Keep Trying Against All Odds

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:

Dear Shaun,

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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17 Responses to “Keep Trying Against All Odds”

#1 Joseph Palmisano on 08, Mar, 2012 at 10:49 am

Keep up the good fight, Shaun.

#2 Kate on 08, Mar, 2012 at 3:29 pm

eep! I’m sorry you didn’t get in. I’m trying self-publishing at the moment.

#3 Carissa Starr on 08, Mar, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I remember reading an author quote somewhere that said (roughly) ‘being a writer is simply sitting and writing. Being a published writer is learning how to hear No a thousand times but still submitting until you hear a Yes.’

I think that is true of most professions. Another important thing is to recognize opportunities and advice even if it doesn’t seem boldly stated.

“…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.”

Amongst all that (and I think you see it) is an acknowledgement that a) you have talent and potential, and b) you just need more study. The advice is to seek out another school.

No one says you have to finish at that other establishment, but it’s a good way to get started. Many highly talented, world renowned authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers…they did not necessarily study anywhere but on their own time. I can name you a dozen, but I’ve read your blog a long time now and I know that all of this, you already know. Sometimes you just need to be reminded.

Talent and skill do not come with a piece of paper. Sometimes the best teachers aren’t at the best schools, just tucked away somewhere just as unnoticed as you.

I didn’t pursue college until I was in my early twenties and most of my friends had already graduated. My husband pushed me because he knew that *I* needed to know that I could do it. Out of high school I had been accepted into the film programs at AFI, NYC, USC, UCLA, Tisch, the London Film Academy and the Vancouver Film school in Canada. Not bragging here because honestly…couldn’t go to any of them. My family had no money and even though I had large scholarships and nearly perfect GPA, my father made just enough to disqualify me for certain grants and anything out of the USA I couldn’t use my scholarships or US grants for. They didn’t take into account the immense debt that my parents had which essentially drained his every paycheck. Things aren’t much different now for graduating teens.

When I applied again in my 20s, I was accepted again, but had the same problem only the added condition that high schoolers got first priority. I’ll tell you what the financial aid counselor I had at the time also told me: wait one more year, have a baby and then I can get you in. So I had to make less money, older than 23 and a single mother. Yeah, great plan. So I ended up at a trade school. The Art Institute of America sounds very posh but AI is really just an ITT Tech style trade school for artists. Graduated, but was blind to offered opportunities that would have me in a better place today.

These are just lessons we learn and only recognize in hindsight. I learned as much on my own as I did from my profs. I’m particularly fond of the line from ‘Good Will Hunting’: “–you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.” It is so true, and a concept that the societal structure of our country has tried to hide from it’s youth. My father was self-educated. He barely graduated high school, spent 5 yrs in the marines at the earliest stages of Vietnam and then spent the next forty years in the semi-conductor industry as an electrical engineer. The only one he knew of that had no degree. No degree but he has 9 patents for processes that are still used in the industry, knew the men responsible for the ground work that Steve Jobs and his partners were able to build their empires on and is still recognized around the globe in his field. All that with Ds in high school….and late charges from the library.

I am so far from being the person my father is, regardless of having a degree…but like you, I keep trying. Like my much younger father, I keep trying to learn. I don’t have his talent for spotting opportunity, but people believe I can do it. My dream since I was very young was to make films– it still is. Things have changed today. The internet and self-publishing (like Kate said) have made our dreams so much more attainable than they used to be. Just follow Joseph’s advice too and keep fighting. Keep writing. You ARE a writer Shaun. We know that because we’ve been following you. We’ve been reading your blogs, the excerpts and short stories you post. If you didn’t have talent, we’d have left long ago.

You know all of this. Sometimes it just helps to hear someone else say it.

(And that’s my speech for today. *wink*)

#4 Kate on 08, Mar, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I agree with everything Carissa said. It is very inspiring. 😀

Have you thought of trying wattpad? Some of the top writers there are getting discovered by agents.

#5 more_applications on 10, Mar, 2012 at 1:57 am

Sorry to hear you didn’t get in.

Maybe try sending a whole bunch of applications next time, say 10 or 20 schools. You’d have much higher odds than just applying to the 2 top schools in the country.

Good luck in any case.

#6 Jenson on 14, Mar, 2012 at 7:10 pm

I subscribed to your blog a while ago. I like the topics that are discussed here. This post really grabbed my attention, so I thought I’d comment.

First off, sorry that you didn’t get in. More importantly though, it’s great to hear that you are so willing to get right back on your feet post-rejection and carry on with your dreams. That’s the right approach!

I’m sure I’m not alone when I state that losing my own fear of rejection was something that took some time. I’m certain I even missed out on lots of good opportunities just because I was too afraid to be rejected.

In many cases, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be told “no”. Once I realized how harmless the word “no” actually is, it opened up a world of possibility.

Keep carrying on.

#7 sincereluv4life on 03, Apr, 2012 at 5:37 pm

long time reader, first time commenter— it’s 4/3/2012 already sir. Where’s the new post? lol, I know you’re probably busy living your dreams but I do hope you post soon.

#8 Dawn on 13, Apr, 2012 at 8:03 am

Thanks for sharing Shaun – the good, the bad….and the disappointing! Glad you’re being philisophical about things and determined to keep trying.
All the best,

#9 starla on 02, May, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle. One of my favorite sayings. I’ve enjoyed many a defeat. So many sometimes it’s hard to continue to believe that success is possiable. I know dreams are put in our hearts for a reason and some times I think it is too see how much we believe and how hard we are willing to press forth even in the face of rejection and defeat. I believe your Dream can come true. I also believe eventually my dreams are possiable. It’s trudging through the mud that’s hard.

#10 Rob Thomas on 08, Jun, 2012 at 1:01 am

Hi Shaun,

I came across your site after doing a google search for “reinventing yourself.” I must say, I am very lazy when in comes to reading and seldom is my attention held with written words. However, I like your writing style and think the world needs more people like you, that write in plain English!

I too am in the process of reinventing myself and struggling to get my passion off the ground, so love to hear about others going through the same thing. Good luck mate… BTW love the song too!

#11 Jesse Edgar on 12, Jul, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Please write more. I’ve been following you for years now. Your writing has encouraged me to take many scary steps in my life in the past.

Thank you for that.

#12 American Debt Project on 09, Aug, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I know you have not written in a while, but I just wanted to let you know you are one of my all-time favorite blogs. You have written so many great posts that are inspiring, interesting and some heartbreaking. I look forward to more posts and I will pre-order your book on Amazon when it comes out. Great writing inspires me to keep writing and improve my own creative work.

#13 paul on 22, Aug, 2012 at 7:39 am

why did you stop posting?

#14 Kendra on 05, Nov, 2012 at 11:30 pm

I was cleaning out my personal e-mail inbox and came across your “farewell” e-mail from Gale. Although we did not know each other very well, there must have been a reason that I saved it, to read your blog at a time when I needed inspiration. Keep up the good work, not enough people are out there fighting for their dream, thank you.

#15 New user on 27, Nov, 2012 at 4:49 am

What happened to this page? Please write more 😀

#16 Jackson Classic on 22, Dec, 2012 at 11:42 am

Hey man, miss your posts. I don’t really have enough time to explain why…haha. It’s been too long, though. Please don’t abandon this.

#17 Janette Sullivan on 05, Apr, 2017 at 7:28 am

Sorry that you didn’t get in, but there are other avenues. In fact, everything we know about the publishing industry is being disrupted as we speak.
The best way to learn writing is by writing. There are places where you can write and find a community, like here.
There are so many great and not so great writers self-publishing on platforms like Amazon these days and they are letting the readers be the judge of whether their writing is worth paying for.
Keep writing, know that everyone improves the more they write and that all first drafts suck – all of them.
Good luck.

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