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I Was Rejected From Every MFA Program I Applied To. Here's Why I'm Not Giving Up. 🖊️✨
my thoughts on writing, rejection, & failure - welcome back to The Slush Pile!
If you’ve been subscribed to The Slush Pile for a hot minute now, you might be used to only receiving one email each 15th of the month from me. But something has happened to me recently that warrants an extra bonus Issue 18 that just couldn’t wait another fifteen days. You’ve likely already read the title and know what I’m about to say but it bears repeating anyway: from December to February, I applied to 8 MFA creative writing programs all over the East Coast and Midwest, put together my writing samples, got letters of rec, and from March to April, got rejected from all 8.
In case you don’t know, MFAs are two to three-year graduate programs that are offered to writers with tracks in fiction, poetry, and/or nonfiction, complete with weekly workshops and outside electives, opportunities for teaching or editorial experience, and time to write and be in community with a cohort of other writers. Upon graduation, you submit an original creative manuscript in the place of a research-based thesis that may or may not serve as your next published project.
These programs are notoriously selective and controversial (based on who you talk to, they’re often sought after for the wrong reasons or considered a waste of time and money or even destructive to the art of writing itself) but also generous, with many offering full funding and scholarships to accepted applicants. I applied for a mix of tracks in fiction and poetry depending on the schools but mostly focused on the former. Some of you might be curious as to which schools I applied to but honestly, it feels like I’ve been talking about nothing but MFAs with writer friends, colleagues, and mentors for the past six months, and I’m no longer interested in repeating myself anymore. Sorry.
Still, it’s strange, this wanting to move on and feeling stuck in this cycle of sadness, anger, grief, and uncertainty. Since receiving my last rejection, it’s been a rough few days giving myself time and space to mourn, trying not to beat myself up when I spiral or become overcome by jealousy when I see other people’s MFA acceptance announcements, and figuring out what to do with myself next. Like the aftermath of a particularly nasty break-up, I’ve been thinking about the events of the past six months over and over in my head trying to figure out what went wrong and what I could’ve done differently: Did I say the wrong thing? Did I pitch the wrong project? Should I have spent more time on my writing sample? Did I put my pieces in the wrong order? Why wasn’t I good enough? Why didn’t they want me? What’s wrong with me and why wasn’t I chosen?
It wasn’t like the application process itself was any easier, with me breaking down in tears every time someone critiqued my personal statement or just asked about how the process was going, feeling this knot in my stomach every time I sent off another application rather than a loosening sigh of release. But now I’m burrowing into myself for other reasons, fighting the urge to cry every time someone assures me that I can try again next year, that there’s a reason for everything, that I’m so talented that they can’t believe it, that the MFA committee was out of their mind or X or Y or Z, that there are other things I can do with my time, that I have a lot of other stuff going for me.
Frankly, it’s humiliating.
The kindness is killing me and sometimes I wish someone would just tell me the deeper ugly truth I know about myself, that I’m just not good enough yet and that I wasn’t as ready as I thought. The worst advice I’ve been told is that I’m only 23 and have plenty of time, which I’m starting to find a bit condescending as if because I’m young what I’m feeling isn’t important and only really half-true in a world that feels more fragile and precarious than ever. It not only makes my problems seem insignificant but also slim to achieve. At the same time, I feel as though it’s not just me I’ve disappointed, but that I’ve also let down the very people who fought for me, stayed in my corner, and championed me through their invaluable help through my letters of rec and personal statements. All their hard work blossomed into nothing.
But in the back of my mind, I know this isn’t all as simple as I want it to be. I know there are a dozen different reasons that these programs had for rejecting me that have nothing to do with me personally: the tight funding, the surge in applications with COVID policies being retracted, the arrangement of the cohort and larger goals of the committee. Even my age could’ve been a factor because, despite all my professional experiences, I know I still have a long way to go in accruing actual life experiences and deepening my creative process.
I know all this to be true and yet it doesn’t stop me from hurting, maybe because I’ve never experienced failure of this magnitude before. Yet how often have I parroted the belief that failure and rejection make us better writers? How often have I said that to other people with the privilege of not being in it myself the moment I said it? I can tell you now that it feels like being stuck in a sea of hopelessness and uncertainty, unsure of where to go or how to ground yourself in something real. If nothing else, I have a lot more empathy and compassion for anyone else going through the same thing. It sucks.
While I admittedly have a lot going for me right now (several writing projects, my freelance work, a strong support system), I can’t tell you how bleak the rest of the year looked the moment I realized I’d had all eight rejections under my belt. I’d piled all my hopes into being somewhere new in the fall or at least a different curve in the path from the one I’ve been on for a while, and now that’s no longer true. The strangest thing is that I really thought I was ready.
This had been the plan since graduating from undergrad, that I would wait two years before applying so as to cobble together some kind of life for myself during a global pandemic rather than returning immediately to school. I’m grateful, SO grateful for what I have and the ease with which I spend many of my working days but it’s hard not to feel resentful at a different life I could’ve had starting in September. It’s hard not to think about what I’ve lost while other people around me (who are so deserving and wonderful) reap and sow. What do you do when you think you’re ready for something and the world says no?
But there’s another side to this that I haven’t touched on, the second half of this newsletter’s title that has gone largely untouched. Up until now, I’m sure it’s seemed like I’m deflated and defeated, that I want to wallow and compare myself to others and cry at 11am in the morning for no reason (which I’ve done on several occasions now). Yes, I’ve earned a certain period of mourning and yes, to a certain extent, I want to run away from everything and everyone. It’s natural. But at the end of the day, it’s up to me to keep going. To not give up. And despite this setback, I don’t want to give up.
I love storytelling. I love writing more than anything, not just because it’s the one thing I’m good at but also because I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else with my life. Because of my paternal grandmother, it’s literally in my blood and lineage to write. If I’m to survive this, I have to hold onto that. And if nothing else, this has taught me that writing isn’t valuable because it’s chosen by an institution or system or even a magazine; it’s valuable because I wrote it. I have to stop thinking that I’m worthless because I wasn’t given the institutional and societal validation so many of us crave and few receive. I have to think bigger than getting caught up in a machine and forgive myself for that.
For those still wondering, it’s still a goal of mine to attend but I have no plans to apply again any time soon. I don’t have the time or energy for any of it, the process or rejection, all over again. So I guess in a way, this title is only half-true. I’m giving up on MFA programs (for now) but not on my writing. Never the writing.
Honestly, growing up, I thought dreams were something you fought for tirelessly with everything you had in you, that like a toxic lover, you never took no for an answer. But maybe this is what dreams are really about, believing in them but setting them aside when it’s just not your time to achieve them yet. In the meantime, I know there’s something else out there for me, that I want other things too, that I have a little more growing up to do. I just have to keep going.
notes from the writer’s desk ✍️
my favorite recently pub’d pieces:
Submissions for my magazine Mag 20/20 are now OPEN for Issue 06! We are looking for writing (all forms), art, music, photography, and hybrid work from creatives 20-29. Until the deadline on July 15th, your work will be considered by an incredible masthead of readers and editors, so be sure to get your submissions in soon. Submit here!
Since January, I’ve been hosting creativity café, an ig live series where i feature, create space, and hold conversation with writers I love and that you should too! The ninth episode will premiere next Tuesday at 2pm PST and feature special guest writer Ashia Ajani, so head to my Instagram to watch it then. See you there!
STREAMING SERVICE: season two, the sequel to my self-published debut poetry chapbook STREAMING SERVICE: golden shovels made for tv, IS NOW OUT! Digital and signed physical copies are available, as well as the option to bundle both chapbooks and receive a bookmark and sticker with every physical order! Order your copy today! Thank you as always for your support :’)
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my Bookstagram and TikTok to keep up with what I’m reading and loving right now! On TikTok, you’ll also get more snippets of my everyday writing life and lifestyle/fashion content. See you there!
I am now a media mentor for Tectonic Media! If you are a young/aspiring journalist, I am available for consultation and mentorship on a variety of topics. Learn more about my areas of specialty and how we can connect here.
other stories i’m loving 📖
Chlorine by Jade Song
currently listening to:
“Waffle House” by The Jonas Brothers
all my love,