For a long time now, I’ve dreamed of being a writer.
There’s a certain Beatles song, “Paperback Writer,” that I first heard in college and ever since has become my personal theme song. I crank it loud whenever I hear it on the radio, and I really sympathize with the lyrics: “It’s a steady job but he wants to be a Paperback Writer.”
Recently, I left my steady job so that I could focus on writing a story. Specifically, this story was part of an application to a creative writing master’s program. When I was working through the application, I was very aware of how competitive the program was, but I felt like it was important to try.
The University of Iowa is ranked #1 in the nation for creative writing. Imagining that I probably wouldn’t get in, I simultaneously sent my story in to a more local school, the University of Michigan, which just so happens to be ranked #2 in the nation for the same discipline. I felt it was smart to have a backup option.
After sending in my applications in December, I imagined just how exciting it would be to actually get accepted into either program. I wondered what kind of culture existed in the writing schools, and the kinds of students that got accepted. All of them, I’m sure, share the same writing dream that I do. It would be a community of aspiring writers, all eager to bury their heads in their developing stories, and having the best resources and professors at their fingertips. In short, it would be awesome.
In late February I heard back from my backup school. I didn’t get in. A professor from the University of Michigan wrote:
Dear Mr. Boyd:
During the last six weeks, our faculty members have read a large group of applications for admissions to the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. This was among the most impressive group of applicants in the program’s history, and also the most numerous. Places and money, however, are very limited, and we have only been able to make offers to a small group of exceptionally well prepared and compelling candidates (fewer than 2% of our applicants). We regret to say that, in this stringent competition, your application for admission was not successful.
Please know that our decision is meant to negate neither your talent nor your prospects–it is simply our collective judgment that others have first claim on our attention at present. If our experience is any guide, many applicants to whom we can’t offer places go on to fine graduate careers elsewhere. We wish you every success in pursuing further study.
It felt disappointing, but it wasn’t too surprising. I knew simply from the size of the envelope, and the relative quickness that it was sent to me, that I was not accepted. Additionally, I don’t come from a journalism background or have an English degree. Everything that I’ve learned about creative writing, I’ve done on my own. Perhaps they were looking for people with a more formal literary background.
Not two weeks later, I received a similar letter from my first choice. The director of the Creative Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa wrote:
The members of the fiction admissions committee have carefully reviewed your application, and I am sorry to report that we are unable to offer you a place in the Workshop. We have a limited number of openings and must turn away many promising applicants. This year, one thousand and twenty people applied for twenty-five spaces.
We wish you well and thank you for your interest in the Writers’ Workshop.
When I told Cassie I didn’t get accepted into either program, she was disappointed for me. Later, she said that she was impressed how I didn’t seem too upset about it.
“What’s there to be upset about?” I thought. I knew going into it that I was facing incredibly difficult odds. I knew that it was essentially a gamble for a chance at a life that I may never see. Although I’m willing to try my best and reach out for opportunities that aren’t right in front of me, I’m still very logical and realistic.
Still, I feel that it’s really important to try, because you’ll never know unless you do! Furthermore, this isn’t the end-all definitive moment that says I will never be a writer. It simply means that I’m not attending their Fall 2012 programs. I can always try again next year, or the year after that. Similarly, I can still become a successful writer some other way, via a path that’s not yet clear to me.
I look at it this way: The first feedback that Stephen King ever received, after eight years of submitting stories, was a handwritten postscript on a rejection slip. It said “Don’t staple manuscripts. Loose pages plus paperclip equal correct way to submit copy.” Imagine all of the stories and films that would never have been added to the world if King had stopped trying!
At the very least, applying to the programs got me back in the habit of writing my novel-in-progress. I have over sixty pages of it now, and a solid idea of where I want it to go. Also, I have an interest in steadily moving the story forward. And of course, I still have the strongest desire to succeed at writing.
If I want it bad enough, and if I’m tenacious enough, I will get there. Someday, I will be a Paperback Writer. And even if I don’t, I will always have my theme song…
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