Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The first rejection letter is the easiest. No writer goes through life without receiving at least one, you think. The best ones receive hundreds. It's like you are joining a club, making it real. All it takes is that short, apologetic e-mail from the program director, and you can highlight the school name in red on your spreadsheet, write, "REJECTED" right underneath "Fee: $45 PAID," and move on.

Except that you are awaiting letters from graduate programs, not publishers and agents. You have sent your delicate manuscripts all over the country, not to be re-printed in a literary magazine or a shiny new bestseller, but to be validated by masters of the craft. To be told, yes, you can come here and learn from us. You don't yet have the audacity to try for anything more than that.

The second rejection letter comes from a school that is nearly as selective as the first. You nod and tell yourself that it is okay. Those schools had had the earliest deadlines, and therefore received the weakest applications from you. Or, at least, that's what you're telling yourself, now that you can look at what you submitted and find those early mistakes. You concede that your submission had a couple of typos in it, and that your personal statements were pompous and God-awful. I wouldn't have wanted me, you think, but it would have been nice if they did.

The third letter is the first correspondence you receive on actual paper, wherein the interim director tells you that while they received many promising manuscripts, some students were just better prepared and more talented than others. You place the letter on your desk, posting a poll on Facebook on which you ask your friends to vote on what you should do with your rejection letters. The most popular answer is to make them into a hat. What sort of hat, you wonder? A sailor hat? A yarmulke? That hat that the Pope wears? Perhaps this hinges on the number of letters you will receive. You almost want many, in order to construct a truly fabulous hat. Almost.

About two weeks later, numbers four and five arrive, also from highly-ranked programs. You think, this is still not a high enough number to lose count. You tell everyone that it is probably simpler, and faster, to send out a rejection e-mail than to put together an acceptance packet, and your friends and family indulge you and praise your optimism. Good news will hopefully be arriving soon.

Won't it?

The sixth letter comes through your web application. You receive a blink-and-you'll-miss-it e-mail from the school, informing you a decision has been made (although your sharp, paranoid eye couldn't possibly miss anything from a .edu address anymore), at which point you log in and read the brief "thanks but no thanks" message. This is the first school you have heard from that isn't listed on any fancy MFA rankings, so it's time to come up with some new justifications.

You are beginning to wonder, after half a dozen letters have arrived, if this graduate school thing will turn out to be a crazy idea you once had, a silly delusion that you and your loved ones had entertained until you would eventually be unilaterally and resoundingly told "no." In fact, you're now almost certain of it, because you just typed three adverbs in one sentence, even though it has been made clear to you that they are out of fashion. Fuck this, you think, I'll publish something with or without an MFA, and I'll use all the goddamn adverbs I please! 

You go out with co-workers on a Thursday night for happy hour. They ask how the school stuff is going, and when you tell them, their faces drop just a little bit. There is a visible shadow of doubt over the very people who have been assuring you that this will be okay, that you are overreacting, that you will be successful in the end. You wonder if you've somehow fooled them into thinking you're someone you really aren't. You wonder if they're thinking the same.

Happy hour turns into six very happy hours, and one grape-flavored shot and four rum and Cokes later, you promise everyone that you will publish a novel by age 30. At seven the next morning, when you are going into work, you wonder if there is even a ghost of a chance that it will happen. You conclude that it will, mostly because you're still a little drunk.

On Monday, you arrive at your mailbox with an armful of materials you checked out from the library. You pull the two items out of the box and lock it back up, immediately discarding the credit card solicitation and inspecting the envelope underneath. It is a packet from DePaul University, in an 8 1/2" x 11" envelope that says "congratulations" on the outside. You run up the stairs toward your apartment, shaking the lobby with your heavy steps, unlock your door, push inside, and drop everything on the table, tearing apart the envelope like a kid at Christmas. 

The department, the letter says, has recommended that you be admitted to the graduate school.

You jump up and down, like the most crazed of game show contestants, eventually collapsing onto your couch. You sit quietly for about a minute, absorbing the potential energy of this moment. This is the first and last time you will be in this part of the process, post-yes, but before you tell your family, visit a school, sign the paperwork, quit your job, leave your hometown. You then call and text your entire immediate family; you post on Facebook; you begin fretting about money.

It doesn't feel real. You think maybe there was a mistake. Maybe the department recommended you, but someone else could still reject you - nope, sorry, you imagine them saying, we don't have a place for you after all. Your brain works as hard to deny the good news as it did the bad. But none of it works. You're accepted.

You remember when you were given an offer letter at your job a year and a half ago, and how you worried that someone would take it away from you. You were so scared that you went back to your home office, two weeks before your orientation, to drop off your paperwork and signed offer letter. You called your new boss until he got back to you, just to make sure he hadn't forgotten about the offer he'd made you in the conference room. There was too much at stake - you would only be making $0.65 more per hour, but more importantly, you wouldn't be making sandwiches there. You would be wearing grownup clothes and working in an office. The increase was in your ego more than your salary, and you needed to be validated, to be told you were good enough.

You want to call the office of admissions today and ask them if they really mean it. You want to call the English Department and see if they will give you an assistantship. You want to call the Department of Education and say, "Tell me, oh wise ones, can I afford to go here?" You want to call God and ask if this is your destiny. But everyone has gone home for the day, probably including God's receptionist, so you have to trust that this will be okay. You try to remember what that word is that those religious people are always throwing around. 'Faith,' they call it. You don't have a precise translation, but you're pretty sure it means, "I don't really know if things will be all right, but I'll believe they are until they aren't."

You turn on some salsa music, because nothing feels wrong when salsa is blasting through your apartment.You putter around and continue with business as usual, remembering that you are still waiting on letters from eight other schools.

You are still waiting, but waiting faithfully.

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