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Rejections, Plan Bs


jforms

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I was rejected from all 14 schools I applied to. I kind of feel like the last year was a waste. If you're in a similar situation, I hope this forum can be a place for you to vent your frustrations and talk about your "Plan B," if you have one. Whether you got into MFAs and can't go for any reason or didn't get into any program or just have any words of encouragement, discouragement or anything at all, feel free to express yourself. Congrats to everyone who did get in. And I wish the best for everyone who didn't. Hopefully we'll all figure it out one of these days.

 

Also, fuck Boise for waiting so long to tell us.

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Hey jforms, 

Sorry it turned out this way. My thoughts on the MFA chase.... 

To keep things in perspective: nobody needs an MFA degree to become a writer. I applied to 15 programs and was rejected from 12. There is no rhyme or reason as to why I got into Iowa AND got form rejections from Cornell, Brown, Vanderbilt, Michigan, UT-Michener, U Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis... etc etc etc. It's meaningless really. I thought that getting into a good program would assuage all the fears I had about becoming a writer. I thought getting into a program would give me external validation and more confidence in my work. I thought getting into a program would turn me into a "real writer". I thought getting into a program meant I wouldn't be insecure about my writing. I thought getting into a program would make me stop worrying about my future. 

It's done none of that. Nothing's changed. It hasn't made me a better writer. It hasn't made me more confident in my work. It doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment. Once the shine has worn off, the old self-doubts come back. When you're writing, the page looks no less intimidating. The muse is as elusive as ever. You still try to read as much as you can, you still feel like you aren't reading enough —or you aren't reading the right things. You still have trouble composing sentences. Your words still refuse to fall in line. 

Nothing's changed. You read and write, read and write, read and write. A writer writes. A writer reads. Plan A and B are one and the same.

_____

From Zadie Smith: 

Don't confuse honours with achievement

Don't mask self-doubt with contempt

From Jonathan Franzen:

You see more sitting still than chasing after. 

And from both JF and ZS: 

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction / Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. 
_____

Read and write, read and write. Reapply next year, or not at all. ZS: resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied. MFAs ain't shit. 


 

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On 4/9/2015 at 12:52 AM, HeyIowa said:

Hey jforms, 

Sorry it turned out this way. My thoughts on the MFA chase.... 

To keep things in perspective: nobody needs an MFA degree to become a writer. I applied to 15 programs and was rejected from 12. There is no rhyme or reason as to why I got into Iowa AND got form rejections from Cornell, Brown, Vanderbilt, Michigan, UT-Michener, U Virginia, Washington University in St Louis... etc etc etc. It's meaningless really. I thought that getting into a good program would assuage all the fears I had about becoming a writer. I thought getting into a program would give me external validation and more confidence in my work. I thought getting into a program would turn me into a "real writer". I thought getting into a program meant I wouldn't be insecure about my writing. I thought getting into a program would make me stop worrying about my future. 

It's done none of that. Nothing's changed. It hasn't made me a better writer. It hasn't made me more confident in my work. It doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment. Once the shine has worn off, the old self-doubts come back. When you're writing, the page looks no less intimidating. The muse is as elusive as ever. You still try to read as much as you can, you still feel like you aren't reading enough —or you aren't reading the right things. You still have trouble composing sentences. Your words still refuse to fall in line. 

Nothing's changed. You read and write, read and write, read and write. A writer writes. A writer reads. Plan A and B are one and the same.

_____

From Zadie Smith: 

Don't confuse honours with achievement

Don't mask self-doubt with contempt

From Jonathan Franzen:

You see more sitting still than chasing after. 

And from both JF and ZS: 

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction / Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. 

_____

Read and write, read and write. Reapply next year, or not at all. ZS: resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied. MFAs ain't shit. 

 

Thanks. I know I'd be insecure no matter what. I'm never satisfied with anything. I agree with much of what you say. But it would have been nice. Iowa would have been nice. Any of them. Anyway, cheers to figuring out what's next. Best of luck to everyone. Validation and seeking it are the worst things on earth.

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So are you still at Iowa, H? As Plan B's go... well, let's just say that's a hell of a Plan B! Haha.

 

Personally, I've applied to 7 programs in the last two years -- been rejected by 5, yet to hear back from one, admitted to one without funding (which means I probably won't be heading out there come fall, so the end result's the same). I mostly wanna get my master's to have time to focus on my writing, to acquire a teaching credential, to have better access to other jobs in higher ed, and frankly, I'd like the opportunity to experience living in another part of the country without having to worry about chasing down a job there, etc. first.

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So are you still at Iowa, H? As Plan B's go... well, let's just say that's a hell of a Plan B! Haha.

 

Personally, I've applied to 7 programs in the last two years -- been rejected by 5, yet to hear back from one, admitted to one without funding (which means I probably won't be heading out there come fall, so the end result's the same). I mostly wanna get my master's to have time to focus on my writing, to acquire a teaching credential, to have better access to other jobs in higher ed, and frankly, I'd like the opportunity to experience living in another part of the country without having to worry about chasing down a job there, etc. first.

I had the same exact idea. Best of luck with the last one you're waiting on. You never know.

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Unfortunately, I'm in the same boat as you, jforms. I, too, was rejected from all programs I applied to (7), and my "Plan B" is a little hazy at the moment, although it will most likely entail working in some sort of teaching environment for the time being. I intend on applying again in the fall to more programs—probably in the range of 12-15 schools this time around—although it is pretty disheartening to have to wait almost two years before possibly enrolling somewhere.

 

However, the time will undoubtedly need to be spent on improving my writing and creating more pieces that will be included in my next manuscript. 

 

For those of you that were accepted to programs, do you have any advice on the manuscript itself? It seems near-impossible to find any samples/stories from previously accepted students, and I think it'd be very valuable to see what programs expect and demand from their applicants.

 

Would any accepted applicants be willing to direct me to certain stories (perhaps published online or elsewhere) that were included in your manuscript? I'm honestly just curious to see how strong the field is from year-to-year, and I'd like to get an idea of what to strive for as I revise and continue to produce more work.

 

Thanks!

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@tonyb

Yes, it should be bone-splinteringly cold. I am already looking for deals on power down jackets :(

@Tilden Katz

Re: advice on the manuscript —get subscriptions to TNYer, TPR, N+1, McSweeney's Quarterly, The Believer, etc. Pay attention to Granta and the Atlantic Monthly. Read as much as you can, especially from former MFA students (Wells Tower, Yiyun Li, Junot Diaz, Karen Russell, etc etc etc). Focus on developing a compelling and original voice. In my opinion, the voice is the one thing that you have to nail. Don't worry so much about having the perfect plot or the most memorable characters. They are looking for original voices. Don't be afraid to take risks, don't write safe prose –but at the same time, submit stuff that is more modernist than postmodernist. I experimented with surrealism in one of my pieces, but the conflicts were all day-to-day domestic or relationship-based conflicts. 

I submitted 2, 3700 word pieces that followed the same characters. Both were first person narratives with the same narrator. Both had grammatical errors that I later caught, and one was egregiously overwritten in places. Neither were perfect works. I can say that I'm a much better writer now than I was this time last year. I say this to reiterate my advice on having a mature, controlled but original voice. The spark of originality will overshadow the smaller mistakes that you'll inevitably make in your piece. 

Also take a good look at your personal statement. Make sure you're coming across as driven, motivated, and ambitious —but ultimately sane, pleasant, and self-aware. 

I'm still in the process of sending out the pieces that were in my manuscript —if some publication bites I'll send you a link. Of course, I will gladly take a look at your work and give you some of my thoughts. 
 

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To those who struck out, this isn't a MFA rejection but somewhat similar: a few years ago I was a finalist for a dream fellowship that I didn't end up getting. I had put all of my eggs in that basket (unwisely) and I was devastated. But, I ended up pursuing another adventure and reapplied the next year to the same fellowship along with some writing and teaching grants/fellowships. I ended up with an even better offer on my second try and I'm really glad that I failed the first time. This is easy to say now because I am so happy where I ended up, but at the time I just cried and cried and didn't write at all for a while (productive, I know). I worked harder and was a better applicant the second time around and it paid off. 

 

But most of all - keep writing! I did a workshop at Tin House last year and another semester-long workshop at a local community college and I think that REALLY helped with my applications because I had deadlines and a good round of feedback on my stories. I did this in addition to having my undergrad writing professors look at my work and give me feedback too. It helps to have 1-3 voices that you really trust and who get what you're trying to do; you can just tune out everyone else. 

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Glad to hear some positive feedback all around. Seeing the light is tough. So, I appreciate it. Hopefully others in a similar situation feel sympathetic. Thanks!

 

I don't know if I'm applying again next year. Honestly, I spent around 2 grand, a year of my life and cancelled just about everything else I was doing to make the applications work. I don't know if I could do it again. But we'll see. I'm open to anything. It just makes me nauseous to think about! Best of luck to you, Tilden. And Fruitsnacks, thanks for the kind words. It's good to know that you can't always see the benefits in the present. It's possible that because I didn't get into these programs, something different or even better will happen instead. Who knows?

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RE: Advice on manuscripts...

 

I was waitlisted at UW: Madison last year, and one thing the professor who broke the news told me was to avoid first-person narration, as it tends to be very common in writing samples. Good way to stand out!

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Yes, I've heard the same thing from multiple admissions people. There are many in the Franzen camp who prefer third person to first person, but there are some effects that you can only do through first person writing. Id advise people to work with whatever perspective's most comfortable.

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Thanks everyone for the feedback. I've definitely heard the first person narration thing mentioned before. That's something I'll have to keep in mind since the centerpiece for my manuscript was written in the first person : /

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I had a first person and third person story in my sample, so maybe if you're unsure include one of each? But really, if you love work you've written in first person, then I would submit that and not a story in third that you don't feel as strongly about. 

 

And HeyIowa, Tin House is amazing! They always have a remarkable faculty list and the community of writers is great. It's also pretty expensive, so I'd only go if you get a scholarship or outside funding (or have extra cash in savings, of course). 

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Re: advice on the manuscript —get subscriptions to TNYer, TPR, N+1, McSweeney's Quarterly, The Believer, etc. Pay attention to Granta and the Atlantic Monthly. Read as much as you can, especially from former MFA students (Wells Tower, Yiyun Li, Junot Diaz, Karen Russell, etc etc etc). Focus on developing a compelling and original voice. In my opinion, the voice is the one thing that you have to nail. Don't worry so much about having the perfect plot or the most memorable characters. They are looking for original voices. Don't be afraid to take risks, don't write safe prose –but at the same time, submit stuff that is more modernist than postmodernist. I experimented with surrealism in one of my pieces, but the conflicts were all day-to-day domestic or relationship-based conflicts. 

While the rest of the advice is all right (it's important to not come across as crazy or combative in a personal statement!), there are many different paths to an MFA.  The adcom could be looking for writing in the contemporary mode or they could not be.  I've never subscribed to or submitted to any of those journals and my reading is about 90-95% dead people.  I've done okay for myself and have met professors within the MFA system who have really loved my work.  Follow what excites you, more than anything else.  Trying to adapt to some prescribed idea of what a writer is or should be usually only leads to trouble in the long run.

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Me too! I applied to 7 schools this time around. I'm actually in a weird sort of place because my undergrad degree is literally the farthest thing from writing/english. I'm first generation born in the US and to go to college and have basically no parental support. I wanted to go for an MFA as some sort of validation for myself that I was good enough at this and, despite knowing full well that I can write without a degree, I think there's some value in learning the basics, especially when the only formal writing tutelage I got were basic English 101/102 in college. Also networking. Networking would be sweet.

 

Another thing I wanted was just the time to write. I work full time and when I get home, I just don't have the energy to write (getting better now, it's amazing what not waiting for grad schools to get back to you does for your mood). I wanted to be able to have 1-3 years to dedicate myself fully to just writing. 

 

I'm working on my own Plan B now. Still doing much the same, lots of reading and writing. I'm working on some pieces to submit (I do have a modest publication history). I'm going to attend a training session to volunteer at a free writing tutoring center for kids. I'm thinking that if I go for it again for Fall 2016, I'll widen my net a bit more, and consider low residency programs. 

 

(I totally welcome all advice because, like I said, there's not really anyone in my family who can help out much with this. I'm just sort of figuring my way about.)

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Hey, as someone who narrowly scraped in, just wanted to weigh in on this. I'd been contemplating the same thing, as far as Plan B and whether I'd reapply in a future year. 

 

The biggest thing I noticed in the schools that replied positively to my application, was that my specific writing sample clearly had something in common, aesthetically, with the program's aesthetics. I wish I'd paid more attention to that when applying. In reality, the programs that I thought beforehand might understand my work, were the ones that did.

 

I thought about things like the program's reputation, and their alumni, but I didn't pay enough attention to faculty works themselves. I mean, it's a human game, and faculty want to mentor people whose visions they understand, right? And you'd want to work with people who really get what you're going for, right? So I dunno--I think I overlooked how important that element of applications was, more than whether my work was "good enough."

 

Then again, I also think it's hard to get a sense of a program's personality, from a distance. But as far as re-applying, the work is already mostly done, so if it's the right path for you, then you might as well give it another go. Good luck, regardless!

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While the rest of the advice is all right (it's important to not come across as crazy or combative in a personal statement!), there are many different paths to an MFA.  The adcom could be looking for writing in the contemporary mode or they could not be.  I've never subscribed to or submitted to any of those journals and my reading is about 90-95% dead people.  I've done okay for myself and have met professors within the MFA system who have really loved my work.  Follow what excites you, more than anything else.  Trying to adapt to some prescribed idea of what a writer is or should be usually only leads to trouble in the long run.

I'd argue that as a writer, you need to be reading contemporary literature, if only to get a good idea of what's going on –so to speak– in the publishing world. An aspiring filmmaker isn't only going to watch Ford and Welles, but Scorsese and Altman to PTA and Linklater to Cuarón and Iñárritu. I'm not saying you have to do what everybody else is doing, or emulate your contemporaries —but to say that you don't have to be aware of the current state of literature is flawed advice at best (I realize that this is a straw man argument and you never said these exact words —but you know what I mean), especially when the rationale is that it's worked for you. Reading the New Yorker is never bad advice —and I really dislike the direction that the magazine has taken lately. As for the modernist vs postmodernist comment, I figure it's advice in the same ballpark as those telling OP to stick away from 1st person —good writing wins out in the end. 

You may not need subscriptions to the major national / literary magazines to get into an MFA program, but it's never a bad idea to read and subscribe to publications like TNYer or TPR... especially if you're focused on publishing work in the near future (as I suspect 99% of your peers will be...) 

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It's an argument I've been through in the past and I can understand the angle that you're coming at it from.  I am aware of the contemporary writing world, it's hard not to be at least peripherally when a lot of your friends are writers and you go to literary events and readings about town.  I probably spend more time at those than I do at my desk reading recent publications of whatever.
 
I guess my gripe as I could articulate it is that I've been in dozens of workshops and sometimes run into those  people who have never read anything from so far back as the earlier half of the 20th century.  It shows.  They spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel or competing with each other on who can do the most experimental moves when there's no rationale behind the choices they make.  They're just doing it because no one's done it before, not because it adds to the meaning-making that the writing engages in.  They want to be the avant-garde without knowing what preceded them.  I take issue with that kind of approach and when reading your advice, responded to it in that way even while acknowledging it probably wasn't what you intended.  
 
I have plenty of friends who I think are fantastic writers and have gotten assorted accolades over the year and use language in interesting and fresh ways.  There are some who, while less pyrotechnical in their technique and vocabulary, operate clearly within a tradition while still being in a contemporary mode and moment.  There are other people I know who have similar accolades and degrees (even PhDs) but their writing is bloodless, or too bloody, or blatantly self-indulgent or what have you.  There are those who are familiar with technique but abuse the same left and right.  I went to a reading a year ago organized by acquaintances of mine who are decent people generally but more fiction-inclined and not particularly versed (here I am punning) in poetry.  There were four readers in all.  For every one of them, their favorite rhetorical device was anaphora and their favorite line length was Whitmanian.  By reader three, it was all I could do to keep myself from crawling out the window and running screaming into the night.
 
But to return to some hope of topicality here (and get over my own personal battles), my point is that there are many different schools still operating out there and different means of getting to whatever the endgame is.  People find their audiences, small and large, eventually.  The programs that I've gotten into over the years reflect the kind of process I was going through and what I wanted out of my work.  I didn't get into plenty of other places.  Other people who did get into those places could have easily applied to and been rejected by the schools I was accepted at.  You can read x journals or y journals or no journals.  You can view yourself as an inheritor of this tradition or that tradition or be some enfant terrible consciously making a mess of things.  You can be a weird amalgam of various influences or you could be a riff off one particular influence whose legacy you're constantly coming to terms with.  The writers that drive ME nuts have nonetheless found their loving supporters and I have people who are very angry about how I write even though I too have supporters and people who dig what I'm doing (some of whom aren't even family!)
 
Reading predominantly contemporary work is one path.  It's a particularly practical path in that it might get you some idea of where to publish individual pieces and find an already extant audience.  It's not the only means of getting there.
Edited by Enjay
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I didn't mean to suggest that contemporary work is better, or that people should read more contemporary work than, say, 18th century romantic or naturalistic literature. It's just that for most people who are looking to get published, it's nice to see what's getting published today, by leading magazines. Or even what books are being published by FSG. Of course, not everyone wants to be published in the New Yorker or McSweeneys —my whole point was that it's better to read for scope as well as depth.

 

 

 

 guess my gripe as I could articulate it is that I've been in dozens of workshops and sometimes run into those  people who have never read anything from so far back as the earlier half of the 20th century.  It shows.  

In my experience, most of my peers have read the classics —works by Joyce, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoevsky, etc, but not, say, Miranda July's debut novel, or Chad Harbach, Wells Tower, Karen Russell etc. And early 20th century authors like Hemingway, Salinger, Steinbeck, Graham Greene, etc are read by the majority of people who've taken an English class, whether in high school or college.

I mean, those are some of the most popular authors of all time. I'd argue that it doesn't hurt to read stories by up-and-coming writer in N+1 or Glimmer Train —people are much less familiar with contemporary authors than past greats. And I think there are more readers out there who've primarily read "stuff dead people wrote" than whats new and developing right now, mostly because English programs tend to teach classic works. 

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Maybe it's a difference of environment?  I had a dedicated CW major in college and while there were some English majors that dabbled, at the higher levels it was mostly people engrossed with contemporary stuff.  Oddly, in my MFA, it was much the same.  People who would take selfies with authors at the readings about town and trip over each other to get in line for tickets.  A classmate of mine had three or four books published through small presses but had never read Yates in her life.  Of course, when it came to contemporary material, she ran circles around me.  

 

For whatever it's worth, I know that there are plenty of programs out there, MFA or PhD, who basically don't give a damn how or what you score on the GREs for verbal or writing or subject lit.  There are some that care a lot, too.  It takes all kinds.  That's all I'm really trying to get at here.

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I figure it's advice in the same ballpark as those telling OP to stick away from 1st person — good writing wins out in the end.

 

Keep in mind, however, that human beings (including college profs and MFA faculty members) are fickle and emotional creatures, and don't always make decisions fairly or rationally. I'm not sure how the average MFA selection committee works, but for the sake of argument let's say a group of ten faculty members each reads X number of submissions, then picks out the handful they REALLY like and brings those to the table for the rest of the committe to read. Now say the guy who gets your submission REALLY doesn't like first person, or yours is the twentieth straight first-person story he or she has read. You can't tell me they may not just toss that baby on the other side of the pile, just for the sake of wanting to read something a little different.

 

The "avoid first person" advice came from a member of the MFA selection committee at UW: Madison, one of the most prestigious and selective programs in the country. I didn't pull it out of my behind or pick it up from somebody on Reddit. This is inside information, and from a credible source! Her exact words were that the constant use of first-person tends to make submissions feel as though they are all written in the same "voice." It prevents particular submissions from standing out... and that could be enough to get your story shuffled to the bottom of the pile, regardless of how good your writing might be.

Edited by TonyB
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