‘Will This Rejection Discourage Me Forever?’
Welcome back to The Reading. Last month and this month, paid subscribers received and will receive the following:
- The postscript to June’s letter: A monthly wellness prompt for the quality of your life
- The postscript to today’s letter: A little more on the jurying process
- The Writing: What does it mean to grow an audience?
- The Writing: How do you write vulnerably? (Part 1)
- The Writing: How do you write vulnerably? (Part 2)
- The Writing: Changes to The Writing (and how to write vulnerably, part 3)
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Today marks the first full year of writing The Reading. Since July 2020, we’ve exchanged 32 letters and 11 postscripts, had 42 discussions, and 6 subscriber interviews. You can check out the new index I’ve created on this fancy new page!
As many of you know, a writer’s life is full of busy and slow times. For the first nine months of The Reading, I was writing weekly letters with you, but that workload got to be a lot when teaching and book-writing needed my attention. At the same time, I’ve missed writing to you as frequently as I used to.
My skill of setting structures has benefited me countless times over in my career, but recently HK reminded me that I’m still my own boss here, and I can actually break my own rules. For that reason, I’m going to experiment with writing extra letters when I feel like it. So if you get The Reading once more than you expect in the next few months, that is why! (Perhaps a good reason to send me yours.)
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Now, on with (the next year of) the work.
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I know you have written about dealing with rejection before, but I feel like I may be ....... permanently damaged by this one. I applied to MFAs this year and didn’t get in to my top choice program (fully-funded, very popular, cornfields, you know the one). Not only was I rejected, I didn’t even get one of the fabled personal notes on my rejection letter encouraging me to keep writing or apply again next year.
The thing is, I KNOW I’m not having a proportional reaction to this. Friends and people in my writing group have given me all the right advice: you don’t need an MFA from a prestigious school to be a good writer, tons of people get rejected and especially from this program, it was an especially tight application season, etc etc. I know. But .... I am just so sad ???
And now it has been a few weeks and I can’t write, at all. I want to, and I have ideas I’m excited to work on, but every time I try I’m just taken over by this feeling of sheer embarrassment. Like I have the application committee reading over my shoulder and laughing at me for even trying.
I’ve had rejections before but none as big as this one, and I’m scared this is having a permanent effect on my confidence and ability to write. I still have a lot of unresolved questions (do I accept the program I DID get into, or just take some workshops and try again next cycle) but the biggest worry looming over me is: is this going to just stick like a barb in me forever, making me doubt every word I put on paper? Bc that would really suck.
Thank you and much love,
Dejected MFA Draftee
I wish I could follow-up to your letter with this question first, but to put it here will have to do. What did getting accepted to this program actually mean to you? You mention in your letter that you’re so sad, but the magnitude of the emotion is inexplicably above and beyond what seems appropriate for the situation. When this happens, it’s important to step back and dig deeper into the reasons why. In a way, you’re fortunate that this has happened to you with a situation that isn’t culturally coded to allow intense emotions (see: romance) as you’re more likely to notice that your response is more than the situation seems to call for.
I can briefly share my experience of working on the other side to help banish the nightmares of the admissions panel laughing at your writing. While I’ve never read applications for an MFA program, I have judged, juried, and edited for several years now, and while the criteria sometimes changes, a general formula for evaluation seems to remain the same. I can tell you now that I’ve never ever laughed at an application, nor have I witnessed another judge do so.
When you submit your application, it lands in a general application pile that gets sorted into smaller piles. Each of those piles is assigned randomly to a jurist, who, if the applications aren’t anonymized, double-checks that they don’t know anyone personally in the group and asks the program manager to swap them out if so. The jurist then rates the work sample and the accompanying materials from 1-10 based on their expertise in the field. The top scorers from each jurist’s pile are then added to a new pile that are evaluated again by everyone on the panel to vote on the final selections. You can add some rounds here if there are many, many initial applications.
You mention in your letter that you didn’t even get a personalized note from the application committee. Not knowing the actual process for that program, your application may have been rejected at any point in this process. It’s possible that you caught that jurist after a seventeen-hour day with no breaks from work and childcare. It’s just as possible that this year almost no applications received a tiered personal note, even though it has been standard practice, because of the affective exhaustion brought on by the pandemic, intense climate changes, and white supremacist violence across the US.
It’s comforting to some to hear the reality that you may have lost your chance at a dream school because your first evaluator wasn’t in the best mood (to say the least). For others, it may draw some ire, especially if you poured hours, if not weeks, into the careful curation of your application. Yet, why would you spend those hours in the first place? To return to the first question above, what did getting accepted into this program actually mean to you?
If you were hoping that getting into this school would validate your excellence as a writer, look at it this way: it’s not very logical to use an MFA application cycle to measure your individual growth as a writer. First, just applying is expensive. Second, the responses are lousy and non-specific. Yes, I’m talking about form rejections, but even acceptances, as programs are then courting you to actually come to the institution. Third, and this is my most cynical take, a program’s priorities are wrapped up not only in “excellence” or “fit” but in the ways your presence might earn them acclaim, should you one day go on to have a notable public career.
Now, you may have wanted to get in because this school was part of a larger vision for your life. You know that feeling when you’re excited about a possible new romantic partner? At first, you try to keep it casual. Soon, you’re fantasizing about plans a year from now and so on. And then you break up. The life you imagined together is suddenly gone because it can’t be exist without that person—that program—in place.
The last time an application cycle meant that much to me was when I was first applying to college. College was the beginning of something I could choose for myself. It was a next step to freedom. I could be out as queer without my parents’ scrutiny and, most importantly, I was going to find “my people”: those who shared my intellectual and artistic interests and those who also felt like outsiders, who were just too quirky to fit in. I pored over college surveys and chose my top school based on this dream of the life I wanted. I knew it was a long-shot, but I just felt as though I belonged there and their admissions team would recognize it. Before I had even sent my application, I had already chosen the dorm I would stay in and the clubs I would join once I got there.
Needless to say, I didn’t get in. I was devastated. I wanted to know what I could have done better. I didn’t understand what about me wasn’t good enough. You are probably doubly feeling this because writing is a vocation of passion. One doesn’t choose to write because they wants to make a six-figure salary—one chooses writing because, perhaps, making art reminds them of who they are. Being rejected when you’re proclaiming this to the world can feel as though you’ve been told that you aren’t who you say you are. Now you’ve been pushed off your balance and you’re looking for a way to right yourself.
If you want to escape from your problems, just fix yourself on a dream. Pay attention to what getting into this school would have done for you. What’s absent and what’s there? Do you have the attention you’ve always wanted to be loved and appreciated? Are you being reminded that you are loved as a writer? Perhaps you want to be affirmed that you are loved when you are most as you see yourself. It was written out for you in the flashing lights and this rejection means that this path is gone. Of course you are in so much pain. Getting in was your ticket to an important solution in your life. This MFA program was supposed to be part of it.
You need to let go of the life you romanticized with this MFA program. But letting go isn’t running in the opposite direction, pretending that it never happened. Letting go is about admitting to yourself that you really love writing. To have imagined a life for yourself for which you have so much passion is valuable information: it’s a clear glimpse into the dreams you want for yourself. Why is it that you needed to be accepted by this school? What part of you needed this acceptance so you could accept it yourself?
Grief is looking that long life you imagined all the way down, one more time. To memorialize it properly, you must admit to yourself not only that you wanted something, but that you wanted it that much. It means that you can’t go back to numbing yourself or to being okay—it is about acknowledging that missing part, knowing intimately what it is, and loving yourself so much that you are willing to transform in order to try again and again. Moving on from this fantasy means keeping the part that gave you hope; it means wanting as much as you want, not how much you should; it means changing your life in the ways you can.
Part of this process is trusting that you’ll write again. Mourning takes a long time. You need time to meet new people; to forget the pressure of performing for an audience. You need to become anonymous enough that you can re-meet yourself. Do the writing that feels like candy first. If at any moment you feel like doing work, don’t try to trammel over it. Honor the feeling and stop. When you think of writing as work, you’re doing it for other people. In order to write again, you need to do it so that it’s already a reward in itself.
We live more than one life. In fact, part of the work of living is closing off the paths we might take, whether it’s by choice or by fate. The thread of our lives is made by the paths we didn’t choose to take. A baby is born with innumerable paths in their life to come. A person on their death-bed is looking at the final path available to them, to step through the threshold of a journey unknown to the living. To be able to look back at that final moment and see the path one has chosen makes s life. Some are closed when we would have chosen them. Some are freely rejected. But all involve keeping on the path, getting to those other paths. Don’t be afraid. They’re waiting for you.
Postscript: A little more on the jurying process.
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Elsewhere with Yanyi
What’s a lyric essay and how might you write one? I’ll be teaching Architectures of Resonance: Writing the Lyric Essay with Kundiman in August (8/22; one session). Scholarships available.
- Apply to be the Poetry Coalition Fellow for Indigenous Nations Poets (7/6).
- Send in your unagented manuscript for free to Soft Skull Press this month (7/20; literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, hybrid works, and works in translation).
- Apply to be Poetry Editor or Creative Director at Astra House (rolling; part-time and remote).
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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.