I wish I knew what to write you about. I wish I had one concrete problem with a bunch of concrete examples that you could tackle. I could write about the guy at work that I’m friends with and slightly tempted to date, but I know I won’t end up dating him. I could write about how I’m dreaming about my ex-boyfriend several nights a week now when I barely have in the past year, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about that. I could write about how all I have left to do now - other than work 40 hours a week and try to have a reasonably meaningful social life in Chicago - is wait for decisions from poetry MFA programs, but I’m terribly impatient and, as my mother would say, “discombobulated” about it almost constantly. But maybe there’s nothing I can do about that. Maybe it’s just my nature. Actually, maybe there is something I can do about that, but that would involve tackling the worst parts of my nature, and I’m tempted to say I’m too embarrassed to talk about that.
So, regarding the MFA thing, here’s what I’m embarrassed to talk about. If I don’t get in this year, I will need to draw on a lot of resilience to re-apply, or build and work towards other plans, or do any number of things. And the thing is, I know I COULD do that, but I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve already used up a lot of resilience in my life, and like I deserve for one thing I really want to manifest now (read: this spring) without having to wait or work any more. BUT that’s not true! I have had a relatively easy life, and I am so privileged, and so many people everywhere have their resilience and spirits depleted in more numerous and terrible ways every day, and DESERVE doesn’t even come into it. People get what they don’t deserve - either more or less - every day! But even putting that aside, I DON’T deserve a break from drawing on my resilience. Like I said, my life’s been relatively easy! But still, if I look deep inside myself, what I feel is a terrible entitlement to get what I want this spring, and if I don’t, I will have to do a lot of emotional work to rewire my thinking. Maybe I should start doing some of that work now, but the problem is, I don’t know where to start.
Thanks so much for any of your thoughts, B. I know I look like a jerk, but thank you. :)
All my love,
First of all, you don’t look like a jerk. You look like someone who is in a very uncertain time of her life who would like very very much to be certain. This in itself is not a bad thing and not something you should be embarrassed about. You are allowed to want what you want. That’s literally what people do. We’re human, and we have dreams and goals and we put a lot of effort into achieving those. So of course you are dreading having to do that all over again - especially right now when you have just finished that big push. Honestly, I would be sincerely worried about you if you came away from writing MFA apps and you were just dying to be rejected so that you could do that all over again. It’s totally, one hundred percent, ok to hope for things to go your way, and to be disappointed if they don’t.
I think sometimes we fall into this trap where we start thinking that it is OUR fault for being disappointed by things for DARING to wish that a certain outcome would be possible. When really, circumstances can just be disappointing. Especially with something as personal and vulnerable as writing, I think you realize that you have put a lot of yourself into this app, and any rejection of the application is going to feel like a rejection of your self. I’m sure you know the fickle nature of acceptances, and how exactly the same application might seem different depending on whether the reader has eaten lunch or not. So I won’t try to explain away the why of possibly getting rejected, because I think it’s more important to address how you might feel should that happen.
I wonder if somewhere in the back of your head, you’re building a little protective cocoon around yourself so that just in case you don’t get in, you will have already done a lot of the mourning. In rushing to “draw on your resilience...and do any number of things,” I see you trying to go straight to the “I’m ok and I’m working toward a new goal and this setback was just a) a challenge on my road to MFA success, b) a blessing in disguise, c) a sign that this dream is not for me, or d) any other number of things”. Especially in Western, conflict-driven culture, there’s the temptation to frame everything as a narrative toward an eventual happy ending (whatever happy might look like for you). But that is not necessarily how life works. Sometimes sad things happen and we are just there, feeling sad about them for a while. And maybe you learn something from the sadness, and maybe you don’t, but it’s far far easier on yourself to just let the sadness happen than to try to paper over it with new dreams or reassurances that you can’t possibly feel sad because other people in the world have felt worse and ignoring their sadness is the sign of entitled privilege.
The thing about sadness, or any emotion really, is that we can only really feel how those things happen in our own bodies. Yes, empathy is an amazing, wonderful thing, but the worst pain you, personally, have ever felt is still going to be the worst pain that you have ever felt. Refusing to let yourself acknowledge that this is painful and hard FOR YOU - no matter how much other people may or may not be suffering - is like refusing to let yourself be happy over finding 5 dollars in your coat (for a delicious latte?) because someone somewhere in the world has just won the lottery. For better or worse, sometimes we have to narrow our focus down to just our own selfish lizard brain so that we don’t explode.
So. If (and that’s a big if!!! You might get in, you know!) you don’t happen to be accepted to any of the MFA programs, I officially give you permission to be sad about it. To wallow, if wallowing is your style. To take extra nice care of yourself for a couple weeks. To call your Mom/friends as many times as you need even if it’s just to say, “I got another rejection letter and I’m really sad.” People who are truly in your tribe will get that, and will genuinely want to be there for you in this hard time. I give you permission to just write for yourself for a year, or two years, without the pressure of new applications. I give you permission to apply again immediately if that is what feels right and healthy for you.
Your own guilt about being upset about something that is upsetting to you is not doing anything positive for you, or for these other people who deal with what you define as truly upsetting things. Is there some way that you could act on those feelings? Is there an organization you believe in that you could volunteer with? Is there a place near your home where you could join (or start!) a writer’s workshop that specifically looks to include the voices of marginalized or oppressed people? Is there a way you could use your talent for writing to improve a charity or other group that is actively working to relieve some of the circumstances that force other people to use more resilience in their lives than you have had to?
You see, there is nothing wrong with feeling and owning your own emotions. There is nothing wrong with asking for support from your people when you go through one of life’s setbacks. But endlessly denying your own emotions in the name of recognizing that other people have capital P pain is martyrdom to a non-existent cause. I’m not saying that you should force everyone to treat you with kid gloves because you have the sads, but there is something helpful in letting yourself have the sads and not adding a whole bunch of guilt and anger on top of that. Anyone who does bring up THE SUFFERING OF THE WORLD when you tell them about your own small sadness is not part of your tribe and should be quietly crossed off your list of friends that you go to for support.
Whether you get in or not, don’t forget to congratulate yourself for the hard work you have done to get to this point at all. You have done something big, and that something will reverberate through the next season of your life even if you don’t end up attending an MFA program. Take a break if that is what you need, or do something totally unrelated to any future or career aspirations. Give yourself space to breathe and grieve, then keep writing through it all.