On Writing, Rejection, and Living to Tell the Tale

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Today I determined that I’ve been rejected by Warren Wilson’s low-residency MFA program. I say determined because my application has been marked completed. In Submittable speak, that’s a nice way to say rejected. I expect a thin envelope to arrive in a matter of days. This rejection is coming on the tail end of a slew of rejections. I’ve consistently poured 10 to 15 hours a week into writing, revising, and reading poems. I have had one acceptance (forthcoming) and approximately 30 writing related rejections. I know this is part of the game, but it is still crushing.

I am amazingly okay right now.

Let me make clear that I am aware that an MFA is not the only path to becoming a writer. I want to earn an MFA because that has been my dream since high school and because I crave intentional time to write. I spend time away from my husband, children, and friends in order to write poems that have a less than 3% chance of getting accepted and offers zero to little pay. When people ask what I’m doing and I say I’m writing, the assumption is the writing will be published and make money (ha!) or it must be for some other tangible reason like earning a degree. That is a mostly correct assumption (except I know there’s no money in it).  I’m not writing poems in a void. I want someone to read and connect with them and that means pursing writing in a professional vein and not filling a journal with stanzas that only I will read. Publication is the goal. I want my “writer self” to be full and fleshed out; in other words, this isn’t a hobby. I am compelled to write.

All of this writing takes time and space. As a woman and a mother it is difficult to carve out time and identity to oneself. I wanted the 20 days a year away from home to write and engage with other writers (is that bad?). I wanted to have an excuse to let the kids go to daycare when I’m off work and let them subsist on pizza rolls while I hole up in a coffee shop to write and read. Call me selfish, but I tell you that when my husband leaves the house to paint no one is asking him if I am at home babysitting. There’s a double standard. Working on an MFA would have given me a chance to deepen my reading, learn from kick ass writers, and separate myself from my identity as a mother. Motherhood informs and enriches my writing and I love my children, but I want my daughters to know they have a self outside of motherhood and I want my son to realize that women are more than caretakers. Think of it this way, Sam is an artist, student, and dad. He is always those three things whether he is painting, in class, or playing with the kids. Society grants men the right to move fluidly through different roles. As a mom I’m a mom and then everything else comes second or I’m perceived as a shitty mom. As a result, I’m a mom who works at a library and writes. Mom consumes most of my identity and the other things are in addition to motherhood.

Some may argue with this assertion and they wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. There are intersections at work here that extend beyond gender. Class figures into this predominantly.  What if I could afford to stay home and write while the little kids are at school from 7:30 until 2:30? What if I could afford to take an online poetry class or travel to a writing conference?  What if I could pay someone to babysit several times a month while I go to readings or a workshop? The what ifs are pointless and the reality is that I have a 40-hour a week job, I’m the primary breadwinner, and I rely on the quality medical insurance I have at my job to keep my mental health in check.

And mental health is where we get to the amazingly okay part.

In college I tried to commit suicide. I have PTSD and – at the time undiagnosed – Bipolar II disorder. When you have depression everything feels insurmountable and at the same time it feels like it is completely your own stupid fault. Well, that’s how it was for me. Nothing happened just because shit happens. I thought shit happened because I was shit. My child was having behavior problems at school (probably because I’m a shitty mom). I was earning a C in a class that really mattered to me (probably because I’m really stupid). I would have periods of time where I was brash, angry, and rambled incoherently for hours and thought I was brilliant and then I would be embarrassed when I realized I was ridiculous. On the flip side, I would have days on end where things like “bathing” and “going to work” were impossible. Also, coming from a past with abuse and having PTSD meant that being vulnerable was scary. Any perception of rejection or dislike was internalized and scraped at an already bruised self that felt unworthy, unloved, and stupid. In the days before I tried to die I felt the same thud of words in my brain, “burden, burden, burden.” I was the burden. A waste of space and time and air. It all felt like too much.

I didn’t die. I got help, but it was spotty. Recovery was complicated by too many or too few pills, inconsistent finances, unattainable mental health services, and trying to work a enough hours to take care of my daughter. I spent the next thirteen years becoming stable: building a career in the library, meeting Sam and getting married, and having more babies. I still wanted to write, but I didn’t want to end up in the dark place rejection sent me. No more of that. I’d blog and write in my journal, but I pushed aside all dreams of poems and publication.

Then, in April of 2015, I found a good therapist and we started to peel away years of hurt, secrets, and despair. I was feeling better, but then last fall I felt angry all the time, I hardly slept, and I was almost terminated from my job. December found me depressed and in outpatient psych hospitalization. I was diagnosed as having Bipolar II disorder and began medication.

Then, a breath of relief. In March I wanted to write a poem. I had to write the poem. I started writing every day. I sent stuff out and it was rejected. Oh reader, I was able to see and acknowledge those feelings from rejection- yes, disappointment, frustration, embarrassment, and impatience, I see you – and then put them away and carry on with revising and rewriting.

Today when I realized I’d been rejected to Warren Wilson I spent a half hour feeling shitty, worthless, and frustrated.Then I moved on. I MOVED ON.  I wasn’t plunged into depression, I didn’t have to fight the urge to drink or hurt myself, I didn’t throw all my writing into a big fire and refuse to read another line . Tonight I’ll probably tell myself I deserve a pumpkin spice latte and spend the evening with a large classic novel on the couch. I’ll probably have blips of disappointment and I may have a week or two before I get back into writing. BUT SWEET JESUS WHAT A CHANGE! I’m not depressed. I’m not depressed. When I realized that I was able to see this as a career blip and not catastrophic indication that my writing sucks, I was filled with the biggest sense of peace and a hell of a lot of pride in how far I’m come in being mentally well.

Silver linings, y’all. I didn’t get into grad school, but it proved that the medicine and therapy is working and making my life better each day. As far as grad school goes, I’ll apply again and to a few other low-res places. With a 10% or less acceptance rate I cannot be too upset. I’m channeling my frustration into drawing up my own reading lists and rejigging my schedule to make as much time as I can for writing. Warren Wilson, expect my application to hit you again in the spring!

 

 

 

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6 comments

  1. You are brilliant and you are going to continue to do amazing things. Your very real but ultimately very positive response to a bad situation proves it. As does the very style and eloquence of this post. Keep going!

  2. Love this. Love how much things have improved for you and always love your honesty. So much of life is “seasonal,” but it is irritating when we can’t control the seasons. I kept thinking of all the writers that I’ve read about who “nearly gave up” because of rejection letters, and then they got the acceptance letter that launched them and kept them going. Your day will come. Keep writing and keep your perspective. So proud to be acquainted with you! It’s hard to find brave people in this world, but you are one of them. Enjoy that PSL to the last drop! 😊

  3. Disappointment is natural and expected. Depression is not. That you are in a place to see the difference is wonderful. That you can move on and not judge yourself harshly is definitely something to be happy about. Good luck going forward!

  4. Can I just say that having read your posts for years, you SOUND so much better. I am so glad the medication and therapy are working for you, and I know that you are doing your best to show your girls that there is more to life than the title of mother. I am cheering you on all the way!

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