I applied months ago; their reply looked like spam, another petition.
We regret to inform you that the selection committee has decided not to extend you an offer. Your application was given every possible consideration by the faculty, but you must understand that there are a number of qualified applicants.Please understand that your writing and qualifications simply do not measure up to our most fine institution. However we do encourage you to apply again next year.
MFA Programs for Creative Writing all require a 20-30 page writing sample; this is the key to the application. And so I am editing a chapter from my bad side for the purpose.
We drove through the iron and brick gate, past the soccer fields and distant trees to a long quadrangle, yellow brick buildings going down the sides like a prison. An old man and woman stood on the wide concrete steps of the white-pillared building at the end.
“Good afternoon, Headmaster Hostler.” Nani looked like a corpse in her fresh lipstick.
Headmaster Hostler was badly shaped, fat in his stomach and legs, and then pinched up at his shoulders and face; it made his blazer come out like a dress. “Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Keynes. You’ve met my wife, Mrs. Hostler?”
“Welcome to St. Augustine’s.” Mrs. Hostler shook Nani’s hand.
Headmaster Hostler bent down to me, his thin hair hung over his giant forehead in thick greasy lines. “Perseverare Conantur.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Perseverare Conantur.” Mrs. Hostler indicated the gold cursive writing above the doorway. “Do you know what that means?”
She had a tight face, her skin bright and gluey. “And what does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Endeavor,” I repeated.
A tall girl came up behind us. “Endeavor to Persevere.”“Thank you, Miss Bocklin.” Mrs. Hostler said. “This is St. Augustine’s Head Girl, our very first.”
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to be an actual writer, whether it’s using the right words, or it’s a sensibility or a devotion to craft or just being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I know it isn’t just writing. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years and I have yet to feel the part. I do sometimes tell people that I’m a writer, but not the customs agents because I don’t make money doing it, with the exception of a brief stint as a sports columnist and my current job writing copy about toilets.I know that writing means something to me. I have a clear sense of me when I write. It’s just me and the words coming out of my head, a long wavering stream that I sometimes catch, and feel clear when I do. And so I’m writing. I know that I’m doing that.
I just don’t know about the being a writer part. I doubt my ability to be as open as Richard Blanco or as honest as Darin Strauss.I doubt my cleverness, wit and sense of denouement. But more than anything I doubt being able to enunciate what it is I doubt without trying to make it sound too much like what I think I should and then I’ve just missed the point.I have been told that I have an ear for dialogueand that I seem dedicated to my work. I’ve also been told that part of my problem is that my narrative tends to be too fast-moving, a frantic thing that doesn’t breathe and therefore is opaque.But still…I know that my writing makes sense to me – even these few words; it gives me solace, a moment where life isn’t just chaos and missteps. That’s why I’m trying to do it, so that it’s not me just chasing words, but crafting and binding and offering my thoughts on that. I’m attending conferences and workshops and orientation meetings for MFA programs. I’ve even thought of growing a beard.
But I’m still not so sure. I have my doubts that, even after whatever comes next, I’ll even be a writer then, that I’ll feel like I should, or I’ll even want to because it seems that maybe there’s nothing like just chasing words, nothing as pure as that. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I was keen to get into the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia. Overly excited, I raced up the campus steps, idolizing everything of the brilliant open space, sat in a long bright room and read through the hand-outs with a hundred other hopefuls. What a place, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great to be here.
The panel of faculty and administrators arrived and explained, “We are intensive and demanding, but it’s worth it in the end.” That seemed vague but still quite fine. I was sure they were right.People asked questions. “What’s the difference between a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD with the same focus?” The panel looked at itself and finally offered, “I don’t know what a creative writing PhD is and since we don’t offer it, I would have to say that a MFA is better.”
A young woman then asked if she might be able to extend the program from two years to three years, in consideration of being a parent or having a job. “This would be very, very unlikely.” Translation: NO
Well, I thought, too bad for her. And one less person for me to worry about.
The administration concluded their remarks with this: “Writing isn’t a race. It’s a contest.” This got a nervous laugh.
The panel switched to a group of MFA students who made things much worse.
“There are lots of great programs out there. I mean, you can be in a cornfield, which is very nice, or you can be in New York, which speaks for itself. Where else can you go to MOMA on your day off?” He was on a roll. “The program at Columbia is lavish. I was just talking about artichokes with my professor. I really was. I feel like I have the golden Willy Wonka ticket and I have to wave it in the air.” His peers offered little more. “You’re totally tapped into that really rich network,” a narrow-faced girl gushed.
“It’s really amazing,” a recent, bearded graduate summated. “You’ll learn a ton of things.”
And then this anecdote was delivered, meant to be inspiring but having the opposite effect. “I was freaking about the cost. I mean, I couldn’t stop thinking about the money. And so I went to the director and told him about my stress, and he said, ‘You can leave, if you want.’ That’s when I realized I didn’t want to.”
“You can check out, but you can never leave.”
I wasn’t feeling as keen about all this, but nevertheless went down with the other hopefuls to listen to visiting writer, Ben Lerner, downstairs and watched a young couple whisper and kiss in the theater.
I read The Columbia Spectator; the cafeteria “received only ten violation points from the city”, while the football team had lost again, although “the margin wasn’t as bad as last year’s 69-0 blowout.”
I turned to the classifieds; the ads were sparse – a single apartment listing, just one thing for sale – and then a surprising focus on donors of eggs and sperm.Four of the thirteen ads, in fact, were of the egg and sperm variety, 31%. I thought about this as I watched the young couple suddenly left as Ben Lerner arrived to speak of the “vision of the virtual” and “the tragic limitation of words”. It was after his third use of fecund and dozenth citation of ekphrastic that it hit me. This was an egg factory of the future! Not only was this institution enticing the brightest of the bright, but it had the audacity to charge them into penury, forcing many to sell their eggs and sperm for the privilege! What evil genius!
“They want our eggs?!?”
I left, my coat and bags in a messy bunch, briefly scanning for the young lovers in the night, thinking that they must have made their escape from the compound, their eggs and sperm intact.