Showing posts with label MFA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MFA. Show all posts

Friday, September 28, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 16: Stymie

Today's word is:

Stymie is a verb of unknown origins which means to present an obstacle to or stand in the way of a goal.  According to Oxford Dictionaries, it was used in golf in the 19th century to describe a scenario on the turf where a ball obstructs the shot of another player.

I'm taking a break from calligraphy today.  My heart is not into dribbling ink haphazardly on parchment and pretending it looks pretty.  I'm thinking more about the word itself today rather than how it looks.  Just now I thought of a possible explanation for its origins.  Someone was playing golf, a ball went astray and the golfer whose brilliant shot was ruined shouted, "Sty me!" in lieu of stronger language.  Plausible?  Maybe just a little?

It's simple logistics.  A tree falls across the road, and there is no choice but to throw the car into reverse and go back, try for a different route.  The angles no longer line up the way they should.  There is an obstruction.  The path that we would have ordinarily taken is now inaccessible, even though by all means it was the right path, the main path, the one everybody else seems to be on.

My own obstacle isn't one tree branch in the road or a stray golf ball in my shot.  It's an amalgam of things that basically comes down to a truth that I've been trying to ignore for the last several years.  You may recall that I applied to MFA programs some years ago with no success.  A winter of rejections from eight schools plunged me into a non-creative funk - not quite a depression but unproductive nonetheless.  A few months later I somehow gathered myself and embarked on a novel, determined that this Thing was not going to stop me from writing, that I'd apply to a graduate program when I had the strength to do so. 

There is a cold fact about graduate programs these days.  Particularly humanities graduate programs.  I was told by a former professor and friend who did a little research and discovered (to paraphrase) that it is easier to get into the medical school at Johns Hopkins than it is to get into an MFA program.  If you look at university websites, most of them will be honest: they'd only accept 6-8 students per year, sometimes a few more depending on the program and how much money is available.  And in this economy, humanities and liberal arts programs have tight and tightening budgets.  So that's it.  Six students means three poets and three fiction writers.  Period.  Out of thousands of applicants.  Naturally, they choose the ones that stand out, who've shown ambition by getting stories published, who work in a field that uses their writing skills.  I am, decidedly, not a person who stands out, and being introverted and socially anxious, my only great ambition was/is to get my novel done.  Really, it was no wonder that I got eight of those "sorry but no" letters.  It's no one's fault.  Not even mine.  Definitely not their's.

The new plan was to apply this fall to an MA program at my alma mater.  Just the one program because I figured my status as an alum might improve my chances for admission.  I wanted an MFA, but an MA (Master of Arts as opposed to a more intense, more concentrated Master of Fine Arts) would at get me into fresh contact with instructors and other writers and open doors to teaching creative writing elsewhere.  I liked the idea of one day being able to help other writers develop and embrace their burgeoning skills.

But... I'm stymied.  I was told by an advisor this week that getting into this particular program is extremely difficult, perhaps more so than an MFA, and that the number of graduates accepted is very, very small.  In other words, he was warning me what I'd be getting into.  I am, basically, facing the same obstacle: my smallness, my place in life.  If I go ahead and apply, it would be the same story and the same gloomy winter all over again.

But... you say.  It could happen!  I'd like to believe that, friend.  But these things are standing in my way.  I can see them quite clearly.  Believe me, I'd love to get accepted into an MFA program. I'd love to meet new people and work feverishly on my writing in a collegiate setting.  And, of course, the idea of having a second degree to my name "Jillian, Bachelor and Master of Arts".  Who wouldn't?  Masters degrees catch people's attention, and somehow seem to imply that you take yourself serious.  But I am starting to see that I might have to be one of those writers who doesn't/can't teach or interact with writers in what I've percieved to be the "normal" way.  J.K. Rowling doesn't have an MFA.  (Does she?)  Stephen King might not either.  But look at their success.  Both of them write stories from their souls.  Mr. King could have "retired" decades ago, but he writes because he loves to, because it's a part of him.  One simply does not need an MFA or an MA to be successful.  An MFA helps, I've read.  Believe me I know it helps.  Unfortunately, the MFA store is closed to me, and I must make do with what I have.  So, then... am I a failure?  Or is taking the alternative (though by no means easier) route actually a way of letting go and moving on? 

What is clearer to me, as I turn away and look at my options, the alternate forks in the road, is that I am still writing.  I began and finished a novel since that devestating winter - in a period of fifteen months while working full time.  I am closer to getting it published than I ever would be to an MFA program... even though publishing in itself isn't very close.  If it doesn't get published, it prepares me nonetheless for the next time - to improve my writing, to learn to navigate a competitive market, to find a niche and start little projects that could lead to free-lance writing (scary and nebulous a prospect as it is), and publications in lit magazines.  Yes, I'd still have to be a receptionist by day earning less than I care to say, but at least I'd have a little money and health insurance. 

So will be a "master" on my own time, self-taught.  I am following Mr. King's advice - read a lot, write a lot.  In his book On Writing, he said something along the lines of learning how to write by marianting in language.  Since the summer began I've been devouring books right and left.  I am also doing what I would have thought impossible several years ago: dabbling in social media.  By this I don't just mean posting notifications about the blog on Facebook or pinning pretty pictures on Pinterest.  I'm perusing other blogs, reading articles, commenting on them, and trying to join conversations.  That's what I hope to do eventually with Twitter, although right now I feel like a very small person shouting things in a room full of very loud, very talkative people.  The more I delve into the online world, the more I learn about the industry and the trends and other people's struggles.  That is learning to me.  

Again, I'd love to have the privilege of sitting in a classroom and getting my work critiqued and shaped by more experienced writers, but that luxury is only open to a few, and I am, apparently, not one of them.  Instead of standing outside in the cold whimpering because I'm not with the other kids, I'm going to stay where I am and go back to what has been most healthy, joyful, educational and life-changing for me: writing and learning as I go.  That, my friends, is not failure.  It is not a surrender to lazy impulses or stubborn quirks. It's not the most obvious path.  It's not the prettiest or the easiest.  But I am calm, and ready, and more at peace about it than I have been in a long time.

By chance I was thinking about the theme song to Firefly.  I'll be a nerd and put a bit of it here:

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me

Take me out to the black,
Tell 'em I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the seed,
You can't take the sky from me...

So there it is.  The perfect plan is gone (for now), or at least out of reach, but there is still writing.  I won't have a snazzy degree any time soon to put on resumes and query letters.  But I have what I need.  I am blessed with advisors and friends and a love of language.  Not all is lost.  So much has been found.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Doldrums (Jillian)

This winter has been hard, I’ll not lie. You might have sensed it in the gaps between my posts, hovering there like some solemn, unspoken word. Michelle and I decided long ago that Daedalus Notes was a place to talk about writing, not to spill out the minutia of our private lives. But there are a few things, more personal than the norm, of which I’d like to share here today, because they are relevant to the writer’s life. Painfully relevant.

Long story short, this was my second time applying for MFA (that is, Master of Fine Arts) programs in Creative Writing. For years now, I thought the best way I could use my writing would be in academia, as a teacher of creative writing, as part of a creative think-tank alongside other writers. This is also my second time weathering the unpleasantness of rejections from the list of those universities: dismissals in the form of one-page form-letters, some more sympathetic and truthful than others. It is the same bitter taste of rejections from publishers, from potential employers. Not only is it a rejection of me, but of my life’s work. And in this case, indifference makes a deeper impression than outright dislike of my writing.

I write about this today because this is a reality for writers and artists. We write and bleed our souls out onto paper, poke and prod, knead and sculpt, and nip and tuck away at it for years until we have a manuscript or a substantial writing sample, a finished product. And when we send it off, we may be brimming with hope, but it is very rare that publishers or fellowship committees will snap it up with wild enthusiasm, offering a book deal with splashy cover art and an advance on our next endeavor, or an opportunity to dive into a writing community teeming with the world’s freshest wordsmiths – all by the time we’ve reached twenty-five. It almost never happens. And it hurts like utter hell. Like a door slamming shut in our face.

Last year, the MFA affected me in the most perverse way imaginable: I didn’t work on my novel very seriously for four months. I say perverse, because not writing is unnatural, paralysis for a creative being. Yes, I filled three legal pads with journal musings and anecdotes, but it was not my heart’s desire. There was a sort of transparent but rigid layer of shame around my will to work on my novel, to approach by beloved characters. It would take well into the summer before I began to trust myself again. During that time, my novel sat idle, and I had no energy. It was the Writing Diaspora. I called it doldrums. Or, as it is better known, writer’s block.

This year, having been through these waters once before, I am determined to take another course, and steer around the placid-but-dangerous doldrums. I do so by diving into writing, instead of struggling away from it.

Novel. Blog. Journal of seasonal musings. My collection of words. My emails. Little seedlings of stories and proto-novels. Write, write, write until the calluses on my pen-hand ache, until my eyes strain from squinting at the computer screen, until I collapse of hunger! WRITE! And don’t look back!

This is one thing that cannot be stripped from me: my identity as a writer. The MFA is not a license to write. I am not one who happened to catch the eye of a top creative writing program; I am one who earns a quiet living as a receptionist and retreats home to her creations. That is my little story. After all, we cannot all have glamorous beginnings. Nor must we. Our calling is to write, whether or not the world can see us.

I write knowing that sometimes I must create my own wind to fill my limp and lifeless sails, stir up lively waves to pull me back onto the open sea. And there I go.

So there it is, friends. Write out the doldrums. Make them your blank canvas. Fill it with life!


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