connecting flight in O'Hare takes me to Stonecoast, I sit with six rejections and two waitlists in my pocket to the other eight schools I applied to. I just lucked out that the one school I wanted was the one school who wanted me.
In short terms: it's hard out there for a pimp.
I freaked myself out so hard, guys. An entire year of my life was dedicated to this freakish awful circus called MFA Applications. And I, too, scoured the internet to figure out what the hell I should be doing.
Now that I am through the tunnel of doom and on the other side, I unfortunately still don't know everything. I know a lot of people got way more acceptances than I did. I know a lot of people know how to spell Sherman Alexie's name right the first time. But I also know I survived, and I'm wiser for it.
Here's the Top 10 Things I Wish I'd Known.
10: MFA DRAFT
MFA applications can be hard and tedious. It'd be nice to have someone there to just give you a pat on the back and be like, "It's okay! I'm going through hell, too! THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN ANYONE'S FAVOR! THE CAKE IS A LIE!" So for this reason, I wish I'd known about MFA Draft long before I did. I actually found the Draft after all of my applications were turned in, and I was waiting to hear back. I wanted to know when people were being contacted, and that meant finding places like gradcafe and MFA Draft. Unfortunately, Draft would have come in handy about twelve months earlier, since people share tips and swap drafts of their writing samples and keep each other sane through GRE testing. If you're applying for 2015, look up MFA Draft 15. Do it now. Introduce yourself. And get started.
9. JUNE WASN'T EARLY ENOUGH.
So I started in June. I turned down my Round 2 MFA Application Anti-Acceptance Due to Tumor in April, and then I started MFA searching in June. I thought I was on top of it all. I thought I was ridin' the wave of productivity and haha to those unfortunates who wouldn't start until October! I sat my rump down at a Dunkin Donuts and I read the Poets&Writers MFA Edition and I highlighted the crap outta that sucker. I was gonna do it! I was gonna get ready for the GRE and Mama, I was gonna be a star!
I should have started in March. There's so much to do, especially on the writing sample and even just really researching what schools would be a good fit for you, that you cannot wait until June. You just can't.
8. IOWA MAY BE FANCY, BUT IT MIGHT NOT BE A FIT.
I applied to nine schools. I write "popular fiction" or "genre fiction" or "science fiction" or "speculative fiction" or "hack-style" or whatever you want to call it. So I knew that not every MFA program was going to be for me. But oh, I still underestimated just how gloriously my paper airplane of a writing sample would crumple and fall into a fiery ball of sad. My writing sample included a story about a man who moves backwards in time instead of forwards, a granddaughter recounting her grandmother's last day on Earth before the Noah's Ark Rocketship took off, and of course an excerpt of my science fiction novel. Except for Brown, where I needed a few more pages and I included my YA Steampunk Trilogy (excerpt, of course). I am brilliant. So very brilliant.
The thing is, I took a chance. I wanted a school to pick me for who I was, not for who they thought I was. And this is who I am, guys. But instead of wasting my time and money and paper and postage on schools like NCSU and Brown, I should have probably focused more on smaller schools with good funding who would take on a crackerjack like me.
Stonecoast, thank God, was looking for crackerjacks. They collect crackerjacks. And now I get to crackerjack for two years with people who can actually help me.
And imagine if you got into one of those programs where you couldn't actually be yourself. I was (surprisingly) waitlisted at a school that was research heavy. I hate research. Why the hell would I apply to someplace that would expect me to research things?! I don't know, but I did.
I also looked at Poets & Writers for the answers. Obviously if a school is ranked 60 out of 150, it's easier to get into than IWW or Brown, right?
Ha, by like four percent, maybe! You're still sitting at 4 out of 900 applicants! Good luck to you, ma'am!
This is in no way saying that P&W isn't legit; it totally is and you need to read it and ear-mark it and kiss it before bed. But you also need to do some of your own research on the programs. You need to see if low-res is going to work out for you a little better than full-res, or maybe Amherst would be your worst nightmare instead of your dream come true, because you have nothing in common with the faculty. Or maybe there is a really sweet program in Kalamazoo (there isn't any program in Kalamazoo, please don't get your hopes up) that gives full funding but it's up-and-coming, and no one knows about it yet.
That happened to me with Wichita.
Cut to: 2008. Interior. Book Fair at AWP. I see Wichita's table. It's small. I go over there. They are really nice and sweet and they tell me all about new stuff that is happening. I decide Wichita is not for me.
Cut to: 2014. I'm near the end of my application process, and I decide in a panic to apply to Wichita. It's been a few years. They've grown. Seth Abramson mentioned them and now everyone wants WSU.
Guess who didn't get in.
Find the place that fits you, not the place you need to fit.
I wasted so much time and money. And in the end, Stonecoast didn't even need my damn GRE.
7. F THE GRE.
So yes, let me begin this by saying that you absolutely should study for that test and yes, it does mean a lot when coming down to the nitty-gritty of funding and TA positions. And yes, there are specific programs that need a certain GRE score in order to be admitted. So in no way am I saying that the GRE is not important.
But it's not important as it will seem.
I feel like a lot of us glomp onto the GRE because it's the only assessment-based score we get during our progress in this dark hole of applying. But really, seriously, if you figure out what programs you really want to apply to, and none of them want the GRE, then you may not want to take the GRE. Of course, other people will disagree with me, saying that you may find a program you like down the road and you're going to need that score. It's a gamble, but either way, GRE or no GRE, don't use your entire summer studying for it instead of workshopping your writing sample.
I worked so hard on that GRE, and I got a pretty good score. By pretty good, it was high enough to get into any school I wanted ... if this was the ACT and I was going for undergrad. But I wasn't, and the GRE really meant nothing because they didn't like my writing sample. So hey, kids! Know your vocabulary, but go to the writing sample. Use your summer for the writing sample.
Also, know which programs you want to send your GRE to, before you leave for the testing. They give you four free schools, and use that. It's an extra hundred dollars.
6. IT IS SERIOUSLY ALL ABOUT THE WRITING SAMPLE. NO. SERIOUSLY.
Everyone says this and no one believes it. Have a strong SOP, have strong recs, but seriously, it comes down to the sample. You double-check that puppy five times before you send it out, for any typos whatsoever. Because guess who had typos even after checking it and rechecking it and having two other people recheck it? Two thumbs to this gal.
Don't do novel excerpts. Don't show off something that you just wrote. And don't ever turn anything that wasn't workshopped. Workshop it. Send it out. Tear it apart, or the applicant committee will.
5. PUT YOUR HEART INTO IT, AND THEN FORGET ABOUT IT.
I worked nonstop from June to the end of January on my MFA applications. It was a near-to year of my life. I've had relationships shorter than the application process for this graduate degree. I was meticulous, I was ruthless, I was egocentric, and I missed out on a lot of films during Oscar season.
But then there's this weird drop-off come February, when there is nothing to do and no one is telling you how you did.
Around mid-March, I should have been having the time of my life, since my bridesmaids and I went on vacation to check out my wedding venue and I had a week off from school. However, I was fervently watching MFA Draft 14 to see if I had gotten into Boulder or Wichita. I checked the mail every day, I pestered my parents to see maybe my mail had magically ended up in their mailbox ten miles away.
You just have to forget about it. From January 3 to April 15, you will know nothing, Jon Snow. You have to carry on with your life. Your beautiful, fulfilling, day-job life.
4. DON'T USE THE MFA AS AN ESCAPE HATCH.
Ah. Yes. That day job.
I actually got into an argument on MFA Draft about how some people are using the MFA to run away from a life they don't want. I think that every writer has a small little part of their brain that says, "Man, if I could just write all day for a living and do nothing else, then I would have it made." Well, I know writers who write for a living, all day, and it's not as easy as you'd think. Just assume that anything you do, anywhere you go, anyone you love will have their setbacks. That weird, tired, frustration that comes with being alive and breathing on Earth does not go away just because you have moved away, changed jobs, gotten married, or even entered an MFA program.
I said that in fact I'd known people who were using the MFA application as a possible "escape hatch" from their crappy lives and their crappy situations. Having someone pay you a stipend to sit in a dorm and type, type, type? Greatest thing ever, right?
No. And I was a little vindicated when a few days later, another Drafter posted that she was frustrated and sad because not getting into a program this year meant having to go back to her crappy job where no one treated her with any respect. Someone commented with words of wisdom, asking, "Will you then be okay working that crappy job and getting disrespected while you're in graduate school?" Because guess what, kiddos, you're still going to have to work to put yourself through school (and yes, that includes full funding).
"But Dawson!" you exclaim. "I got into Brown and I have enough savings!"
Sweet. But then you run into other problems. Like absolutely no job prospects when you graduate (helloooo adjuncts!). Or you're living in Providence, which is a gigantic college town with swindly landlords who will shut your heat off in the middle of the night. Everything looks shiny and beautiful, until you get there and start to see the grease marks right up close.
And I was in a writing cohort in my undergrad. I will be the first to tell you that getting a writing degree is not easy. Is it fun? If you love it, and I loved it, it will all be totally worth it. But I still had to contend with deadlines, a ridiculous amount of writing, and everything I wrote got torn apart to shreds. I had to deal with everyone else and the competition of having four people going for one final little slot of production at the end of the four years, and everyone was good. And even when people weren't good, you wondered why they got praise that day and you didn't. I had a professor who absolutely hated my writing style, and I thought that meant that I sucked forever.
It's not easy. Writing is never easy. But we do it because we love it.
This also plays into this Michael Chabon idea that if you go into an MFA program, you will immediately become someone. You won't. You'll probably end up flitting around from adjunct job to adjunct job, trying to make ends meet.
In summation: You go into an MFA program to get better at writing. You don't go into an MFA program to hide from the world or jump-start your life out of your parents' basement. Otherwise, you're going to be even more frustrated and depressed than you were when you were applying in the first place.
3: SCHOLARSHIPS! FAFSA! MONEY! YAY!
Yes, you need to do the FAFSA. Yes, there are scholarships outside of your department. You need to scour the college's website very early on, so you know exactly when scholarships are due and which ones you can apply for. Do your FAFSA as soon as you get your tax information from your jobs. Just do things early. There aren't a lot of federal grants and there's barely any scholarships out there that don't come from your schools, but you need to keep things in mind for GA's, TA's, and scholarships:
There is the department.
And then there is the graduate school as a general whole.
Two chances. Two sets of opportunities. Don't forget that second one.
Oh, and even if you are paying completely out of pocket, you should do the FAFSA. Some schools consider it a requirement.
Also. Another big thing to remember about money. Applications cost. A LOT.
2: KNOW YOUR FACULTY. KNOW YOUR RECOMMENDERS.
Now some people go overboard and read every single faculty's book. That's ridiculous. Don't do that. But you do need to see who you're going to be working with. I've worked with teachers and professors before who just do not see eye-to-eye with what I want to do with my writing. They write something completely different than what I'm interested in writing, and neither of us can find any common ground. That said, I actually met one of the greatest influences in my writing life because I switched one Creative Writing class time slot when I was a sophomore in college.
And now that person is one of my recommenders. Oh look! A transition!
It's important to trust your recs. It is important to know these people believe in you and are going to fight for you. One of my recommenders the first time around was a very fancy person, but they wrote the absolute worst recommendation I've ever seen (because yes, they gave me a copy). They meant no malice by it; they were just an awful letter writer. It was literally a paragraph, and not a big fat paragraph. It was like a tiny little "I endorse this message" disclaimer more than it was a meaningful explanation of their adoration for my work. Or you know ... whatever.
You also need to treat your recommenders like real people, because they are real people. On the flip side of life, I work as a recommender for other people. I absolutely hate it when people hand me a form or an address or information and they're like, "Yeah it's due tomorrow." I tell people I want at least two weeks' notice, and I think that's being pretty nice to them. On the other hand, I also get pissed when people hand me information and they're like, "Oh yeah, and it's due in I don't know ... April?" And it's October. I will forget. Don't think just because you dropped it off and touched base (in a very literal way ... like reaching out and touching a base and then running away with immunity to taggers), that I am even going to remotely remember that you need a recommendation come April. I've had relationships shorter than the time you are asking me to remember something. So no, that don't cut it.
Also, get them a present. They'll really appreciate it, and then they'll do more recs for you.
Also, ask for more than what you need. I've heard so many horror stories about people who didn't get into a school because some a-wad didn't turn in their rec letter. How dumb is that? You do everything right. You pay money. And you don't get in because your recommender didn't turn a piece of paper in?!
But it happens.
So if you need three, get four. Or five. I had five people on deck for three slots, and all of my recs got turned in on time.
Also, you need to send them SASE's for their rec letters and you need to write out all of the information for them. It needs to be organized and categorized so they know exactly what is going on with life. If not, they'll shut down or just get really angry that you didn't make this easy. And do you want an angry person writing your rec letter?
No. The answer is no.
Last thing: if you can, meet the faculty. One of my biggest regrets was not being able to make it to AWP this year. I've got every year since 2008 when I discovered AWP existed as a wee sophomore in college. You need to go to those booths, make actual connections with people, and really honestly have that human experience with other humans. Talk to students, get to know the school. Once at AWP, I went up to the booth of one of my top picks, and this little girl with a fancy t-shirt informed me and a group of kids, "Oh. If you write genre, don't even think about applying here. Or at least try to mask it in your writing sample."
That was a big fat nope from me. And I saved 70 bucks on my application, and the faculty saved their eyesight not having to read it.
Also, take advantage of AWP. I actually had someone come up from NEOMFA and woo me to their program and took my name and got really excited about me going there. NEOMFA wasn't for me, because at the time, I did not have a driver's license. But it was really sweet to be wooed. Wouldn't all of us love to be wooed during this process?
1. LOVE YOURSELF, NO MATTER WHAT.
Your heart is going to be broken, guys. All of your hearts. You will not get into every program you want to get into, and even if you're one of those lucky Top Ten who gets in everywhere and then has to choose between Michigan and Brown, you're going to be sad eventually because you'll go there and think to yourself, "Maybe I'm not good enough."
Well, you are good enough. We all are. Because we are wanting to dedicate two years of our lives to getting better at something. How many people in the world do that? Who gets up in the morning and thinks, "I want to go and get better at this thing that is not going to make me any money and will probably cause me to spend a lot of time by myself, miserable and self-loathing." Furthermore, how many people say, "There is this thing I love to do, but I am humble enough to know that I could get better?" If you think a lot of people say these things, then I commend you, because you have kept good company.
But I've met a lot of people who just sort of slug through life, or they have such an ego, they never try to get better. So many people out there would rather say, "Oh, well, I'm sure it'll happen on its own." or "I always wanted to do this thing, but you know, stuff." People suck because they procrastinate. People always talk about what they could have been or what they're going to be, but they never do anything to better their situation.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.
So the fact that you are even reading this blog, looking at schools, applying to programs, and going off into the great perhaps ... all of that tells me that you are worth something, and you want your writing to be worth something.
Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to be open to growth and criticism. But never allow anyone to make you feel like you're a nothing. And if you don't get into a program, it does not mean that you suck. It means that your writing sample sucked. Or maybe your writing sample just didn't fit whatever that school wanted. Or maybe you just aren't ready for the great perhaps, but perhaps next year you will be.
The only thing you can do is keep loving yourself, keep writing, and keep fighting.
Good luck. And God Bless.
Just to make everyone feel better ... to your left, we see a picture of the brilliant Brandon Sanderson. I met him at a signing/reading/lecture a couple of weeks ago, and he was brilliant.
Now let's talk about sad things.
For those of you who may not know, I actually have a day job. And a lot of people who are writers have day jobs. Nay, a lot of writers also have children or old sick parents or three-legged mogwais. So at least I don't have those ... for now.
But I thought we may want to touch on the sad fact that in order to start off as a writer, you're probably going to have to work.
This came up in my mind when I read on a board about someone who didn't want a crappy job anymore and they wanted to "Be Someone," so they were going to attempt to get into an MFA program. Someone candidly said, "And are you going to be okay having a crappy job and not Being Someone while you get that MFA?"
It's true. A lot of people work through their MFA program. Not everyone ... not most people, actually ... get a full funded deal. And even if they do, they need to take out loans or they need to work in order to keep their heads above water.
Another lovely moment that happened in the past two or three months was an author who actually came to my work and told us, "You will never be a writer if you keep working a day job. It's not going to happen."
Oh. Is that true?
So I've compiled six fun pieces of advice that will help you cheat-code your way through your job while you are trying to also write.
MAKE A SPACE THAT YOU WILL USE
Make a space that is yours. Don't try to make a writing space that you "think" you're supposed to have; there have been many a blank notebook and many an unused desk up against the wall because I tried to put together a writing space that fit some contorted worldly view. So you know what mine looks like? I turned the dining room into a writing room, complete with a desk looking out to a pinetree-infested courtyard. And also, I included a bed. That's right. I put a bed in my space, because that is usually where I write. Notice I have more than one place to write, depending on how I'm feeling on a given day. And guess what, I actually sit in this room and work!
Boom! Pictured! And no, that's not leopard print. That blanket is legit with book quotes.
YOU HAVE TO WRITE. YOU HAVE TO.
I am awful at getting things done if I don't have deadlines. So I tried to work to get myself some deadlines. But the thing is ... the reason why deadlines work for me is because I have the pending fear of disappointing a third party. So when it comes to that self-imposed deadline and realizing I'm going to miss it, I am very good about forgiving myself. I just shrug, say "Oh well, it's okay, I understand," and move on. But then nothing happens, and an awful cycle of self-loathing and petty forgiveness happens.
So I had to learn to work from within; that is to say, from a place of passion and excitement about a piece. If I want to work on a piece just for the sake of working on it, then I'll sit down and work on it. If a piece gets too hard, the motivation becomes not so much writing good stuff, but instead just writing until the good stuff happens.
No matter how you get yourself to write, you just have to do it. Every single day. You have to sit down in your space and write.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE
God love the people in my life, but I have to say they're split into two camps. The first camp is full of people who find writing a hobby or a silly little activity you can do when everything else is done. If it comes down to either going out to the premiere of Catching Fire or sitting at home and finishing a scene, they'll pressure you to go out and see the movie. They just don't understand, and that can mangle your priorities.
However, if you can find what I can a "writing buddy" or at least a support system who will pressure you to take your writing seriously, then your priorities will get a little jab in the right direction. When you get your coat on to go out to the Catching Fire premiere, they'll say, "What, what, what are you doing? You didn't finish that scene." And you'll be held accountable for your actions.
But you will not always have someone sitting there breathing down your neck. Writing is a very sad, very lonely profession. We just sort of type away, trying to make sense of something that is honestly kind of pointless in the large scheme of the world. Yeah, there are authors who have changed the world, but for each Upton Sinclair there's been a Barney McNo-One who died with four hundred pages of a manuscript no one ever read. So I feel like writers try to look for gratification and validation from external sources. Even if you get into Brown MFA and you publish a book with Random House, you're never going to feel validated. So you have to learn to write from that place of not knowing. You have to learn to write through the fear.
JOIN A WORKSHOP/GET INTO A LOW-RES/READ READ READ
You are going to need to have an external stimulation, however. You can't just keep writing those vampire stories and memoirs about your first bike ride. You need to go forth and listen to other writers, read other authors, and learn from other sources.
AND FINALLY: TREAT IT LIKE A JOB.
You want this to be your job? Then treat it with the respect a job would deserve. You go to work and you get yelled at if you don't do your work. Then you come home and no one gives a crap if you go to sleep, watch Hulu for five hours, or write the Great American Vampire Novel. That's the dangerous thing. Make it a priority. Make it your life. And make something.
Have a great week!
Yes, that above metaphor does make sense, and yes, I will explain it.
So for those of you who may not know, I applied for MFA programs this year. And boy oh boy, did I learn a lot. I think one particular lesson is important for all writers to keep in mind, regardless if they're putting themselves on the front lines of admissions or submitting to a dream publication or agent.
Writing is not getting accepted. Writing is not being told it's good. Writing is not getting everything you want. Writing is simply writing.
Ooo, let me do my metaphor now.
So in my personal life, I am getting married. I know, exciting, we've been broadcasting it online since 2011, so it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following our story. But Alex and I finally tie the knot on August 16, 2014.
In a fury of "oh-my-God-this-is-actually-happening," Alex and I headed out to a Wedding Convention across the river. And there indeed in all of its glory was the entire convention center, full of just absolute shit. I say shit not because it was ugly, but it was just a lot of shit. Like, you know, when you are moving out of your freshman college dorm for the summer, and your parents look around at all the random useless knick-knacks you've accumulated over nine months, and they say, "Look at all of this shit!"
"Man," I sort of kidded with Alex, "it's like it's all about the bride and you're just an accessory."
The joke became reality when the doormen started handing out stickers to BRIDES, BRIDESMAIDS, MOTHERS OF THE BRIDES, and ...
"Can I help you?" the man said to Alex's outstretched hand.
"A groom sticker, please!" Alex beamed.
The man scoffed. "Ha. Yeah, we don't have those." And he moved along.
Alex sort of sat there in a bit of a tizzy.
It seemed as if some girls get married for the sake of the wedding, and if the newest David's Bridal commercial and the numerous wedding forums internet-wide are any indication, this is a legitimate frame of mind.
I don't want to get married so I can wear a dress. I don't want to get married so I get my bachelorette party this weekend. I don't want to get married so I can sit here on this blog and tell you I'm getting married. I want to get married because I am in love with Alex.
Alex is not some cold business partner who shall be playing the role of the groom. His proposal was clumsy and messy, but it was real. Our courtship was long and personal and beautiful because it was ours, not cookie-cutter. There was no question whether or not I was going to say yes, and when the going got tough, we didn't play games. We talked it out. Our hearts are fully in this. We are best friends, and it has been a very personal experience.
Writing has to be the same way.
So I asked myself why I write. It's such an over-asked question, but sitting on Facebook's MFA Draft 14 board, it makes you feel small and insignificant when you try to compare yourself to these people who seem to know what they're doing more than you do. All of a sudden, our prowess and talent and worth as a person are measured in amounts of rejection letters, acceptances, waitlists, or little scribbled notes on our "no thank you but you're awesome" mail. We keep score like writing is something that comes with a scoreboard. And we are ranked, over and over again.
This is not what writing is.
I asked myself a very important question. And I came up with a very important answer.
This is what my groom is: My groom is a boy with curly hair and glasses, who laughs by tilting his chin into his neck and giving out an "Oh my Goood" that can last for minutes. That's how you know you really got him good. My groom is a man who growled when he shoved a jackass in Boys Town Chicago up against a brick wall because the guy had copped a feel on my boobs. My groom sometimes tries to quote Cracked articles to me as interesting facts, when we both know damn well we both read Cracked religiously. My groom is someone who sits by lakes with me and we talk about whether or not we can afford Jimmy Johns, and then we slip into a conversation about God and whether or not we really did see my grandmother standing at the end of the death bed when her body gave out.
And this is what writing is: Writing is sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed, playing Natalie Merchant and Panic! At the Disco while I furiously type out a scene with John Price and Daniel Welles. Writing is making Abigail's airship fly across the sky while Wallace Cane stands by her side. It's watching a stranger jump from a thirty-story building and wishing I could stop him from hitting the ground. It's looking Pard straight in the face and wondering if he knows that he's a bad person sometimes. And it's standing next to Dantes and Judas when they overlook the broken kingdom that is now completely void of life.
I am marrying my soul mate. I write people I have known for years in my mind; people I love and people who have a story that I have to tell. All of it comes from the soul, from the desire and love to need to love.
And I think we all need to remember that. Be kind to yourself. Love is something that comes from the soul, not from a letter and not from a dress.
Boom! Metaphor full circle!
I received my first acceptance to an MFA program this week.
What is this?
Dawson is a writer. This is her blog. In it, you shall read about reading. And writing. And cheeseburgers. Sometimes there are tangents. Huzzah.